The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes
Throughout the Western Church, 25 March is celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary or ‘Lady Day’. It is St Luke who gives an account in his Gospel of Mary’s ‘yes’ to God through the Archangel Gabriel (1.26–38) and St Matthew also mentions it in his Gospel (1.18). Mary’s assent marks the Incarnation: the moment when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.4). The date in the liturgical calendar is nine months before Christmas, when we celebrate the Nativity of the Lord. The second person of the Holy Trinity assumes a human nature, with the name ‘Jesus’, from the moment of Mary’s fiat, as it is called from the Vulgate translation of 1.38, ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, that is ‘Behold I am the servant of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.’ What a story!
The encounter between God in Gabriel and humanity in Mary manifests the mystery of God’s relationship with those whom he created in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1.26–27). By creating us in his image and likeness, God gives us freedom and therefore allows for the possibility of our abuse of that freedom in sin, and the moment we are given freedom we do in fact abuse it (Genesis 2:4b–3:24). From that abuse or ‘original sin’ is born simultaneously our estrangement from God and God’s desire to save us from ourselves and our sin.
It was the Swabian biblicist J. A. Bengel who coined the word Heilsgeschichte or ‘salvation history’ (as it has come to be translated into English) to describe the events thereafter in the Old Testament and into the New Testament not so much in chronological as in theological and teleological terms. In other words, the whole of biblical revelation is the story of God’s creating and redeeming us to the end that we would be in his presence for all eternity, from the days of our self-inflicted damnation to the God-given beatific vision. The Collect for the Annunciation in the Book of Common Prayer puts is lucidly: ‘We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.’
One facet of the mystery of God’s relationship with us is highlighted at the Annunciation. Mary is that singular person who manages an unconditional ‘yes’ to God. To be sure, it is all grace. Holy Scripture neither reveals exactly how Mary is free from the consequences of the Fall, nor does Scripture explain how God’s overshadowing results in pregnancy. Instead, the Scripture focusses on Mary’s obedience; and it is here that we should take care lest we misconstrue it. The Latin root of oboedientia is audire, ‘to hear,’ ‘to listen to’. Mary stands a free woman before God. Gabriel comes to deliver a request from God. Mary’s ‘yes’ demonstrates comprehension, understanding. God asks her to assume a special role in his plan for salvation history, and she accepts the role. Mary’s fiat is a singular moment in salvation history, for without her consent that history would have been stopped in its tracks. To hear, to listen, to obey by God’s grace determines the end of salvation history: that she and we would find favour with God culminating in the redemption wrought in the Word made flesh, Jesus, and our following him one day to heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God (see Luke 22.69 and throughout Scripture).
This end, this goal, though, is not yet culminated in us this side of heaven. Now, we find ourselves like Mary with the gift of freedom and with the words of God coming to us, not from an archangel, but from Scripture. God wants our ‘yes’. The Western Church celebrates Lady Day to remind us of our potential as creatures in God’s image and likeness as exhibited in a young woman in Nazareth. Stereotypical and superficial readings from the perspective of secular history would render Mary insignificant: a young woman in a backwater town from a minority. What good can come from Nazareth? (John 1.45–46). Salvation history reminds us! On Lady Day, we have an opportunity not only to recall the watershed moment of Mary’s fiat in salvation history, but also the opportunity to step into the story of salvation history by our own fiats, our own yeses to God. Let us be disposed to hear, to listen, to obey the Word of the Lord as it comes to each of us on Lady Day and every day.
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.