December 18, 2011
Luke 1: 26-38
There is a basic rule in the Bible that when an angel appears to you—God wants something. When God decides to involve human beings in the divine plan, God sends an angel to make the request and to close the deal. Therefore, when an angel appears to Mary in today’s gospel, we can be rather sure that Mary knew she was about to get a job.
But what is puzzling is the peculiar dialogue that takes place between the angel and Mary. The angel begins with a beautiful greeting, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Short—spiritual—positive. It would be difficult to imagine a more uplifting way to begin the negotiation. But Mary does not seem pleased with this greeting. The very next line of the Gospel tells us Mary was greatly disturbed at what was said to her. Now, what is so disturbing about this greeting? Was it that Mary was full of grace or that the Lord was with her? What is Mary hearing in the angel’s words that we are not hearing? It might very well be the very first word that the angel speaks, the word, “Hail.” “Hail” is the English translation of the Greek word, “chaire,” a word that is not used that often in the Gospels. In fact, besides this verse, it is used only in five other places.
But, when we look at those other places it becomes clear why Mary was troubled. Four of those five occurrences take place during Jesus’ passion. When Judas comes up to Jesus in the garden to betray him, he begins with, “Hail, Rabbi.” In three separate Gospels when the Roman soldiers mock Jesus in Pilot’s courtyard they shout out, “Hail, King of the Jews.” So, perhaps when Mary heard Gabriel’s “Hail,” it already carried for her resonances of suffering, crucifixion, and death. No wonder Mary was troubled at the greeting. She realized that God was going to offer her a job that included pain and heartbreak.
Now Mary, as always, is an example to us. Her conversation with the angel is meant to prepare us for those times when angels are sent to us. For every time we turn a corner in our lives, every time we face a new challenge or opportunity, God is asking us to take on a new job, God is asking us to assume a role in the plan of salvation. And, every time we are asked to assume such a role, it is very likely that suffering is involved. When expectations shift at work, when we enter a new school, yes there will be opportunities to serve others and opportunities for personal growth. But there will also be grieving for what we left behind and the experience of being stretched in new and uncomfortable ways. When we watch a member of family or a friend enter into marriage, there is the beauty of their love which reflects God’s goodness. But there is also the misunderstanding and hurt which are unavoidable in trying to love another person for a lifetime. When we assume the responsibility of caring for an aging parent, there are moments of deep intimacy. But there is also impatience and anger and hurt. As we approach retirement there is new freedom and a lifetime of wisdom that has been accumulated. But there is also the debilitating effects of aging and the painful experience of watching the people we love begin to die.
How then are we to assume these new roles that God asks of us? The Gospel calls us to follow the example of Mary. Mary says, “Yes.” But why does Mary say, “Yes”? It might be because she is aware of the last occurrence of chaire in the Gospels. It takes place on Easter morning as Jesus greets the women who come to the empty tomb. You see, Mary understands that what God is asking of her is more than pain. It is also resurrection. She seems confident that every time that God asks us to take on a new role, even though we are not guaranteed that it will be easy, we are promised that it will lead to life.
So the next time that an angel shows up at your doorstep, do not be naïve. What God asks of you will often demand courage. But the pain that you experience can be transformed into glory. “Hail” the angel says to us. Understand what is in that greeting: joy and pain, death and resurrection. “Hail” the angel says. May we respond with Mary, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”