Today, we are lighting the Fourth Candle of Advent, the Candle of Joy. I highly recommend the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke as an ideal subject for meditation on Advent and Christmas. Within the narrative is the Annunciation story, which is the Gospel today.
Annunciation stories are a regular literary form of Scripture. There are a number of such stories in the Bible such as the births of Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist. Annunciation stories are not historical narratives but a literary form that is used to convey the role of the person to be born in our salvation history.
The Feast of Annunciation is observed every March 25, nine months before we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ: The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "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, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God." Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
"Do not be afraid," were the words of encouragement addressed to Zechariah (1:13), Mary (1:30) and to the shepherds (2:10). Those are the same words that I often share with migrants. Do not be afraid to stand up for your rights, to defend your dignity, to stop those abuses being inflicted upon you by brokers and employers, and to put an end to domestic violence.
What is our common image of the Blessed Mother? How do we describe the Virgin Mary? Whenever I ask these questions, I often get the following answers: Beautiful, meek, humble, pure, obedient, compliant, holy, passive, submissive, admirable, amiable, and faithful; words that are often used to described women in virtually all societies from wives and daughters to sisters and mothers.
Mary is not often thought of as assertive, forceful, self-assured, confident, and independent. The same case applies to many societies that cast women in traditional roles. They are not suppose to question authority or to assert themselves in society, family, government, and even within the church or the confines of religion. Women are visible but should remain silent. Stories of women in the Bible are usually told in relation to their husbands and sons. In many cases, those women are nameless or described as wives or daughters of those men. The infancy narrative in Luke however was told from the viewpoint of His mother.
When the angel Gabriel was sent from God to Mary and was greeted, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you" (1:28), Mary was greatly troubled with what was said and reflected on it. Mary's first response was not a "yes" but "How can this be?" (1:34). Mary was a single, young woman from a working class neighborhood of carpenters in a patriarchal society. Nazareth was a village so insignificant that it was not even mentioned in the Old Testament. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46) Her encounter with the Angel took place in an unknown, ordinary house. To say that Mary found the angel Gabriel's message difficult is an understatement. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and a woman who found themselves alone together would inevitably have sexual relations. This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care (Sirach 26:10-12). The male angel was an intruder, and the scene would strike any Mediterranean person as suspicious - angel notwithstanding. Mary's question then on what the angel said - that she was "highly favored?" - makes a lot of sense. In Biblical times, to be single and pregnant was shameful.
A non-virgin in this culture was a no-no. Women suspected of adultery or of being impure were stoned to death. Today, this is still taking place in some countries in the Middle East. Mary was betrothed to Joseph and must be concerned with her honor. She had to protect her honor. Mary had to ask the angel, "How can this be?" She wanted to know what this "full of grace" meant for her life and her future. Gabriel, as God's broker, assured Mary that everything will be all right because God was going to play the traditional role of a husband. She was not doing this alone. First, God will empower her, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you." Second, God will protect her - "the power of the Most High will overshadow you." Third, trust her faith and self because nothing is impossible for God.
It was after Mary got that clarification - her role in God's plan of redemption - that she responded willingly "to be the handmaid of the Lord and His will be done." It is very significant that Mary, as a woman, had chosen to be her own person. In a patriarchal society, it is expected that women should first consult, ask and get the approval of the male members of the family before making any major or even minor decisions. The Gospel did not say anything about Mary consulting her father or other members of her family before saying "His will be done." She relied on her own self-determination. She responded to God's invitation, and accepted her role as God's instrument in His plan of redemption.
Whenever migrants ring me, the first thing that they ask is, "Can you help me?" My response usually is, "Why do you need my help? Are you going to help yourself and stand up for your rights?" In most cases, many of those workers only need words of encouragement: "Do not be afraid!"
Three weeks ago, migrants asked me to meet with a distraught Filipina. The migrant said she was allegedly assaulted earlier in the day. Her alleged assailant confiscated her purse and alien resident certificate because she failed to pay her debt. She wallowed in self-pity for hours, saying that she only had herself to blame for the misfortune that had befallen her.
And then she came to us for help.
My response was, "I cannot help you if you will not help yourself." I then suggested that she report the incident to the police, her broker, employer, and the Manila Economic and Cultural Office. Tell your co-workers what had happened, I said, and write the whole incident down. Do not be ashamed that you are in debt. Acknowledge your mistake and be accountable for it. Stand up for your rights. No one has the right to physically abuse you. She listened, reflected on what I said, and followed our advice. Two days later, she got her ARC and purse back. A week later, she even spoke in public, and encouraged her fellow migrants to stand up for their rights and stop all kinds of abuses and violence. That Filipina was the complete opposite of the distressed individual that I met three weeks ago.
Again, to our fellow migrants I say, "Do not be afraid" to stand up for your rights. If you know that an injustice, violence, or something illegal is taking place, speak out and act right away. Mary asked the angel, "How can this be...?" Do not be afraid to ask your brokers, "How can this be?" Mary, give us your eyes and your heart so that we may find the courage to stand up for our rights, to stand in solidarity with our fellow migrants and pilgrims, and to love and serve all our brothers and sisters as you did. We light the Fourth Candle of Advent, the Candle of Joy, knowing that we are not alone because the Lord assured us, "Do not be afraid and nothing is impossible for God."