His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
When I was at school, we had several teachers who had been there for years and years. Whenever I met a former pupil, they would always ask if those teachers they remembered were still there. In particular, there were two teachers who people would always enquire about – both of them Latin teachers. In their own way, they were both highly memorable. One, who was also the Second Master, had a ferocious temper, and was renowned for exploding in anger at the slightest thing. His way of maintaining discipline in the school was to ensure that everyone feared him. He gained his respect through the fear that we all felt. Since we feared and respected him, we would not break the school rules. Of course, by the time we got to our mid-teens, we no longer really feared the teacher in question. Consequently, he lost much of his respect in the eyes of the older pupils.
Fear and respect are closely related, including in today’s reading. When Mary, who is speaking here, talks about fear, she means more than simply being afraid of God. We respected our teacher because we feared him. Mary’s use of the word ‘fear’ implies this respect, and the humble obedience to God that will follow as a consequence of this fear and respect. Whilst our respect for our Latin teacher declined as we ceased to fear him, our ‘fear’ for the Lord God is limitless. We began to realise that our Latin teacher’s anger was all an act as we grew older. In contrast, our fear of God will only increase as we realise the limitless potential he has. He is, after all, the creator of the universe!
Luckily for us, though, fear of the Lord is rewarded. Mary, who had previously been stating how she had been greatly blessed by God, now turns the spotlight off her, and onto us. She understands that God’s mercy, as demonstrated by the birth of her son, extends to all those who humbly obey him, as she has done. ‘From generation to generation’ indicates that God’s mercy does not simply extend to those who knew Jesus personally, but to all who have subsequently lived their lives according to his teachings, through the centuries.
Mary clearly grasped the great importance of Gabriel’s message, and the baby that she would bring into the world. At Christmas, the question is, do we? Do we fear the Lord? Do we humbly obey him, as Mary did? Or do we reject him through our words and deeds? The promise here is amazing. It’s certainly worth reflecting on.