Every year Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. And every year the readings selected for the Mass on this day revolve around Mary, her identity, and the role she plays in salvation history.
In this video, which is part 2 of 5, from the readings for the Mass for the Solemnity of Immaculate Conception, Dr. Pitre covers the Gospel reading with Gabriel's annunciation to Mary.
This 5 part series is taken from The Mass Readings Explained, which can be learned about here >
So let's begin with the Gospel reading for today and then we’ll go back to the Old Testament and we’ll try to work through those texts and see how it is that they're tied to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Alright, so the gospel for today is the story of the Annunciation in Luke 1:26-38. It’s kind of a long passage, but I’ll read through it and then I'll highlight just a couple of key points that are important for today's solemnity.
So in Luke 1:26 it says this:
'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!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.'
Okay, so that's the Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Again I just want to reiterate, you can see here why some people might get confused and think that this is about the virginal conception, because what we’re reading here is Luke's narrative of the announcement of the virginal conception to Mary by the angel Gabriel, right, but that's not the reason that the church chooses this passage for today. There are two reasons why this passage is chosen for today. First, there are a limited number of passages about Mary in the New Testament. So just on a practical level, if we’re going to have a feast that's dedicated to Mary we’re going to have to pick a gospel reading about Mary and there just aren't that many in the New Testament. Most of them are found in Luke. The stories of the infancy of Christ in the first two chapters of Luke really tell that story through Mary's eyes, so to speak, so that's where we have most of the passages about Mary.
So we have the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity in Luke. You have a little bit about Mary in the first two chapters of Matthew, she pops up once or twice in the public ministry of Jesus, and then she's at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John. So it's a handful of texts, so the church can only select from passages we actually have about Mary. So that’s just the first reason. The second reason is actually the deeper reason, and it has to do with what Gabriel says to Mary in this particular passage. So there are two elements of the account of the Annunciation that are important for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The first is Gabriel's greeting to Mary. So when he meets her he says these words to her, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Okay, so those words in the original Greek literally say chairō kecharitōmenē, right. Hail, kecharitōmenē. Now that Greek word is difficult to render into English, and you’ll sometimes see different translations say different things like “hail, favored one,” or “hail, full of grace,” or “hail. highly favored one.” I mean there are different ways to translate it. The most ancient translation that we have into Latin that was done by Jerome is gratis plena, literally, full of grace. That's where our English traditional rendering in the Catholic Church of hail full of grace comes from, it flows from Jerome's Latin translation of that Greek participle kecharitōmenē. Now what does the Greek word itself mean? Well we could do a whole video just on that. For our purposes here it's really just important to highlight the fact that it is a participle in Greek that is rooted in the word charis, which is the Greek word for grace. So you could literally translate this she who has been graced, right, or one scholar translated it she who has been transformed by grace. It's a perfect participle, so it means an action that has come to completion and remains in the present.
So in some way shape or form Mary has been the recipient of God's grace to such an extent that Gabriel actually addresses Mary almost as if it's a title, right. Like hail, graced one or hail, favored one, or as Jerome put it, hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. The reason I say it’s a title there is because Gabriel doesn't use the word Mary, and this'll be a little bit of a surprise for us Catholics. So if you grew up Catholic and you grew up saying the Hail Mary, we add a word to that. We say, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” but that's not actually what Gabriel says. He doesn't use her birth name, he uses this title hail, full of grace. If you want a parallel with that you can think about how in the Gospel of John 19 the soldiers used a similar expression. They say to Jesus, “Hail, King of the Jews,” right. It’s the same word chairō, right, hail, King of the Jews, and Gabriel says hail, full of grace. This was a standard greeting, but in certain contexts it could have royal connotations, like when the soldiers use it for Jesus at the cross. So the first reason the church picks this passage is because of that title that Gabriel gives to Mary that’s rooted in the Greek word for grace, charis.
The second reason the church picks this passage is that Gabriel repeats the fact that Mary is the object of God's grace, that she's the subject who’s received the grace of God. If you look at that verse, Mary is afraid, she's troubled by the greeting, she’s kind of puzzled, maybe because the angel doesn't use her name. The angel responds by saying don't be afraid, you have found favor with God. Again, the English translation here is a little weak, right, because literally in Greek what it says is you have found grace with God. The Greek word there is once again charis. It's the standard word that gets translated as grace in all of the letters of Paul for example. The Latin here is gratia, where we get the English word grace from.
So the reason the church picks this particular gospel is that on two occasions it emphasizes that Mary is the recipient of divine grace, she’s the recipient of God's favor. She's going to become, through that grace, the mother of Christ, the mother of the Messiah, the mother of the son of God, and through her yes to that announcement of the Annunciation, salvation is going to come into the world. This is how the mystery of the incarnation will be actualized in history, through the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Okay, so that's the New Testament passage. Now with that in mind, lets go back to the Old Testament reading for today. The Old Testament reading for today is....