Longing is the heartbeat of Scripture. Echoes of the cry, “Ad-anah, Adonai?” (“How long, O Lord?”) appear on the lips of kings and prophets, apostles and visionaries, Jews and Christians—individuals from every generation of God’s people. Sometimes their cry was personal: “How long must I carry sorrow in my soul?” (Ps 13:3). Sometimes the cry was social: “How long, O Lord...for the wicked surround the just; this is why justice comes forth perverted” (Hab 1:4). Sometimes it was apocalyptic, “How long, O Sovereign Lord, before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10).
One should never forget that this yearning lies behind so many biblical texts. It colors the passages we read today. The author of the first reading and of the responsorial psalm, writing at a time when David’s house had fallen, reminds Israel (and perhaps Israel’s God as well) of an ancient promise: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever.” During a time of conquest and exile, these words kept alive a spark of desire in Israel’s heart, a spark that grew into the brilliance of second-temple Judaism and messianic expectation. St. Paul, concluding his letter to the Jewish-Christian community in Rome, reminds them how long they had waited for God to reveal the “mystery kept secret for long ages,” which was now to be made known throughout the world.
This same longing influenced Palestinian Judaism in the time of Jesus. He and his mother would have encountered it not just explicitly in their daily prayers, but implicitly in the social anxiety, economic uncertainty, civil unrest and cultural antagonism of Jewish life under Roman rule. Jesus and his mother, along with their family and neighbors, felt a yearning for God’s saving action that might be difficult to understand today.
The ancient religion of Israel had splintered, however, and the fulfillment of this yearning was a matter of great disagreement. Sadducees, Samaritans, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots each longed for a different future and awaited a different salvation. Most people were not allied with any of these parties and heard only confusion in these discordant voices. Everyone was aware of wanting something, but most did not know what to want.
Mary somehow could still sift through the noise and hear the voice of God. She recognized intuitively that God’s longed-for salvation was beginning and that she would have a mission in its fulfillment. Her famous question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” is more about clarity than confidence: How exactly is God going to get this done? At some point in this dialogue, Mary realized that Gabriel’s message was what she had been praying for all her life. At that moment, divine grace led her mind to understand that a mysterious and illicit pregnancy was the fulfillment of her prayers.
We too must be equally ready for an answer to our prayers. Whether we pray for ourselves or for others, all of us have longings we bring to Christ. As we complete our journey to his crib, let us trust the same grace that enlightened Mary so that we can recognize the fulfillment of those prayers.