In our first reading today, the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah asks King Ahaz to name any sign he wants from God, anything he might desire. But Ahaz is sure there is a trick involved. Maybe we can sympathize. If something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true. We are suspicious of free gifts, only too aware that there is usually some catch involved. All we have to do to win a million dollars is subscribe to a magazine. We have already been selected. Sure. Once we have fallen for something like this once or twice, we tend to wise up. Like Ahaz, we simply don’t trust the offer any more. In Ahaz’ case, to avoid the trap he is sure is there, he plays the pious card, and uses the pretense of humility to avoid having to commit to something he doesn’t understand. He refuses God’s gift.
We have spent the last week celebrating what Christians believe to be the greatest free gift ever given to humankind: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And rightly so. The resurrection of Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of salvation history, and the cornerstone on which the Christian faith has been built. When Christ rose from the dead, our human nature was changed forever. We live in a post-resurrection world, in which we have been lifted from our human state to share, however gradually, in the divine, a fact which we reinforce each day in the Eucharist.
Today, though, we celebrate a humbler gift: the conception of a child. It is humbler on the surface because it’s more common. A little more than 4 babies are born on this earth every second, that’s 250 every minute. We may assume that conceptions are occurring at, at least, an equal rate. Meanwhile, since the dawn of human existence, there has been exactly one resurrection from the dead. Jesus. So it is little wonder that the resurrection is given more attention than the conception. Of course we expect things to even out at the end of all time, when we will all be resurrected and sent to our just reward, but until then resurrection remains a rarity.
But of course today isn’t the anniversary of any ordinary conception. It marks the conception of Jesus of Nazareth, God who became human. It marks the conception of a new kind of humanity, fully human and fully divine, the Word made flesh, the meeting of heaven and earth in one person. God comes down to us not just to touch us, or to speak to us, or to perform some miracle of nature, to heal someone or to part the Red Sea, but to rupture the barrier between earth and heaven, not only to affect us but to become one of us. Matter, the stuff of which we are made, from which everything we know is made, the stuff which God made from nothing, now encloses God. As many of our liturgical texts and hymns pronounce, Mary, who is a creature of God, now carries her creator in her womb. She has become the mother of the one who made her.
Heaven has touched earth and neither will ever be the same. Heaven is now part of nature, just as, when Jesus ascends in a few more weeks, his human body, born of nature, will be part of heaven. This means that we, right now, right here, have access to heaven in much the same way Mary did.
Today’s psalm and second reading tell us that we should be ready to do God’s will. We might think that this is not too difficult, if only we knew what God’s will was for us. In fact, it is very difficult, not because we don’t know God’s will, but because, like Ahaz, we don’t know what it will mean for us or what the consequences will be. Doing God’s will opens us up, as it did Mary, to uncertainty, trial and tears. But it also opens us to God’s greatest gift for us – a chance to be truly ourselves, as we were created to be, with Christ at our very center.
The angel in the gospel today speaks not only to Mary, a young woman in first century Nazareth, but to us as well. It asks us if we too will accept God’s will and allow God’s son to be born in us, in our hearts and in our bodies. And it asks us not just once in our lives, but every day, at every moment. The angel stands at the door and knocks, waiting for our answer.
King Ahaz refused God’s gift. Mary accepted it. She accepted it not knowing what it meant or how it would all turn out. Unlike Ahaz, she simply trusted in God. All creation, as we are told somewhere, earth and heaven and the netherworld, waited, holding its breath, for Mary’s answer. And it waits for ours as well. Will we, like Ahaz, hang back, not trusting, fearful of the consequence of any answer? Or will we put aside our own will, our calculating suspicions, and trust entirely in God, and answer, with Mary, “Yes?”