Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Through Her Greeting

If a Jewish rabbi in the first century were to pick up the Gospel of Luke, he would see a juxtaposition of two main characters in the first two chapters: Zachariah and Mary. Without a doubt, if he were to guess as to which of the two characters in Luke’s gospel story would carry the day, he would have pointed to Zachariah. After all, Zachariah was a man and a priest. Now, those two attributes may not set him apart in our time, but prior to the public ministry of Christ, they would have given him a clear advantage. After all, it was a man’s world. Women were completely overshadowed by the dominion of men. Indeed, the female sex was, by and large, considered to be second class citizens. Even in Judaism, their status was tainted by the memory of Eve’s sin. For instance, in the book of Sirach we read: “In woman was sin's beginning, and because of her we all die.” (25:23) To bet, therefore, that God would use Mary to give his blessing instead of Zachariah, would have been unthinkable.

You may recall that in the first chapter of Luke, Zachariah, a Jewish priest, had entered the Temple. It was the religious practice of the day that the priest, upon exiting the Temple, was to give a blessing to the people. However, Zachariah was unable to do so because he was punished for his unbelief by the angel Gabriel. Unfortunately, this priest who had been visited by an archangel could not bring himself to believe in the message that he would be the father to John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah. As such, he was punished with muteness. Hence, the blessing could not come from him.

After having been visited by the same angel, Mary, with child, sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hills of Judea. Upon arrival, she greets her cousin Elizabeth. The traditional Hebrew greeting in the first century was, “Peace to you.” But this was no ordinary greeting. An ancient Christian historian, Theophylact, said, “The voice of the Virgin was the voice of God incarnate in her.” From this voice came a blessing; the blessing that should have come from the priest, Zachariah. Indeed, priests bless; lay men and women receive their blessings. But with this visit, it was through the greeting of Mary that a blessing came to a priestly family; it was from her that Elizabeth and the preborn son of a priest received the Holy Spirit. Eventually, Zachariah himself would be healed from his speech impediment.

Through Mary’s greeting, the first graces of the New Covenant were given and inspired by the Holy Spirit. “Elizabeth cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” (Luke 1:42) Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth did not say, “Blessed are you among all people?” This would have been a true statement. But instead, she said, “Blessed are you among women.” This is as if to say, “Blessed are you among Eve and all of her descendants; yes, among all women who were burdened under Eve’s curse.” Indeed, the Blessed Virgin was the first woman (and person for that matter) to be conceived and exist outside of Eve’s shadow. And through her subordinate mediation with Christ, the human race in general- and the female sex in particular -received the blessing of spiritual liberation; a liberation that would have social and political implications for centuries to come. God blessed Mary among all women. Not even the celebrated women in the Old Testament could rival her greatness.

Interestingly, the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, there is listed a long lineage of our Lord’s ancestors. Among all of the fathers and sons listed, the names of five women appear: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba) and Mary. The four women that precede Mary all have been marked by some imperfection. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes, Ruth was a Gentile and Bathsheba was an adulteress. Out of the five women, only the Blessed Virgin Mary was found to be “full of grace,” that is, without any mark of imperfection. Implied in Matthew’s Gospel genealogy is that through Mary there would be a new beginning. And that new beginning was none other than the “fruit of her womb.”

Also noteworthy is that St. Elizabeth added, “…and blessed is the fruit of your womb" when she could have said, “…and blessed is baby Jesus” or “…and blessed be the child in your womb.” But no, she referred to the unborn Messiah as the “fruit” of her womb. Kind of an odd thing to say! As far as I know, it is not a common expression of among the ancient Jews. The term “fruit,” however, hearkens back to the fruit Eve gave Adam. With the Incarnation, Mary offers her flesh to God so that he could become the fruit of her womb. And in a real sense, by offering this fruit to the world she reverses the curse of Eve’s sin; and her sin, as we know, was that Eve gave the forbidden fruit to Adam, thus causing the downfall of mankind.

But the blessing that God had suspended for centuries- since the beginning –began to ripple out into the world through the greeting of a young Jewish girl from Nazareth. Therefore, instead of the Old Testament writers, such as Sirach, assigning blame to women for the curse of death, the Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, could assign the blessing of life to a woman named Mary: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosened by Mary's obedience. The bonds fastened by the virgin Eve through disbelief were untied by the virgin Mary through faith." Yes. A woman's faith and greeting served as the new beginning, a second chance, if you will, for an old and tired world that desperately needed it.