by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. Behold, you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” Mary said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Luke 1, 26-38
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1, 67-79

Though there is a five-day gap between the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas, if we are not careful, the frenzied activity so often associated with Christmas can end up crowding out any serious reflection on the readings we are offered for both those days.

The focus of the gospel-reading for the last Sunday of Advent is the encounter that Mary had with the angel Gabriel (in Aramaic and Hebrew Gabriel means God is my strength). In the Scripture, a visit from an angel was a frightening experience that left the person who received the visit with a degree of ongoing disturbance and many questions. Earlier in this first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, there is an account of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel in the Temple. Zechariah knew that his wife Elizabeth was well beyond her child-bearing years, and was, in fact, sterile. Incredulous at the news of Elizabeth’s unexpected and miraculous pregnancy, Zechariah dared to ask: “How can this be? Do you really expect me to believe this? I’m an old man, and my wife is an old woman” (cf Luke 1, 18). For his trouble, Zechariah was reprimanded by Gabriel and left unable to speak until his son was born.

I wonder why it was that, when Gabriel brought good news to Mary, her question “How can this be?” was received differently. Did Gabriel take into account her tender years and lack of experience? Was there sincerity underneath her question and cynicism or sarcasm underneath Zechariah’s? Was it the kind of question that carried a mixture of fear, courage and trust? We all know, from our experience of having to face challenges and difficult decisions, that some of our questions hold a tension between doubt and trust, allowing us to say to ourselves and others: “I have my fears and doubts, but I’ll take the risk.”

It’s really important, I suggest, to look carefully at Gabriel’s response to Mary’s “How?”. The angel did not give her a roadmap or a detailed strategic plan. But she was given an assurance that she would be guided by God’s Spirit as her life unfolded: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you” (Luke 1, 35). What unfolded was no life of ease. She and Joseph undoubtedly had to contend with village gossip, and then, with a birth that took place in a shed which offered a food bin for cattle as a crib. Moreover, there was an enforced journey to a foreign country to escape the violence of a blood-thirsty king. And that was only the beginning. Still, Mary held firm to Gabriel’s reassurance that God’s Spirit would not desert her, as she and Joseph were left to make an endless succession of difficult decisions.

My thoughts these past weeks have turned to every mother and father who have welcomed a new-born into their lives. Their fears have surely been heightened by the threat to their child coming from the lurking presence of Covid 19. Yet the birth of every child is a statement of protest, of new life to a world that looks as though it is dying. The parents of these new-borns have a right to ask God in faith: “How will our child survive?” Even if an answer does not come to them in black and white, they know that God’s Spirit is ever at work in our world and that God will help them, as the Spirit guided Mary, to find the necessary tenacity, courage and strength to make their way through whatever happens.

As we turn our attention to Christmas, I am reminded of an invitation I once received to join a parish community in Canada as they celebrated the Christmas Vigil Mass in a local farmer’s barn, surrounded by sheep, cows, chickens and the farmyard dogs. It was an attempt to get a feel for the circumstances in which Jesus came into our world. In his homily, the presiding priest referred to a legend that survives in some parts of Canada, and speaks of how, at midnight on Christmas Eve, a spirit of peace comes down on the world and encompasses it so powerfully that even farmyard animals and wild deer and bears fall to their knees in adoration of the child born to Mary. Perhaps that legend either inspired Shakespeare or was derived from words he put into the mouth of Marcellus as he conversed with Horatio and Barnado in Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet, after they had encountered the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The ghost disappeared at the sound of a rooster crowing:

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawn singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed, and so gracious, is that time.

Hamlet, Act 1, Sc.1, lines 159-166

Every culture generates legends and myths around the very significant events in its history. The various people of the world have developed their particular cultures, and groups within those cultures grow their sub-cultures. The scouting movement has its distinctive sub-culture. Churches and religious groups also develop their sub-cultures. The birth of Jesus was such a significant event for the world that almost every culture has generated its own legends around it. Matthew and Luke highlighted the birth of Jesus with stories of extraordinary happenings. They gave us angel choirs, shepherds as the first witnesses of Jesus’ birth, and magi who followed a star from the East. Their stories have been the inspiration of countless Christmas carols from all over the world. It matters little whether or not the stories they gave us were based on historical fact. Their message was that the birth of Jesus was the result of Divine intervention, and that Jesus, though human like us, would have an impact on the world like no other, before or after him.

As we celebrate the birth of God among us in the person of Jesus, our celebrations will be empty unless we in our turn become agents of peace and justice, of tolerance and encouragement, of forgiveness, hope and light for everyone we encounter. We send to one another at Christmas all manner of generous, loving and caring messages. Those messages will be meaningless unless we walk our talk and bring it to life in our actions and relating.