The beautiful Gospel of the Annunciation, of the angel’s salutation to Mary and the announcement of the promised Saviour, echoes throughout Advent meditation. It is proclaimed for the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and will be the staple of many a carol service.
The late Fr Cormac Rigby, erstwhile Catholic Herald columnist of fond memory, was Radio 3’s chief announcer before becoming a priest. I remember him explaining how the role required him to read an identical news bulletin a dozen times a day. The more often you had to read it on air, he said, the more often you had to read it to yourself in-between. It would only sound coherent and vital to anyone listening if you yourself had continued to rehearse and reflect on its meaning and import. How much more so, then, he concluded, is this the case when proclaiming Scripture. The more familiar it is, the more you must meditate on it to proclaim it properly.
Georges Bernanos calls the Annunciation the drama of all dramas because its outcome defines the meaning of all human existence. In a beautiful mediation, St Bernard of Clairvaux presents it as the central drama of mankind’s desire for salvation: “The angel is waiting for your answer … We too are waiting, O Lady, for the word of pity, even we who are overwhelmed in wretchedness by the sentence of damnation.”
The whole longing of the centuries of sin and the search for God weigh on this moment, bearing down on the inadequacy of the human response hitherto: “Adam asks this of you, O loving Virgin, poor and exiled as he is from paradise with all his children. Abraham begs this of you and David, this all the holy fathers implore. This the whole world is waiting for, kneeling at your feet.”
Has the drama of this moment, of Mary’s “Let it be done to me,” lost some of its wonder in the repetition? If so, Advent is a time to recover it, to enter into the mystery of how God humbles himself. For as I read this Gospel most recently there came unbidden into my head the sing-song phrase from long-off primary school liturgies, “He’s got the whole world in His hands”, with the accompanying thought that actually, at this moment, it was the opposite.
God did not have the world in his hands in any way that might remotely resemble the kind of control I understand the phrase to mean. He had created our race and justly condemned it in Adam. He had taught us to hope for salvation. Through the centuries of revelation to the patriarchs, the gift of a covenant and the remonstrances of the prophets, he had prepared history for his definitive intervention. Then he is prepared to risk that whole history, everything he has prepared, by allowing the redemption of the race to depend on an unknown girl from a town in Galilee called Nazareth, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David.
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