Chapter Talk


The feast of Our Lady’s Nativity is a feast of beginnings.  St. Peter Damian calls it “the beginning of salvation, the origin of every feast, for the Mother of the Bridegroom is born.”  The Gospel for the feast is the beginning of the first chapter of St. Matthew, that is, the Genealogy of the Lord.  Near the beginning of the Genealogy, we find Abraham, and near the end, Mary.  Thus, Abraham, our father in the faith, points to Mary, our mother in the faith, the midpoint, who is both the end of the beginning and also the beginning of the new dispensation in Jesus Christ.  Tonight, I would like to trace resemblances and even parallels between Abraham and Mary, thus showing the continuity of the plan of salvation but also its radical newness in Our Lady. 


            Mary calls only one person by his proper name in the Gospels.  He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.  (Magnificat Lk 2:54-55)  God has spoken to Abraham and He had spoken to her at the Annunciation.  He had spoken to both, in effect, about the same thing: the Promise made to Israel.  They are thus connected, not merely by a physical but, more importantly, by a spiritual lineage.


The Promise is first made to Abraham in Gen. 12: I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  In Gen. Chapters 13 & 15, he is told that his descendants will be as innumerable as the grains of the dust of the earth or as the stars in the sky.  Again in Ch. 17 he is given the same promise of exceeding fruitfulness.  God’s blessing was, in fact, linked in the Jewish mind with fecundity; it was the sign of God’s favour and man’s sanctity.  To have progeny is to participate in the Promise, to build up the Covenant.  All comes from God, so that there is no sharp division between temporal and spiritual benefits.  They are all one for the pious Jew; and as if to underline his total dependence on God’s favour, it is the barren women, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel who are the forerunners of his vast posterity. Isaac is born not only of flesh and blood but of the will and promise of God.

Here we enter into the atmosphere of the Annunciation.  Mary, in a unique way, also conceives not of flesh and blood but wholly through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.  Although Sarah’s and Mary’s conceptions are qualitatively different, the parallels are striking.  Sarah’s husband, Abraham and Mary are, according to Scripture, both highly favoured by God, through their election and their response to their respective rôles.  “Abraham believed the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  “Rejoice”, says Gabriel to Mary, “ you who enjoy God’s favour”. 

            The election and the promise, however, are not without an aspect of awe.  “A great dread and a darkness fell on Abraham”, eliciting a word from God: “Fear not, Abram, for I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”.  Mary is likewise troubled at Gabriel’s saying and is reassured: “Do not be afraid, Mary, because you have found favour with God”.  Both question.  Abraham asks: “O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, for I continue childless” and, in connection with the Promised Land: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?” 

This makes a contrast as well as a parallel with Mary who questions simply: “How can this be since I know not man?”  Abraham seeks to hide his amusement at the idea; Mary is incapable of concealment or sophistication.  But both are aware of the human impossibility of what is about to happen and receive similar reassurance: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” says the Lord to Abraham.  “At the appointed time, I will return to you in the Spring and Sarah shall have a son”.  To Mary the precedent of Elizabeth’s conception is proposed: “For with God nothing will be impossible.” 

            There is no record of Abraham’s verbal assent; he is a man known mainly by his actions.  Although Mary is also a woman of few words, the scene of the Annunciation gives us her beautiful words of consent as the perfect, Christian prayer.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

Then there is the promise of perpetuity to both.  To Abraham God says: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant.”  And to Mary: “He – the child of the promise – will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  She herself echoes this promise in her Magnificat: “henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.”

To draw some general conclusions we might say that the paternity of the one prefigures the maternity of the other.  Abraham’s child is the first of a long chain of ancestors which will culminate in Mary’s Child.  Abraham’s act of faith in the Promise was, therefore, a high point in the history of our race, an act which Mary’s own act of faith does not replace but surpasses.  Abraham cannot know it, but in making his act of faith, he is entering into the mysterious design of God to send His own Son into the world in the fullness of time.  The true posterity of Abraham is thus Christ, Mary’s Child.  Abraham is given the Promised Land of Canaan; Mary is the way by which the kingdom of God comes to us.  He is the Father of a multitude through Isaac; she is the mother of Jesus, the one God-man who gathers into His mystical Body the Church, all those redeemed by His Blood, that is, the spiritual descendance of Abraham.

In all that has been said we note the obedience of faith of both Abraham and Mary.  We may distinguish three main occasions when Abraham’s faith and obedience were put to the test.  1) The departure from Ur at God’s command to go to a place as yet unknown, which makes him a perennial exile.   “Abraham knows that no one is waiting for him.  His homeland, henceforth, is faith.”  He does not so much assent to a set of truths as to a whole way of life.  This is even more true of Mary.  She may not ‘go out’ physically from her culture to possess a new land but she assents, more radically, to being possessed by the divine life.


            2)The delay in the fulfilment of the Promise is also a test of faith. Already an elderly man when he left Haran, he is serenely at God’s disposal through twenty-five long years of waiting.  As a centenarian, Genesis tells us, he will at last hold the child of the promise in his old hands.  In contrast, Mary as a young woman will hold in her hands the Ancient of Days.

            3)  In the sacrifice of Isaac, God tests Abraham at his deepest point.  Was not Isaac the sole hope of the posterity that God Himself desired?  Has God, then, changed His mind?  Must Abraham cut himself off not only from his past but also from his future?  In what has been called almost a ‘litanie de tendresse’, God says: ‘take your son, your only son, the son whom you love’ and go to the land of Moriah.  If Abraham’s faith falters here, it is not recorded, though the long mainly silent walk to Moriah of father and son is fraught with tension and foreboding.  He is not, as you know, required to make the ultimate sacrifice.  That remains for the eternal Father to do  with regard to His own Son, and Mary’s.  For “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”.  It is the measure of Mary’s greatness that He asks her to share in this sacrifice to a unique extent.  He asks her, in effect, to offer the Son in whom all the promises of the past were fulfilled; asks her to submit to the impossible a second time.  As Kierkegaard says, only God is greater than the impossible.  Abraham understood this first, that the gift of his son Isaac came from God and that he had no right in this gift.  Lucien Deiss again: “The child does not belong to the love of the parents but to God who blessed that love.  One receives it as a gift in faith and love; one gives it back to God with the same faith and love.”  This sense of gratuitousness must have been even stronger in Mary than in Abraham, for she had received her Son directly from God.  



As she stood at the foot of the Cross, she suffers with, offers with, her Son.  She gives Him back to the Father with faith and love.  In the glorification of Jesus that faith is vindicated, the faith St. Luke first shows us in the scene of the Annunciation, when she accepts in advance all that would be done to her and in her.  In this faith, rather than any physical descent, she is most truly the daughter of Abraham.  From her reference to him in her Magnificat, we may conclude that she had pondered long in her heart the deep-flowing river of continuity between her ancestor and herself.  Belonging in the midpoint between the beginning and the end-time, she concedes in humility that yes, in her, after long centuries of preparations, God had wrought His greatest work.  “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”  When we celebrate her birth tomorrow, we celebrate the whole plan of salvation from Abraham to Mary to Jesus and her central rôle within that plan as Mother of the Saviour.