If a non-believer were to begin his research of the Christian story with the Gospel of Luke, he might understandably complain that it takes Luke a while to get to Jesus. Although he provides the most complete evangelical infancy narrative, Luke does not, in fact, begin with the narrative of Christ’s infancy. He doesn’t begin by talking about Jesus at all. The first story he tells is of a man named Zechariah, a childless man, whose wife is too old at this point to allow for any hope of offspring. Then, an angel comes and announces that their barrenness will be miraculously relieved: they are to have a son. Zechariah is skeptical of the message. He is punished by being made temporarily speechless, but God is still generous and ultimately Zechariah gets his voice back, along with his new son.
Now what our hypothetical non-believer might not know is that this is a very old kind of story. It’s the story of humanity up to this point. It’s the pattern of the Old Testament, repeated again and again, with soul-crushing regularity: God takes the initiative of unexpected generosity; humanity responds with skepticism, faithlessness, disobedience; suffering results from human resistance to God’s initiative; God is still generous, and does good things in spite of our perverse recalcitrance.
This is the kind of story that readers of the previous books of the Bible have already seen. It’s an Old Testament story, where God’s instructions are either questioned or rejected – or at least not explicitly accepted. It’s the story of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the burning bush, of Gideon’s fleece, of Jonah’s flight. God has to help us, has to heal us and raise us up, not only with little cooperation from us, but even against our opposition. John the Baptist’s story may be recorded in the New Testament, but he’s an Old Testament figure. He is, as the Catechism says, the last of the prophets. He is, as Jesus Himself says, the greatest of those born of woman – that is, those classed with the old, familiar dispensation. His story forms a prelude, but only a prelude, to the story of the new Kingdom, as in Matthew 11:11.
Before finishing the story of John, Luke begins a new story. At first it looks like yet another birth-announcement story. An angel tells a surprised young woman that she, too, is to miraculously become pregnant, but that God will make her pregnant directly – without a man’s help – and that the child will be the Son of God. Again, up until this point no one has ever responded to an angelic annunciation with explicit acceptance. What will this girl do? What will she say?
Let’s pause. If you asked the average Christian when was “the fullness of time,” what answers do you think you’d get? If asked to point to the fullness of time, the turning-point of human history, the great crisis, the pivotal moment – what event would people select? Would they identify it as the end of the world, or the first Easter Sunday, or Pentecost? Or when?
Well, we don’t need to guess. Scripture tells us in Galatians 4:4: “In the fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman.” That’s right, the fullness of time is the Annunciation. It is when God sent his son to be born of a woman, and when she accepted that mission. Again, from the Catechism: “Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time… In her, the ‘wonders of God’ that the Spirit was to fulfill in Christ and the Church began to be manifested.” For the first time, the very first time in human history, someone responds appropriately to God’s initiative. Up to this point every human being, whether due to personal sin or a wounded fallen condition, had deliberately or inadvertently thrown up obstacles to God’s plan. Now, a solitary girl says, “Let it be done unto me according to your word,” and the trajectory of salvation has begun. History has changed course. The tide has turned.
God always wanted our cooperation. He never wanted to fulfill the providential design by Himself. Of course He is the primary Agent in all things, and the Annunciation is first and foremost about a divine Person, in the form of a man, who has come to save the world. But it’s also, in a secondary way, about a created person, in the form of a woman, cooperating in that salvific work. It’s about Mary, who willingly equipped that divine Person with his human nature, and so made Him the descendent of Adam and of Abraham, the Son of David and the Son of Man. Since his humanity was the instrument Christ used to save us, St. Irenaeus calls the woman who supplied Him with his human nature “the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.”
God takes the initiative. God makes the first move in the redemption of the world. He has no need of our help – but He asks for it. He asks us to cooperate in our own salvation, and in the salvation of others. He asks for our witness, our prayers, our sufferings – as He asked for Mary’s. To quote from the late mariologist Jean Galot:
“It is true that the Incarnation could have been presented as a work which God decided upon alone and which he achieved without any human consent. But as it was he elicited the cooperation of a woman both in the process of deciding upon the work and in carrying it out. The Incarnation had not only the goal of instituting a covenant between God and humanity, but it needed to itself be structured in such a way as to be a covenant, and so include in its establishment the element of human commitment…The most profound reason for the divine maternity is consequently to be found in the intention of divine love that manifests itself under the system of a covenant: this love seeks to promote collaboration…”
In other words, Mary’s enlistment in the project of saving the world becomes our challenge. The fullness of time has come: God has initiated, and we are, like Mary, to give our response. “For we are God’s fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9).