Fr. Denis G. Wilde, OSA, Associate Director
Preached at St Polycarp Church, Smyrna, Delaware
The Preface of the Mass for the Feast of the Annunciation contains these particular statements:
He came to save mankind by becoming a man himself
The Virgin Mary receiving the angel’s message in faith
Conceived by the power of the Spirit
And bore your Son in purest love.
In Christ the eternal truth, your promise to Israel came true.
In Christ the hope of all peoples,
Man’s hope was realized beyond all expectation…..
Preface of the Feast of the Annunciation
In His eternal plan, the intertwining of the Invisible God with the substance of human flesh mixes magnificently together in the mystery of this magnificent Feast of the Annunciation the Church celebrates today. An Angel brings news; a young teen listens, disposes and responds; the Holy Spirit confers a new life in the womb of the young lady, and God and man are brought together like never before!
The Annunciation equally proclaims and celebrates the mixture of pure love between the Trinity and the jewel of their eternal creative power: Mary virgin and mother. That Love breathed forth from the Father in His eternal Word embraces Mary through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, but reaches into perpetuity, across time and space, through empires that solidify, aggregate, exalt and crumble.
This Feast, arguably more than Christmas, changes the course of the planet. The reckoning of the Christian calendar was the focal point of the worldwide celebrations on New Year’s Day 2000, beautiful to recall. It drew all peoples together, and put aside wars and arguments for a day at least. All came together in celebration, however secular, from roots that pointed to the date of the coming of the Messiah 2000 years ago from which all the world calculates even today. One might add that New Year’s Day is the feast of the Mother of God, who draws her magnificent prime title from that first indwelling of the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, on this Feast, exactly nine months before Christmas when He became seen and saw the world about him.
It is a reminder of our own existence, nine months before our births, enough time to prepare all our organs early on, and the interplay of their carefully and intricately balanced functions, from humanly unperceived pregnancies of one cell containing all the information to drive forth with biological energy a lifetime of human unique persons – in you and me, and all that have ever lived, and all that will ever; all the way to the baby ready to let out its first cry in the new atmosphere of breath and air rather than watery wombs.
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us! St John tells us. Today it happens. But the world was of course first prepared, by prophets such as Isaiah, who relate the virgin with child as expressed in the Septuagint rendering; or “a young maid” as in the Hebrew version, the Church lending its insight and drawing upon the Old Testament reading to foretell the coming of Christ.
The Preface of today’s Mass inserts the particulars of the celebration:
He came to save mankind by becoming a man himself.
CS Lewis tries this perspective for us:
The Eternal Being, the Word of God, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, becase not only a man but a baby, and before that a fetus inside s Woman’s body… Think how you would like to become a slug or a crab… Now there was one man who really was what all men were intended to be: one man in whom the created life, derived from his Mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life. The natural human creature in Him was taken up fully into the divine Son. Thus in one instance humanity had, so to speak, arrived: had passed into the life of Christ.
Compare this wonderful transformative power of the Word of God on humanity, and all that St John and St Paul will elaborate on it, or Hebrews poising us towards God not as Adam tried it or the tower of Babel tottered – compare this with the modern Babel of stem cell destruction and playing God in the cloning laboratory, or the insistence of state funds out of your pockets to provide for more of the same…. Which is not proscribed in Delaware and other states. While the Incarnation, this blessed mixture of God’s divinity and alone Mary’s humanity in Christ the God-man, comes from this moment: Let it happen to me according to your word. Pope Benedict, in his reflections on this feast at Nazareth, observes: That downward movement of self-emptying love made possible the upward movement of exaltation in which we too are raised to share in the life of God himself (Phil 2: 6-11).
He came to save mankind by becoming a man himself.
The Virgin Mary, receiving the angel’s message in faith, the preface continues. God did not force this on Mary, through his angel. “How is this to be?” Mary asks. As Benedict continues: “God’s extraordinary courtesy” does not impose himself, he does not simply pre-determine the part that Mary will play in his plan for our salvation: he first seeks her consent. In the original Creation there was clearly no question of God seeking the consent of his creatures, but in this new Creation he does so! --- Would we not say that THIS is the real manifestation of CHOICE, of free will, not of a sad, battered and atrophied expression in the abortion market today, glamorized, even deified until it is experienced in its full deception after the choice has obliterated millions of unborn lives, and created mental havoc in the mothers and fathers closely associated with the death of their children under the banner of CHOICE?
God proposes and man – or in this case Woman - disposes. What an understatement. The Eternal Word received by the humble virgin, who remains virgin, though she is now Mother. That first conceived cell turns the world upside down in its destination. Hurtling away to devastation, now that conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of mother Mary changes the course of history. Yes there will be a Christmas and an Easter, a birth and a new birth, and all in between and lived out in the Body of Christ afterwards. But this moment is the beginning, it holds all promise of salvation now set in motion: God becomes man, and a woman, remaining a virgin, becomes his mother. And crabs and slugs can get quality! God-quality. The redirection to eternal heaven is made possible, salvation unfolds, physically, with God steering that pregnancy as he steers all others. Except that this one is the prototype. In a few days, or a week, Mary in haste will share the news with a more developed baby who will leap for joy. The wordless John greets the Word made flesh, again by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Elizabeth understands “Blessed are you among women.” Among mothers too. One baby recognized the other One immediately through the divine power afforded him and now Elizabeth. Jesus is redeemer in the womb already.
Conceived by the power of the Spirit. These precious words at the heart of the Creed said on this magnificent feast tell us how far we are from designing just how a baby comes about no how it develops more according to its needs than the mother’s design. Here, in this unique case, the power of the Holy Spirit, who already was vaguely alluded to as hovering over the waters of the firmament in Genesis, even before the first man, here hovers over the water of the womb, brings about a new creation, divine and human. This article of the Creed carefully fleshed out as it were in the Councils of the Early Church became one wrought in difficulty, contention and cruel exile. The virgin birth or just a part-time virgin birth? The divinity of Jesus or just a good and perfect man? Several centuries of exiling bishops, later vindicated and now heralded for their orthodoxy had forged this and related statements of our faith, that now when we bow or genuflect on this day and on Christmas at our communal profession of faith, we need to reflect as well both their meaning and their tenacious history: many have died for them.
The precious words do remind us that it was not only Mary’s “yes” but the working of the Holy Spirit in her that brought about this holy union, first of all between the eternal Word and human embryo; and next, the union of love between the Mother and the Son just conceived which will only grow as the baby Himself will grow.
The preface goes on to proclaim: He Bore your Son in purest love.
What was being contemplated in the mind and heart of Mary is beyond our capability. But it was the purest of love imaginable. Even so that love could and did grow, as love always does. The mother today grows in her love for her child even as she learns more or experiences more about her new one, moving at different stages to readiness to meet a world outside. Mary’s love was disposed as the fullest expectation of all the mothers and prophets that paved the way through the Jewish nation, already guided by God’s plan. She experienced not the whole nine yards, but the whole nine months, and all along the way noticed, as other mothers do, the changes. Though today the discovery of the physical dimension of pre-natal capability and complexity has uncovered a world well beyond the imagination of our simpler ancestors.
In Christ the eternal truth, your promise to Israel came true. This capsule from today’s Preface will play out in the explosively glorious Magnificat, Mary’s testament to her singular graces, mixed with her humble acclamation of God’s magnanimous love. She said these words only a short time after conception, in the presence of the one who would herald the Lord, John the Baptist. And they crescendo to her last words here: “as He promised to Abraham and his descendents forever.” God’s gift was not to be short-lived or even conditional. A mother’s response appropriately needs to be unconditional as well. In the culture of today, how far removed is this when it is about “wanted” or “unwanted” babies? When is the baby “unwanted” by someone? Our world needs to draw from the GIFT element in the fulfillment of God’s promise, freedom from shackling of sin caused by a choice to avoid him and his commandments. God is true on his word, even as his eternal Word is Truth itself. And now made flesh.
In Christ tbe hope of all peoples. Mary said that all generations will call her blessed, not to defer from her Son any of the due honor and praise that is his alone, but as a clear and honest appraisal of what God wanted for her, and her exquisite response in obedience to his promptings, and now her honor and pregnancy. She knows that her Son is that hope of all nations, and that observation is reinforced by Simeon in the Compline Nunc Dimittis: A light to the nations and the glory of his people Israel is this now newborn Child. In either case, before and after, Jesus is already redeeming and wants to reach out to all. But it is God who directs the pregnancy, the journeys to follow before and after birth, and the path that leads to the Cross and Resurrection. The hope is embodied in the Cross not in the escape from it, as so much of our culture dictates to do today. No wonder then that pregnancy is not connected with hope as it should be, but rather burden and an annoying diversion from one’s own pursuits.
Finally, the preface states Man’s hope was realized beyond all expectation. In this feast of Christ and Mary, it is the Divine that takes primary place over the human response, pure and obedient and humble as it is for Mary. Our world today needs to be given a good dose of hope when solutions to exterminate or throw away seem to be as good a solution for McDonald wrappers as for human beings. Pope Benedict again reflects on this: “The attention of all the choirs of angels was riveted on this spot, where a dialog took place that would launch a new and definitive chapter in world history. Mary said: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” And - beyond the expectation of human hope at least – And the Word, the eternal Word of the Father became flesh. He became one of us.
The Christmas Carol of Bethlehem says it mysteriously, humbly, triumphantly and simply:
And in the dark street shineth the everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
But it didn’t begin at Christmas. The music today is more aptly the Ave Maria and the response: Here I am Lord, I come to do your will, our responsorial psalm antiphon, which acclaims both Mary and Christ now made Flesh. Without this opening of the womb for the Divine Indwelling, that is the feast of the Annunciation, there would be no Christmas, no Holy Week and no Easter. As Mary gave obedience to the angel of the Lord, so too will her Son, even more strongly, give meaning to the words of the psalm and second reading from Hebrews: I have come to do your will. That is the most pleasing sacrifice to the Father, superseding the Old Testament slaughter of bulls and sheep he specifically commanded for that time. It is in the ongoing, common example of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, giving their wills to the Father, in such abandonment that out of which ironically real and lasting hope is born and given its greatest expression of grace. Mary’s “fiat” begets Christ; Christ’s “not as I will but yours” begets new life for us all through Calvary and the Resurrection.
Let us pray to recapture that hope which again motivates a world to return to the divine plan: to root its laws in the Decalogue, God’s commands; to respect and protect life from the first moment of conception to natural death; refrain from usurping his role in creation as in the blasphemy of genetic engineering which purports to bring about new life without God’s plan, a sort of Babel implicitly self-congratulatory at that; to return to respect the love of spouses, male and female in the bond of matrimony alone hopeful for a future; and not to thwart God’s plan of opportunity for that new hope by contracepting it thereby depriving precious sexual gifts of their intended purpose. All these are at the basis of His Will. Our future depends on it more than anything else, including short-sighted or long-range economy fixes, part of which it can be legitimately argued stems from the present corrosion of God’s most fundamental plan in a culture of death.
Then our hopes will rest in assurance rather than in passing fantasy and frolic or self-centered deception. In our country’s throw-away atmosphere, lethal and suicidal as it is becoming, we need the Feast of the Annunciation to set our hearts right and bring others to see a hope beyond all expectation fulfilled: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Let it be done to me according to your Word!
The wonder of it all is that this event is not over. Christ - once he came into the world never left it. He promised he would always be with us after he ascended into heaven. But when we come to the altar of the Eucharist we are reminded that the God Who sent his only Son to be with us in the Flesh does not leave us. He is always there and soon within us again, sacramentally, but fully human and Divine. He whom we hope to cast our eyes upon in eternity is no more the Divine Savior, the Father God, the fullness of the Holy Spirit than the Trinity present in the Eucharist, just as the mother who is pregnant carries a child we don’t see or even imagine at the earliest stage, but is fully human and a new person growing, unnoticed even by her before the pregnancy has been confirmed. We look at a guilden box called the tabernacle, meaning a tent – a tent St John alludes to in his Prologue – pitching his tent among us (eskenomen). He never took that tent down, nor left its indwelling. We know he is present though we don’t see him under what looks like bread. He is really present. Nor is the womb, however early inhabited, even as the first cell and embryonic microcosm, without the dignity of new miraculous unique human life, though the world about it, even the mother may not yet perceive it.
The Annunciation brings the mystery of the Eucharist into play and reminds us each year of the origins of the precious miracle of life. It urges us in both to recall and submit to our belief that God visits us with hope in new human life budding every second somewhere in the world, and in the Bread of Life, which is also consecrated and consumed every moment around the world, so that we may proclaim in charity what we hope for: Eternal Life.
Father, May your will be done according to your Word, Lord God… And the Word is made flesh and dwells among us… sweeping us even into eternity. Amen