Standing in the middle of the present day Israeli city of Nazareth in Galilee is the mammoth basilica of the Annunciation. It is built around what is believed to be the cave and dwelling of Mary, mother of Jesus. This cave commemorates the place where Mary received the message from the angel Gabriel that she would "conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus" (Luke 1:31).
A small inscription found on the altar in this grotto-like room at the heart of the basilica reads "Verbum caro hic factum est" (Here the word became flesh).
The Gospel story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) presents the great heroine of the Christmas stories -- Mary of Nazareth -- the willing link between humanity and God.
Mary received and welcomed God's word in the fullest sense. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus' life and "pondered it" in her heart (Lk. 2:19). It was only on a Friday afternoon at Calvary, 33 years later, that she would experience the full responsibility that had come with her "yes."
Recently, Mary has made a comeback in the mainstream media. Publications from Time magazine to Christianity Today have discovered that Mary, mother of the Lord, is not the sole possession of Catholics any longer. Indeed, Mary is experiencing much popularity among Protestants, Evangelical Christians, Baptists and many other Christian groups.
While Mary is clearly a central person of the Christian tradition, what is less known is the important role she has in Islam. She is "Maryam" in the Koran, mother of Jesus, the most righteous woman to have ever been created.
NAMED IN KORAN
The Koran also has verses on the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity. Mary is mentioned in the Koran more than any other woman. She is so respected that she has a whole chapter (19) in the Koran named after her. The Prophet Mohammed said of her: "Many men reached the level of perfection, but no women reached such a level, except Mary, the daughter of Imran ..." (Bukhari 4.643).
One of the ways Catholics show their love, respect, and reverence toward Mary is by giving her many titles.
Here are some of the titles recently given to Mary in a contemporary litany: "Model of strength; model of gentleness; model of trust; mother of the liberator; mother of a political prisoner; unwed mother; mother of the condemned; mother of the executed criminal; oppressed woman; liberator of the oppressed; marginalized woman; comforter of the afflicted; sign of contradiction; political refugee."
These are hardly titles of some remote, plaster figure, but concrete expressions about people and situations in the real world. For that reason Mary's life and journey speak to so many people today.
The inscription on the altar of the grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth is a powerful invitation during Advent. Could such words be applied to our own lives? Do we know how to listen to God's Word, meditate upon it and live it each day? Are we hopeful, loving, inclusive and inviting in our discourse?
What powerful words to be said about Christians -- that their words have become flesh!