INTRO Explored Mary’s social setting in impoverished hamlet of Nazareth and God’s choice of her speaks of God’s preferential option for the poor. This is further emphasised by the poor village being near the great Roman city of Tiberias, a centre of power, wealth and oppressive dominance. She belongs to the marginalised and powerless. In John’s Gospel the budding apostle ‘Nathaniel’ dismisses Nazareth as a despised little village, while all of Galilee is scorned by the religious establishment and the wealthy of Jerusalem. God could not be clearer (so long as we have eyes to see and ears to hear!).
 The Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) From a marginalised place, a powerless community and a religiously scorned region, God further chooses a young woman, engaged but not married, as the collaborator in the Incarnation and the great plan of God for the world that is Jesus. Through the angel (usually in the OT a euphemism for a visitation from the divine) God chooses, but invites and not commands; and God waits her response. There is staggering news, great joy (‘Rejoice most highly favoured!’ Luke 1: 28), reassurance in the face of fear – but no force or dominance. Mary consternation and surprise (alarm even?) is because a male (angels are always ‘male’ in the Bible!) appears in her home and greets her – something prohibited except for closest family members in the custom of the time! Important to note that all the emphasis is on the child to be born not on the mother who carries the child. She is almost in the background while the unborn (not yet conceived) Jesus is the focus. This is Mary’s greatness and a model of discipleship for us – the focus must always be Jesus, not us. He is to be proclaimed and glorified – not us! We do not draw to people to us but seek to draw people to Him (albeit Risen and Alive within us). Like Mary, we are to be the transparent glass through which the Light of Christ shines and give life. This is like John the Baptist when he declared ‘I must decrease and He must increase’. Mary is the faithful, humble poor ‘little one’ – the ‘anawim’. Sadly too often, Mary has been so ‘glorified’ in Christian devotion that her ‘littleness’ is neither recognised nor emulated and so her true Christ-like greatness (which is always ‘self-emptying Philippians 2: 6-8) is diminished and Jesus obscured – the very opposite of Mary’s true greatness. Mary abandons herself in faith to God’s call and choice, the divine invitation – abandoning herself to that which she does not understand, cannot foresee: hence she is the model of true faith, loving into the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. And like the people of Israel on the 40 year wandering ‘pilgrimage’ through the wilderness who were constantly overshadowed with the cloud of divine presence, Mary is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and the Word is made Flesh. Remember – the Feast of the Annunciation is not a Feast of Mary, but a Feast of the Lord, the Feast of the beginning of the Word being made Flesh and dwelling among us! Mary’s role is always to show forth and offer Christ, never herself!
 The Virgin Motherhood of Mary It is very clear that both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels testify to the earliest Apostolic Church’s believe in the Virginal conception of Jesus. Indeed when Matthew quotes Isaiah 7: 14 in Matt 1: 22-23 (confirming the conception and birth of Jesus as a fulfilment of a messianic prophecy) the author does so in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version which translates the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ into the stronger Greek word for ‘virgin’. Both Luke and Matthew state that Mary, while ‘engaged’ to Joseph, they had not come together in marriage. The issue of Joseph deciding to divorce Mary informally (in obedience to the Law) is precisely because although engaged and not yet married, she was now carrying someone else’s child (Matt 1: 20). Luke meanwhile has Mary stating the fact that ‘I know not man’ (Luke 1: 34). What is the background to this? In the Hebrew scriptures there is a strong theme that those ‘children’ who would grow up to play a vital role in the salvation story of their people were marked by miraculous events around the birth. So Abraham and Sarah conceive in their old age to bring forth the child who would be the Father of the People of Israel (Genesis 18: 9-15 & 21: 1-3), Manoah’s (unnamed) wife is childless but conceives Samson after the divine visitation (the Angel of the Lord – Judges 13: 2-7), Hannah remains barren until God promises her a child in the Sanctuary of God at Shiloh, but then conceives the great prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1: 9-20) who later anoints first Saul and then David as Kings of Israel. Luke parallels the Annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1: 5-24) with the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1: 26-37). John was destined to be the precursor, preparing the way for the messiah, Jesus. However miraculous his conception by the elderly barren Elizabeth might be, the conception of the Messiah needed to be even more miraculous. Meanwhile Mark’s Gospel makes no reference to Mary’s virginity ( in the absence of any infancy narrative), but there are hints in John’s Gospel of this primitive belief in the virginal conception of Jesus – ‘not born of human stock’ (John 1: 12) and then the placing of His mother in the care of the ‘beloved disciple’ at the foot of the Cross (if there were other children of Mary there would be no need – possibly the origin of the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary) (John 19: 25-27). The virginal conception of Jesus is not necessary for belief in the divinity of Christ, but speaks of the utter uniqueness of this child born to be the Saviour of the World. His conception and birth was to be like no other, because His mission from God and His divine origin was like no other! Finally note that virginity was not a religious value – though was the normal pre-requisite for marriage. If ‘barrenness’ was seen as a curse from God, then virginity was a sign of utter of poverty as well as total trust in God for one’s identity and personhood (which for a women depended on her husband and the children that issued). Furthermore, throughout the Hebrew tradition one’s existence after death was reliant on the children born to you – there was no notion of personal existence (resurrection) – your only on-going existence was ‘in the loins of your children’. Without a child, you ceased to exist. Hence the laws that instructed the brother of a man who died childless to marry the widow in order to raise children for the dead brother. Mary’s virginity was (surprisingly to us now) not about purity, but about total commitment to God, total reliance upon God, finding her only identity in God.
 The Visitation (Luke 1: 39-45) At the end of the Annunciation scene we are told ‘the angel left her’ – whatever that profound experience of the Divine Invitation was, it was never repeated. For the rest of her life, she walks in faith and in service of the Word made Flesh in Jesus and then after the Cross and Pentecost in service of the Word made Flesh in the Church and the World. Immediately, Mary leaves to be with her elderly cousin expecting John the Baptist. It is a seven day journey for a newly pregnant young woman! At a human level was she removing herself from gossip in her tiny community of Nazareth? What Luke expresses is the intertwining of John and Jesus’ destinies and roles in the salvation story. The precursor leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth at the sound of Mary’s voice – John would be the voice that announces to the world that the Messiah, the Lamb of God has come – he is quickened into life by Jesus’s presence announced in Mary’s voice! (Luke 1: 41). The two women and the two unborn children meet. There is joy – always the sign of the Holy Spirit, especially in Luke’s writings. John begins his prophetic mission in the womb – welcoming and proclaiming the presence of Jesus. All human hope is carried in John’s leap for joy in womb; all the divine gift of love, response to human need and hope is carried in the womb of Mary. Two women carry humanity’s future, indeed eternal destiny. Both poor, both marginalised, both scorned. Where does God consistently act in our world – always from the margins and not from the centres! Salvation always comes from the among the poor, not just to the poor! Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith and trust in God (Luke 1: 45) (the ‘angel has left her’ and she journeys on faithfully). The community of the ‘anawim’ is represented by these two women, (Mary being the faithful Daughter of Zion) the Church is foreshadowed and by women! Salvation is carried, and the Word is proclaimed by these women! (NB Luke highlights, in a radically new way, the role of women in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospel and in the early Church in the Acts).
 Incarnation as divine human collaboration, ‘male’/female collaboration in the work of Salvation. God is total and infinite collaboration – a Trinity of Divine Love always working together, breathing together, from Creation to the Final Coming. The Incarnation is the fruit of divine and human collaboration – the importance of invitation, not command in the Annunciation. Collaboration is the manner of working together in love and mutual empowerment. Furthermore, the male figure of the Angel (God was always seen as male!) invites and collaborates with the female figure of Mary. Has there ever been a more effective work or achievement? Why do we not adopt more collaborative way of working in the Church and Society?
AFTERWORD What are the implications for the Church of our day (Catholic and Orthodox traditions) – the marginalising of women’s voices and roles in the Church, the refusal to recognise God’s call to ordained ministry among them? How do we make decisions together as Church or run our parishes? What are the implications for forms of governance in the Church (‘synodal’ government as Pope Francis encourages)? What is our response to the call of God in our lives, the call to allow the Word to be made Flesh in us? Are we the Visitation of God to another? How do we proclaim the presence of Christ among us?