MATERIALLY A ‘GOLDEN AGE’
“To the people of the ancient Roman empire it may have seemed as if the establishment of the empire would bring to mankind a golden age in the history of man. From Parthia in the East to Britain in the West the power of Roman arms and the shrewdness of Roman diplomacy had brought that order in tranquillity which is peace. And with peace had come prosperity and culture.
EMPERORS WERE WORSHIPPED AS GODS
In accordance with the belief of the times the blessings of peace were attributed to the ruler, to the emperor of Rome. People were accustomed to consider the ruler as in some way descended from or related to the gods. In virtue of this close relationship to the gods the ruler was the source of all the prosperity of his people.
In such a climate of belief it was natural enough that both the people and the rulers themselves should regard a ruler as himself a god. The Ptolemies of Egypt held themselves as the direct descendants of the gods. Antiochus IV, of the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Palestine, had called himself Epiphanes, that is, ‘God manifested.’ The Roman emperors, from Augustus Caesar on, were worshipped as gods.
THEY BELIEVED THAT THE GODS WERE SMILING ON THEM
The vast extent of the Roman Empire, its enormous wealth, the clear rationality of its Hellenistic culture, the stabilising influence of Roman law, all these, combined with the popular belief in the divinity of the emperors, must have nourished in the minds of men the thought that the gods were smiling on mankind, the idea that God, or the gods, was with men, bringing in an era of beneficient peace.
OF DEEPER SIGNIFICANCE
In a sense the people of the Roman Empire were right, and in a sense they were wrong. Peace was being ushered into the world of men, but it was not simply the political and economic peace which they were consciously experiencing. God was with men, but the emperor was not the God in question. God was smiling upon men, but His smile was much more significant than they imagined.
THE ONE AND TRUE GOD WAS COMING THROUGH THE UNIVERSALLY DESPISED JEWS
Rome and its emperor and the peace and prosperity they brought were only secondary elements in the great drama of human history. Strangely enough, the peace of God and God Himself were coming to all men, not in Rome or in the person of the emperor, not through the most peaceful nor the most powerful elements of the empire, but through and in the Jews, the most turbulent and the most universally despised group within the empire.
THE PRINCE OF PEACE ARRIVES UNEXPECTEDLY
That the blessings of true peace would come to the world through the Jews was not, of course, an idea unfamiliar to the Jews themselves. Their faith in Jahweh had led them to. Expect it to come to pass. But to the Gentile world of the empire it would have seemed absurd. Yet this was God’s design, and it came to pass in the time of the Roman Empire. Moreover, it came to pass in a way that was surprising and unexpected both to Jews and to Gentiles alike. So surprising and so unexpected was it that the most startling reversal of roles in history took place; the Jews who had awaited it refused it, and the Gentiles who had not expected it ultimately accepted it.
A MOST STARTLING REVERSAL OF ROLES
It is this coming of God’s peace to all men which we must now examine in its historical circumstances. Its coming was in this wise.
A PIECE OF ‘UNBELIEVABLE’ NEWS
In the days of Herod the Great, King of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zachary. He was married to Elizabeth, also a descendant of Aaron. They were old and childless. One day while he was burning incense to Jahweh in the Temple at Jerusalem, an angel of God appeared to him and said: ‘Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard: and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son. And thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness: and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people’ (Luke 1:13-17).
JOHN THE BAPTIST’S FATHER DID NOT BELIEVE THE ANGEL
Because of the advanced age of himself and his wife, Zachary was loath to believe this. For his lack of faith the angel Gabriel struck him dumb until the birth of the child.
MEANWHILE, IN THE COUNTRYSIDE…
[THE FIRST JOYFUL MYSTERY: THE ANNUNCIATION]
Meanwhile, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy the angel Gabriel again appeared, this time to a virgin named Mary who was espoused to Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth, of the House of David. ‘Hail, full of grace,’ he said to her, ‘the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women… Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end’ (Luke 1:28-33).
A SIGNIFICANT QUESTION
Mary replied to Gabriel: ‘How shall this be done, because I know not man?’ (Luke 1:34). Now, since Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of King David, and so could in the natural course of events have expected to bear children who would be descendants of David, this question might seem very naïve. But we must remember that we are here concerned with a divine communication to a person apparently highly favoured by God, a virgin ‘full of grace,’ a virgin who is destined to be the mother of the ‘Son of the Most High.’ It would be naïve to suspect her of such childish naivete.
PIOUS VOWS OF VIRGINITY WERE NOT UNCOMMON AT THE TIME
It seems more likely, as theologians tell us, that Mary had made a vow of virginity and wished, if it were not against the will of God, to keep the vow. Hence her question really meant, ‘How shall this be done, since I have vowed not to know man?’
It is true that Mary was betrothed to Joseph and intended to marry him. We must, therefore, suppose that Joseph (perhaps in common with the ideas of the Essenes, a Jewish sect of that time) was of the same mind as Mary in this matter of virginity and intended to practise virginity with her in the married state.
GOD HAD NO INTENTION OF ASKING HER TO GIVE UP HER VOW
In his reply to Mary the angel Gabriel revealed to her that God had no intention of asking her to give up her vow of virginity. Instead God would bring her to conceive without the agency of any man: ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). Her child, then, is to have no father but God.
A DIVINE SIGN
Though Mary had asked for no divine sign that this mysterious conception and birth-giving might come to pass, nevertheless the angel gives her a sign: ‘And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren. Because no word shall be impossible with God’ (Luke 1:36-37).
At that moment there took place the most momentous free decision ever made by any human being. Mary, the virgin of Nazareth, consented to be the mother of the ‘Son of the Most High.’ ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord,’ she said, ‘be it done to me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).
EVERY JEWISH PERSON KNEW THE PROPHECIES ABOUT THE AWAITED MESSIAH
Whether or not Mary knew the complete identity of the Child Who became flesh in her womb at that moment, this much at least she must have realised, that He was the Messias, the Anointed One of Israel. Had not the angel told her to call her son Jesus, that is, Jahweh is a saviour? Had not the angel called him the ‘Son of the Most High’ and the ‘Son of God’? Had Gabriel not said that Jesus would inherit the throne of David His father? Had he not said that the reign of Jesus on the throne of David would be eternal? Who could this Jesus be but the Promised One of Israel? Might not Mary have thought at that moment of the words of Isaias [Isaiah]: “For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace. His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace. He shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom: to establish it and strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this’? (Isaias 9:6-7).
‘BLESSED ART THOU THAT HAST BELIEVED’
[THE SECOND JOYFUL MYSTERY: THE VISITATION]
The impression that something extraordinary, something marvellous is happening is strengthened by what follows after this mysterious interchange between God and the Virgin of Nazareth. Mary, moved no doubt by a concern for her aged cousin Elizabeth who, according to the words of Gabriel, was already six months with child, went with haste to the town of Juda in which her cousin lived. When she entered the house of Elizabeth, her cousin, filled with the spirit of God, cried out: ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb! And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord’ (Luke 1:42-44).
JOHN THE BAPTIST FELT JESUS CHRIST’S PRESENCE
Under the inspiration of God Elizabeth realised both that Mary was with child and that the child was, in some way, her Lord. Moreover, Elizabeth’s own child in the darkness and silence of her own womb felt himself in the presence of One Who would bring joy to the world, and so he stirred in exultation because of this wondrous presence.
THE MAGNIFICAT IS SPOKEN FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER
Mary, in her turn, was filled with the spirit of God and she spoke that wonderful acknowledgement of God’s design which the world has since known as the ‘Magnificat.’
‘My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his hand-maid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because he that is mighty hath done great things to me: and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation to generations, to them that fear him. He hath showed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy. And he spoke to our fathers: to Abraham and his seed forever’ (Luke 1:46-55).
In this paean of praise to God Mary manifests her understanding of the wonderful things which God is preparing for mankind. She knows that through her, God is in some way fulfilling the promises He made to Abraham and his seed forever. She knows, too, that God’s blessings come only to those who fear Him. She realises that God is so mighty that He will accomplish His designs through her own self, through the humility of her own child, in the face of the mighty ones of this human world.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959