Today we celebrate the Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. We celebrate her because of her son, who is our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast reminds that we do not just appear out of nowhere. Behind every human being stands a history, which shapes and moulds us (c.f.: Ephesians 1:11); so, too, with Jesus, in whose history stands the figure of Mary. We are all shaped and formed by others who have gone before us, and whom we should celebrate as a way of giving thanks.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26-27) “In the sixth month” connects this Annunciation to Mary with the earlier Annunciation to Zechariah, as does the reappearance of the angel Gabriel. (Luke 1:8-23) In that earlier event, in which Zechariah and Elizabeth’ situation is described in terms similar to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:11; Luke 1:7), Gabriel was sent to a priest who was burning incense in the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 1:9) — a fitting place for a divine encounter and to a ‘worthy’ recipient, a ‘priest’ who ‘scrupulously observed all the commandments and observances of the Lord.’ (Luke 1:6) This time, however, he is sent to an unimportant, unmarried young woman in an insignificant village in the backwoods of Palestine — divine encounters are not the preserve of the ‘worthy.’ (Luke 1:48) Despite the close connection between these two stories, the story of the Annunciation to Mary has its closest parallel in the story of the angelic Annunciation to Hagar, the slave of Abraham and Sarah (c.f.: Luke 1:38), who bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. (Genesis 16:11) In this way, St Luke underlines the lowliness of Mary. Like Hagar, Mary is alone and vulnerable, and has only the support of an angelic promise to rely on. In her Magnificat, Mary opens with an acknowledgment of her humble state in the eyes of the world. (Luke 1:48)
This Gospel story culminates in Mary’s, “Yes,” to the angel: “Behold: the slave of the Lord; let it happen to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) Here she owns her humble state. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:67) This is followed a little later with her Magnificat: “My soul is ecstatic, overflowing with praises to God! My spirit bursts with joy over my life-giving God! For he set his tender gaze upon me, his lowly servant girl.” (Luke 1:46-48) Here is one whose faith is such that it enables her to ‘run on the path of God’s commandments, her heart overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love,’ as St Benedict would put it. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:49) Her story is of one who receives an impossible command, who then patiently explains without pride or obstinacy or refusal why she cannot perform it, but who then, accepting that this is God’s will for her, simply puts her trust in God’s help and in love obeys. (Luke 1:34, 38; Rule of St Benedict 68:1-5) Mary is one who, when she hears the Lord’s voice, and even though what it asks seems impossible, does not harden her heart. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:10) In this Mary shows herself to be one whose heart is humble, and for this the Lord exalted her in highest heaven, as the feast of her Assumption acknowledges. (Rule of St Benedict 7:5, 8) Mary is one who has ‘arrived at that perfect love of God’ that enables her ‘to effortlessly, as though naturally,’ do God’s will. (Rule of St Benedict 7:67-69. C.f.: Romans 7:15ff) As today’s Gospel explains, it is the Holy Spirit come upon her that permits the Lord to accomplish this in her. (Luke 1:35; Rule of St Benedict 7:70) Mary is often portrayed as a model disciple; but here we can see her as a model monk, one whom we should all try to emulate in her humility.
In Mary we can see how humility and obedience can go hand in hand in a life-giving way. (C.f.: Matthew 20: 25-28; Rule of St Benedict 72:4-7) To help form us (c.f.: Genesis 1:26), this Mary has been given to us as ‘Mother’ (John 19:26-27), as a mother who knows how to train her children. (C.f.: Hebrews 12:5ff) To us who have entered the school of the Lord’s service (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:45), where we are to learn how to do in love whatever the Lord commands (Rule of St Benedict 5:10), that is, to be God’s humble servant as she herself was (Luke 1:38), this Mary simply says, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 5:7-8) This is not to say that it will be easy. For, as the Letter to the Hebrews has it, Jesus her first-born son ‘learned to obey through suffering’ (Hebrews 5:8); we, too, can expect nothing less. When he was eventually confronted with an impossible ask, this Jesus showed himself to be truly her son when he prayed as Mary herself had once done: “Not my will, but your will be done” (Luke 22:42. C.f.: 1:38); this Mary knows how to form a son/a daughter. (Romans 8:29)
To be able to likewise trust and obey in all that is asked of us (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 68:5), we need to turn to Mary as Mother and let her form us, too. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 1:4-5) We need to turn to her and learn from her how to cooperate with God’s Holy Spirit (C.f.: Luke 2:19; 1:35; Rule of St Benedict 7:70); we need to let her be our mother, too, and rejoice that she stands behind us as well. For here it is worth noting that in Jesus’ genealogy, which St Luke traces back to the first human, Adam is described as ‘son of God.’ (Luke 3:38) Thus the angel’s words to Mary, that the child to be born of her ‘will be holy and will be called Son of God’ (Luke 1:35), are the more telling. If we let Mary be our Mother, we can likewise hope to be numbered amongst God’s children as was her son, Jesus, one fully human and fully divine as we humans are meant to be (Genesis 1:26–27), such that he becomes the first-born of many siblings. (Romans. 8:29. C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:5; 1 John 3:2) As St Paul has it: “For this hope we are saved.” (Romans. 8:24) We have come here for this. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1, 16)