Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reflections on the Rosary: The Annunciation

“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Not only are these the first words which the archangel Gabriel uses to address the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:28), they are also the first words of the Rosary’s most controversial – and common – prayer, the “Hail Mary”. Sadly we often forget that the first half of the prayer comes entirely from scripture (Luke 1:28, 42) and the second half dates to a popular Christian devotion in Ephesus during the 3rd-4th century – that’s right, half of the most identifiably “Catholic prayer” comes down to us from lay Christians, not clergy!

Most important is that the first of the Rosary’s twenty mysteries begins just as the Bible begins: with one man and one woman, but in this case it is the New Adam and the New Eve. Unlike the first Adam and Eve, however, the New Adam will draw his flesh from the flesh of the New Eve. Furthermore, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of Creation (Genesis 1:2), so too will the Holy Spirit come upon Mary. And just as God spoke words and things were created, so too will he speak through Gabriel and, with Mary’s consent, the eternal Word of God will become flesh in her womb. Where Adam and Eve failed, Jesus and Mary will triumph – and we cannot understand the relationship of Jesus and Mary without any kind of understanding of Adam and Eve.

Before examining the words of Gabriel as used in scripture and in Catholic devotion, it is important to note that Luke 1 is not the first time people have encountered the archangel Gabriel. Good Jews and Christians familiar with the Old Testament prophet Daniel will readily recall the prophecy given to Daniel by Gabriel in which the promised messiah will not come for another 490 years – and if you do the math it all works out to Christ coming around the first century! Mary certainly would have known this and the news for her would have been all the more joyous.

But even knowing that the promised messiah would enter the world through her, the words which Gabriel used to address her must have been all the more joyful (this is the first of five “Joyful Mysteries” after all). Gabriel says “Hail!” as if Mary was royalty – for indeed she was royalty. In Israel when the Kings of Judah reigned, the queen was not the wife of the king but rather she was the mother of the king. In announcing the good news of the king’s coming, Gabriel is also announcing the restoration of the kingdom in a new and radically perfected way.

The Kingdom of God is at hand and Mary shall be the new Queen Mother reigning with her Son, the King.

More still, Gabriel addresses Mary not as “Mary” but rather as “full of grace.” It is important to recall that many important people of the Bible undergo name changes which signify their status and relationship with God and the People of God. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and Simon to Peter. Before God, Mary is “full of grace” and after the Annunciation Mary has a new and unique relationship with God – and not just merely with God but with each Person of the Trinity. She is now the daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and spouse to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Mary will often be referred to as “woman” – not because she is being disregarded but rather because she is the woman of Genesis 3:15, the promised woman from whom shall come the victor over sin and death and as we shall see, she will be the “woman clothed with the sun” (Revelation 12).

Mary’s response to all this was: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Perhaps if there is something overwhelmingly important to be drawn from all this is the complete humility exercised by all those present at the Annunciation. Here first is Gabriel, a mighty and powerful archangel of God, addressing Mary not merely as a queen among men but as his own Queen (indeed Mary is also known as the Queen of the Angels). Furthermore, Mary’s response isn’t to become proud and arrogant but rather to beautifully embrace the Lord’s will and act in faith. Perhaps most important is the fact that God should become man, allowing Himself to dwell as an infant in the womb and one day be murdered for us all, rising from the dead and presenting a redeemed humanity in Himself before His heavenly Father.

Now that’s good news to spread, live out, and – in the Rosary – pray!

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