Luke’s Gospel begins with two stories of vocation: of John the Baptist through his father, Zechariah, and of Mary to be mother of Jesus. John is a link between the Old Testament and the New. His call before his birth, like his dress, food and manner of life, reminds us of the Old Testament prophets.
The call of Mary also has Old Testament echoes, especially of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. But with Mary comes something radically new. This is powerfully symbolised by her virginal conception: the power of God breaks directly into the human world. In the baby she conceives, ‘God is with us.’
It is very common to use the Annunciation as a moral example. The point, people usually say, is Mary’s obedience; and her obedience is understood as choosing to do what God asks. St Bernard went so far as to imagine the whole world hanging on to her lips, waiting for her answer: ‘What if she says, “No”?’
A closer reading of the text suggests something different. The angel does not say, ‘This is God’s suggestion. Are you agreeable to it?’ Gabriel’s words are, ‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ No ifs or buts or perhapses. When Mary embraces God’s will, she is not choosing one of a set of options. She is putting her whole self into welcoming what is to come. It is less like a choice of vocation than a discovery. This is what will happen – this is what God wants – this is what is good – this is what is good for me – this is what I want. It is as if all these different ways of putting it come to the same thing.
The Annunciation is a modest little feast: it sometimes even gets shunted onto different dates by Easter. Yet it commemorates the most radically new moment in the history of the human race, more so even than Easter. This was the moment when God became man. It was slipped quietly into the ordinary life of a seemingly ordinary young lass in little insignificant Palestine. The calls that each of you too have heard or will hear – to a certain type of work, to a certain way of life – will usually be hidden from the public eye. Yet if you respond, they will transform your lives. Take them all together, and they will transform the world.