4th Sunday of Advent 2011

When a Gospel text is very familiar, we have to put forth extra effort to be attentive and not tune it out. How well we all know the account of the Angel delivering God’s message to the Virgin Mary. How many times have we all used the Angel’s words in our own prayer: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Precisely because we are so familiar with this Gospel, we need to stop ourselves from glazing over it and really meditate upon it with attention and devotion; the Church gives us this Gospel on this, the last Sunday of Advent, in order to stir up in our hearts joyful longing for the coming of Our Savior. The Church puts Our Blessed Mother before us in the Gospel today as a model of that joyful expectation that we are all to have.

It is easy for us to take for granted the way that the account goes: Mary says “May it be done to me according to your word” and the Eternal Son of God became one of us, in order to redeem us by His death and Resurrection. We know the way that the Gospel ends, and therefore we don’t always pay much attention to the details. Let us take a few minutes to really reflect upon this Gospel passage.

The Angel Gabrielle was sent by Almighty God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth. The word “Angel” means: “messenger”. Angels are pure spirits: they do not have material bodies: they can appear in a material form in order for them to convey their message to human beings, but Angels are purely spiritual beings. Gabrielle is known as an “Archangel”: an Archangel simply means an Angel (a “messenger”) with a very important message. Gabrielle is known as an “Archangel” because of the importance of the message delivered: in fact this is the most important of all messages for the human race: the Redeemer of the entire world, the Savior promised from the very beginning is about to come to earth. To us, this message is old news; that was not the case with Mary. When the Angel Gabrielle brought this message to Mary, she had no idea she was to be the Mother of the Eternal Son of God. All of the Old Testament looked for the coming of the Savior; all of the people awaited the One Who would come and set us free from sin and death. We can at times take His coming for granted, up until the time that the Angel spoke the words of today’s Gospel to her, Mary waited and longed for and prayed for the coming of the Redeemer, not knowing that her prayer and her desire would be fulfilled in her Holy Child. What must have been going on in Mary’s mind and in her heart while the Angel was delivering his message? Imagine the joy that Mary must have felt: at long last the Savior was to be born into the world; at long last the slavery to sin that had been the lot of the human race since Adam, was about to come to an end. The One Who would crush the head of the ancient serpent was coming into the world. Imagine the great hope that must have filled Mary’s heart as the Angel placed God’s message before her.

The message itself reveals much about Our Blessed Mother: remember that this Archangel is not bringing his own message: Angels deliver messages from Almighty God. God greeted Mary through the voice of the Angel Gabrielle and greeted her as “Full of Grace.” The original Greek word for “fullness” used there implies that Mary is already full of grace when the Angel greets her, and the tense of the Greek verb implies a constant and on going state or condition. The Angel also tells Mary that the Lord is with her; even before Mary conceived the Eternal Son of God made Man in her womb, the Lord is with her; and she has found favor with God. These lines of the Angel’s message speak to us of Mary’s holiness even before she conceived. Earlier this month we celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception: this Solemnity celebrates the fact that God preserved Mary from all stain of sin right from the very moment of her conception. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the official Teachings of the Catholic Church that many non-Catholic Christians have a hard time with, yet it only makes sense if we stop and think about it. If you were all-powerful, and all-knowing (as God is) and you had the opportunity to create your own mother . . . would you not make her perfect in every way? Would you not make your mother beautiful and virtuous and free of all imperfection? If we, who are so limited and imperfect, would give such gifts to our mothers if we could, why wouldn’t the Eternal Son of God make His earthly Mother free from all sin right from the first instant of her existence? The Church Teaches that He did and this Teaching is in continuity with the earliest writers in Christianity.

Another aspect of this Gospel that we can easily take for granted is Mary’s response: her “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Mary was free from sin from the first moment of her existence, which is to say right from her conception in the womb of her mother, but she still had a free will. Sometimes people ask: if Mary was without sin, could she really have chosen differently than she did? The answer to that question is: yes. She was created without sin, just as Adam and Eve were and although they were also created sinless, they abused their free will and turned away from God in sin. Mary received extraordinary graces and gifts from the Lord, but she really and truly cooperated with Him in bringing about our redemption. St. Bernard of Clairvaux has a beautiful passage in which he meditates upon the Angel awaiting Mary’s reply to the message he had just delivered. I would like to conclude by sharing part of Saint Bernard’s meditation with you. He writes: “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life. Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive . . . Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.”