The Angel's Salutation
Richard Conrad OP reflects on the Angel’s salutation to Mary (Luke 1: 26-38)
… the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man of the House of David, whose name was Joseph; now the virgin’s name was Mary. He came in to her and said, “Greetings, graced one; the Lord with you!” Now she was greatly stirred by the saying, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be…
Quite a few pubs in England are called “The Salutation Inn,” including what may be the oldest in Nottingham. Its original name was “The Archangel Gabriel Salutes the Virgin Mary,” for the Mediaeval “Salutation Inns” celebrated the event the Gospel records. This event had become part of the English landscape, for in 1061 the Lady of the Manor in Walsingham had had a dream in which Our Lady asked her to build a replica of the house in Nazareth “in memory of the joy of my Salutation.” Pilgrim routes, marked by chapels, ran to Walsingham. In fact the Milky Way had become known as “the Walsingham Way,” for it seemed to point across the heavens to England’s Nazareth: in the English imagination, Mary’s Salutation was part of the “sky-scape!”
In some countries, and in many monasteries & convents – Anglican as well as Catholic – a bell rings morning, noon and night to invite us to remember in prayer the Angel’s greeting, and all that followed from it: “The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary; and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us… Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts; that, we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ thy Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection…” Mary’s Salutation is part of our “time-scape.” The Salutation is worth pondering – in fact, since Mary pondered what it might mean, let us consider how she might have heard it, and why it deeply stirred her.
Many people know the Angel’s words in Latin: Dominus tecum, which match the Hebrew Adonay Immak presume the Angel uttered the equivalent Aramaic; I only know that it too would have been two words: “Lord with-you.” This phrase – laden with meaning, of course – occurs often in the Old Testament, either as a statement (“The Lord is with you”) or as a wish (“The Lord be with you”). Boaz used this greeting when he met his reapers and told them to care for Ruth, King David’s great- grandmother. It would have conjured up for Mary memories of ancient prayers, such as Solomon’s “May the Lord be with us”, or Jonathan’s prayer that the Lord be with David; it would have brought to mind God’s promises to be with Joshua and with the chosen People. Above all, I think, Mary would have recalled how the Angel saluted Gideon, Adonay immeka The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valour,” before commissioning him to deliver Israel.1 The salutation, spoken by an Angel, would have said to Mary that the promises were being fulfilled, the prayers were being answered, the longed-for deliverance was at hand – and that Mary herself was to be involved in the liberation. No wonder she was stirred; no wonder she was anxious to know what God was asking of her.
The Angel said she was to give birth by the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing power; give birth to a Saviour who would inherit the Kingdom of his ancestor David. The Angel’s words strongly implied that her Son would be not only David’s successor, but someone greater: recognised as the Holy One and as the Son of God.
Mary accepted her vocation, and set out on her journey of faith, in which she would discover how strangely, how powerfully and how deeply her Son would work salvation, and with what compassion she would need to accompany him.
The Old Testament sometimes speaks of the King as God’s son, it calls other figures, like Aaron the High Priest, “holy to the Lord,” 2 without implying they are truly divine. Mary might not have realised at first that her Son is the All-Holy One himself, that he is the co-eternal, fully divine, Son of God the Father. That would became clear for Mary in “moments of epiphany,” as events revealed, and her Son articulated, how the promises were being fulfilled, the prayers being answered, in a way beyond all expectation, by none other than Emmanuel, Immanuel, Adonay, himself come to be with us.
As the divine Son, Jesus is the Father’s perfect Image;3 that was why it was fitting for him to come to reveal the Father: in St John’s words, “No one has ever seen God [that is, the Father]; the only- begotten God, who is in the Father’s bosom – he has made him known.” 4 God the Son is the Father’s co-equal Word, his “perfect self-expression” – “and the Word became flesh” when the Father spoke his Word into the world. Mary did not just receive the Angel’s word, deeply stirred by it and obedient to what it implied; she welcomed, and enshrined, with wonder and joy, God’s own Personal Word become flesh, even though her journey of discovery, discovery of her Son’s full identity and exact mission, was still in its early stages.
If, then, we unpack the Angel’s Salutation, we discover that Jesus himself, in his own Person, is God the Father’s “Salutation.” He is the Word in whom the Father speaks himself to us, sharing with us his knowledge of himself and of his saving plan, rather as we speak ourselves to our friends, sharing with them something of what we know about ourselves, something of our hopes and plans. Jesus himself is God’s eloquent and loving greeting to us.
We will in due course celebrate Jesus’ Birth, when human eyes first saw the Word become flesh. We will recall how the Angels sang peace, 5 for through Mary our Sister the Word became our Brother, entering into solidarity with the human family: in Jesus God speaks peace to his people 6 by making them into his people in a more intimate way, by making them his own relatives! As the year unfolds, we will recall moments of epiphany, & details of Jesus’ ministry in which he extended God’s mercy to those he encountered. We shall commemorate how God the Father spoke peace most eloquently when his Son made peace by the Blood of his Cross: 7 Jesus’ Sacrifice is the eternal Covenant, God’s ultimate pledge of loyalty, having divine power to attract our loyalty to God. 8 We shall celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, which established the life of glory 9 God has eternally planned for us. We shall welcome afresh the Holy Spirit, the Divine Love in Person. Just as the Father knows us eternally in his Word, so he loves us eternally in their Spirit. 10 Out of that Love, by that Love, the Word took flesh. He dwelt among us full of that Grace and Loyalty, “and from his fulness have we all received.” 11
The Angel’s Salutation resonates in the Liturgy. At the beginning of Mass the celebrant greets the people: Dominus vobiscum, “The Lord [be] with you.” 12 We are gathered in Jesus’ Name, hence he is present in our midst. 13 Before reading the Gospel, the deacon repeats Dominus vobiscum. For in the words of the Gospel the Father’s Word continues to speak to us, salute us, attune us to his meaning. At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer the celebrant again says, “The Lord be with you.” Jesus comes to us beneath the appearances of bread and wine, as he promised. We commemorate his Sacrifice, praying to receive afresh the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the Gift whom that Sacrifice won for us. 14 Finally, having received the Holy Eucharist, we are sent out with the prayer Dominus vobiscum, “The Lord be with you,” sent out to live by the Gospel we have heard, to imitate the Sacrifice we have been drawn into, to be what we have received, to obey the commission, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” 15 The Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary that Christ be formed in her, has overshadowed our Altar that Christ be present in our midst, and has overshadowed us to form us more perfectly into Christ’s Body. We are charged and empowered to be Christ’s Body in the world, to be, each of us in his or her own way, God’s salutation to those we encounter.
When we greet people, let us let us ask the grace to see them as God’s own relatives: that dear to God, hence dear to us. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to overshadow our conversation, that we may speak peace to each other, may be occasions of strengthening each other in our true vocations. When we say “good bye” let us recall that it means, “God be with you,” and make the words an implicit prayer that the Triune God abide with those we have met, to bless and to guide them on their journey of faith and discovery. So shall the joy of Mary’s Salutation overflow into the fabric of our human life, and it will be not only part of our landscape and time-scape, but also part of our “life-scape.”