This is a free rendering of a Basque carol, ‘Birjina gaztettobat zegoen’, which Baring-Gould may have come across in his travels. It was published in one of a series of pamphlets entitled The University Carol Book in 1922.
The Angel Gabriel from heaven came, his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame; ‘All hail’, said he, ‘thou lowly maiden Mary, most highly favoured lady.’ Gloria!
‘For know, a blessèd mother thou shalt be, all generations laud and honour thee, thy son shall be Immanuel, by seers foretold; most highly favoured lady.’Gloria!
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, ‘To me be as it pleaseth God’, she said, ‘My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name’: most highly favoured lady. Gloria!
Of her, Immanuel, the Christ was born in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn, and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say, ‘Most highly favoured lady.’ Gloria!
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
The hymn, inspired by today’s passage, concludes each verse with Gabriel’s greeting and adds a gloria: “Most highly favoured lady, gloria!”. Gabriel pronounces Mary as blessed/favoured and bequeaths to the Church, in that “Ave”, an acclamation that has echoed across the centuries in worship and prayer. Mary’s blessedness has nothing to do with her own achievements; it is not of her own making but as she is with-Christ and in-Christ. She is to become Theotokos – God-bearer – and it is that awesome privilege (and scary responsibility) that makes others utter their “Ave”. Thereafter, in her company, first Elizabeth’s and then other hearts leap with joy.
Our denominational heritage has rarely offered anything resembling an “Ave” to Mary. The majority of our forebears might be proud to defend the claim they ensured none of their number were caught uttering one. Yet both Gabriel and Elizabeth did not share that conviction. It was with them that I stood, last May, in Walsingham listening toFr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household. He spoke in a way which our dissenting forebears could not have objected urging us to reflect on the Chinese wisdom that states that when we ask someone to point out the moon to us we do not look at their hand or arm but at the moon to which they point. Mary, he insisted, points us to Jesus. We stand with her – in particular beside the Cross of her Son – and, gazing upon him, know God’s sacrificial love.
Today, as we ponder the visit of Gabriel and remember Mary’s assent to God’s invitation to become Theotokos, may we look to the One she bears and be inspired afresh to pray her prayer – a prayer fit for the lips of anyone Walking the Way: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Even if, and when, that openness to God comes with the expectation of standing with the Crucified One.
God of the blessed, we magnify you!
Our lips hesitate in joining with Gabriel: “Ave Maria” does not come naturally to those of us whose spiritual heritage has made us cautious to venerate the one who bore the Christ-Child. Yet, today, we will say an “Ave”: Blessed is the ‘Theotokos’! Blessed is she among women, and blessed is the fruit of her womb! Blessed are all and any who are God-bearers – those in whose company we sense God’s presence. Blessed are all and any whose words and ways inspire us. Blessed are all and any whose lives point away from themselves and magnify God and goodness.
Our lips join with Mary – Theotokos: “Magnificat” does not always come naturally to those of us who are too easily tempted to focus on what we have done instead of what you can do and are doing through us. Yet, today, we will say a “Magnificat”: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. Thanks be to you, our God, for considering us worthy of your favour. Thanks be to you, our God, for every sign of your presence made real among the humble and lowly, the hungry and helpless. May the hearts of those whose pride is sustained by power and riches be touched by the One whose priceless mercy is made real in weakness.
Grant that we who are Theotokos – bearers of your love – may be sources of blessing to those we encounter and so find joy beyond measure. Amen.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke is Minister of The Crossing Church & Centre, Worksop & Wales Kiveton Methodist Church.