This week’s Gospel reading always fills me with an irreverent mental image of the encounter depicted in Luke’s infancy narrative. I’ll get to that in a moment but, before I do, let’s take a wider look at today’s readings.
In the first reading, David wants to build a proper temple for the Lord’s presence. Nathan, God’s prophet in David’s court, initially gives the project the green light, but God speaks to him that night and tells David to hold off on the building work and leave that for later generations (it was David’s son, Solomon, who got the Temple built). In the context of the season, this could be seen as a reference to God’s future intent to send his son to be the living Temple of God on Earth, so David doesn’t need to build a stone one.
Psalm 89 speaks of God’s faithfulness to his people, of God’s promise to David that God will be a father to him and to all his children forever. In choosing this psalm for this week, the church is reminding us that God’s promise was made manifest when he sent his son to be our saviour.
St Paul reaffirms this gift with his hymn of praise to the Father and the Son.
The Jesuits teach a very powerful prayer technique, which they call Imaginitive Contemplation. In short, you use your imagination to put yourself inside a scripture reading, either as one of the players or as a fly-on-the-wall observer. Whenever I engage with today’s Gospel in this way, I find myself looking at a teenaged girl at work in the house. She’s been out for water already, and is sweeping or carrying a plate of food or something. When the angel appears (without knocking), she leaps out of her skin with a shout of “holy ****”, and sends the plate crashing to the floor. Gabriel, interrupted in his greeting, bends down to help her tidy the mess and straighten things out before continuing the work he was sent to do.
To get the full impact of the conversation Mary has with Gabriel, we need to look back to the beginning of the chapter (the first in Luke’s Gospel). Here, we find Gabriel on another job: this time, he’s delivering a message to Zechariah – both he and his wife are old – that Elizabeth is to conceive and bear a son, John the Baptist. Poor Zechariah doesn’t quite believe what the angel is saying to him and he interrupts to express his doubt. For his trouble, Gabriel gives him a royal dressing-down and takes away his power of speech. Right before Zechariah is supposed to be running the afternoon service in the Temple.
Here, we learn that we should never question an angel.
Fast forward six months and we’re back in Nazareth with a young girl with an angel’s greeting, “kecharitomene,” ringing in her ears and the dropped tomato sauce drying on her ankles. Unhelpfully, perhaps, he returns to his script. “Do not be afraid,” he says, hoping that might work.
In my imagination, she offers him a cup of the water she fetched that morning and they sit together for a moment. She says nothing, maybe cocking an eyebrow in question. He presses on, telling her of God’s mission for her, should she choose to accept it. The eyebrow rises again, her head shakes a little and she shows us what she’s made of. She questions the angel.
He doesn’t smite her – maybe he’s aware that all of Heaven is watching them at that moment – instead, he respectfully answers her question without talking down to her, allowing her to exercise the free will that God bestowed upon her at the dawn of creation.
Heaven holds its breath.
She turns to him, looks him squarely in the eye and nods imperceptibly. The girl with nerves of spun steel declares “I am the handmaid of the Lord: let what you have said be done to me.”