Our feast today comes at a moment when many are wearied with bad news, and everyone is looking for some good news. Today we receive not just good news, but the best news, though you won’t see it on the headline of any newspaper, or the lead segment of any nightly news show—you won’t even find it crawling across the bottom of the screen of a 24-hour news channel. To the world, the Annunciation is old news, but for us, it is always news. It is only fitting that the Psalmist enjoins us on the feast to announce from day to day the glad tidings of [God’s] salvation (Ps. 95:2 LXX). Amid the daily inundation of sorrowful events, we must constantly remind ourselves of what is in truth the only good news: God is come to be with us men, in order to save us from sin, death, and the devil.
This mystery begins to unfold and be revealed today, as the angel Gabriel comes secretly to a sleepy Galilean backwater named Nazareth, and delivers his joyous salutation to an obscure, Jewish teenage girl, unknown to the world but foreknown by God from the before the foundation of the world. It was not the first time Gabriel had delivered the news of an extraordinary conception and an auspicious birth to a woman who was without child. But never before had he greeted them with such exultant words: Rejoice, thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.
Devout Mary knew well that no woman in the history of Israel had heard such lavish words of blessing from an angel, and wary of being deceived by the fallen spirit as was Eve, she hesitated to accept the words unguardedly. The angel, perceiving her consternation, reassures her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
Though the angel also related to her the greatness of the son she was to bear, whose very greatness prompted such blessings for her who was accounted worthy to bear him, Mary was still not fully put at ease. Like certain other women in Israel, she was dedicated to the service of the Temple in Jerusalem as a girl, given pious instruction in the Law, and taught to minister to the physical needs of the Temple with her own hands, sewing and embroidering the vestments and tapestries needed for the service of God appointed by the Law. But these Temple virgins were given in marriage once they reached womanhood—so great was the value placed on marriage and the bearing of offspring, that life-long consecrated virginity was unknown in Israel. And there was no greater curse than childlessness.
But we know that from the start, Mary was no ordinary virgin. Her heart was so zealous for God and full of love for him, that she ran eagerly up the steps to the Temple when her parents presented her to the high priest to dedicate her to God’s service. No sooner was she weaned from her mother’s breast, than she forgot her own people and her father’s house (Ps. 44:11 LXX), and gave herself with abandon to the worship of her Lord. And the Lord’s signs of special favour were not slow in coming; for moved as though by the hand of God himself, the high priest Zachariah committed an unthinkable breach of Moses’ Law, and led the most-pure Virgin into the Holy of Holies, where he went only once a year with the blood of animal sacrifice to atone for his and the people’s sins. Here, the ark of the covenant was supposed to rest, but it was never found again after the Jews’ return from the Babylonian captivity. The Holy of Holies in the second Temple thus lay empty, awaiting the arrival of the true and living ark of God, the all-immaculate Virgin Mary.
It was in this place that Mary committed herself with her whole being to serve the Lord, to direct her whole mind towards the contemplation of him and her whole desire towards the performance of his will. Though no virgin in Israel was called blessed, she knew that her heart’s longing precluded the pleasures and joys of matrimony, she knew even then that she would pledge her life-long virginity to the Lord. And she received assurance from God that her intention, her votive offering, was pleasing to and accepted by him. He gave her free access to the sacred precincts, and nurtured her heart and mind with his abundant grace, and gave her bodily food at the hand of an angel.
But now his angel tells her that she will conceive and bear a son—a great son, the son of the Highest, granted, but—How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? These are not words of doubt, like those of Zachariah when he was told that his barren, aged wife would give birth to John the Baptist. Mary’s words are those of faith seeking understanding: “I know that my virginal state is something from God; I know that God cannot deny himself or contradict his own promises. If you are from God also, then tell me how I shall bear a child without breaking my cherished vow of virginity, for this is beyond human power or reasoning.”
When he told her that she would conceive, not by carnal union, but by the operation of the Holy Spirit—for nothing shall be impossible with God—then Mary showed forth all the depth of her unhesitating, total devotion and submission to the will of God: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.
And at these, the Virgin’s words of loving self-offering to God, the uncircumscribed Word of God, the infinite creator of all things visible and invisible, confined himself into the space of a miniscule embryo within her womb; and already the mystery of the Incarnation was complete, the composite person of the God-man Jesus was fully formed—one of the divine Trinity wholly united to humanity without the slightest alteration to the nature of each, the Son of God now become the Son of the Virgin, made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death. Moreover, the Apostle reminds us that he did not take flesh from just any human being, but he took on him the seed of Abraham.
The miraculous event we commemorate today—the mystery hidden before the ages and unknown even to the angels—has its origins even outside of time, and so it had been at work already for millennia. Today is fulfilled God’s promise to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. The birth of Mary’s child will have significance for more than just herself or her family, her tribe or her nation of Israel. Her blessing is a blessing for all the peoples of the world. And we see in her devotion and her faith, those qualities that made her uniquely worthy of her special role in God’s saving dispensation, that she proved herself not merely the physical descendant of Abraham, but a true spiritual daughter of Abraham, who obtained a good report through his faith.
For consider how Abraham secured God’s promise that his seed would bring blessing to all nations. Already, when he was seventy-five years old, Abraham heeded God’s voice, left his homeland, and went into the land of Canaan, which God had promised to give to him and his descendants. Though his wife was barren and he had no children, God promised to make him a great nation, and told him that his offspring would be numbered as the sands of the sea. After he had dwelt in this strange land for many years without any indication from God as to how this promise was to be fulfilled, God appeared to him again and assured him that his own seed, and not a relative or an adopted son, would be his heir and would inherit God’s promises and blessings. And when he believed God’s word to him, which was, humanly-speaking, impossible, it was counted to him for righteousness. Again, when it appeared that Ishmael, his concubine’s son, might be the fulfillment of God’s promise, God spoke to him once more and told him that his own wife, Sarah, would bear a son, Isaac, and that in this child would his seed be called. So great was his joy that he laughed and could scarcely believe that he would father a child being a hundred years old, and his wife being ninety. But nothing shall be impossible with God, and everything came to pass as it was foretold.
Who can doubt what intense affection both parents had for such a special child, born beyond all expectation after long, painful years of barrenness, a living token of God’s almighty power and his great favour towards the both of them. If it is true that every child is a gift of God to the parents, then all the more so for Isaac. But knowing beforehand of his servant’s great faithfulness, God determined to test and reveal it in a terrible way—by commanding Abraham to offer his son in sacrifice as a whole-burnt offering. Perhaps we are tempted to judge God for demanding this fearful tribute, but we must ask ourselves whether it is really unjust of God to require of us the things that he himself has given to us. How easy it is for us to forget that all things come from his hand, and that we have nothing that we have not received of him.
As for Abraham, the faithless and unbelieving can only find his willingness to slay his own son—not only not commendable, but outright reprehensible; but for those who understand that fidelity to God is a man’s whole worth, the loftiness of the Patriarch’s virtue will be all the more apparent. The Holy Spirit has not recorded for us whether Abraham struggled in himself to submit to God’s request. How could it have been easy to sacrifice something so dear? What parent would not infinitely rather sacrifice their own life than to see their own child die? Nonetheless, Scripture records for us only Abraham’s readiness to obey, telling us that he rose up early in the morning after God commanded the sacrifice and made all the necessary preparation, then departed to the mountain of sacrifice with Isaac and his servants.
The day afterwards, when they finally arrived, Abraham took Isaac up to the mountain alone, laying upon the shoulders of his beloved only-begotten son the wood upon which he was to be sacrificed. When Isaac made the fateful realization that they were going to perform sacrifice without an animal victim, then he too had the opportunity to participate willingly in this mystery, which so wondrously prefigured the whole dispensation of our salvation through Christ’s death on the Cross—for it nowhere says that Isaac tried to flee or escape, or that he resisted and struggled with his father as he bound him and laid him on the altar of sacrifice. Only at the last moment, when Abraham was lifting the knife to kill, did the angel of the Lord stay his hand, and point out to him the ram that was to be offered up in Isaac’s stead.
Who can fathom the depths of the father and son’s mutual obedience, and their boundless faith in the words of God? Abraham knew from long experience that God is faithful with those who are faithful to him. He knew that God never speaks falsely or idly. And having such trust in the one who told him that his seed would be called in Isaac, and Isaac alone, he did not stagger at the dreadfulness of God’s command to sacrifice him, nor at its apparent contradiction to his earlier promise. He reckoned that the same God who had brought him forth out of dead loins and a barren womb could even raise Isaac from the dead after he had been offered up. Whatever it was, he knew God would do something, because his first promise could by no means fail. Through such faith, he received Christ and his resurrection in a figure, as the Apostle relates, and so even before the giving of the Law, he fulfilled the Gospel commandment to love nothing and no one more than the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Great indeed, very great, was the faith of Abraham; and it moved God to give him yet another promise, that in his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed, because—the Lord says explicitly—thou hast hearkened to my voice (Gen. 22:18). That seed, as St. Paul affirms, is none other than Jesus Christ, the same Lord who commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and who in latter times took on him Abraham’s seed that he might offer himself up as a sacrifice to his Father for the eternal salvation of all nations. This is the seed whom the angel Gabriel announces today to the ever-virgin Mary, and whom she, with truly Abrahamic faith, receives into her believing heart, and then into her immaculate womb.
So let us rejoice and be glad, for the blessing promised to Abraham has come even to us. If we respond with faith, we too can inherit it. In the lives of the Virgin Mary and the Patriarch Abraham, we see that God deals with and acts through those who are faithful to him. He respects the freedom with which he endowed us at our creation; he does not demand compulsory service—as one of the hymns for the feast says, “the covenant is enacted by common consent.” The blessing of eternal salvation and redemption from death are possible only because God found those chosen few who were willing to offer him everything unsparingly, to lay down their whole lives and everything they held dear in this world for God’s service. In their humble obedience and trusting faith, they gave God the freedom and scope to act in their lives, unto the salvation of the whole world. Their faith was not fragile, something easily shattered or shaken by earthly misfortune or the difficulties of following God alone in a world that is so often set against him. Even before the Savior came and showed the way of the Cross clearly to all, they chose the path of the Cross in anticipation, by losing their own lives for Christ’s sake.
What excuse, then, do we have for not embracing the same path wholeheartedly, we to whom the fulfillment of the promises and the end of the ages has come? So as we look ahead to the rest of the Fast, to Holy Week and the day of the Lord’s crucifixion, let us imitate such faith, so that God can come, and act, and incarnate himself in each one of our lives. Now more than ever, when the world is paralyzed by fear and weighed down with sorrowful events, the Lord needs his faithful people to show their faith and offer themselves up to him. May we rise to the moment, and announce to the world from day to day the glad tidings of the salvation of our God. Amen.