As I have begun again to go through the Bible from start to finish, I find new insights along the way, even as I’ve read it all several times before. What is striking is the nature of faith in the people of Israel, going back to the Patriarch Abraham. What set Israel apart is their acceptance and belief in only One God. Early on, this was what is called “henotheism”, or, they only had one God, as opposed to the surrounding cultures which had multiple gods. It took awhile for the Hebrews to develop the understanding that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the only true God. The God who made everything had chosen Abram, and his descendants, as His special people.
Oddly, this choice of them as peculiarly His own came at a time in their history when the other part of God’s promise seemed to be broken, that they would inherit the land of Canaan in perpetuity. After the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, and then the consequent exile of Judah, the Hebrews needed to come to a deeper understanding of their relationship to God, and what it meant to be His people. Surprisingly, along with the realization that their God was the only true God also opened up the prophets to speak of Israel as a sign for all the nations, and indeed the vehicle by which He would reveal Himself more broadly. In the later prophets we have universal themes develop which bear this out, even if at the time it was not understood; indeed, it would not fully dawn upon them in fullness until Christ came, and sent the apostles out to all the nations.
But what is consistent throughout the history of the Hebrews, from Abraham on to the last of the prophets, is the nature of the faith. God remains unseen by human eyes, but still makes Himself present in various ways, as the letter to the Hebrews points out. How Abraham heard or knew God was speaking to him is really irrelevant. He had an awareness of God that led him to wander based upon a promise he heard, and to remain faithful even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such as the length of time it took for him to finally have the child of the promise.
This is what makes Abraham so great, that he remained faithful in the face of his trials. Somehow God would fulfill the promise, and that was enough for Abraham. The great heroes of the Old Testament are those who imitated Abraham in this consistency, not turning to other gods to solve their problems, be they hand-made idols, or nature gods, or whatever. The pure faith that gave strength was in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Consider David. Though he sinned mightily by committing adultery and murder, and then sinned by numbering the people, he never sought help from other gods. He was simply a real man who sinned, and repented. His son Solomon, however, was not so faithful, and by worshipping other gods, to whom his many wives introduced him, he was a cause of the splitting of the kingdom in twain, and the subsequent evils that afflicted the Israelites for centuries.
This brings us to the one who exhibited the greatest faith the world has ever known, or will ever know: that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Steeped in the faith tradition of her people, she knew the prophecies, and was certainly attuned to God’s directions her whole life. Though possibly (from tradition with a small “t”) she was a member of the priestly tribe, or certainly related to it (hence, Elizabeth, her kinswoman, being married to Zechariah, a priest), her faith was not centered on the Temple once she was older, for she lived, after all, in Nazareth by the time the Annunciation took place. Yet she had that awareness of God’s care for her, and knew her obligation to be faithful to Him.
It was this faith that enabled her to be open to the message of the angel, and to believe what she heard. It’s important to note that her question to the angel Gabriel was not “how can this be”, implying a bit of doubt, but “how will this be. . . since I do not know man.” This indicates that she knew God could enable her to conceive, but since she was dedicated to virginity, she needed more information. I propose that she was, in a way, testing the spirit of the angel to make sure that her divinely inspired vow of virginity was not going to be at stake. Somewhere Saint Ambrose makes this point in other verbiage.
Once apprised of the protection of her virginity, she opens herself, and her womb, to the working of the Holy Spirit, and the rest, as they say is history, so to speak.
And on that note, since the proof is in the pudding, isn’t it interesting that a shepherd from the Podunk area of Mesopotamia who claimed to have been called by God, and that God had promised him descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore, indeed became the Patriarch of billions who trace their religious life back to him? One surely cannot claim that this faith took off through force of arms, since conversions were not sought by the Israelites (not really anyway), and so much of the history of the Hebrews was very much under persecution and exile. Even the Church sought conversions through witness, and not force (even if at certain times there have been forced conversions, but always contrary to Church teaching). Nevertheless, what Abraham believed, in a loving God Who would fulfill His promises and provide protection to that end, is still the center of the Judeo-Christian religious system.
It’s funny when talking with atheists who like to note that there are “thousands of gods” and “which one do you choose”, since the obvious answer is: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Who became a man in Jesus Christ to save us.
Which brings us back to the Blessed Mother. . . Abraham had his faith tested when God asked him to offer up Isaac, and act that was designed not for God’s knowledge, but for Abraham’s sake, to bring his faith to perfection. (As an aside, this story was also kept alive in the mind of the Hebrews to tell them that human sacrifice was not on God’s wish list.). Mary received word that she would conceive and bear a son, without knowledge of man. It happened, and Jesus was born. She was also told that her Son would have an eternal kingdom, yet on the cross, that seemed to be a lie. She, like Abraham her father in faith, was tested, and even moreso. The beauty of the faith of the Virgin Mary is that she continued to believe as she held the corpse of her Son in her arms at the foot of the cross. The Annunciation is bound to the mystery of the cross as much as any other event in her life. As Abraham continued to believe that “God Himself will provide a lamb”, so the Virgin Mary believed that the cross was not the end, but the new beginning of her Son’s eternal kingdom.