‘Shout for joy, daughter of Zion.’ (Zephaniah 3:14)
|"Annunciation" - John Collier|
One of the most common prayers is the “Hail Mary”. In its simplicity this prayer rehearses the angel’s greeting to Our Lady at the Annunciation; “Hail, Mary, full of Grace; the Lord is with you!”
Nowadays we consider the word “hail” as an old-fashioned greeting that was reserved in the past for addressing important people in a very formal way. For example, history records gladiators greeting the Roman Emperor before a deadly match with the words “Hail, Emperor, those about to die salute you”. But in the Biblical text Gabriel’s greeting to Our Lady has a different meaning. Yes, the Archangel greets the woman who will be Queen of All Angels with profound respect; but he doesn’t use the standard Jewish formula “Peace be with you”. Gabriel simply says to Mary, “Hail”, or in Greek “Chaire” – “Rejoice!” Both a greeting and an instruction.
At the Annunciation the Gospel portrays Mary as the representative of the entire people of God, as the ‘daughter of Zion’ and the ‘daughter of Jerusalem’ to which the prophet Zephaniah speaks in our first reading saying ‘Shout for joy, daughter of Zion.’ The word used by the angel is found here in Zephaniah; “chaire”, “Rejoice!” And so the Archangel says to her, “Rejoice, Mary, highly favoured one!” The Annunciation is the moment when the Zephaniah’s prophecy about rejoicing finds fulfilment. This is the moment when God enters creation, to take human flesh in the womb of Mary, to physically be in the midst of her – the daughter of Zion – and to dwell with the human race as God-with-us. Therefore, from this is the moment “rejoicing” spreads to the entire world. The words of Zephaniah, reinterpreted by Gabriel, is the first in a series of instances where the people of God are told to rejoice. “Chaire”, “Rejoice!”, features over 50 times in the New Testament. It reappears on Christmas Night when an angel tells the shepherds ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy’ (Luke 2:10); it is used by Jesus when, at the Last Supper, he says to the disciples ‘you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (John 16:22). The same word describes how the disciples felt after the resurrection of Jesus; they ‘rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (John 20:20). In our second reading, it forms the core of St Paul’s advice to the Church in Philippi. We read it as ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord’, but a more accurate translation says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And finally, here this morning, we gather for Mass and the Lord bids us to rejoice.
It could be said that with the Archangel’s greeting to Our Lady the story New Testament really begins and comes into its own; because from then on the expectations, the hopes, and the longings of the Old Testament and of all the people find their fulfilment in Our Lord Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact we could even say that this simple word sums up the meaning of the Gospel, the true meaning of Christmas, and ultimately the meaning of leading a Christian live.
What does it mean to be a Christian? To rejoice in the Lord; to be happy in the faith.
Why? Because we know Jesus; because he is God-with-us; and, as Zephaniah says, “The Lord, our King, is in our midst; so we have no more evil to fear.” This is why we rejoice.
O Jesus, living in Mary, Come and live in thy servants,
In the spirit of thy holiness, In the fullness of thy might,
In the truth of thy virtues, In the perfection of thy ways,
In the communion of thy mysteries.
Subdue every hostile powerIn thy spirit, for the glory of the Father. Amen.