Listen Well – John Foley, SJ

Luke 1:26:38, Fourth Sunday of Advent


An angel appears with a startling announcement to an otherwise insignificant housewife. Mary responds, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”

Is there a way to understand her heart as she utters these words, so dramatically significant to the human race? Let us take an “inside approach” to the story in the Gospel.

There is a contrast written into Luke’s gospel that will help us do that. In fact the Angel Gabriel makes two Annunciations in Luke’s Gospel, not just one, and Luke presents them right after each other. Each one is about a child to be born, and, strangely, each birth is completely impossible. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is barren, so she cannot have a child. Mary has no husband and has never had conjugal relations. In other words, Gabriel announced two seeming absurdities. Mary’s and Zechariah’s responses to the angel are the same.

Or almost the same.

Zechariah: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Mary: “How can this be? I have no relations with a man.”

Stop. Ponder these responses for a moment.

Did you spot the difference?

Both are responding to God’s steadfast love as announced by Gabriel. We could paraphrase Mary’s response as: “How in the world is this going to happen? Tell me more so I can understand.”

Zechariah answers with something quite different—and in fact, insulting, even though it sounds almost the same. He says, “How shall I know this?” Not Mary’s “I believe you, but how will it happen,” but “give me some reason to know the truth of your claim. Prove it.”

This kind of question is understandable, but terribly inappropriate. God’s voice had already spoken love deeply into Zechariah’s heart throughout his whole life. By this time, trust in God’s promise should have been woven into the fabric of Zechariah’s life.

His speech and his hearing were taken away when he challenged the Angel. But look, they were already gone anyway. He had not listened to what God has pledged to every human being—“I will be faithful to you no matter how impossible it may seem.” A human being has to let in the truth if he or she is to be able to speak it. Because Zechariah was deaf to God’s promise, he therefore had no voice to answer the angel in trust.

Mary on the other hand, simply asked for clarification. She already believed that “nothing is impossible to God,” so she listened with faith. As a result she was given the ability to “speak” the Word of God promised from the beginning of time. Her speaking here is a metaphor for giving birth to him.

How much do you and I listen to the voice of God’s promise, written in our hearts? Do our words and actions tumble out with reference to that unwavering love deep within? Maybe we are tempted to be like Zechariah, deaf to the beauties and needs of those around us, speechless when a word of love would make its home in our hearts.

Let us ask humbly on this last day of Advent for the grace to listen and to hear. The one who promised will not fail.

*From the St Louis University Sunday website

*Image by Teryn O’Brien

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