Pope Francis visits the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square after vespers New Year's Eve 2015 in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. No one should know better than Mary, mother of the Lord, that God acts in astonishing ways. CNS photo/Paul Haring
Pope Francis visits the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square after vespers New Year's Eve 2015 in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. No one should know better than Mary, mother of the Lord, that God acts in astonishing ways. CNS photo/Paul Haring

By David Gibson | Catholic News Service

God is not reluctant to astonish people, it is said. That is a good thing, even when astonishing news briefly causes people to feel startled or confused -- amazed by one of life's unexpected developments.

No one should know better than Mary, mother of the Lord, that God acts in astonishing ways. Neither is it any wonder that the angel Gabriel, before announcing to Mary that she would bear "the Son of God," urged her not to be afraid (Lk 1:26-38).

The angel's presence signified God's nearness, but Mary might nonetheless have experienced a tinge of anxiety upon learning of the astonishing way her life was about to change course.

And who was she anyway? Did she wonder: "Me? Really?" Anyone receiving astonishing good news might wonder momentarily if some mistake was made, if this news possibly was meant for someone else.

"The Lord's gaze rested on her," Pope Francis said. In remarks during Advent of 2013 the pope recalled that Luke's Gospel "presents us with Mary, a girl from Nazareth, a small town in Galilee, in the outskirts of the Roman Empire and on the outskirts of Israel as well. A village. Yet the Lord's gaze rested on her."

Mary did "not hide her surprise" at the angel's astonishing news, Pope Francis commented in an October 2013 homily. Instead, she experienced "the astonishment of realizing that God, to become man, had chosen her, a simple maid of Nazareth."

God had not chosen someone living "in a palace amid power and riches, or one who had done extraordinary things, but simply someone who was open to God and put her trust in him, even without understanding everything."

God is like this, the pope made clear. "God surprises us." Moreover, "it is precisely in poverty, in weakness and in humility that he reveals himself and grants us his love."

The angel's message to Mary "threw her simple life in Nazareth into turmoil," the pope remarked. Astonishing developments in life have a way of doing that.

When news arrives that life is about to change in far-reaching ways -- maybe that a family soon will move to a new home a thousand miles away -- people immediately begin asking what steps to take next, which projects to set into motion first.

Many people tell of being astonished by life. Perhaps someone had a detailed plan for life but, rather unexpectedly and inexplicably, turned off course in ways that ultimately proved all to the good.

Some people encounter their own "angels" in the form of good people who deliver good news to them, whether through insightful, supportive words or the power of their example. This kind of "good news" can open people's eyes and enable them to see that they could take a different direction in life.

Decades later a person could be forgiven for wondering how it all happened -- how she wound up in a career that drew so greatly upon her finest talents, for example, or how he managed so brilliantly to marry just the right person.

Whatever such a person concludes, the message that God's ways are nothing short of astonishing is unlikely to ring false. Wasn't more than good luck at play?

God is a game changer. God's astonishing ways can change everything, which is what happened for Mary.

I owe the term "game changer" to Minnesota Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He used the term during his May 2016 installation as archbishop.

"Our God is indeed a God who surprises us with his love, sustains us with his love, challenges us with his love -- it's a love that changes everything," said the archbishop. "God's love is the game changer."

There could be a tendency to think God acted in a game-changing way in Mary's life that revealed little about how God acts in others' lives. But Pope Francis considers that conclusion off-track.

God rested his gaze on Mary, and God "rests his loving gaze on every man and every woman! By name and surname," Pope Francis insists.

The mystery of Mary, the "girl from Nazareth," is that she "is not estranged from us," Pope Francis explains. "She is not there and we over here," he says. "No, we are connected."

She is like us, too, in that the astonishing news she received from the angel "didn't make life asy for her," the pope points out.

Of course, even when the astonishing news anyone receives is all to the good, it makes big demands and sets a new chain of events into motion.

Pope Francis thinks a question to ask about the astonishing, transforming ways of God is "whether we are afraid of what God might ask or of what he does ask." In other words, "Do I let myself be surprised by God, as Mary was, or do I remain caught up in my own safety zone?"

In contemplating Mary, he wants believers to recognize their own destiny and "deepest vocation: to be loved, to be transformed by love."

Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.

Mary's pondering heart

By Maureen Pratt | Catholic News Service

Long before there were cellphone cameras, sophisticated webcams and social media platforms, there was Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her singularly wonderful heart.

From the moment an angel appeared before her and pronounced her "blessed," Mary neither boasted nor broadcast the miracles occurring to and around her. Instead, she "pondered" the angel's greeting (Lk 1:29) and "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Lk 2:19) in the stable at Bethlehem and later, on the way back to Nazareth after finding Jesus in the Temple among the teachers.

Hers was a still, but by no means shallow, capture of memories. Humble, quiet observance allowed the grace inherent in each miraculous moment to settle deeply and build, flooding her heart to the point of bubbling over in her lovingly eager "Magnificat," and igniting wisdom for not only her age, but ours as well.

Mary's profound humility might seem foreign to us today. When something remarkable happens to us, we are more inclined to immediately announce it than keep it to ourselves. How far such an announcement can travel! With technology's help, we can fling myriad pictures, posts, likes and tweets to the earth's farthest corners!

But a personal story that is sensationally framed and instantly public, however special to us, can become yet another morsel among many, a passing curiosity that fades as soon as the next one appears, leaving behind no lasting, profound impact. A too-acute need to post images and words can obscure our ability to find and cherish the graces that flow from the events and people in our lives.

Negative comments or lavish praise from others who consume our news can cloud true appreciation of our blessings. An eye trained too long on a camera lens can render us bystanders, not participants, in our very own lives.

Not so with Mary. Hers was complete and willing participation in God's plan. By pondering the miracles in her life, Mary allowed the treasures God brought her to dwell so deeply in her heart that her actions and words flowed directly from them.

With her humble pondering, those around her became participants, too, drawn completely to the divine presence that she fostered.

We are fast into a season when a festive round of activities jams our calendars and requires us to socialize. We smile for those ever-present cameras as we fumble for our own marvel of technology. Then comes the deluge of cards and e-cards, posts and tweets to send and receive.

But if we pause to ponder these and other events in our hearts, where no batteries are required, we can begin to experience the wisdom of Mary's actions.

I recently received an email from a stranger that touched my heart deeply. A few years ago, not understanding better, I might have immediately sent out a group email to announce it. This time, I replied to the sender, but otherwise kept the exchange to myself, tucking it into my heart.

As days passed, my appreciation and gratitude to the sender and to God for this blessing absolutely warmed my heart. When I did tell a friend about it, what bubbled up from within was clear and pure -- a marvelously free feeling that allowed me to gratefully and joyfully share very good news without inserting myself into the proverbial email reference line.

Mary's example of humility leads us away from the disconnect and self-absorption encouraged by shutterbugging, social media and an all-too-competitive world. Her steadfastness inspires us to persevere in our pursuit of quiet time for reflection, even at this most hectic of times.

Mary's heart, wonderful and wise, shows us the way to fully participate in the graces God gives and the wonders we have witnessed and those to come.

May your Advent be graced with light, and your Christmas bubble over with joy!

Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is www.maureenpratt.com.

Receiving the good news: Are we listening servants?

By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service

"For nothing will be impossible for God."

The words of the angel Gabriel, spoken to Mary in the Gospel of Luke (1:37), precede the most faith-filled response in all of Scripture: "May it be done to me according to your word."

It is a response echoed by Jesus himself, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, the night before he was crucified: "Not my will but yours be done" (Lk 22:42).

These responses -- linking the birth and resurrection of Our Lord -- model for us how we too are called to respond to God's word.

Throughout Scripture, we encounter numerous individuals who are addressed by God -- Noah and Moses often top the list -- and asked to do things that, at first glance, little or no sense. (An ark? A march across the Red Sea? Seriously?)

Then there is Samuel, the young minister serving under Eli, who heard his name being called in the middle of the night and, three times, went to Eli, announcing, "Here I am. You called me." Once Eli finally realized who was calling, he instructed Samuel how to reply, should this happen again: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Sm 3:9).

Which is another way of saying, "Be it done unto me." A message not everyone is ready to heed, no matter how good and faith-filled they may be.

Just before Gabriel tells Mary what is in store for her, he has another conversation with Zechariah, a priest and husband of Mary's cousin Elizabeth. This couple, we are told, is "righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly."

But when the angel tells Zechariah that, even though he and his wife are elderly and she has never been able to conceive, they will soon have a son -- a son, adds Gabriel, who "will be great in the sight of the Lord" (Lk 1:15) -- Zechariah is, understandably, stunned.

"How shall I know this?" he wonders, clearly not convinced.

That's not the answer Gabriel is looking for, and so Zechariah is rendered mute for months, until Elizabeth gives birth. "Immediately," we are told, "his mouth was opened, his tongue freed and he spoke blessing God" (Lk 1:64).

Mary, admittedly, was equally surprised when told she would conceive even though she was a virgin. Yet she willingly accepted what Gabriel told her. "I am the handmaid of the Lord," she replied (Lk :38).

Such humility and obedience to the call of God is the model for us all, whether or not angels appear before us with proclamations of tidings and joy.

Indeed, knowing what God has done for us -- specifically, the birth and resurrection of Jesus -- should help us understand and accept more fully the promise of Advent: that the risen Lord is present in our lives today and will return in glory.

Like Samuel, we are called to listen, to serve and to believe. For, as Gabriel declared, "nothing is impossible with God."

Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Watching a faith-filled film each week during Advent might help families enter more deeply into the season of preparation and expectation. The film "Mary of Nazareth," available on DVD, focuses on the life of Mary from her childhood until the passion and resurrection of her son, Jesus.

In May 2012 after a screening of the film, Pope Benedict XVI remarked that "it is not easy to character the figure of any mother, because the riches of the maternal life are difficult to describe, but this is even more challenging when it comes to the Mary of Nazareth, who is the mother of Jesus, the Son of God made man."

Mary's willingness to say yes to the Lord, the pope said, shows us how to order our lives. "Her faith and love are so great," the pope continued, "she accepts her part in his mission. Mary is saying, 'Here I am, Lord' from the annunciation to the cross."

The film is dedicated "to all mothers, whose life-giving, sacrificial love, like Mary, changes the world," but all members of the family will find in it an educational, inspiring and entertaining depiction of the Gospel stories. The occasional insertion of apocryphal interpretations may be good discussion starters for families seeking to go into deeper catechesis.