by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Fourth Sunday of Advent

“God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. The angel had a message for a girl promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. The girl’s name was Mary…The angel said to her: ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour.’” Luke 1, 26-38

As a way of substantiating points they wanted to make, many of the writers of the books we find in the New Testament echoed events recorded in the Old Testament. For members of the early Christian community such references added credibility to what was being presented to them. In today’s gospel reading, Luke records that the angel Gabriel encouraged Mary by telling her that she had “won God’s favour” (Luke 1, 31). However, every Old Testament figure who had found favour with God ended up having to take on a very daunting commission, sometimes involving suffering, pain and humiliation.

In Genesis, for instance, we read that “Noah had found favour with God” (Genesis 6, 8). And we know the ordeal that Noah had to endure, and the isolation and loneliness that were his, as well as the domestic challenges he faced. Moses clearly appreciated the challeges he would have to face as a consequence of having been favoured by God, and asked God for clarification. He wasn’t fully satisfied with God’s assurance: “I know you by name, and you have won my favour”, so he persisted in asking for more clarity (see Genesis 33, 12-17). Gideon, equally concerned that God might be asking of him more than he could manage, responded: “If I have found favour in your sight, give me a sign that it is you who speak to me” (Judges 6, 17). Samuel, a miracle child, placed at an early age in the care of the priest Eli, became the prophet who anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. When Saul proved to be unequal to that task, Samuel had the difficult job of identifying and anointing the shepherd David as Saul’s successor. Before he was launched on that path, Samuel’s development was outlined: “Meanwhile, the boy Samuel went on growing in stature and in favour both with God and with men” (1 Samuel 2, 26). Clearly, he was being groomed for a big challenge. When we come to the New Testament, not only do we read how Mary was “favoured by God”, but we learn that “Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2, 52). We know only too well the price Jesus paid for “being favoured, and proceeding to challenge the political and religious establishment and by siding with the poor and oppressed.

While the focus of this fourth Sunday of Advent is on Mary, there is a marked contrast drawn between David in the first reading and Mary in the gospel reading from Luke. With his nation at peace, David had turned his attention to the building of a grand temple to serve as a permanent house for the Ark of the Covenant – a dwelling place for God. We need to bear in mind that the Ark had been located in a tent, carried by the Israelites for the duration of their forty years wandering in the desert between Egypt and Canaan.

Surely, it was not coincidental that Luke, in highlighting the significance of the incarnation (God taking flesh in the person of Jesus inside the womb of Mary), described that momentous event using the Greek word eskenoson, whose literal meaning is “pitched his tent”. Luke’s point is that God’s preference was (and still is) to find a home in the very ordinary – in Mary’s case, in the human flesh of an ordinary, unknown woman from a very obscure village in Galilee.

While there is a place for churches and shrines where we can gather as communities to recognise the role of God in our lives, the extraordinary message of the incarnation is that the divine dwelt within Mary and, even now, dwells within each of us, walking the world within our skin. That reality is recognized every time Religious communities of women and men assemble, facing one another, to pray in choir the hours of the Prayer of the Church. By facing one another, they acknowledge the presence of the divine in each other. Jesus is no more present in the tabernacle than he is in each of us.

What we now call the Annunciation has been a favourite subject for artists down through the centuries. However, I suggest that some of them have done us a disservice by sentimentalizing a happening which must have shaken Mary to the core.

In a sketch that he did not develop into a painting, Rembrandt captured the truth of Mary’s personal upheaval by depicting her as fainting with shock, and being prevented by the angel from falling to the floor. Megan Marlatt, a contemporary American artist, has painted a fresco of the Annunciation in the chapel of Rutgers University. It captures Mary’s turmoil by depicting the angel Gabriel appearing upside down, and speaking the word “blessed” backwards – a graphic way of stating that Mary’s life was, at that moment, turned upside down. Hearing that she “had found favour with God” seized her with fear. Yet she was still able to summon the courage and faith to consent to what was asked of her. It would not have taken her long to realize that she would become the centre of gossip among the people of her village, where everyone would have known everybody else’s business. While she was already “legally” married to Joseph, they were not yet living together. Though probably not well-educated, all those village people were still able to count to nine!

Yet, Mary still made a home in her body for the holy one of God. A similar invitation is extended to us. We, too, are invited to make space in our lives for Jesus, the Christ of God, even amidst confusion, doubt and fear. We, too, are assured by God that we can be instruments of blessing to one another and to our world, even though we are not sure as to how that will happen. We, too, are graced and favoured by God, and that is not always comfortable. The poet W. H. Auden reminded us of that when he wrote about the Christmas event:

Today the Unknown seeks the known;
What I am willed to ask, your own
Will has to answer; child, it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child who chooses you.

If we dare to make that choice, we and those we encounter will be blessed.

Christmas: The Birth of Jesus

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Luke 2, 15-20

“For today in the city of David a saviour has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2, 1-14

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Luke 2, 15-20

“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…”
John 1, 1-18

We are all well aware of how every culture creates stories to explain very important events and to commemorate very significant people. All the Gospel writers did that very thing to tell the story of Jesus and the extraordinary circumstances of his conception and birth. Matthew introduced his story by giving us the genealogy or family tree of Jesus. While there is considerable doubt about its historical accuracy, Jesus’ genealogy is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus’ birth was always in the mind of the God who created a world that would come to know true justice and peace. Matthew proceeded to give his version of how Jesus came to be born. Joseph has a central role in Matthew’s telling of the story.

Luke’s version of the same story puts the spotlight on Mary. He places Jesus’ birth squarely in the reign of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who was described in many Greek inscriptions as a god and saviour. Luke is at pains to point out that, during the reign of Augustus – an era often referred to as the pax romana, a time when peace prevailed throughout the entire Roman Empire, Jesus, the Messiah and Christ of God, the true Saviour of the world was born. Luke also notes that the announcement of Jesus’ birth was made first to shepherds, who were regarded as the dregs of Jewish society. This introduces a theme that runs throughout Luke’s Gospel: that God’s preference is for the poor and marginalized, and it was they who were the first to heed the message of Jesus and walk in his footsteps. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus herald’s the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the world. Matthew announces that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled – a prophecy that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son who is a descendant of David. Moreover that child is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Matthew and Luke provide the gospel passages that are proclaimed at the vigil, midnight and dawn Masses of Christmas. The gospel proclaimed on Christmas Day itself is taken from John, who announces that Jesus is the Word of God who ushers in a new creation, is the light that shines in the darkness, is God’s love personified and dwelling among us in human flesh. John’s language is not the concrete language of narrative and story-telling. It is the philosophical and theological language of concept and logical explanation.

Matthew and Luke give us stories peopled with shepherds, angels, magi and unwelcoming inn-keepers. John gives us abstract, theological explanation. And ever since then, almost every known culture has added its own stories and legends to illustrate how the birth of Jesus has impacted on our world and its peoples, and how love is the key to unlocking everything that prevents them from being their true selves. The Russian story of Babushka is one example:

Grandmother Babushka was about to retire for the night when there was a knock at her door. It was the Magi, who told her excitedly about the King born in Bethlehem. They urged her to go with them to honour him. She peeped out of her door at the fierce wind and snow, looked back at her warm bed, hesitated and said: “I will visit the Christ Child – tomorrow.” No sooner was she in bed than there was another knock at her door. This time it was the shepherds urging her to join them, but if not, at least to give them a basket of sweets to take to the Christ Child. Once again, she looked at the weather, back again at her bed, hesitated, and finally replied: “I’ll bring them myself – tomorrow.” The next day, Babushka was as good as her word. She packed some food and headed for Bethlehem. When she got there the stable was empty. Crestfallen, but determined, she started searching. And she searched for the rest of her life. On her endless journey, she encountered children everywhere she went. She came across many a manger and many a cradle, and found many mothers nursing their babies. She left gifts for every baby she met, hoping that one of them was the Christ Child. Eventually, she could go on no longer, and, near death, lay down to die. As she was dying, the Christ Child appeared to her, wearing the face of every child she had ever visited. And so, she died happily, knowing that, despite her first hesitation, she had encountered the Christ Child, not in the manger where she had expected him, but in every one of the poor children she had visited.

The Christ Child does not come to us alone. He has strange friends and hangers-on. He even has causes to embrace and things to be done. Despite all his love for us, he is uneasy if we fail to embrace all his friends and projects. When he grew up, he took a lot of people to heart, and suffered because of his love for them. He took them to heart in their pettiness, their brokenness and their isolation. Sometimes his heart looked more like a hospital emergency room than a treasure house. Without a doubt, his mother had taught him a thing or two along the way.

Christmas is a time for treasuring. Sometimes we get it back the front. We give gifts, not always as a sign that we treasure those to whom we give them, but as an alternative to letting them into our lives. If we dare to look around us, we will see others who reach out in welcome to street people and shut-ins, to the lonely and isolated, to sick children and to elderly people who are forgotten. Christmas is a time when these generous people shine, when they succeed where the stingy inn-keepers of our world are found wanting. Somehow, they have caught the spirit of God’s kindness and love. Unlike Santa, God does not ask if we have been good boys and girls. The true spirit of Christmas takes the risk of love – just as Mary did. When we come to realize this, we may well feel humbled. We may even doubt our capacity for generosity, for making a treasure room out of our barren stables.

The answer for us is born today.