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FULL of GRACE

By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

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In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" (Or "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28))

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Many people are familiar with this encounter between an angel and the virgin of Nazareth named Mary.

It is taken from the pages of the New Testament of the Bible. The text has formed the words of an ancient Christian prayer called the "Angelus" which is prayed early morning, midday and evening throughout religious houses, monasteries and religious homes throughout the world.

Perhaps as children some of us recited this prayer in a Church service. Maybe we are among the many that still pause at the appointed hours every day to pray the words as a devotional practice in honor of the Incarnation.

It is repeated three times each day, morning, noon, and evening:

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"The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to Thy word..."

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It invites us to remember that scene so as to make it our own.

Picture the scene. Most historians place Mary's age between thirteen and fifteen when this extraordinary encounter with the angel appeared.

I have had the honor of raising three daughters (along with two sons) through that season of their lives, their teenage years. I love them deeply. However, I am not sure how any of them would have responded if visited or confronted by that Angel, Gabriel, who visited Mary of Nazareth.

For that matter, I am not sure how I would have responded. However, through the Biblical account, I know how Mary of Nazareth responded and I am forever grateful.

In the Christian tradition this event is referred to as "the Annunciation." It has become the symbolic backdrop that has inspired some of the most beautiful art work in human history depicting the event. God sent a "messenger" to announce what He was about to do, not only in Mary but in the world as a result of her response!

Both the event and her response changed all of human history. Both the event and her response can be made our own if we enter into the mystery that is the prayer of Mary and learn to live a life of surrendered love as she did. Maybe we have read this story, accepted that it occurred, but actually believed that it had no real relevance to our own lives. It is time to think again.

Can we encounter God in our own lives? Does God still visit men and women? Does he still send "angels"? Does he send them to us to speak His words to specific people?

The answer to all these questions is "Yes"!

The Latin word translated "angel" is angelu and the Greek is aggelos. Both are found in the ancient translations of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. They are both variations of a more ancient word found in the Hebrew texts of the Bible. It is literally translated as "one going" or "one sent".

Angels "go" for God. They carry His word and initiate His actions.We could also call them messengers and ministers.

Angels are mentioned throughout the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible. They are also found in many texts that inform other religious traditions. In our contemporary age there is a "rediscovery" of angels and a growing interest in their actions in our midst. This is evidenced in our popular culture on television, at the Movies and in our bookstores. This interest reflects a deepening hunger for God and a desire to hear his message.

The public life, ministry and words of Jesus Christ are filled with references to the Angels. Even more present are the tales of their actions. They ministered to the Lord Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where He suffered his anguish before the final act of selfless love at Calvary. They attended to Him in the Victory of the Resurrection and announced the meaning of the event to His followers who came to the empty tomb.

In the earliest account of the New Testament Christian community called the "Acts of the Apostles" and in the letters to the early Churches, found after the Gospel accounts in the New Testament, the presence and actions of the angels are everywhere.

Finally, in the last Book of the Bible, the Book of the Revelation, they are woven throughout the Biblical texts and in a very unique way their territoriality is explained and revealed. For example, there are Angels delegated for each one of the early Churches.

If one were to remove the references to angels from the sacred texts of the Old and New Testament, not only would substantial amounts of the Bible be removed but even more of its meaning would be lost due to the role the very understanding that the existence of Angels plays in the "hermeneutic", the world view that lies at the heart of the Christian revelation.

This world view was Mary's worldview. It predisposed her for the encounter, prepared her to make the response of surrendered love, and paved the way for her life. It can be made our own through faith.

This world view begins with the knowledge that there is a loving, personal God who cares not only about the whole world, but about your world and my world; a loving God who communicates His love and who often does so through a visitation. In fact, it is a part of the Christian tradition that each of us has a specific angel assigned to each of us to guard us and to direct us through life.

If angels are real and they are everywhere, the real question is do we have the eyes, ears and hearts to discern their presence? Or, do we even know what (or better who) we are looking for?

The author of the letter to the Hebrews found in the New Testament exhorts the early Christians to:

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" Keep on loving each other as brothers, do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb 13: 1-2)

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Interesting thought isn't it? In the daily events of all of our own lives, there are "angels" in our path. The question is not whether they exist but rather whether we recognize them, hear and respond to their "visitation(s)" In this sense they can also be people who deliver in word and/or deed the message and love of God to us.

Let's look at Mary's encounter with that Angel named Gabriel and see what we can learn in order to appropriate the grace of our own encounters with the Lord:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!"Or "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28)

First we should learn from the context of the Biblical story.

It is time specific. The angel came in the "sixth month" Angels come at the specific times that God plans. They are never late and they are never early. The One who sends them does not wear a watch, keep a day-timer or use a pocket computer. He is outside of time but always on time. He is never late.

The angel came to "a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph" Angels appear to real people. In this instance, Luke the physician apostle takes great pains to show the lineage of this young woman and her rooted-ness in the line of the promises to the people of the Covenant. Mary was a Jewish woman who held the hope of her people in her heart. She was a woman of faith rooted in her very real life and people.

The angelic greeting tells us a lot about Mary and about our invitation into a specific and personal relationship with God. The greeting was specific. She was addressed by her Hebrew name, "Miryam", implying that the God from whom the angel was sent knew Mary personally and had a relationship with her that preceded the visitation.

The angel refers to Mary as "Oh highly favored one" or in other translations "full of grace" These words form the introduction to a popular prayer in my own church tradition that I have treasured since my youth. She was indeed favored and "full of grace." After all, the Lord of heaven and earth had prepared and chosen her as a fertile ground into which he could speak and plant the seed of His Word.

Though nothing is said in the biblical record about Mary's physical appearance, her response to the angel tells us much from which we may derive some insights. Permit me to take some liberty with the texts.

Mary had beautiful eyes.

I know this not only from the representations in the beautiful iconography of the East or the treasures of the sacred art of the West, both of which I have cherished all my life, rather, I know it because she was able to see the angel and through those eyes to behold the One whom he represented.

She had beautiful ears.

I know this because they were opened wide, able to hear the message sent by the Angel, a message so profound that it would forever change her, the world around her and indeed reach through all of human history back to the beginning and forward until the end with an invitation of love to the entire human race.

She had a beautiful heart, one of simple purity.

I know this because she would freely refer to herself as a "bondservant" or "handmaid" of the Lord. These are words of voluntary servitude, of surrendered love and humility. This Mary of Nazareth had not an ounce of arrogance or haughtiness in her. It was precisely because she was emptied of self that she was so "full of grace."

She had beautiful feet.

The ancient Hebrew prophet, Isaiah proclaimed: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, your God reigns"! (Isaiah 52:7)

This young Hebrew woman, immediately after pronouncing her "Fiat" hurried to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah. The account is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. It is the connection between the "Fiat" and the "Magnificat":

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed" "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. But why am I so highly favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished." (Luke 7:41-45)

It is after this encounter, what has traditionally been referred to as "the visitation" that Mary breaks into her song, the canticle of the Magnificat. She was the very kind of messenger that the great Hebrew prophet had spoken of and she was herself "blessed" among women. She was the first Christian evangelizer.

The very presence of the Word that she bore within her womb occasioned an extraordinary encounter for Elizabeth. She was filled with the "Holy Spirit", the very presence and life of God. However, it did not end there, the child in her womb, the one who would be called John, leapt within!

This encounter reveals so much about the mercy of the God whom Mary served so well. His love is intended to embrace the entire world. It also says a lot about Mary, she had beautiful feet. One of the great apostles who would follow the Son whom she carried in her womb during this encounter would later write a letter to the Christians in Ephesus, instructing them of the importance of putting on the "armor of God" (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Part of his instruction concerning this armor was that the followers of Jesus Christ were to have "... feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel"

Mary had beautiful arms and hands.

We know that because the God of the entire universe allowed Himself, in His son, to be held, cared for and nurtured by one woman, one mother, during His earthly life. Blessed are those mothers arms that cradled God in his revelation as a helpless child, His youth, His adolescence and throughout those years at Nazareth where he "grew in wisdom and stature before God and men" (Luke 2:52)

With those hands and arms, she embraced and caressed God; met his needs in His Sacred humanity, dried His eyes, combed His hair. With those arms and hands she tidied up the dwelling place of the Glory, in human form, that had filled the temple.

History has forever been changed by the image, so beautifully captured in Michelangelo's masterpiece, of the mother of sorrows, the Pieta. That extraordinary image captures this woman, this mother's pain, when she held his broken body and wept.

The prophetic promise of Zechariah had been fulfilled - a sword had indeed pierced her heart. (Luke 2:35)

Mary had a beautiful heart.

In the Hebrew world view, the term "heart" meant so much more than the organ at the center of the chest cavity. It was (and is) the center of the person, the seat of emotion, the core of the very personality of every man and woman where they exercise their capacity of free choice. The place reserved for God. It is in the heart that the words of the angel were first received and where they found the good soil of purity. She had a heart so pure that Love Incarnate could first visit there and then plant Himself in the womb.

Mary had a beautiful face.

This wonderful God to whom she had surrendered her entire life, allowed her to not only see Him "face to face" but to behold His face Incarnate in His son whom she loved and nurtured, followed and cared for. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that when God spoke to Moses He spoke "face to face as a man speaks with His friend." (Ex 33:11)

This was an extraordinary event for the Hebrew people. Under the Old Covenant no person could see God and live. When Moses came down from the mountain, after encountering this God of transcendence, his face radiated with the glory of God and those around him were afraid to look (Ex. 34:29).

Mary beheld Him daily. In fact, she kissed His face and her own face must have radiated with the love that flows from the face of Jesus Christ. St. Paul would write to the Christians in Corinth that the "glory of God was revealed in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6) She beheld His face every day, from the smallest face of an infant through every stage of His human life, until she saw that face of Love personified weep and cry out "It is finished"

Is it any wonder that Christians throughout the ages have always depicted her image as that of an extraordinarily beautiful woman? No matter whether she is depicted in the beautiful iconography of the eastern Christian Church or the beautiful images of the high middle Ages in the Western Church; whether depicted as a young Jewish woman or a Mexican or an African, it matters little. Mary had a beautiful face.

Her beauty transcends and transforms every cultures definition of beauty because it is a transference of the very beauty of the God she knew which was reflected in the human face of a woman given away to Him in surrendered love.

Perhaps the reason the scriptures tell us so little about Mary was because she was meant to serve as a mirror, a reflection, of someone much more important, the God who created and redeemed her. It was this God of Love that she sought to magnify and to reveal with her whole life.

This encounter between Mary and the angel tells us about the God who chose her, initiated the encounter by sending an angel, accepted her "Fiat" and began the new creation - through the Son whom she would bear in her womb.

This God still visits ordinary people who have the eyes to see, ears to hear and pure hearts that are opened to this invitation of love. They, like Mary, become "full of grace" through the encounter. They are transformed and invited into a holy exchange of surrendered love.

A profound mystery is made so wonderfully simple by the witness of this woman of Nazareth! She lived a spiritual simplicity, a spiritual childhood, her entire life.

This is the meaning behind the wonderful exclamation of Jesus from the pages of the New Testament of the Bible where, after his disciples return from a missionary journey he proclaims in prayer "I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth that what you have hidden from the learned and the wise you have revealed to the merest of children." (Luke 10:21). It also helps us understand His admonition that we were to become as "little children".

This encounter with the angel tells us about ourselves and the meaning and purpose of our own lives. We are called to respond to similar invitations and to utter the prayer of Mary through living lives of surrendered love.

When we open our eyes we will begin to see His messengers in our own very real, very ordinary lives. When we open our ears we will hear the words that He speaks to each of us through the angels that he sends along our path. When we voluntarily open our hearts, He is eager to till the soil found inside with His very Spirit within us and make us become a fertile garden where the seeds of His word can take firm root, and bear the fruit of grace.

That woman who was "filled with grace" shows us the way.

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* This article is adapted from a forthcoming book entitled "The Prayer of Mary: Living a Surrendered Life"

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Rev. Mr. Keith A Fournier, the founder and president of "Common Good", is a constitutional lawyer. Long active in political participation, Fournier was a founder of Catholic Alliance and served as its first President. He is a pro-life and pro-family lobbyist. He was the first Executive Director of the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice). He also served as an advisor to the presidential campaign of Steve Forbes. Fournier holds a Bachelors degree (B.A.) from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Philosophy and Theology, a Masters Degree (M.T.S.) in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Pittsburgh and an Honorary Doctor of Laws (L.L.D.) from St. Thomas University. Fournier is the author of seven books on issues concerning life, faith, evangelization, ecumenism, family, political participation, public policy and cultural issues. He is a features editor for Catholic Online and the Co-Director of "Your Catholic Voice"

Contact

Common Good
http://www.commongoodonline.com VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - President/Founder, 757 546-9580

Email

keithfournier@cox.net

Keywords

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