The Annunciation: When Hello is not simply Hello!

(Hebrews 2:11-18; Luke 1:24-38; Judges 6:12-15)

Conventional greetings and words of introduction are notoriously slippery things. In the past year, my husband and I have grown very fond of the Scottish band “The Proclaimers,” whom many in America know from their popular song, “I’m gonna be”: You know, “And I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more, just to be the man…”  Well, they have a very funny song called, “Let’s Hear It For The Dogs!” in which they lampoon British convention which uses the introductory question, “What school did you go to?”  The question, of course, does not just mean, “Where did you spend your teen-age days?” but it is a way of setting the social pecking order in Britain.  From that question, the inquirer learns something about the breeding of his or her new acquaintance, just as dogs do the job more efficiently by sniffing and licking.

The angel Gabriel had no need to inquire into the person or status of Holy Mary, introduced to us by Luke as “a virgin named Mary [living in Nazareth of Galilee,] betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”  Presumably, Gabriel had been told something about her before he made the greatest announcement of all time: she was completely or wholly “graced” by God, and he acknowledges that in his opening words to her.  One might think that his first word to her is uncontroversial: “Chairē!” This was the typical Greek term for “Hello!”,  equivalent to a Latin greeting “Ave!” which we usually translate as “Hail!”  (Of course, “Hail!” is just the Old English for “Hello!” The English words are related to the idea of health, through the Anglosaxon hǣlan, as in our phrase “hale and hearty,” even though the spelling of “Hail” and “hale” differ, and “Hello!” sounds quite different. Interestingly, Latin had another greeting, “Vale!” that meant literally, “Be of good health!” But this is not the word used in the Latin translation for Luke’s account:  instead, the polite form of greeting, Ave, is used, even more unpicturesque than our English greeting.  For there is no doubt from the etymology that the English word “Hail!” originally was a way of either wishing the person good health, as you first met them, or inquiring after how they are: “How do you do?”  We use words like this, and answer them, without a moment’s thought, don’t we?

No doubt for many Greek-speaking people the salutation Chairē! was just a polite way of making a greeting.  But, unlike the Latin exclamation Ave! it means more than “Hail!” or “Hello!” Literally, it is a command to “Rejoice!”  Aha! Some may think.  And that is why we sing, “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos,” while our Roman friends say their Hail Marys!

Normally I avoid contrasting Eastern and Western habits in order to lift up our own—it seems petty to me. But in this case, we must admit that the Greek word carries so much more meaning.  Perhaps to first-century Greek speakers, the word was merely polite, and almost entirely evacuated of its root meaning: but on the lips of the angel, it is filled up again, brimming and overflowing!  “Rejoice!” he enjoins this young woman who is to become the Mother of our God, and our own Holy Mother, too.

And then, he tells her why:

  “Rejoice, O wholly graced one, the Lord is with you!”

But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”

And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:28-38 RSV)

The words of the angel are encouraging and full of clemency—she is thoroughly the recipient of God’s grace, for the Lord is “with her.” Our Lady, however, is “greatly troubled” at what the angel says, and seemingly has no pattern by which she might understand what he is saying to her: she thinks carefully, trying to determine what kind of greeting the Chairē was intended to be.  Surely it is a thing of rejoicing to be told that one has been graced by God, and that God is with you!  But there must be a particular point to what the angel is telling her.  And this greeting is different from most of what we see in OT passages where an angel appears.  Mostly an angel begins by saying, “Behold,” or simply by launching right into the message.  Only once in the many stories of such heavenly visitations was something similar said.  No doubt Mary would have known the story of the valorous and faithful Gideon from the book of Judges:

  And the angel said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor.”

And Gideon said to him, “Pray, sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this befallen us? And where are all his wonderful deeds which our fathers recounted to us, saying, `Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.”

And the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?”

And he said to him, “Pray, Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Jdg 6:12-15 RSV)

There are certainly some parallels. Mary, like Gideon, might have asked the question, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this befallen us?”  As in the time of the Judges, the people of God in Mary’s day were oppressed—but by the great Roman empire. There had not been a prophet in the land for centuries; even though Mary and her family could go down to the great Temple to worship, the very city of Jerusalem was overrun with pagans, as was her own country of Galilee, to which, it seems, her Davidic family had moved. The closest city to Nazareth, Sepphoris, was renowned as a bustling city-center that had accommodated to Gentile ways and institutions that dishonored the true God: some think that Mary’s family may have had some association with that bigger city and not just with Nazareth.  Whatever the case, there was plenty of evidence around the loyal Hebrew, Mary, that the Romans had taken over the land of Galilee and were influencing members of the Jewish people to turn away from true worship. It was a very unpromising time in which to expect God to act:  who would listen?  Moreover, just as Gideon wonders how he, of the least of all tribes, might be a deliverer of God’s people, so Mary might quickly wonder what on earth God might have in store for her.  God’s angel had addressed Gideon as “a man of valor” who had the Lord “with him” and was sent on deeds of valor, despite his unpromising origins. Mary, who did not even live in the city of David, would surely have wondered what it might mean to be called “full of grace” and the confidant of God.  She may well have been of the tribe of David, but she was not only the least-she was a woman of a very young age.  But she doesn’t ask, she simply wonders.

The angel does not beat around the bush, but explains about the majesty of the child to be born of her. Mary understands that the announcement is about something imminent: perhaps she rightly assumes that when the Lord says something, it happens, as at the creation when the Lord said, “let there be,” and it immediately was so.  But she does query the angel concerning her virginal state. Gabriel does not chide, but assures the questioning young virgin that “with God all things are possible”—remember he has just told her that the Lord is “with her.”

The difference between Gideon’s response and that of our trusting Lady is remarkable. Gideon may have been valorous, but he was not full of grace or of faith. He required a sign—not just this time, but several times throughout his conversations with God—food to be burned up by the divine hand, a fleece to leave dry or wet. And he knew that it was dangerous to put the Lord to test, for at one point he fears for his life, and at another he begs God not to be angry with him.  But Mary only wonders, and asks about the complication that seems so obvious to her. Unbidden, the angel gives her a sign—not a sign of food or fleeces, but the living sign of her cousin Elizabeth and the babe within her, whose strange pregnancy may or may not have been known already by Mary.  If God can bring life from the dead womb of this aged woman, then He can arrange the remarkable new creation in an ineffable way from Mary.  He is the God of creation, the God of resurrection and the God of the new creation.  Elizabeth’s son, John, pictures the resurrection of Israel: her old womb is regenerated, just as the forerunner would call the people back to their Lord.  But with the son of Mary, there is something completely different, though also in continuity with her and God’s people—her child was to sit on the throne of his father David as Messiah; yet in another sense,  he was “holy”, completely other, the very “Son of God.”

John’s conception spoke of the re-orientation of Israel’s life, the return of at least SOME of the people to God; the Incarnation was more marvelous still, bringing about a brand new beginning, which answered to the hopes of Israel and ended the imprisonment of all humanity. God the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, and the Holy One who comes from her is a new creation, though sharing in our created humanity. As our epistle reading for Annunciation puts it, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Heb 2:14-15 RSV)

Mary knows that God’s visitation means liberation. She has heard that with the LORD, who is with her, that all things are possible.  And so she responds to the angel’s “behold” with her own humble offering: “”Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  It is humble, but also a little surprising.  God’s angel has told her what will happen.  God’s fiat is always accomplished: in the creation, God spoke, and it was so.  But Holy Mary, the Theotokos, offers her own echoing “fiat”:  “let it be”.  She willingly offers herself in synergy with the living God. After all, God has gone out of his way to send the announcing angel, and has dignified Mary with conversation: her response may not be absolutely required, but it is desired.

Moreover, to say yes will cost her something—the consternation of her fiancé, her reputation among some who hear of the irregularity, the pain of seeing her Son rejected.  With her consent, God will work with her, so that the God-Man is conceived of the Father and the Virgin Mary. Not by the “will of man,” as John’s gospel puts it, but by God’s will, and the open-hearted consent of a young woman, full of grace.  In contrast to the first woman, who was not grateful for God’s provision of the tree of life, but wanted what was forbidden, and what ultimately brought the downfall of all her children, this young woman responds to the angel’s enjoinder to “rejoice” and embraces God’s will.  She becomes the mother of our Salvation, the one who will bear our Saviour, the second Adam.

Almost as soon as she speaks in openness to the angel, she hurries to see her cousin Elizabeth, and the joy spreads: Elizabeth exclaims, “the babe in my womb leaped for joy!”, and “blessed is the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what the Lord spoke;” Mary then overflows out of the fullness of her heart: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Her song speaks with joy and confidence of the overturning and fulfilling power of a God who has not abandoned his people, nor the human race, but finally has visited them and us fully, decisively, transformingly.

And so, with the announcement of Gabriel that we remember this week, we are ushered into the holy of holies, the deep recesses of the human heart where God visits us, and where he desires to dwell. It must never cease to amaze us that the omnipotent, self-sufficient Holy Trinity desires to dwell with us.  The Father of all lights, and the Lord of heavenly hosts sees something in humanity that he wills to enter and transform, making Humanity fully alive. And so his Spirit will overshadow the young Mary, and something—no, Someone—revolutionary will come into our world.

Gabriel comes not only to announce something to Mary, and thus to us, concerning the incarnation of God the Son.  Gabriel, in his annunciation, also is the catalyst for the response of this holy young woman, the jewel of God’s own people: she says “yes” for us to the living God!  With her, let us trust the word that is spoken, and receive the Word who is engrafted by means of the Spirit.  In her very womb, the Word will grow and thrive, becoming the true Light who enlightens all the world. In our hearts, may that same One dwell, making us more and more what He has in mind for us to be—those who can, like the Theotokos, also trust, also say yes, and also work together with the Living God as he brings wonders to pass.

God has not simply greeted us with “Hello,” which would be marvelous enough, for it would be to bring about our “health.”  He has greeted us, represented by our mother Mary, with the greater salutation, “Rejoice!”  And so we may enter into that joy! As we remember this holy time  of the Annunciation, which occurs appropriately in the preparatory time of Lent, let us recall how Gabriel’s words and Mary’s “yes” inevitably led to the Nativity, during which holytide many of us in the Western hemisphere sang, and can pray again:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels [and Gabriel at the Annunciation]
The great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord, Emmanuel!

With God, all things are possible! Rejoice!

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