Full of Grace: What We Can Learn From the Annunciation
Often when we journey into a new lifestyle or job, if we really knew what we were getting into, we wouldn’t get into it.
At the annunciation, Mary had serious questions as her future was announced. The angel’s answers may have sounded a little sketchy—even preposterous—to Mary, who asked, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). Yet Mary accepted the angel’s offer without totally understanding it: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
And with that sentence, human history changed forever.
What Happened—and Why
The Church describes angels as messengers of God. Imagine Mary at home, carrying out her daily chores, when suddenly a bright light appears just outside the door. It might be similar to the light described by people who have had near-death experiences. It’s a calming light, not at all to be feared, drawing to itself those who see it.
The light envelops the young Mary with the love of God, with awe and peace. Most of us have probably experienced an intuitive feeling that something really significant is about to happen. As the light fills the room, it fills Mary’s heart as well—and Mary just knows. No words are necessary, yet words are exchanged, and eventually Mary’s words allow that presence, that movement of God, to fill her womb. The course of her life’s journey and her whole world is totally changed—and so is ours.
Every movement of God is for our sake, not God’s. We don’t pray to change God’s mind or to get God to do something for us he wouldn’t have otherwise done. We pray to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God.
God came to earth at the annunciation not because he needed to, but because we needed him to. We needed some way to know God, who is complete mystery beyond our comprehension. We needed to know something about God so we could relate to him.
Consider this: When we prayerfully ask a saint or a favorite deceased person to intercede with God on our behalf, we can bring to mind a facial image from memory or from a photo or sketch so we can relate to whomever we’re praying. Similarly, we need a visual image of God when we pray. Many ancient religions crafted statues or molten images to represent the gods they believed in.
Taking on human flesh, Jesus gave us not a statue, but a living face to know as our God. By knowing Jesus, we come to know something of what our eternal God is like:
Jesus fed the hungry (God knows our needs).
Jesus healed people of physical maladies and sinfulness (God is compassionate and forgiving).
Jesus talked and ate with sinners (God’s love is unconditional).
Jesus performed miracles (God’s power transcends this earth).
Humility and Gratitude
At the annunciation, the angel called Mary “full of grace.” Was Mary filled with grace because of her good works, and were those what made her so holy? She certainly would have denied that. Rather, she said, “The Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49). By herself, she merited nothing. Rather, it was God who filled her with grace.
According to the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 document Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium), Mary was “adorned from the first instant of her conception [that is, before she could possibly have accomplished any good works] with the radiance of an entirely unique holiness.” Mary became holy not by her own good works, but by the sheer gift of God. Since Mary is our model in holiness, shouldn’t we expect a similar gift from God?
So Mary was full of grace because “the Mighty One [had] done great things for [her].” Unfortunately, we don’t respond to God’s call the way Mary did. We don’t always put God first. We are selfish at times and lazy at other times. Does that mean we’ll be less worthy of heaven?
God’s love for us is far beyond what any of our works deserve. So if the reward we receive for our meager efforts to love God and others is given back to us in proportion to God’s immense love for us, we have nothing to worry about.
But if our works don’t earn us a better place in eternity, why try to be good? What’s the point of living a moral life and performing acts of charity?
The answer is that by striving to do good, we show our love for God and others—not to gain a reward, but to show gratitude to God, who created and loves us unconditionally.
Jesus taught us to live like him as much as we can in order to bring God’s love to others. In his homily on the Solemnity of the Annunciation shortly after being elected in 2013, Pope Francis said Christians must be humble because that’s the only way God’s love can shine through us. Without humility, love is blocked. The great Doctor of the Church St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote that it was Mary’s profound humility that drew God to her.
It required unimaginable humility for the eternal and all-powerful God to close himself up for nine months in the Virgin’s tiny womb and to spend the next thirty-three years trapped within the limits of a human body. But he did. God became like us to remind us that we are like God, created in his image. As such we, too, are highly favored, just as Mary was. Thus, in humility with Mary our model, each of us can also recognize that “the Almighty has done great things for me.”
Consent Brought Salvation
God created the world so we would have a place to live. Once humankind had sinned, separating ourselves from God and losing our eternal inheritance, God’s love for us remained so great that he wouldn’t let everything go to ruin. Instead, he established a plan for our redemption.
As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his masterful work Summa Theologiae, the redemption of humankind depended on Mary’s consent (Summa III: 30). In other words, God wanted humanity’s cooperation to bring about our salvation because God never forces himself on anyone.
One of God’s greatest gifts is our free will—our ability and right to make choices. That’s probably what got our original human ancestors into trouble. Yet God respects our gift of free will so much that he waited for us to agree to the divine plan for our redemption.
Since Mary was sinless, she had the greatest freedom of anyone and therefore was most able to respond positively to God’s invitation. Mary’s simple, soft-spoken yes to the angel contained the cooperation God was asking of us all. God, as usual, responded generously. The Holy Spirit filled her womb, giving human flesh to God’s Son, who already existed in eternity.
Listening for God
In his essay “The Wellspring of Hope: Study and the Annunciation of the Good News” (1996, dominicans.ca), the English Dominican priest Timothy Radcliffe points out that the annunciation of Mary sums up what it means to hear the Good News:
Mary listens to the good news from the angel.
Because she really listens, Mary cooperates in God’s act of creation and bears the Son of God.
Instead of believing our lives lead only to hardship and disappointment, we can now see our lives leading toward the kingdom of God.
The story of the annunciation begins with puzzlement on Mary’s part: “But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Fr. Radcliffe suggests that when we really listen, we allow ourselves to be disturbed in the comfort zone of our beliefs.
Mary and Us
Mary and Joseph had no electricity, no indoor plumbing or sanitary sewer system, no natural gas piped into the kitchen stove. Mary carried water in buckets from the village well every day. She had to build a fire in the courtyard just to cook a simple meal for her family. She did laundry on rocks in the cold water of a nearby stream. She walked or rode a donkey for hours to get only a few miles.
Mary’s daily routine was like camping out for her entire life. Many of us enjoy camping for a week or two in the summer, but few of us would be willing to live like that year-round.
Although Mary was betrothed, it would be complicated as a consecrated virgin to explain this pregnancy to her husband, family, and neighbors. What kind of shame would this announcement bring? How quickly would the gossip mongers slander her?
And yet, through all these inconveniences and so much more she couldn’t control, she still proclaimed, “The Mighty One has done great things for me.”
When we’re feeling down because life isn’t going well or when we envy others who are wealthier or seem more gifted, we must remember the gifts we do have: life, family, and ultimately the promise of spending eternity with God. If we contemplate these gifts, we will be able to declare, “Indeed, the Mighty One has done great things for me too!”
What Is Expected of Us?
Ask yourself, “How often do I look at problems like poverty, prejudice, disease, or war and just throw my hands up, exclaiming, “What can you do?!” Yet that’s the most important question every follower of Jesus must ask: “What can I do?”
No one person can solve the world’s problems. But how can we make life a little better and more blessed for at least one person, perhaps one family, maybe even one neighborhood?
You don’t have to be a martyr or a televangelist, but can you follow the example of someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Pope Francis and strive to serve God’s people with humility and without judgment? Even if it’s just in some little way, can you trust God as Mary did and remain focused on the welfare of others?
God calls us and gives us what we need to be a partner in bringing about the world’s salvation. That call can come any time during our journey and in the midst of any human experience. A true disciple hears that call wherever he or she is and acts on God’s invitation.
We must open ourselves to the Word of God in Scripture and to God’s revelation in our world. Then, discerning carefully what God is asking, we must choose to journey with Mary—saying yes as she did—and put ourselves at the service of God and our fellow human beings. c