The text for this Sunday (Advent 4) has to do with the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Obviously, with a story like that, Christmas is not too far off—but you did not need me to tell you that.
Instead of talking about the ‘meaning’ of Christmas, it might be more to the point to talk about the meaning of the angel’s greeting to Mary (Luke 1:28). Gabriel said, ‘Hail, having been graced one!’ In this sentence there are only two words in the original language, and the translation is quite literal, so we are obviously going to focus on the second word.
This greeting shakes up Mary in a significant way (again, a literal translation). What is so unusual is that the word, the noun, that we as Lutherans treat as very familiar, grace, is also found in a verb form.
I should say that this is EXTREMELY rare. To give you an idea about HOW rare, it appears one other time, in Ephesians 1:6. Once again, a literal translation gives it in this way: …for the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He graced us in the One having been loved….
In this use, the verb form flows from the noun. In much the same way, St. Paul starts his letters with the word ‘Grace’, and then ‘peace’ often follows soon after. This use of grace as a verb happened much earlier, it happened with a humble young woman, and it all started with God.
The word in the Old Testament has the idea of a favorable attitude that shows itself in actions. Unfortunately some people have gone in the wrong direction with this.
The ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer is largely based on this text from Luke 1, but unfortunately, in about the 15th century, it was added that Mary should pray for us. It was also added that Mary was immaculately conceived, and that was the way she was able to give birth to the Son of God. People unfortunately put themselves on thin ice (an appropriate illustration for this time of year) when they add to the Word of God something that is unsure.
Having grace as a verb come from an angel makes it really come from God. The messenger is never the important thing. It is a wonderful story to see that this verb turns into such a wonderful noun. And it is also a wonderful story to think that the word ‘gospel’, which in Luke only is given as a verb, finally is used as a noun at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7). That word has a long history, and it is important both as a noun and a verb.
The noun makes it concrete and sure. And that is what we have in Jesus.