Troubled by Angels

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.”


5 thoughts on “Troubled by Angels”

  1. Fr George- I stumbled upon this as I was preparing for a sermon on these same words of Mary. I was following you at the beginning- but you write as if Mary is aware of the entire passion story of Jesus. I assume you realize that Mary was actually giving birth to Jesus- meaning that she would have been completely unaware of the “Hail” comments given to Jesus by Judas or the soldiers, which didn’t occur until 33 or so years later. There indeed would have been absolutely no resonances yet of suffering, crucifixion, or death. And Mary would certainly not have been aware of the final occurrence of chaire in the garden on Easter morning. Mary knows nothing of resurrection yet. Your words work as a nice devotional thought, but they are so biblically inaccurate that it’s just blatantly false, and should not be shared with others until those facts are changed. People will be really confused by comments acting as though the young girl Mary somehow had already seen the crucifixion of her son before he was born! The angel is speaking to Mary before Jesus had ever taken even 1 breath!

    • PK,
      Thanks for your comments. As you rightly say, it would be historically impossible for Mary to foresee future events and uses of “Hail.” My reflection, however, is not a historical treatise. Interpretively, my stance is a canonical one, tracing a word in its use in the New Testament. I trust that my listeners will understand the message without supposing that Mary received some inspired revelation of future events. Therefore, I would not see my remarks as “biblically inaccurate.” They flow from a method of interpreting the Bible which has a long history in tradition and was much favored by the Fathers of the Church. I hope this clarifies my approach. I am open to further discussion on this if you wish.

      • Your methodological approach is deeply flawed. It is logical to look at word usages in other passages to get inside into what a particular word use is connoting. For example, perhaps the word hail during Mary’s time often connoted the precipitation of a difficult charge or task. The use of the word to describe later events could support that hypothesis. As would usage in other texts of that time.

        However, the entire premise of your homily is deeply flawed and illogical where you suggest Mary is troubled by the word hail because her mind is subjected to impressions of what will happen in the future.

        Essentially your explanation is that Mary was afraid because she had a supernatural visions of the future, which, while possible, is probably not the most likely interpretation; and which I think is not supported by the text.

        • Daniel,
          I appreciate you comments and concerns, but there are a variety of ways to approach scripture. Your comments indicate that you believe I am presenting a historical interpretation of Mary’s response. I am using a literary or even canonical one. There are certainly historical events behind the scripture stories. But these stories also stand on their own as part of a canonical bible. Therefore, one is free to discover meaning in the way that different parts of the canon influence one another. My interpretation does not suppose that Mary is foreseeing the future. It takes her response as part of the entire bible which proclaims the Paschal Mystery. GMS

  2. Fr. Smiga, what a beautiful teaching and encouraging article. I just read your article “Not Whales But Mercy” in the devotional Living With Christ, which also encouraged me greatly. I am a returning Roman Catholic, having been away from Holy Mother Church for 33 years, but practicing my faith in another liturgical church. Thank you for your insights.


Leave a Comment