Fr Joseph Ellul, OP speaks at an interfaith gathering in Balzan, Malta

Fr Joseph Ellul, OP

Once again, the Christian and the Muslim communities in Balzan, Malta gathered for their annual interfaith meeting. Since the meeting is usually held before the feast of the Annunciation, they all gathered at the Balzan Parish on 10March 2017.

The narrative of the encounter between angel Gabriel and Mary is recorded both in the Holy Scriptures and in the Quran, this informed the focus of the meeting. There were two presentations; one from Imam Mohammed El Sadi and the other from Fr Joseph Ellul, OP.

This is the texts of fr Ellul’s presentation:

Mary, the Woman chosen by God

Some Thoughts on the Annunciation Narrative (Lk. 1:26-38)

It is always a pleasure to be among you on this annual occasion in which we celebrate an event that is recorded in both the Bible and the Qur’ân, and which serves as a bridge of solidarity among Christians and Muslims.

This evening I intend to focus my attention on the Annunciation narrative as portrayed in the Gospel according to Luke by applying the method common among mediaeval commentators of both the Bible and the Qur’ân, that is to say, a verse by verse commentary. This will lead us to reflect on those elements in this account that underline the mystery of God’s presence through this unique event.

In the sixth month

Here our attention is being drawn to the preceding account wherein Elizabeth, wife of Zachary, is expecting a child as had been promised by Gabriel to her husband (Lk. 1:24-25).

The angel Gabriel was sent from God

Although the entire passage is taken up with the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary, the main actor is God himself. He is the one who takes the initiative in calling Mary and entrusting her with a mission.

A city of Galilee named Nazareth

This place has hardly any historical, cultural, or social significance. Both the city and the region were regarded as ritually contaminated, given that its inhabitants were of mixed Jewish and Gentile (Greek or Roman) extraction. Indeed, Isaiah refers to the region as “Galilee of the nations” (Is. 9:1); the Gospel according to Matthew refers to the same text when it mentions the beginning of the mission of Jesus, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt. 4:15). Furthermore, in the Gospel according to John, when approached by Philip who declared that he had found “him of whom Moses and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth the son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45), Nathanael replied: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This skeptical reaction is hardly an enthusiastic endorsement!

A virgin betrothed to a man whose name is Joseph

The name Joseph means, “May Yahweh add”, whereas the name Mary means “Excellence”. Here Luke the Evangelist perceives the importance of noting that Joseph’s ancestor is David, as he is to become the legal father of Jesus.

In the Muslim narratives of the prophets (Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyā’) as well as in classical commentaries of the Qur’ân we find talk of Mary’s fiancé Joseph the carpenter (al-nağğār), who becomes as a husband to her (šibh al-zawğ).

“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”

“Hail”, is in the sense of “rejoice”. “Full of grace”: Mary was chosen to fulfill a mission. She is therefore the recipient of divine favour and blessings right from the moment that she was conceived. Divine favour is past, present, and future. It is not so much a title as it is a name that designates her role in fulfilling God’s plan, just as God renamed Abram as Abraham (Gn. 17:5) and Jesus renamed Simon as Peter (Jn. 1:42; Mt. 16:17-20). God will manifest his presence in her life just as he did with Abraham (Gn. 26:24) and with Moses (Ex. 3:11-12).

She was greatly troubled and considered in her mind…

The greeting of Gabriel was going to bring about a total transformation of her life. The implications of this encounter were awesome, to say the least.

Most paintings of the Annunciation portray Gabriel bringing the news to Mary while she is reading the Holy Scriptures, as if the artist is inviting us to understand that the text that lies in front of her is being fulfilled at the very same moment that she was listening to the message.

Her being “greatly troubled” is not a unique reaction. Great prophets such as Isaiah” (Is. 6:5) and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:6) shuddered at the thought of accepting the task that was laid before them.

The Gospel according to Luke frequently portrays Mary as a woman who is constantly engaged in contemplation of the mystery that will envelop her life. At the birth of Jesus, when the shepherds arrive and announce what they had heard and seen from the angels, Mary is said to have “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19). At the thanksgiving prayer of Simeon, during the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple, “his father and his mother marvelled at what was said about him” (Lk. 2:33). At the mysterious reply given to her bewildered reaction by her son Jesus following his being found in the Temple, Mary is said to have “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:51).

“Do not be afraid … you have found favour with God”

In one of his sermons, St Bernardine of Siena says that “whenever divine grace selects someone to receive a particular grace or some especially favoured position, all the gifts for this state are given to that person and enrich him abundantly” (Sermon 2, On St Joseph). He was referring here to Joseph, the spouse of Mary. But if this is true of him, it holds especially true of Mary who is being called to become the mother of him who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32). In fulfilling his role and mission as Messiah, Jesus will take up the role given by God to David and to his descendants. In the Second Book of Samuel, with reference to Solomon, God tells David: “I will be his father and he shall be my son” (2Sam. 7:14). Therefore, Jesus will bring the mission of his ancestors to its perfection. He is the one who will fulfill all that is written about him “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk. 24:44).

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary thus becomes servant, mother, and model disciple, the first and the greatest among them all.

Her faith, however, is not one of blind obedience. It is a faith that is engaged in a continuous dialogue with God; a faith that, in the words of St Anselm of Canterbury, seeks to understand (Proslogion, 1), but which remains open to the Divine Presence. Mary requires divine grace not only in order to accept her mission, but also in order to fulfill it right to the end. Indeed, Lumen Gentium states that Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate for such a role” (LG 56).

It is interesting to note that in the entire account of the Annunciation Mary is addressed by three names:

    1. Full of grace – a name given to her by God through Gabriel.
    2. Mary – the name given to her at birth by her parents and by which she is known to her townsfolk.
    3. Handmaid of the Lord – a name by which she addresses herself and, in doing so, she is defining her identity before God as well as her calling.

Mary freely accepts her new status and mission, both of which remain incomprehensible right to the end. It is precisely for this reason that we as Christians look toward Mary as Servant, as Mother, and as Model Disciple. She understands human need for maternal protection and compassion; both these elements lie at the heart of both the Biblical and the Qur’ânic traditions by way of the term rehem in the Bible, and rahma in the Qur’ân. Mary teaches us that faith is expressed in total openness and complete trust in God. Her self-impose title of “Handmaid of the Lord” (Amat al-Rabb in Arabic) stands for the synthesis of a life dedicated to God.

We are all called to emulate her attitude as we live out our own human experiences marked by frailty, sufferings and sorrows, but also by joys and hopes, and trusting in God who, having begun a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (see Phil. 1:6).


​(12 April 2017)