The readings in the liturgy today provides a contrast between two figures – the great and mighty King Ahaz, and the young maiden Jew Mary. When the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah, appears before the king, and directs him to ask for a sign, he is given permission to dream big. “Ask the Lord your God for a sign for yourself coming either from the depths of Sheol or from the heights above.” So he is given permission to ask for anything; the boundaries that he is set could not – in the Jewish understanding of cosmology – be any bigger. In response, the foolish and rather pathetic Ahaz is only able to respond with false piety – “no, I will not put the Lord to the test.” It is hardly a test when you have specifically been given permission by the Lord to ask for something!
As we fast forward through 700 years of turbulent Jewish history, we arrive in Luke’s telling in the village of Nazareth – an area that like all of the holy land is under occupation by the might of the Roman army. It was a dangerous time to be alive.
Even the simplest of what we now understand as ordinary activities and events could involve mortal peril. Indeed, sociologists tell us that childbirth and infancy were so risky, with such a high death rate, that just to keep the population of the Roman Empire stable (that is with a zero population growth), every woman of child-bearing age (which in those times was 14 years old – and it was a feat to survive even to that age) had to undergo five pregnancies – because so many mothers died in child-birth and so many infants died. So when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary on this day, and reveals such a confusing and utterly dramatic message, it is even more remarkable that the young Mary is able to respond so readily with the words that we know so well: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord; let what you have said be done to me.’
Annunciation of the Lord.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9am. (06’08”)