The Annunciation is the turning point in human history because it is the moment in which the Word became flesh in the womb of Mary. It is at once the fulfillment of Old Testament joy and the beginning of New Testament grace. The angel’s greeting to Mary, ‘rejoice, highly favoured one’, ‘hail, full of grace’, includes both joy, chara, and grace, charis. In the same moment the greatest joys spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures are fulfilled as the new grace of the Christian reality comes to be.
What were the greatest joys spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures? One was the joy of a barren woman discovering that she was to have a child. Such was Sarah, the aged wife of Abraham, who bore Isaac, the child who ensured the fulfillment of God’s promises. Such were the mother of Samson, and Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist.
The prophets of Israel used this imagery of the barren place that comes to life, the dry and sterile land in which water appears and life flourishes (Isaiah 41). God saves by turning the dry places into fertile ground. Mary says to the angel, ‘how can this come about since I am a virgin?’ Here is a different kind of infertility, a conception even more extraordinary than those of Samuel, or of John the Baptist. Here, without any violence or intrusion into His creation, God’s creative power brings into being the human nature that the eternal Son of God took to Himself.
Another great moment of joy is the joy of being in God’s presence. The most striking example of this is the dance of King David as he welcomed the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. His wife, watching from a window, was not amused that her husband should throw off his clothes to disgrace himself in front of the servants. David’s joy was unrestrained, however, a joy overflowing because God was in the midst of His people (2 Samuel 6).
The prophets speak of this also. Zephaniah, for example, says ‘rejoice for the Lord is in your midst, your God, the Holy One of Israel’. He even goes so far as to speak of God dancing for joy in the presence of his people, the exact mirror image of David in the presence of the Ark (Zephaniah 3). The angel Gabriel says to Mary ‘rejoice because the Lord is in your midst’. God is with us in a new and remarkable way: how could we not be joyful?
A third great experience of joy in the Bible is the liberation of slaves. The defining moment in the history of the relationship between the Hebrews and their God is the crossing of the Red Sea. The Lord brought them out of the land of Egypt and led them from the place where they had been slaves to a place of freedom, a land flowing with milk and honey.
This joy too is contained in the Annunciation, for the child who is to be born of Mary will be called Jesus. This is the name of Joshua, who finally led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. The child born of Mary is the new Joshua, saving his people from their sins and leading them into the Kingdom of God.
Joy that the barren is now fruitful. Joy that the Lord is in our midst. Joy that slavery is ended and freedom established. Add to these a final moment of great joy, that of the renewal of the covenant. The people sinned again and again, but just as often God offered a covenant to them and taught them to hope for salvation. The new covenant whose first act is the annunciation to Mary is the one foretold by Jeremiah, an everlasting covenant sealing the everlasting love with which God loves us (Jeremiah 36 and Isaiah 54).
The grace announced here is life in the presence of God, freedom in an enduring relationship of love with God. It is the moment in which the new creation begins. And here is a final, joyful wonder. In the first creation the only one to speak was God. ‘Let there be light’, he said, ‘and so it was’ (Genesis 1). But in the new creation a new grace appears as God enables His human creatures to participate in the work He is doing for them. ‘Let what you have said be done to me’, Mary says. This is the most remarkable mystery of grace, that God who comes to save us gives us the victory. It is one of us – Mary’s Son, our Brother, Jesus Christ – who has achieved salvation for us. He is truly our joy and our grace.
The Annunciation is a moment in which we learn much about transitions, how we might relate an unexpected and surprising future to a valued and well-loved past. In this most extraordinary transition Mary is not a naïve child: she has been done a great disservice at times by being portrayed in that way. She is ‘full of grace’, and so is full of wisdom and love. The angel tells her that God has remembered her: ‘you have found favour with God’, he tells her, God has not forgotten you and you have not fallen outside God’s care.
In the Cathedral of Regensburg is a wonderful representation of the Annunciation. On one side of the aisle stands Gabriel and he is laughing as he looks across at Mary. You can see his teeth – strange that an angel should have teeth! – and originally was holding a statue of the Divine Infant in his hand, outstretched towards Mary, as if to say, ‘look what I’ve got for you’! Many people visit Regensburg Cathedral just to see this laughing angel.
Mary, on the other side of the nave, is more serious, one hand raised as if to say ‘hold on a minute’, in her other hand is a book. Think of how often Mary is represented at the Annunciation as holding a book, or reading a book, or having a book somewhere nearby. We can understand Mary’s attitude in this statue as saying: ‘help me to see how what you have just announced to me fits with what I know already about God’s dealings with us and with His promises to us’. The book must be taken to be the scripture, her knowledge and understanding of God’s Word up to now. We are told that she ‘dialogues’ with herself, as she dialogues with the angel, asking him to help her understand the transition: how does this new thing, this unexpected future, fit with the valued past? It does not, at first, look like the fulfillment of that past but she believes that it is (‘blessed is she who believed that the promises made to her by the Lord would be fulfilled’).
And so a new and unimagined joy comes about, a presence of God with His people that they could never have anticipated and an intimacy between God and His people that we still struggle to understand. Mary’s ‘controlling principles’, if we can put it like that, are wisdom and love. It has to be so because she is full of grace. It is the wisdom we call faith, and her love for her Lord, that carry her through this strange transition, to accept the new and surprising thing God wants now to do for His people. We believe that God always wants to do new and surprising things for His people, for this is what it means to be gracious and this is God’s nature. We learn from Mary how to receive grace, how to allow the Word come to birth in us and in our world. It is always and only by faith and love. And our joy is complete.
You can listen to this homily here.