Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, only nine months from Christmas! This is an interesting time-out in the midst of Lent, as we prepare for Easter, to concentrate on the coming of the Lord as an infant. I used to wonder about all this talk of Jesus coming to earth as a “lowly” infant and, as a boy, thought this probably had a lot to do with being born in a stable and amongst animals, though from my childish perspective this was a key attraction of Jesus. I had been in hospitals before and they had nothing on stables for action and interest – to be born in a manger gave Jesus a lot of credibility. I suppose this remains part of the “lowliness” of Jesus’ birth, but I now understand that the incarnation was itself condescension to take on human flesh, to share in our human life, and to prepare himself for his “hour” on the cross. Indeed, the whole incarnation speaks of incredible love for the whole of humanity, on the part of God but also on the part of Mary.
Luke focuses on Mary to a much greater degree than Matthew and the angel Gabriel says to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” (1:31). Pregnancy is a time of great joy and anxiety for most women, especially surrounding their first pregnancy, but Mary has an additional burden and question: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” This is an excellent question and one which sometimes troubles my students, but not for reasons which might initially jump out at a reader. They wonder, why does Mary ask this question and suffer no rebuke when Zechariah, John’s father, asks "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (1:18) and is rendered speechless “because you did not believe my words” (1:19). I personally think the difference has to do with how God is acting in two separate cases. Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, indeed, but there is no suggestion that they no longer engage in sex as any married couple might do. It seems that Zechariah has stopped trusting that God might act and give them a child; it might be a late-in-life-conception and an unexpected conception, but that they have conceived a child through normal means should not need exceptional proofs. Mary’s question supposes that pregnancy comes through normal means, but since she is a virgin, how can she give birth to a child? It is then that she is told that it will be through the Holy Spirit that she conceives a child (1:35). It is a unique, a special conception and she is ready to receive it, even though she probably knows what is in store for her only child.
For nine months, though, Jesus does what every child does, namely, he is nurtured in his mother’s womb and is born into this world as an infant, lowly since divinity takes on human flesh, lowly since he is born in a manger, but lowly, too, because every child is lowly, “a little one,” vulnerable and dependent upon those who are supposed to care for him, nurture him, educate him and raise him to adulthood. He is in these senses an ordinary child. And for nine months, Mary does what every expectant mother does, that is, she waits for her child to be born. Mary brings Jesus to human life and raises him to fulfill his earthly task, which benefits we are now contemplating in Lent. She is in these senses an ordinary mother. But what a majestic act God does when he comes as a baby to share in our humanity. There were other ways, St. Thomas Aquinas says, that God could have repaired human nature and conquered sin and death, but none which made so obvious the dignity of human beings that God would take on human nature, share in our life, and suffer on our behalf. Jesus’ human journey started with a young woman who said “may it be done to me according to your word” (1:38) and then opened herself to receive the word of God and to raise him. As we continue to prepare for Jesus’ journey to the cross, let us reflect on his conception and his infancy and on the wondrous gift that human life is that God would come to us in this form in order to give us life everlasting. And may it renew in us the sense of great wonder and joy that every mother who nurtures a child in her womb and gives birth brings new life and hope to this world.
John W. Martens