There are few words of Mary, mother of God, preserved in Scripture. She is the quietest of biblical women and although she is Jesus' first and the longest-serving disciple and also the one who stood by him under the cross, we hardly hear her voice.
There is the simple question she asks the angel Gabriel: "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" and then comes her consent: "Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word."
The Magnificat, which we hear this Sunday, is a poem not a statement. It is Mary's song of immense joy, gratitude, praise and prophecy which pours forth from her heart and soul: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour."
Why is Mary so happy? Why do we not hear her sing those words either in the presence of the angel, or, months later, over the newborn Jesus?
Mary had every right to be confused during the heavenly visitation at the Annunciation. All her life's plans, made once, out of love for God and for the sake of his glory, are to be changed.
Mary was not an ordinary village girl. As a miracle child, born to the old Temple priest and his wife, she could have been consecrated to Temple service at an early age. She probably spent at least 10 years there.
Many people seeking radical holiness lived in or around the Temple, as we know from the Bible. In time Mary knew she had a vocation for lifelong service of God. She must have taken vows of virginity with Joseph's consent, or else she, betrothed to him and soon to move in with him, would not have asked the angel about parentage of Jesus.
CNS PHOTO | FROM CROSIERS
'From now on all generations will call me blessed.'
Her ability to converse with and question the angel shows she was highly prayerful, probably already at the level of spiritual unity with God, a mystic.
The Annunciation overturned all her plans of quiet service to God. Mystics, contrary to what we usually think about them, are clear thinking and logical people who do not trust every vision and sensation unconditionally and are not afraid to ask God questions.
They know that not all supernatural experiences, no matter how wonderful, originate with God. There is the other one, too. Especially suspicious are visions and voices which suggest abandonment of total consecration to God.
Mary was a contemplative person, one who "pondered things in her heart."
Like all deeply religious people, she looked for a tangible sign from God who gave her the hint of where to seek for it in the words of Gabriel: "Your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren."
Sign seeking and interpretation had been part of ancient religious culture, pagan and biblical, as were prophetic dreams. There had been and is still, a thin line which separated pagan superstition, sinful magic, curiosity or plain silliness from the longing to know God's will. It is only God's will that counts and, if we seek a sign seriously with this intention alone, God usually grants it.
It was not curiosity that drove Mary to take a dangerous trip to Elizabeth. It was not that she wanted to resolve her dilemma for her own sake, although she must have been fully aware that if Joseph were to denounce her unexplainable maternity, she faced death by stoning.
All she needed to be perfectly happy was firm knowledge that she was still following the will of God whom she had always loved beyond everything and everyone else. Nothing else counted for this teenage girl, an orphan from a small village, betrothed to Joseph, completely unaware of the situation.
Elizabeth, too, needed a sign. By the time Mary arrived in her home she must have been late in the sixth month of her pregnancy and suspecting that the child she carried was dead as it was not moving. Was God joking when he promised them a child?
The child leaps in her womb, however, when Mary comes close, and Elizabeth is filled with the spirit of prophecy, greeting the mother of the Lord. The sign is given, Mary's heart is filled with happiness and joy, and the answer comes through the words of the Magnificat.