This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 1:26–38:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Few would ever doubt that we presently live in an age of abundance. There’s nothing wrong with abundance in and of itself, but it depends on what’s in abundance and what it does to us in our spiritual lives. Logically speaking, abundance should free us from cares and allow us to focus more outwardly than inwardly. Unfortunately, in this age, it seems to have led to an abundance of arrogance and a global shortage of humility. The more we have, the more we seem fixated on getting more, and on transforming ourselves into entirely material beings.
The arrogance of consumption, and even the arrogance of the expectation of consumption, could be the least of our issues as a culture. The increased inward focus produces an entirely new scale of a very, very ancient sin: self-idolatry. We live in the age of the End Zone Celebration, of reality-TV feuds over disrespect, and in a culture where everything requires an award and where people use social connections for ersatz celebrity. Humility only runs in our culture because we’d otherwise chase it down and kill it.
What is the function of humility? Humility reaches to the core of Christian life, and we see its value in today’s Gospel reading — and to a certain extent the dangers involved in its lack in our first reading as well. In the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary extols the Lord and her humble service to him in the Annunciation, and Mary’s fiat serves as our example of humility before God. That put us in position to receive the grace necessary for our salvation, by recognition of our true relationship with the Lord.
Contrast Mary’s humble submission before the Lord in the Annunciation with David’s desire to build a house for God in our first reading. It seems David’s heart is in the right place, lamenting his comfort “while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” The prophet Nathan assumes so too, but the Lord speaks to Nathan and reminds the prophet and the new king who builds houses around here, so to speak. I took you from the pasture, the Lord says to David through Nathan, and I will establish a house for you — not the other way around. David’s son Solomon would later build the temple with the Lord’s blessing, having eschewed the arrogance of power and riches, and chosen wisdom for service instead.
This contrast becomes all the more powerful when considering Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. She became the House of God by submitting to the Lord’s will and allowing the conception of Christ to take place, without care over what that might mean for her. The pregnancy of an unwed girl in those times, especially one already betrothed, would have been a humiliation for her and her family — not to mention potentially provoking a death sentence. Mary recognized and demonstrated the proper humility of her relationship with the Lord, and in her perfect humility provided for us a perfect demonstration of cooperation with the Lord regardless of what it meant for her reputation or life.
Thus, humility’s first service is in cultivating a healing between ourselves and God. But humility has more purposes than that — or at least, it has more impact culture than we recognize. Humility does not just relate to our recognition of the relationship between ourselves and the Lord. It also serves to inform us about our relationships with each other. Jesus taught this lesson in many ways, the most famous of which was the stoning of the adulterous woman — the very fate that His own mother courted by submitting so completely to God’s will.
What does Jesus say to the crowd? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The crowd, which had arrogantly sat in judgment of the woman despite their own infirmities, melted away at this reminder of their own sinfulness. Jesus taught in that instant that we have much more in common in our infirmities than we assume we do in our gifts and triumphs. It is that recognition that creates the kind of solidarity that promotes healthy human relationships — by recognizing that we are all sons and daughters of the Lord, and all subject to the same shortcomings and peccadilloes.
In the fullness of humility, we can cooperate with each other and with the Lord. In the absence of humility, what do we get? Senseless and petty competitions, feuds, envy, all from an arrogance that arises from our most basic sin — the desire to turn ourselves into our own gods. We celebrate the trivial and the vain while demeaning and discarding the humble and meek qualities that would otherwise unite us.
In Mary’s fiat, we see the better way — the path of humble submission and cooperation in salvation. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, we all have to choose who our true God is, and just how we are all called to cooperate with Him. We are all “handmaids of the Lord.” Will we choose to recognize it, or remain beguiled by the idols we make of ourselves?
The front-page image is from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Photo from my own collection.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.