In this beautiful homily for 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Father Hanly shows us how we, like Mary, are called to surrender our whole lives to God.
First Reading: Second Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
In case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas is here.
Christmas really begins with today’s Gospel, and it’s the lovely Gospel, the Gospel according to St Luke. And it has the angel Gabriel coming from God to a little town in Galilee called Nazareth, and to a little virgin girl, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen years old, betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
“All life begins with tenderness,” says the poet Péguy. And this passage of Scripture is full of kindness and tenderness and quiet and respect, not only from the angel, but from Mary and all the characters in it. And this is modest and quiet and lovely.
And yet what happens in this very short passage is so incredible that it will last to the end of time, and it will be the key and understanding of all history from all nations.
For this is the time when God Himself becomes man, takes on flesh, and a whole new understanding of our creator and Lord, a whole new understanding of who we are and what is expected of us, a whole new understanding of the meaning of life and the purpose of this crazy, sometimes full of turmoil, sometimes full of joy, life itself.
And who are the major characters?
A little girl, a teenage girl, and the whole world hangs on whether or not she will say yes, because God does not force her and Gabriel lets her know that it is up to her to say, “Yes, I will do this.”
The beginning that Gabriel …
Gabriel is an archangel and Gabriel is one of the four major archangels that appear throughout the Gospel. The word Gabriel means “the strong one” and he is very strong.
And Gabriel says to Mary,
“Hail, full of grace!”
Grace, as you know, the word grace is used all the time: “he graced me with his presence;” “full of grace.”
What does grace mean?
Basically, what grace means is God’s loving presence, so now we say, the angel says, “You are full of God’s loving presence.” The Lord is with you, not just with you because He’s your creator, He is with you because He loves you and fills you with His joyful acceptance of you.
It’s so sweet and yet so few words are used. And he is saying it because Mary is frightened to death. She was greatly troubled, Luke tells us, greatly troubled.
And why would she be greatly troubled?
She was only a teenager, she wasn’t married and, all of a sudden, in her quiet prayer in her quiet room, this comes to her and the angel appears to her. And she is all afear.
If you go to Florence, the home of all the wonderful artists and artwork of the Renaissance, many of the pictures of Mary are painted at the moment the angel tells her she is going to be the mother of the Messiah. And in every picture, her face is full of fear and she’s backing away. And it seems as if she would like to run and hide some place, because this is incredible, a thing that she doesn’t even totally understand what it is.
Then the angel says to her, “Mary, do not be afraid.” You all know those words. Jesus used them after the Resurrection. Every time he saw his disciples, every time he saw people backing away and confused and lost and feeling he was gone forever, the first words he would say, “Do not be afraid.”
And why is that?
Because, the truth be told, this world is run by fear. We are all walking very closely to the edge of fear, and most of the decisions we make are not made in the light of God and in the happiness of life, they’re made out of fear and of the tension that it brings.
And so the angel says quickly to her, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favour with God.”
Favour is another word for grace. Favour and grace means that you have found a special love. And that special love is given to you freely. And you have nothing to fear, for if you put your faith in God’s love, everything, whatever happens, will come out for you, and you will be able to carry on the burden that He will now lay upon you.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And, of course, these are the words that are the response to the first reading, when David starts off by telling his prophet Nathan that he intends to build the house of God. And now that everything has been settled down, he’s going to build a temple for God, until Nathan tells God what David has in mind and God comes back to him and He says, “You are going to build a house for me? I who have created you, I who have loved you, I who have put you in great honour here, and now you’re going to build a little house for me?”
And then David understands that the house that God builds for Himself will be the womb of Mary, because out of Mary’s womb will come the incarnate God, Jesus our Lord. And this will be the house that everyone from that time on will come. It will be the temple, the temple of God, the place of God will be in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.
Mary says, “But how can this be?” She’s not backing away from it now, but she is saying, “How is it possible, for I am not married, I do not have a man.”
Then the angel says those magic words,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
This is a marvellous and wonderful use of just short words to try to express and contain why we’re all sitting here, why we’re here today, getting ready for Christmas, and looking for all kinds of stuff that’s wonderful but also a lot of nonsense and a worry about so many things.
But this is the magic of Christmas. It is the magic of “God becomes man and dwells among us,” and “Do not be afraid.”
What is Mary going to answer?
She says very humbly,
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.
There’s a great lesson here. To reach the depths of relationship with God Himself, there is one thing absolutely essential that we all must understand: all God’s life begins with surrender, total and complete surrender.
And that’s why the angel is so gentle. He is asking her to forget all the dreams of a young girl, all the wonders of what is going to come, and he is saying, “Your future is bound up with the surrender of your whole life to God Himself.”
This is a great sacrifice. But she, being who she is, knows that there has been a greater sacrifice. And that greater sacrifice does not come from her, that greater sacrifice, that total giving of oneself and one’s future and everything in it, is going to be not hers alone, it is going to be her son’s. For the Son of God will become a little helpless crying baby infant and he will begin his long journey of learning and knowing what it is to be a human being, and he will have to give everything.
And how is he going to live?
Everyone will watch, because it is in his living of his human life that we will be healed and saved. And we will come to know what it means for God to sacrifice His own greatness and put Himself as a little child in the hands of a teenage mother, and begin to change the whole understanding of life for all ages and all times.
And what is that for us?
In one word, Christmas is the time when we ourselves become one with Jesus. His life becomes our life. And we, too, like Mary, we are called not just to take her as a hobby and take the Lord as a kind of weekend lark, every bit of us must give surrender to the little child in the manger.
And if we are able to do that – and we fail many times and we come back to it again, and fail again and come back to it again – it is in knowing Jesus, learning from Jesus how to live, that we learn things, not about how to get ahead or what to study or what place to go to school or etc, etc, but we learn how to feel compassion, forgiveness, love, caring, understanding.
And this is the great mystery of God: you have to surrender. Even God has to surrender in order that we might become people who can free form a new world, a world that is based on God’s love, our love, Mary’s love, the love of each and every one of us brought together to begin the journey to create the new world.
It’s a little bit too early to say Merry Christmas. But, for those who will not be here next week and have gone off to the many places you all go off to, may you have a holy, a happy, a forgiving, a lovely and, most of all, a feeling deep down inside that you are very precious.
Because God Himself was envious and He was not happy until He became as you have, a little child growing to adulthood, coping with life and becoming, truly, a human being.