SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
By Fr Bill Uren SJ, Scholar in Residence at Newman College
You don’t say “No” to God – nor to God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. To Mary of Nazareth’s credit, she did demur, at least in the first instance. When Gabriel announced that she was to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah, she demurred: “How can this come about since I am a virgin?”. She was, indeed, betrothed to Joseph of Nazareth, but, as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, they had not as yet “come to live together”, that is, formally and publicly entered into a Jewish marriage relationship.
Gabriel brushes aside the demurral: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And the child will be holy and will be called Son of God … nothing is impossible to God.” Gabriel has all the answers. Mary capitulates: “Let what you have said be done to me.” Her famous “Fiat”.
What a privilege – to be the Mother of the Messiah, let alone, as subsequently at Chalcedon in 451 AD, the Mother of God!
But how to negotiate this? A virgin mother – a likely story! Rather, just another unwed mother. Even her betrothed Joseph wasn’t convinced of the Holy Spirit story: “A man of honour and wanting to spare her publicity, he decided to divorce her informally.” He wanted to break off the engagement. He believed that another man had succeeded him in Mary’s affections, and he did not want to be acknowledged as the father of another man’s child.
It required another angelic visitation to convince Joseph of the true story of Mary’s pregnancy. The Holy Spirit was, indeed, the agent of Mary’s conception. No other man was involved, her fidelity to her betrothed had not been compromised. She was a virgin mother.
But what about the rest of the Nazareth townspeople? I suspect they thought that Mary and Joseph had jumped the gun, and there were probably more than a few sniggers and raised eyebrows at the marriage ceremony of Mary and Joseph.
So, it was a difficult beginning to their marriage. And then it was a difficult birth. It was complicated by the need to register for the census of the occupying power, the Roman Empire, in Bethlehem, more than 100 kilometres away. And when they got there, there was no room at the inn – there were so many others registering for the census.?
After the birth, of course, there was the flight into Egypt. Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1st Century predecessor, Herod, had decreed the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two – not Gaza this time, but West Bank Bethlehem. So, Mary and Joseph and their newborn had to flee to Egypt, refugees, displaced for a number of years before they could return to their native Nazareth. There they lived a simple life, Jesus apprenticed to his father, the village carpenter.
At about the age of thirty, he became an itinerant preacher, sweeping through the Judaean and Galilean towns and countryside, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near, that we should be poor in spirit, gentle, merciful, committed to justice, peacemakers, men and women of integrity, that we should love not only our neighbours but even our enemies. And for this he was repudiated by the Jewish religious authorities, betrayed by one of his closest friends, handed over to the Romans, convicted of treason and crucified. And he rose on the third day.
It’s the story of what we call the Incarnation, God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s a very human story, right from the very beginning: an unwed mother, a fractured relationship, a difficult birth, an occupying power, a refugee in a foreign country, a simple life, an itinerant preacher, repudiation and betrayal, a time-serving Roman governor, death – and resurrection.
God shared in our humanity that we might share in his divinity.
Fr Bill Uren SJ is a former Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne.