We celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord on March 25, nine months before Christmas. This feast day recalls Mary’s unwavering “Yes!” or “Fiat!” (“Let it be done!”) to the angel Gabriel who told her she was to become the Mother of God. Faith illuminated her response to Gabriel. “She wants to know how, not if this will be,” writes Sister Joan Mitchell, CSJ, in her book, “Luke’s Gospel Written for Us.”
When Mary visited her cousin, Elizabeth, six months later — a feast day celebrated May 31 to precede John the Baptist’s birth on June 24 — we don’t see Gabriel but we do see a beautiful interaction between the two women. Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42) causes John to leap in her womb because he recognizes Jesus in Mary’s womb.
Both women feel blessed and overjoyed for each other. Mary understands her role in salvation history as she proclaims in this powerful passage known as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1: 46–49).
Even before the Annunciation and the Visitation, let’s not forget the role of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, in the Nativity story. Gabriel also appears to him, bearing great news that his prayers will be answered. His aging wife will have a child and name him John and “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:14-15).
Zechariah is dumbfounded. No, this can’t be so, he protests. Elizabeth is too old to bear a child! Gabriel responds by informing Zechariah that it would have been a good idea to accept this divine message because now “you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words” (Luke 1:20). Uh-oh.
How is one to respond to the angel Gabriel, should he appear without warning to give you a message that may be an answer to your prayers? Do we follow Mary’s “fiat” of trust and faith? Do we follow Zechariah’s reaction of doubt and mistrust? In hindsight, of course, we would all respond like Mary. In truth, most of us in our heart of hearts would be more like Zechariah. We would protest, what do you mean we’re going to have a child at this age? Impossible and downright dangerous for a woman this old!
And what about Gabriel’s announcement to an unmarried teenager that she, a virgin, is to bear a child who will be the Son of God? Even more preposterous! Many 14-year-old girls nowadays would laugh at such a vision and likely tell their friends and post the story about the silly idea on social media. How times have changed.
Advent might be a good time for us to reflect on these Scriptures and create a spiritual practice of faith. The next time you stand at a real-life critical crossroads forced to choose one path over the other, reflect on your feelings, the possible outcomes and your decision. Do you feel more like Mary or Zechariah? Do you respond with faith or doubt? Can you rejoice with someone about the situation, as did Mary and Elizabeth? What blessings can you find in the midst of this?
In reflecting on the blessing of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting, author Jan Richardson writes, “[Mary] finds a place of sanctuary, solace, and blessing.” May this Advent be so for you.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)