One of the truly amazing gifts of being Catholic is the rich theology and teachings we have been given through the years about the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Through the ages we have come to understand the role of Mary through the teachings of the Church, by numerous masterpieces of art and in a special way through the Mystery’s of the Rosary- The 5 Joyful / the 5 Sorrowful / the 5 Glorious/ and most recently the addition of the 5 Luminous mysteries.
In our gospel today we experience the story of the 1st Joyous Mystery- the Annunciation of our Lord to Mary. Over the centuries this scene has been depicted in many beautiful ways through art, in movies and in the numerous Christmas pageants that take place every year in Advent.
I cannot help but reflect that most of what we see of the Annunciation is not the way it most likely happened. The gift that is our modern understanding of Mary the Mother of God can also be a potential weakness. A weakness in the sense that we might fail to grasp how difficult a situation this would have been for Mary. To say YES to the Angel would have been a terrifying decision and not one that would have been easy for her to make.
Who was this girl in the 1st Joyous Mystery of the Rosary?
If we consider how we see her portrayed we might conclude that she was in her mid 20’s, she wore beautifully coloured robes and she is surrounded by halos and light. This is how she is depicted in our stained glass windows and the statue at the front of the Church.
We are comfortable with these images. One thing we can conclude with certainty is that the majority of the ways our Blessed Mother is depicted has little to do with the reality of the way she lived.
The girl in the Annunciation story was just that- a young girl likely 13-15 years of age. Her hometown was Nazareth, a small and inconsequential village of a few hundred (at most) people. She was almost certainly poor or of modest means, therefore her clothing would have been plain as there would not have been money for beautifully coloured robes. She lived a simple life.
Mary was engaged (betrothed) to a man named Joseph. The marriage would have been arranged for her by her family. By our modern day standards we would consider Mary to be of an age too young to wed. However, in the Palestine of 2000 years ago, a girl 13-15 years old would have been considered ready for marriage. We must remember the average lifespan in our Lord’s time would have been about 25-30 years.
Everything in Mary’s life is going according to plan. It would have been expected that she would lead a life almost identical to her mothers. She would wed, become a wife, and have children and care for them and her husband.
There was one thing that would be a prerequisite if her life was to proceed as she and her family had planned. She must be a virgin at the time of her marriage.
When the Angel Gabriel comes to her and says: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” , we need to understand how impossible a request this is for a young peasant girl who is engaged to be married 2000 years ago.
The news will be unbelievable to Mary- how could she really grasp it. If she says yes all the plans for her life would be changed. She could face punishment as severe as death by stoning or at best she would be shunned by her family and the entire village.
It is almost certain she would have thought her planned marriage would not take place and she would be alone with a child to care for. Remember there were no social programs in those days and a single mother would have few if any good options.
Gabriel knows this which is why he begins his dialogue with the words “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.”
Mary is our role model. We are told that she “ponders” these things in her heart. To ponder means she thinks about it carefully, before deciding on her answer. We know she puts aside her fears and says YES.
This last week of advent is an opportunity for us to ponder what it is in our lives that might be holding us back. Perhaps if we were to be visited by the angel Gabriel he might say to us:
Do not be afraid to let Christ fully into your life- transformation is possible;
Do not be afraid to love yourself as God has loved you - for you can only give love away if you have it in your heart for yourself;
Do not be afraid to change - this is how you grow;
Do not be afraid to let go of past hurts - this is often the only way to let change into your life;
Do not be afraid to ask for forgiveness for hurts you have caused - letting go of shame frees you to move forward;
Do not be afraid to touch the untouchables - this is where you will find Jesus;
Do not be afraid to include the excluded- conquer fear of the ones who are considered by others to be different;
Do not be afraid to fail - some of life’s greatest lessons are in your failures;
Do not be afraid to love with all your heart and soul - even if you get hurt- it is worth the risk;
Do not be afraid of death - you have the promise of everlasting life;
Do not be afraid to be quiet with your God – stop talking and listen;
Do not be afraid to quit what you hate - life is too short to waste and you have too much to give;
Do not be afraid to question/ponder things in your heart - there are few easy answers to life’s big questions.
In John’s gospel we are told that “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!”
This passage makes us a brother or sister of Christ and Mary becomes our Blessed Mother.
Her life is an example we can follow. Mary points us to our brother Jesus. She had the faith and trust to follow the call of God and she put aside her fears and said YES. Mary’s “Yes” changed everything.
Pray this week for the courage to say YES to Christ in new and challenging ways. Remember the words of Gabriel as you ponder the changes you need to make and Do Not Be Afraid.