Auxiliary Bishop Sylvester David offers his prayer and reflection for the people of the Archdiocese of Cape Town for today, Friday 30 April 2021, during this time of the Coronavirus pandemic. It is also available on the Archdiocese of Cape Town’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. Please also see below the text of his reflection, primarily for the deaf.
Reflection for Friday 30 April 2021: Luke 1:26-38; Acts 1:12-14
Today the Church holds up for us a shining example of unconditional obedience to the will of God. Today we celebrate Mary, Mother of Africa. This feast gives us a good opportunity to see what Scripture says about her. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:12-14), Mary is portrayed as being with the Apostles and others in the upper room, engaged in “continuous prayer” (Acts 2:14). The original text indicates a persistent prayer of petition, talking to God, and also that the community at prayer were of one mind in all of this. In short, Mary engaged with the praying community and it was on this community that the Holy Spirit descended on the feast of Pentecost.
The Gospel passage is familiar to many of us. It is the text of the Annunciation and gives us some important clues as to the character and person of Mary. The appearance of the Angel and the ensuing dialogue indicates a prayer experience. The Gospel of Luke presents Mary as a woman of prayer. In fact several times in the first two chapters of Luke, Mary who was completely overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), is described as having profound prayer experiences. She listens to, and dialogues with, the angel. She surrenders to what God wants of her. When she visits Elizabeth – and Elizabeth, who was also filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41), confers the title “mother of my Lord” on her – this after pronouncing Mary to be the “most blessed among women” (Luke 1:42-43). She recognised Mary as being blessed because of her belief in God (Luke 1:45). Mary’s response to all this is to quote scripture as she sings an Old Testament canticle (1 Samuel 2:1-10). This is known to us as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and is said or sung at the Church’s Evening Prayer every day.
But back to the text of the Annunciation. The attentive Bible reader will notice that the announcement of the conception of the Saviour took place in an obscure place. It was not where the holy city was. It was in Galilee, which means circle, and in the time of the New Testament it was called “the circle of the Gentiles” because of the number of Gentile neighbours. The people of Jerusalem used to frown on the people of Galilee because they mixed with these neighbours. Mary came from a remote place believed to be unholy because of Gentile presence. Our next hint at Mary’s lowliness is given in the way in which the narrative is conveyed. Mary is first of all described as a virgin – someone whose opinions would not have counted. We are told that she was betrothed to a man named Joseph and his ancestry is immediately given (Luke 1:27). And only then are we told that the virgin’s name was Mary. It is clear in the original text that Luke conveys this as an afterthought. No ancestry is given. Why this omission when, prior to this and also after this, Luke does not hesitate to indicate the ancestry of the women in his story? Earlier in this chapter we are told that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) – hence of priestly descent, and in the next chapter we are told that Anna was the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36).
This strategy is simply to remind the Bible reader of how God works. God constantly shows a preferential option for the lowly. The small of this world are deemed great by God. There is a whole litany of this in the Bible. In the Cain and Abel story God chose the offering not of the firstborn but of the younger son (Genesis 4:4-5 – where the original text is constructed in such a way so as to draw attention to this). In Genesis 27, Jacob the younger son received the blessing of the eldest. Joseph was belittled by his siblings but raised by God (Genesis 37ff). When Jacob blessed his grandsons – the sons of Joseph called Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:13-22), he crossed his arms in blessing so that the younger received the blessing of the first born and vice versa. When David was appointed King, his own father and brothers did not realise that it was David who God had chosen (1 Samuel 16:6-13). They minimised him to such an extent that they did not even recognise that he was not with the group. And later on, how did the young shepherd slay the might of the Philistine army? He did it with the toy of an Israelite boy – a sling (1 Samuel 17:48-51). Yes indeed – God chooses the humble.
This continues into the New Testament where the humility of Jesus is amply testified. It reached its highpoint when he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-15). Constantly during his ministry he taught that the humble shall be exalted and the mighty brought down (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11). This is how God works. And how the humble virgin of Nazareth is chosen. In a recent address to an interfaith gathering Archbishop Brislin defined humility as allowing God to be God. This is exactly what Mary did – she allowed God to be God.
The greeting offered by the angel is an important Old Testament greeting and is used very sparingly (Zephaniah 9:9). It is only used for the daughter of Zion. The words rendered “Hail Mary, full of grace” (Luke 1:28) is a popular way of translating the text. The original is complex and reads: “Rejoice, you having-been-graced-by-God” (Luke 1:28). Some observations from the syntax of Luke 1:28 are helpful: firstly, “rejoice” (which shares the same root of “having-been-graced”) refers to a joy so intense that it cannot be contained. This is why Pope Francis starts “Evangelii Gaudium” with these words taken from Zephaniah 9:9. The second observation is that only God could have graced Mary. The Greek language has mechanisms to show this. The third observation is that now that she has been graced she could never be un-graced. This intervention by God is permanent and irreversible. This is why Mary declares that “all generations” will call her blessed because God has looked on her lowliness and has done great things for her (Luke 1:48). This is what happens when one allows God to be God. The fourth observation is that being graced is an essential part of who Mary is. If she was not graced she would not be Mary the mother of Jesus – she would be someone else.
The text is rich and filled with surprises – but our reflection must be brought to a close.
Let us pray: Lord, when the angel left Mary after her acceptance of your will, he did not stop his work. He continues to come to the followers of Jesus daily to ask if we could make room for your word in our hearts. We are called to offer our poor human flesh to become tabernacles of your word. Help us to respond as generously as Mary did. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Blessing].
Bishop Sylvester David OMI
VG: Archdiocese of Cape Town