Kuwait City, 8, 9 December 2013
Homily of the Apostolic Nuncio
His Grace Archbishop Petar Rajič
Gn 3:9-15, 20; Eph 1:3-6, 11-12; Lk 1:26-38
Full of Grace
On this day we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is one of the great Marian feasts in the liturgical year which reminds us of Mary’s purity and special vocation which she received from God. We recall that Mary was saved from all stain of original sin from the moment she began to exist, after being conceived in the womb of her mother Anne, and that she remained without sin her entire life. Mary remains for all eternity, a masterpiece of God’s creation.
In today’s gospel passage, Mary is at center stage. If some modern painter had to take this passage of Luke’s gospel and try to draw some kind of painting out of it, he could develop it into three scenes.
In the first scene he could place Mary sitting down and thinking. This is what she did after hearing the angel’s greeting. The angel said three words to her, each more wonderful than the other, and Mary had to sit down because she just didn’t know what they meant.
The angel began with: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” He said: Hail! In other words: Rejoice! Be happy! You who are so healthy, so spiritually well, immaculate in heart! God has his plans for mankind, and amongst all the women in the world he has chosen you for a special vocation – to make others happy. Rejoice!
How often we forget that the main characteristic of Christianity is joy and inner happiness. The knowledge that we are dependent on God and that we desire God is the source of our happiness. The essence and the goal of Christianity is not to be found in the cross, in sadness, sufferings and death, but in joy, the resurrection and eternal youth. We too are called to bring joy into our world through our lives, the joy that we are in grace.
The angel’s second word was: “Full of grace”. The angel was actually calling Mary by her true name, that is, the woman who is “full of grace”. Grace is the gift of God’s presence, and his relation to man, his mercy and love. Mary was full of grace from the moment of her conception but she probably was not aware of this. This hidden grace was now to come out in order to bring forth fruit. The angel mentions this to her, therefore her real name is “full of grace”, which the Lord has given her.
We too should be aware that God’s grace is also within us. It is at times hidden and unused until it is awakened by a certain test of our faith, suffering, question or calling. St. Paul was another who was aware of the workings of grace within him and he once wrote: “By God’s grace that is what I am, and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless” (1 Cor 15:10). This is our Christian program: to cooperate with God’s offers, graces and plans which are always greater and better than our own. It is strange how sensitive we are to the little things people say about us and yet we can be so afraid or reluctant to accept God’s plan for us and fulfill his will which manifests itself through the Church.
The third word of greeting was: “The Lord is with you”. This is a repetition of the previous greeting “full of grace”. The person who is full of grace is the one within whom the Lord dwells. The Lord is with us in his own special way. He was with Mary in the highest manner possible, for he chose her to become the mother of his Son.
As Mary sat to ponder what the meaning of the angel’s greeting meant, so we too should think about our calling and our relationship to the Lord. Even Mary had to think over what this special vocation the Lord was offering her would mean and she conscientiously accepted the responsibility.
The second scene of the painting could have Mary standing up to ask a question: “How can this come about, since I am a virgin?” (v.34). After Mary asked this question the angel goes on to brief Mary on God’s plan with her, which caused her even more confusion and difficulties.
The angel says to her: “Mary, do not be afraid”. Mary must have been extremely surprised and possibly worried by what the angel had to say to her, but the angel sought to comfort her as well with these words which appear so often in Holy Scripture: “do not be afraid”! These same words are spoken to us. It is God speaking to us. Therefore, don’t be afraid of your weakness if God is calling you. Give yourself up to him. He will give you strength and courage, and you will be able to do many things with him who is your strength. God is counting on you now and he wants to fulfill his plan through you. Do not be afraid then of your vocation and what God asks of you, but rather rejoice! We should only be afraid of our pride and self-contentment, and be afraid that we may not have responded to his graces.
“You have won God’s favour.” These are the ensuing words. Mary could have asked herself ‘what did I do to find God’s favour? Was it my sewing, cooking, washing, cleaning or ironing? And what are these little jobs compared to the great deeds of Samuel’s mother, of Judith and Esther? My job is very simple and no different from the other women of Nazareth’. Yet God needs you Mary exactly the way you are. You have won God’s favour exactly through these little responses to little demands. You were faithful in little, so now God will place you above many.
This can also be adapted to our lives. We win God’s favour in fulfilling the little duties we are assigned with: from the kitchen to the chapel, from the office to our own rooms. In all of this, God takes the initiative and searches for our free response.
“You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.” These words certainly caused a great deal of concern in Mary’s heart. She was still a virgin and now this angel says she is to bear a son? How do you put virginity and motherhood together? Humanly speaking, it is impossible – but she too had to discover that nothing is impossible to God. Mary asks a question: “How can this come about, since I am a virgin?” (v.34). She wants an explanation in order to better understand the situation, and the angel provides her with one that requires faith.
We should try our best to look at Mary’s example here, which can help us when we are confronted by problems and difficulties which we cannot explain nor understand by ourselves. It is not enough to think them over, but at times we have to share them with others, to mention them in confession, to open up and let it out, in order to find the right answer. Ask and you shall receive!
In the third scene of the painting, the artist could show Mary accepting and serving: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me” (v.38). Here we are at the third and final scene of the painting where Mary accepts God’s plan. In the first scene she had to use her mind and intellect; in the second her tongue and speech; while in this third scene she now has to use her heart, her will, assent and freedom.
The angel goes on to explain to Mary how this great event is to come about: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (v.35). In each human conception we have present a man, a woman and the Spirit of God which gives us a soul. In this case, there is only Mary and the Spirit, no intervention of man is necessary. This is how it will happen to Mary! With no physical contact you will be able to preserve your virginity and through the power of the Spirit you shall conceive. We mustn’t forget that we are not only physical beings but spiritual beings as well. We have a body and a spirit which make up our person. Let us remember to remain faithful to the Spirit which is life.
“And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God” (v.36). Mary probably couldn’t comprehend the entire meaning of this claim that her child would be the Son of God, but she did realize that she was to give birth to the promised Messiah, the one who would be above all the prophets, the Promised One of God. And it is here where Mary expressed her faith in God and his plan – through her free acceptance. Today, we know that she gave birth to the only Son of God, the Saviour of the world; yet the incarnation remains for us a mystery which we need to reflect upon often and spend time in adoring our God on our knees, who is so close to us.
“Nothing is impossible to God” (v.38). The angel gives Mary a sign by saying that her cousin Elizabeth is with child and that she’s already six months pregnant! It is strange that Mary didn’t know this beforehand. Maybe Elizabeth was embarrassed to spread the news around since she was an older woman, or maybe it was because she lived so far away – four days journey by foot. Poor Zechariah too, he lost his voice in the process so he couldn’t tell anybody either.
The circumstances do not matter as much as the fact that “nothing is impossible to God”. Nothing is impossible to God in our lives as well. All we have to do is to have faith, trust in his word and give ourselves up to him. He will take care of us in the best manner possible. Everything is possible to him if we let him take over in our lives. Yet even God cannot help us if we don’t want his help and we refuse his offer.
May the final words of Mary to the angel be guiding words for our lives as well: “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”. “Fiat mihi – Let it be unto me”. May Mary’s words of faith and trust in God, inspire us to greater service in God’s Church!