“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
According to Saint Luke’s Gospel, just a few months after the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah and announced the conception of Saint John the Baptist, that same angel visited Mary in the little town of Nazareth. Needless to say, Mary was a little shocked when, all of a sudden, an angel appeared and told her that she was highly favored by God, and that she should not to be afraid. And, besides all that, the angel said that Mary was to conceive a child and should name him Jesus.
Not your normal course of events on a quiet day in the small town of Nazareth.
But things were just beginning—and they were going to get far more complicated before they got clarified. For one thing, Mary was engaged to Joseph, but they were not yet married nor living together, and, as Mary assured Gabriel, they had not been sexually active. So, here she was, engaged, a virgin, told she was to conceive a child, and, presumably, Joseph was totally unaware. And the real clincher: the child was to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and would be called the Son of God. Oh, and by the way, Elizabeth, her relative who was barren and advanced in years, is expecting a child—actually, she’s in her sixth month of pregnancy—“for nothing will be impossible for God.”
After a couple of questions and a moment to catch her breath, Mary makes an astounding response: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Wow, what faith! No mention of what she was going to do or how things might work out. Just, OK, if that’s what God wants, let it be done.
Not the way I would have handled the situation—not that I’ve had many angels appear to me!
But that is just the point, this was not an ordinary event to be handled in an ordinary way. This was the moment that our God became flesh and was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Our God, creator of everything—including human beings—willed to become one of his own creatures out of sheer love for the human race. No compelling reason, no need on his part, no ulterior motive, just love for a group of humans who had gone astray and had no way to get back on the path to life. That is pure and simple love.
Mary played an essential role. She agreed to allow the Lord to become flesh and take up his dwelling among us. She was free to say no—again no compulsive need to agree, just an act of loving faith to do the will of God as she understood it at that moment. Of course, that understanding would grow as the years progressed, and would involve many more acts of loving faith; some almost beyond comprehension.
In a homily excerpt used in the Office of Readings for December 20, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux captures the gist of this event very well and speaks of it so tenderly:
“You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.
“The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life. . . .
“Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.
“Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.”
In Mary’s answer, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Thank you, Mary, for making this possible. Thank you for playing this essential role in our salvation.