Few New Testament stories are more familiar than the one we just heard [Luke 1:26-38]. 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 remember the Annunciation.
There is a famous, if somewhat fanciful, homily on the Annunciation by the great 12th-century Cistercian Abbot and Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his homily, Bernard imagines Mary pondering how to respond to the angel, and addresses her directly 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, the whole of your race. Bernard goes on as if he were giving Mary much needed advice: 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. … Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.
Bernard’s style is fanciful, of course, coming as it does from an era which was much more imaginative than our modern rationalistic and technocratic time. Still it captures something very important about the story. As Pope Benedict XVI summed it up in his 2012 book on the subject: God knocks at Mary’s door, He needs human freedom. … His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being. [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy narratives, 2012, p. 37].
In other words, God stands ready to come to us. He is ready and willing to save us from ourselves. But we have something to do too. We have to get on board with God’s plan. We have to 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. Traditionally, we have understood this in terms of the special connection that exists between Mary and the Church. As one of Saint Bernard’s contemporaries, Blessed Isaac of Stella, expressed it: In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful… 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.”
I often like to say that Advent is not a play. We’re not pretending Jesus hasn’t been born yet and waiting to be surprised on Christmas morning, as if Jesus were Santa Claus. Well, Christmas isn’t a play either. Of course, Christmas commemorates something very important that happened a long time ago, which we remember each year with great joy and gratitude to God. But, if we just confine Christmas to a long time ago, then we will have missed the point 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 [EG 287].
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 21, 2014.