The Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 24, 2017



With the arrival of Mary Sunday we have reached the third trimester of Advent. We began Advent looking to the Second Coming of our Lord.  On the two middle Sundays we heard the words of John the Baptizer proclaiming the coming Messiah.  Last week we heard John say that he must decrease that the Messiah may increase.  Today we hear again the story of the Annunciation.  It is the story that is read on March 25 at the Feast of the Annunciation, which liturgically is set nine months to the day from Christmas.  It happened like this.

In the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptizer, The archangel Gabriel was sent by God to Galilee to visit Mary, the fiancée of Joseph.  Tradition has it that Mary was at the well drawing water when he (Gabriel) first appeared to her.  She was so disturbed by his appearance that, abandoning her water jar, she went home.   Later he appeared to here again.  Most artists have depicted her in her home reading.

Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Ave, Hail, or as we would say, Hello.” Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”

She is troubled by his words and pondered what this might mean.  Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Let me say a few things about this passage.

  1. Angels are sometimes called God’s thoughts. They are everywhere but easy to overlook.  One must be sensitive to the greetings of angels. Tradition praises Mary as a model for dealing with angels, for her readiness to acknowledge the angel’s greeting, and of course for her willingness to embrace the fate announced by the angel.  Paintings show her in a contemplative mood, in her room, reading.  It would seem to take a degree of expectancy and intellectual preparedness to glimpse the angel when he appears.
  2. Mary is a model for dealing with angels because of her humility. “Humility is an important virtue of psychological life that allows things to happen, allows a world to exist beyond the one we know and understand. It is one of the most important psychological attitudes, required if we are to return to a life graced by angels.”  [Thomas Moore, The Angels]
  3. Word: St Bernard of Clairvaux speaks to the importance of words: “For God, word is the same as deed.  For God alone it is the same thing to do as to say.”  In Annunciation word is efficacious.
  4. “Overshadowed” This is a word full of Old Testament imagery. “The Spirit that comes upon Mary is closer to the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters before creation in Genesis 1:2.  The earth was void and without form when that Spirit appeared; just so Mary’s womb was a void until through the Spirit God filled with it with a child; but since Mary is a virgin who has not yet lived with her husband, there is no yearning for or human expectation of a child — it is the surprise of creation.  No longer are we dealing with human request and God’s generous fulfillment; this is God’s initiative going beyond anything man or woman has dreamed of.”  p. 314 Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah

The angel comes with a new idea.  Someone has said that God’s favorite practical joke in the Old Testament is old women getting pregnant.  Elizabeth, now pregnant with John the Baptizer, is the latest in a long line of Matriarchs, beginning with Sarah, who give birth after such conceiving should be impossible.

In western art we often see Mary wearing a red dress under a blue cloak.  The red symbolizes earth/humanity overshadowed symbolically by the blue of heaven/divinity.  Here God is doing a new thing.

 In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, The White Queen advises Alice to practice believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast.

Here God is doing an impossible new thing before breakfast.

What is that to us, we ask?

In his essay in the anthology, The Angels, [edited by Robert Sardello] Thomas Moore writes, “Annunciations happen every day in the plainest circumstances.  Religious festivals like the Annunciation always call to mind eternal happenings, forms and images that give structure and value to every life.  The Angel and the Virgin are always engaging in dialogue: the angel announcing some impossibility, the virgin taken aback, questioning, agreeing.  In this particular event the soul – virginal, patient, expectant, prepared, receptive, modest – begins to carry new life and personality, a child, as the paintings often show, miraculously fully formed from conception.  (Every time we use the word “concept,” an annunciation, probably hidden and forgotten, lies in its history.)

Here in the third trimester of Advent the angel announces the conception — pregnant moment of new life.

  • Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia “Wherever you go you must be pregnant with Christ. When a woman is with child, people recognize the life that is within her . . .. She is a witness to life.  She carries life around with her.”
  • Advent is about slowing down.
  • Advent is about watching
  • Advent is about waiting
  • Advent is about taking a wheel off
  • Advent is about decreasing, making room
  • Advent is about listening to the hello of the angel.
  • Advent is about accepting the new life announced by the angel
  • Advent is about preparing for new life.

As St. Basil the Great once said, “Annunciations are frequent; incarnations rare.”   Let us with Mary listen to the hellos of angels. For an angelic hello is a sign of grace now and always, that the Word will be born in us as well.



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