[This is an excerpt from an ancient (2003) homily I gave on the Annunciation to Mary. The Advent fast starts very soon—November 15 in the Byzantine Tradition—so it’s not too early to start reflecting on these mysteries.]
…Now, when the angel came to Mary, it was something that kind of took her by surprise: she was not expecting an angel that day. When he came and said, “Rejoice, Full of Grace: the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women!” the Scripture says she was troubled by this greeting. Now, why was she troubled by this greeting? I mean, after all, she was the sinless one, the Immaculate Conception, the chosen one for this unique mission in salvation history.
The problem was, she didn’t really know it—and that’s where her humility comes in. Because, if she knew it, if she was aware, fully, of all that it meant, she could say, “Yes, of course. I am the Immaculate Conception.” Centuries later she did say that, when she came as Heaven’s Queen to St. Bernadette, but she wasn’t prepared to say that when she was a fourteen-year-old girl, receiving this heavenly messenger.
I wonder sometimes, if she might have thought to herself, something like: “Why don’t I do all the bad things that all the other boys and girls in Nazareth do?” But she probably didn’t even think like that, because she just lived a simple life and loved God with her whole heart. In those days they didn’t have to make their First Confession. Imagine if she had to do that! If she was lining up with all these little kids, and they had to make their First Confession, and she’s thinking, “Oh no! What do I say? I don’t have any sins! Like, I really don’t have any sins!” She’s the only one who could say that.
Anyway, it was something that troubled her. And that reminds me also of her humility: “Why am I the chosen one? What does he mean, ‘Full of Grace,’ and that the Lord is with me?”
There’s a story from the desert fathers, where the devil tried to tempt one of the old monks with pride. The devil appeared in the form of an angel, and said to him: “I am Gabriel, and I have been sent to you!” The old abba said: “Forgive me, but you’d better check and make sure; you must have been sent to someone else. As for me, I am unworthy to receive an angel.” Then the demon immediately disappeared—because the monk’s humility unmasked the devil’s attempt to incite him to pride.
Our Lady, too, was humble enough not to think, “Well, at last! The angel has finally come: Where have you been?” No; she was troubled by his greeting. So he tried to allay her fears, giving her some really astonishing news about what was going to happen to her, should she accept. And so he began to talk about the Son, the Savior, who was going to be conceived in her womb.
He went on about all these great things, and she must have been not only very intelligent and perceptive, but also a very down-to-earth and practical person because, after this great litany of wonders that was about to happen, she said, “But how is that going to happen? Because I do not know man!”
This raises another question, too. Some mystics have said—and it may be true; it’s at least a plausible explanation, and even though this was not common at the time, it was not unheard of—perhaps Mary had planned to live a celibate life with Joseph anyway. Because, you would think, if she was already engaged to Joseph, and the angel came and said, “You are going to bear a son,” she’d say, “Well, sure; I’ll probably have ten sons! You know, I’m going to be married shortly; and I’ll have children; and so, this one’s going to be the Messiah—that’s wonderful!”
But when he said, “You’re going to bear a son,” she said, “How shall this be?” So, it must have been that she was not thinking of having children as any other ordinary wife would have children. You get that sense from the way the dialogue goes.
Anyway, the angel simply explained to her what was going to happen: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, this child is the Son of God”—and what that did to her, to hear that, who knows? That’s an incredible thing to hear! But again, because of her humility and her love for God, she didn’t try to figure it out. She didn’t try to fathom what was going on; the whole thing must have seemed like a dream to her. So she just said, “I’m the handmaid of the Lord. Whatever you say, whatever God says, that’s what I’ll do.” And the angel said, ‘OK. That’s all that I’m looking for.” And so it happened.
And so this “Yes” of Our Lady is something that is really at the heart of Christianity—not only because we see the great result of it, that this “Let it be” brought our Savior into the world, but that this is the approach, the attitude, of the humble, God-loving person toward God: “whatever You say, I am your servant.” She learned her lesson, and knew very well what to do, for we see, later at Cana, that she says to the servants: if you want to be servants of the Lord, “Do whatever He tells you.”
That counsel of hers, to do what she did—“Let it be as you say,” and to tell us, “Do whatever He tells you”—has been whispered by the lips of the Mother of God into countless hearts and souls down through the ages, as the way to salvation. If you listen to the voice of the Mother of God, that’s what you’ll hear: do whatever He tells you. You are a servant of the Lord: let it happen in your life, according to His word. What happened with Mary’s surrender was unprecedented: the Holy Spirit, God, came upon her, and the power of the Most High, of the Father, overshadowed her, and she became pregnant with the Son of God.
There’s something, too, that happens in the Liturgy. There’s a certain moment in the Liturgy when the priest, if he’s paying attention to what’s going on, realizes what he’s soon supposed to do, and he’s wondering with trepidation: “How can I change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ? I’m only a man!”
But the deacon has the answer. And he gives it in the same words as the archangel. He says, at that moment: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That’s how it’s going to happen; that’s how the Son of God appears here. As He appeared in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He comes here, too, by the power of the same Spirit. Then the priest, being relieved at that point that God is going to do the work, says a prayer, a blessing: “May the same Spirit act together with us, all the days of our lives.”
This is what we want to enter into now: may this same Spirit—the Spirit that changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the Spirit that “worked” the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the same Spirit who assures us that with God nothing is impossible—may He work together with us, all the days of our lives.
So, let us give thanks to God, to Christ especially, for coming into our lowliness, and for not being ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. And let us give thanks to Our Lady for her humble, loving surrender on our behalf, for the sake of us all, saying “Yes; I don’t understand this, it’s too great for me, but since You’re God, and I’m your handmaid—let it be done!” That’s how we have to look at it, and that’s the way that we follow her.
Finally, let us open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that, as we pray in the Liturgy, the same Spirit will work together with us, will heal, enlighten, transform us, and be with us all the days of our lives.