Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me acccording to your word."

Today, March 25, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, in which we reflect upon Mary's fiat, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me acccording to your word," and upon the mystery of God coming down from heaven and merging Himself with Man, making Himself small and becoming flesh in the temple and virgin womb of Mary the Immaculate.

Why celebrate the Annunciation today, March 25? Well, that date was fixed in ancient tradition and it is based upon a widespread belief in Judaism at the time of Christ that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. By the time of Tertullian, scholars researching the various dates of Passover had concluded that Jesus died on the Cross on March 25. Additionally, some Jewish scholars had calculated that the date of Creation was March 25, and it made sense to believe that Jesus became incarnate on the same day as Creation. Hence, the tradition arose that Jesus was conceived on March 25 and, therefore, the date of the angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary was determined to be March 25.

And if you add nine months to the date of conception, March 25, you get December 25. It turns out that the fixing of Christmas Day on December 25 is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on the widespread modern belief that the date was picked in order to displace the celebration of a pagan festival on that date. Rather, the date of Jesus' birth was determined by reference to Jesus' conception which, in turn, was calculated by determining His crucifixion and death.

Ave Maria, Gratia Plena

Marriage and spousal love are central to understanding the nature of God and of Man. These two themes and images are echoed throughout salvation history. Beginning with the Trinity, a loving communion of persons that is both unitive and fruitful, continuing with the social/spousal nature of Man, who is male and female, intended likewise to live in a loving communion with each other that is both unitive and fruitful. These themes and images are reflected in the relationship of Jesus the Bridegroom to His Bride, the Church, two become one. So, it is no surprise that Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel, and her resulting fiat, should also be understood in spousal terms.
We reflect on Mary as a young woman, receiving the Lord's summons to dedicate her life to Him in a very particular way, a way that would involve the generous gift of herself, her womanhood, her motherhood. Imagine how she must have felt. She was filled with apprehension, utterly overwhelmed at the prospect that lay before her.

The angel understood her anxiety and immediately sought to reassure her. "Do not be afraid, Mary .... The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Lk 1:30, 35). It was the Spirit who gave her the strength and courage to respond to the Lord's call. It was the Spirit who helped her to understand the great mystery that was to be accomplished through her. It was the Spirit who enfolded her with His love and enabled her to conceive the Son of God in her womb.

This scene is perhaps the pivotal moment in the history of God's relationship with His people. During the Old Testament, God revealed Himself partially, gradually, as we all do in our personal relationships. It took time for the chosen people to develop their relationship with God. The Covenant with Israel was like a period of courtship, a long engagement. Then came the definitive moment, the moment of marriage, the establishment of a new and everlasting covenant. As Mary stood before the Lord, she represented the whole of humanity. In the angel's message, it was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said Yes.

In fairy tales, the story ends there, and all "live happily ever after." In real life, it is not so simple. For Mary, there were many struggles ahead, as she lived out the consequences of the "yes" that she had given to the Lord. Simeon prophesied that a sword would pierce her heart. When Jesus was twelve years old, she experienced every parent's worst nightmare when, for three days, the child went missing. And after His public ministry, she suffered the agony of witnessing His crucifixion and death. Throughout her trials, she remained faithful to her promise, sustained by the Spirit of fortitude. And she was gloriously rewarded.

Dear young people, we too must remain faithful to the "yes" that we have given to the Lord's offer of friendship. We know that He will never abandon us. We know that He will always sustain us through the gifts of the Spirit. Mary accepted the Lord's "proposal" in our name. So let us turn to her and ask her to guide us as we struggle to remain faithful to the life-giving relationship that God has established with each one of us. She is our example and our inspiration, she intercedes for us with her Son, and with a mother's love she shields us from harm.
--Pope Benedict XVI, July 20, 2008

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