Why celebrate the Annunciation at the beginning of the third week of Lent? Simple math. If we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, it is logical to celebrate his conception nine months earlier on March 25.
Gabriel, an angel, a messenger of God, a spiritual being, interacts with a human being; though Mary is not the first one to experience such an encounter. There are personal encounters with God and his messengers throughout the Bible. This is how the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ acts, person to person, through invitation, either directly himself or indirectly through one of his angels.
We can read such encounters going back to Genesis. God invited Abraham to be the father of a people that God would call to be his own. This reality would come to be with the birth of Isaac, while Sarah was well past child-bearing years. Jacob would wrestle all night with an angel and become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, during the time of the Judges the mother of Sampson and Hannah, the mother of Samuel, both barren women would encounter angels bearing the message that each would give birth to those who would grow to lead the people Israel in their time of need. Moses, the judges, David, and the prophets all would hear and answer God’s invitation. Zechariah had an encounter in the temple and his wife Elizabeth, also barren and older, would give birth to John the Baptist. God has communicated and reached out to his created beings in history, in time, and in specific places.
With Mary, this announcement and encounter was different, for, at this appointed time, the Son of God himself would become, while remaining fully divine, a human being in the womb of Mary. The God who is. Period. Full stop. He is not a being, not a human, or even a supreme being. Infinite Act of Existence, the Sheer Act of to Be, who took on flesh and dwelt among his created beings. This is the message that Mary receives, and we can understand why she might be “troubled”. Yet Mary, the model of discipleship, pondered what this might mean as Gabriel said to her:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Lk 1:30).
Mary, who knew the arch of salvation history as briefly sketched above, knew of the encounters God had with his people, her ancestors, knew of the promised coming of the Messiah, would now be the bridge between heaven and earth, the bridge between the old and the new covenant, the bridge between a people lost and a people found. Mary in her fiat, her yes, would become Theotokos, the God-bearer.
This is why we celebrate this feast each year: The Son of God has been born to us because Mary said yes. Yet, her yes is not in isolation. It is made possible by so many who had gone before her. Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents who provided care and guidance, as well as the many named above and not named throughout the Biblical tradition who said yes to God and played a part in making this moment possible. Mary is not alone in the Annunciation, not alone in this definitive moment. This is the distinctive feature of Judaism and Christianity: We cannot save ourselves. We are not God. Our very life as created beings is a gift from God and we are in need of constant help and support from God and one another (cf. Lohfink, 254).
God invites us, not just today as we celebrate the feast day of the Annunciation, but every day. Each day is a day to ponder, to wonder, to be still, to be in awe. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, loved us so much more than we can ever imagine, more than we can ever even begin to conceive, that he became one with us so that we can become one with him. Us, you reading this, me writing this, and each unique person taking a breath on this earth.
No matter how much we have messed up, no matter how distant we feel we may be from him, no matter how confused, overwhelmed, disillusioned, he is present for and with us. The question is not whether we are worthy, for none of us are worthy, the question is, “Are we willing?”
We are invited to play our part in the ongoing drama of salvation history. Mary’s answer to this invitation was: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). This is her definitive yes. We too are called. What will our response be?
Painting: Henry Oswana Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898
Lohfink, Gerhard. No Irrelevant Jesus: On Jesus and the Church Today. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014.