Few New Testament stories are more familiar than the one we just heard on this final day of Advent. Certainly, the Annunciation is one of the most portrayed scenes in the history of western art, and that tells you something right there! And, of course, every time we pray the Angelus or just recite the Hail Mary, we recall the Annunciation.
In a famous, if somewhat imaginative, homily on the Annunciation, the great 12th-century Cistercian Abbot and Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) imagined Mary pondering how to respond to the angel and advised her on behalf of the whole human race: Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. … This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet … for on your word depends comfort for the wretches, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the children of Adam ... Believe, Bernard continued, 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. … Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.
Bernard’s style was fanciful, of course, coming from an era that was much more imaginative than our modern rationalistic and technocratic time. Still it expresses something very important about the story. God really is ready to come to us. He is ready and willing to save us from ourselves. But we have to get on board with God’s plan and be willing to be saved. Hence the close connection between Mary’s response and that of each one of us over the course of one’s entire life.
Of course, the part played by Mary in the great drama we call the Incarnation was historically unique, something we remember every time we recite the Creed, when we say: For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
But what Mary did, she did on behalf of all of us. As one of Saint Bernard’s contemporaries, Blessed Isaac of Stella, expressed it: Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul.”
Today we have arrived at Advent’s end. Advent is not a play. We haven’t been pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born yet and waiting to be somehow surprised on Christmas morning, as if Jesus were Santa Claus. Christmas isn’t a play either. Of course, Christmas commemorates something very important that happened a long time ago, an event we remember each year with great joy and gratitude to God, not to mention cards and gifts and dinners and parties! But, if we just confine the Christmas story to something that happened a long time ago, then we will have missed the point of Christmas entirely. Christmas challenges each one of us here and now to respond - as Mary did - to bring the world back to life again by bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ. As Pope Francis has written: Mary let herself be guided by the Holy Spirit on a journey of faith toward a destiny of service and fruitfulness. Today we look to her and ask her to help us to proclaim the message of salvation to all and to enable new disciples to become evangelizers in turn [Evangelii Gaufium, 287].
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 24, 2027.