When the New Life Began
The turning of the times from futility to fulfilment may be seen as the Gospel of John sees it, as the day when John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit descending and recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. As the Church reflected upon its knowledge of the Lord it understood that the age of redemption had begun not when Jesus began to teach and heal but when He was born of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The apostolic mission then knew that He had not become the Savior at the Jordan or in Bethlehem but that He had been the Lamb of God standing at the heart of the Trinity from the foundations of the world (Revelation 5:6), born for us of a chosen woman once in time. Thus, after much thought, it was determined that the birth of the Lord should be celebrated, and after a still longer time that the date of that celebration should be December twenty-fifth. And then in the fifth century, as the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the economy of God was more carefully considered, the Church understood that she is properly called the Mother of God, the title that ensured for all time that she would not be considered the mother of Jesus’ human nature only but of the mother of Incarnate Word. We cannot be certain but perhaps it was this awareness of her place in the mystery of our redemption that fostered, beginning in the sixth century, the celebration of the day when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Lord. And thus the Feast of the Annunciation came to be established on the 25th of March. Whether that date was selected because it preceded Christmas by nine months, or whether the March 25th date was established first with the date of Christmas derived from it is a matter of scholarly debate. What is certain is that the Church came gradually to see that the beginning of redemption was not in the wilderness at Bethany where John proclaimed Jesus Lamb of God (John 1:28–29), and not even in Bethlehem, but on the day the Angel told the Blessed Virgin of God’s will for her life, which she accepted with the words, “Be it unto me according to your word.” God had willed from eternity the place the Virgin Mary would have in His plan to make a new beginning in Bethlehem. But it is also true that our redemption hung on the earlier consent of a young woman, really, as we might say, still a girl, betrothed but not married, looking forward to a life with a just man named Joseph, who was suddenly asked to believe that she would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit so that the child she would bear would be the Son of the Most High, the inheritor of the throne of David, and the savior of His people. Her words have rung down the ages, and it was the intuition of the Church in the noontide of Christendom that the recollection of the feast of her obedience, the Feast of the Annunciation, should be considered New Year’s Day, so that Lady Day would be the first day of the year in England, a scheme that did not finally disappear until the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1751. New life began when the Virgin said to the Angel, “Be it unto me according to your word.” And so it is with every life. It begins when we choose God’s will for us. At baptism every Christian is given the treasures of grace, but it remains for us to say the Virgin’s words, different for us because we are not “full of grace;” we are not by the merits of the cross foreseen free from original sin, but are marked by the disobedience of our first parents, so that our words as we approach the table of the Lord that gives eternal life must be words not only of acceptance but of repentance. But it is still and always that gift of the self to God’s way and will that begin real life. Dante spoke for us all when he wrote, “In his will is our peace.” At a time when Christians are again faced with an old enemy, the enemy who fourteen centuries ago came raging out of Arabia to kill and conquer in the name of an all-powerful will, for whom life also begins with the gift of the self to that divine will, it is important to remember that Christians do not submit in the sense borne by the very name of their religion. For Christians know about God more than the fact of His omnipotence and even more than the reality of His mercy. For He has revealed himself to be not only all-powerful but justice, condescending love, and supreme intelligibility, even though that intelligibility is often obscured to us and in us by our own beclouded sight. We can know from what He has told us that God does not want our submission simply for its own sake but seeks our obedience to His will so that He can bring us into His presence to share in His very life and to enjoy Him forever. The Christian story begins in the Garden with God’s calling our names (Genesis 3:9), and the superscript is “I have called you because I loved you” (Deuteronomy 7:8). That story reached its peripety, the supreme moment of grace, when Mary said to the messenger of God, “Be it unto me according to your word.” As the world looks forward to the birth of the Child in Bethlehem, be it remembered that Christmas began with the Annunciation.
Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. Luke 1:38