Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38 ]

Where do we find true happiness? In The Sound of Music, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, one of the memorable songs is titled, Maria. The refrain is: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? She waltzes on her way to Mass, she's always late for chapel. … She is gentle! She is wild! She's a riddle! She's a child! She's a headache! She's an angel! She's a girl! How do you solve a problem like Maria? Maria Rainer was in formation at a Benedictine Abbey in Salzburg, Austria when she was sent to tutor one of the seven children of a submarine Captain, widower Georg von Trapp. He eventually asks to marry her. Confused, Maria seeks guidance from the Mother Abbess who thinks it is the life God meant her to live. Later Maria revealed in her autobiography that on her wedding day she was blazing mad, both at God and at her husband, because what she really wanted was to be a nun. She writes, “I truly was not in love. I liked him but didn't love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. . . [But later] I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” She found true happiness by taking good counsel.

How do you solve another problem, like Mary of Nazareth? Who is she? Where did she find happiness? She's just a girl, but the Mother of God! She's a virgin, but pregnant! She understands nothing, but says, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” She's full of grace, but suspected of being a sinner. She's just an ordinary woman, a little backwoods girl, but all generations call her blessed. She's the highest member of our race, but many ignore her on their way to Jesus. How do we solve a problem like Maria?

The story of the Annunciation is about Mary's unexpected and troubling call to an extraordinary pregnancy and destiny, to be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God! But was this a trick of the devil to make her fall, like his deception of Adam and Eve? What should she believe? How do you solve a problem like Maria? Is this angel of light from God or not? Is Mary about to believe a deceiver? Or, if this messenger is from God, is she about to refuse belief in God's Word? Either way she would fall, as Adam and Eve fell by believing Satan and not believing God. What is right and what is wrong? She's gentle, she's guileless, she's a riddle, she's childless, she's chaste, she's an angel. No! She wants to be a virgin.

So Mary asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Gabriel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Can she really be both virgin and mother at the same time? How does one solve a problem like Maria's? Should she believe or not? Is it all a deception to make her fall?

For Mary of Nazareth the Word of God was a lamp for her steps and a light for her path. The prophecy of Isaiah sprang up with new meaning: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is 7:14). Not just a young woman, but a virgin! Reason alone could not believe such a thing, but reason enlightened by revelation could not deny it. Yet, Mary was not guided by reason alone in solving her problem, in deciding what God wanted, where her true happiness will be found.

Dorotheos of Gaza, a 6th century orthodox monk, writes: “When God created us, he breathed into us something divine, as it were a purifying and bright light added to reason, which shows us the difference between right and wrong. This is our conscience.”1 It is our most secret core, “…our sanctuary where we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths.”2 When a good conscience and right reason agree, we cannot sin by obeying. We will find God's will and happiness.

For Mary of Nazareth, conscience was her constant companion to which she listened and responded with a purity of heart that never misled her. Guided by right reason formed by the Word of God, the inner messenger of her conscience echoed the outer messenger from God, inviting her to believe. It was not with pride to grasp what was beyond her like Adam and Eve did, but it was with humility that Mary said, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.” And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us!

Mary is our mother and model. Like her, we rely on right reason and a good conscience to guide us. But sometimes they disagree, and we are confused whether our conscience is in error because it has not been well formed by Revelation in Scripture and Tradition or whether our reason is misleading us because we are rationalizing to get our own way. That is when we need to seek good counsel from someone who is holy and wise, as did Maria von Trapp. And when we do, we find happiness by obeying. Pope Paul VI writes that “Peace of conscience is the most authentic form of happiness.”3 So, Mary was the happiest of all God's children because of her purity of heart. But when we unhappily fall by pride and disobedience, the Lord's first gift to us after his Resurrection was the Sacrament of Reconciliation to restore us to purity of heart. That is how we solve the problem of genuine happiness on earth. It is found in the peace of a good conscience.

1. Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977) 104.

2. Gaudium et Spes, (The Church in the Modern World), Documents of Vatican II, #16.

3. Pope Paul VI, General Audience of 09/04/1975.

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38]

The joyous occasion we celebrate today began with Mary's empty womb and open heart. She was free for God. Then the power of the Most High overshadowed her. From there it was similar to any conception of new life: That new life is generated by an act of giving & receiving. The giving and receiving is done unselfishly; for the good of the other is the good for oneself and someone else, a baby … and all humanity in this case, is the greatest beneficiary.

This unselfishness of the act requires freedom from self. It is the model for all human relationships. It is commonly called “making love.” St. Bernard says love causes us to act willingly. When we act willingly we are converted. The thing converted is our consent. It is Mary's consent, motivated by love that we celebrate today. It highlights the importance of our consent in our daily relationship to God.

Yet, this consent is so hard to do. Why? Herman Melville put it succinctly in his novel Moby Dick:
“And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

It is love that can free us to disobey ourselves, turn our course, and go a new way. The love, willingness, and consent of the act of conception are the paradigm for friendship with God and with one another.

Benevolence, mutuality, and sharing constitute friendship. The act of begetting new life is the primal and optimal example of these elements. This is why the Church has always been so protective of the sanctity and authenticity of the marital act. This is why St. Bernard saw it as the authentic model of the monk's relationship with God. These three elements of friendship, Benevolence, mutuality, and sharing, are the elements of pro-existence, of living for the good of the other and discovering therein one's own good. It only awaits our consent. And when it is given it is an occasion to rejoice. So like Mary we must be free to give this consent. Holiness is the most free we can be. That is why God told the Israelites after their exodus to be holy as He is holy. We are not born free; we are commanded to be free.

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38]

In Theological Investigations the great German theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, asks if “our life of grace is like that of a banker whose balance of accounts depends on how well or how badly he managed his investments?”1 In other words, will our place in heaven be measured by our good works? Is being better the way to a higher degree of glory? Let us look to Mary and the Church for an answer. For Mary is our model,2 and the Church is our teacher.

At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel addressed Mary of Nazareth as “full of grace.” Was it because of her good works? She never made such a claim. Rather, she said, “The Almighty has done great things for me,” (Lk 1:49). In the Catholic Catechism we read, “From the first moment of her conception, [that is, before any good works were possible], Mary was enriched with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness by the grace of God.” 3 Mary, our model, received her place not by good works but by the gift of God. Can we expect the same?

St. Therese of Lisieux, a Doctor of the Church, thinks so. During one of her last conversations she said, “Everything comes from God, and the glory I shall have [from her Life] will be a gratuitous gift from God.” 4 “I have no works, so God will not be able to reward me according to what I have done. Well then, He will reward me according to His own works.” 5

If our places in heaven were measured by our good works, then we would all fall short of the high calling God has prepared for us. Father Rahner writes, “Will the person I am sorrowfully salute from afar and for all eternity the one I might have become?” 6 Affirming that the measure of grace is God's love, not our works, Rahner finds support in the teaching of St. Therese whom he quotes. She said, “I do not want to gather merit for heaven … [I]n the evening of this life I will appear before [God] with empty hands. For I do not ask you, O Lord, in any way to count my good works. Rather, I will clothe myself with your justice and receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.” 7

Consider th1s teaching of the Church on justification at the Council of Trent: “God makes us just … each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Spirit distributes to everyone as he wills, and according to each one's own disposition and cooperation.” 8 Commenting on this, the Dutch theologian, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx writes, ” …it is not possible to say that given an identical disposition in two different subjects … that they will receive the same degree of grace. … God distributes the gift of his love as he deems fit.” 9 God graciously gifted Mary of Nazareth with the grace of becoming the Mother of God at the Annunciation, and Queen of Heaven and Earth. She is full of grace because the Almighty has done great things for her. Sadly, we have not responded to God's call with our whole heart the way Mary did. We have been tepid in our love, we have wasted time. Will our place in heaven be diminished? Not if the measure of grace we receive for our half-hearted love is given by the Holy Spirit in proportion to His love for us, beyond what our works deserve. St. Teresa of Avila, another Doctor of the Church, writes, “Oh, how late my desires have been enkindled … Recover, my God, the lost time … for it you want to, you can do so. In a moment, Lord, you can win this time back again. And I believe … that you will do this.”10 And this is the teaching of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: “Grace was give to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift” (Eph 4:7).

Well, if our place in heaven is determined by grace and not by works, then why not coast along? Why not please ourselves until the eleventh hour rather than work under the heat of the sun all day long? Why? Because by the labor of obedience, by striving to please God we express our gratitude for God's love. It is the way we return love for Love, not out of self-interest for a reward, but freely, gratuitously, as God loves us. What a great opportunity we have, to freely choose love! St. Paul expresses it well in his Letter to Philemon, teaching us how God loves us when he writes: “I preferred to do nothing without your consent that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will” (Philemon 14). Why be good? Why strive to be better? Because we are moved by love. The Holy Spirit has been given to us “inspiring us from within to love God with our whole heart and soul.” 11 In his Treatise on Grace and Free Choice, St. Bernard writes, “I recognized myself as being impelled to good by the preceding action of grace, and I felt myself being borne along by it, and helped by grace to find perfection.” A disciple asks him, “Then what part do you play?” Bernard replies, “What do you think?” The disciple says, “Glorify God who freely went before you, aroused you and set you moving. And then live a life worthy to prove your gratitude for kindnesses received.” St. Bernard says, “That is sound advice”.13 We are moved to love not for a greater reward but out of gratitude.

Yet, what if we are still slothful and ungrateful, resisting the Holy Spirit's inspiration to love? Can we just coast along, pleasing ourselves rather than God? We can, but, “There is a monumental struggle being waged for our souls by the powers of darkness.”12 Fr. Rahner writes, “Anyone who thinks he or she can take things easy in this life, must remember that one can lose everything.” 14 The lukewarm and the careless have greater risk “of being lost forever.”15 St. John of the Cross exclaims, “O Souls, created for such grandeurs, what are you doing? How are you spending your time?” 16 Let us take Mary of Nazareth as our model. We want to spend our time by striving with fervent love and the labor of ready obedience to do what is pleasing to God. In gratitude for God's gift of love and grace which exceed all our good works, we rejoice to say with Mary of Nazareth: “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38]

Blessed Rafael The entry of Blessed Rafael Baron Arnaiz, the Trappist oblate in the monastery of San Isidro, Spain, on his journal of July 19, 1936, was rather sad and poignant. He wrote, “When we stood in choir waiting for Mass to begin, there was commotion among the monks. Instead of three priests for the Mass, only one emerges. No bells are rung, and the divine office is recited.1 Spain was then on the verge of a bloody civil war. The sad news has arrived at the monastery. Blessed Rafael felt the impact of this gloomy phase of Spain’s history with the phrase, “It is sad not to hear the bells.” Sr. Juanita Colon who brings to light the life and writings of the saintly monk notes a touching experience in such situation. She says, “When the monastery bells fall silent it is as if the voice of God has been stilled. There was an added sense of loss, of desolation that, with the dreadful sounds of distant gunfire and the news of the atrocities and desecration being perpetrated, taxed the faith and sapped courage.2

We are still blessed to hear the bells of the abbey church, even as we began this Mass. From the time the bells have been set up when New Melleray was founded, they have continuously tolled. At times, they briefly fell silent when the bell-ringer fell asleep or lost track of time in deep contemplation. But bells keep ringing for us, and we discern them to be God’s call for us awaiting a response. Seven times a day our church bells ring for the different hours of the Office prayers, including the Holy Mass. But among them, three particular moments are distinct when they peal for the Angelus prayer at the end of the Vigils, Sext and Compline, that is, at the start of dawn, at midday or as night begins. With three introductory versicles from the Gospels marking the Annunciation and Incarnation, we silently pray the Hail Mary and conclude with a prayer.

On the first Angelus call to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Nazareth, there were no bells pealing. The gospel of Luke merely states that the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary in an obscure town of Nazareth and there he told her the news of a God-event. God’s promise of long ago is now being fulfilled in her. The promise made in the book of Isaiah about the birth of a child who is to be called “Immanuel” (God-with-us) (Is 7:14)would mean for her giving birth to a son to be born of the Holy Spirit. He shall be named Jesus (meaning, God saves) (Lk 1:31) and he will be the Son of God. The Annunciation It marks the historic intervention of the very Son of God into the lives of His people in order to lead them into the kingdom of his Father whom we can also call our Father through him. God is no longer perceived as distant, but very much involved in our everyday affairs. By assuming our very flesh and blood through Mary, God shares our human existence which he saves from its corrupted nature in sin. Though this was hard to understand, as it was a surprise, Mary humbly replied, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May your words be done unto me as you say(Lk 1:38). From that day on, in the solemn celebration of the Annunciation of the Lord, the Church closely follows the event such that nine months thereafter, this child in Mary’s womb is born into the world. Yes, it’s nine months to go before Christmastime!

The Annunciation story is also known as the vocation of Mary. The Angel Gabriel told her of the overwhelming message making her feel so unworthy for the divine plan. There were questions as to how it would happen. She also feared its consequences. Will she live up to the call? How would her life be from then on? If we were in her situation, we might be asking similar questions, maybe more. But what is important in Mary’s response was her attentive listening to the angel that makes her to be docile to the Spirit who will realize the impossible event. Though doubts were not totally gone, Mary’s faith was immense. “I am the Lord’s handmaid. May your words be fulfilled in me.” There was no if or but, only the yes of faith and the obedience to the Lord.

What comes to my mind in Mary’s yes to the angel whenever we pray the Angelus is a sandwich. Mary’s response, the second versicle in the prayer, comes between two narrations of God’s marvelous actions. The first verse tells us: “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:31). The closing verse states: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us(Jn 1:14). Packed between these divine initiatives is the positive cooperation of Mary, thus making everything possible. The chaos brought about by sin through the first parents is now overcome in Christ’s saving works beginning with Mary’s Yes. God could have unraveled everything in an instant but he desired to do it the hard way by asking for man’s participation in this salvific process. “I am the Lord’s servant. Here I am. Send me.” The Incarnation of the Word of God could not have taken place unless Mary has given her yes to God’s plan. God willed that he become flesh only with the loving consent of her chosen mother.

New Melleray's Bell TowerMary’s response is so beautifully heard but it is realized only with difficulty in the course of her life. Truly, to be chosen as the mother of God was the most wonderful news to be received by any woman. But what it meant in her life, everyday as she saw and accompanied her Son growing up to fulfill his Father’s will, was not really easy. At every moment, she had to discern and keep things in her heart, ponder them in order to know what they meant. She had to suffer the pains in seeing her Son rebuffed and rejected. She had to endure the anguish of knowing Jesus, her innocent Son, being mocked, hit and nailed to die on the cross. Each time, she had to reaffirm, “May this word of yours be done in me.” It was only in her Son’s resurrection that all these moments of dying to self meant rising anew in Him. At the Angelus bells, the recitation of the verses and the Hail Marys comes at first in an agonizingly slow cadence as we struggle with our sincere act of faith to the Lord. Then with the announcement of the incarnation, one hears the joyous and continuous ringing of the bells for us also to rejoice with Jesus and Mary in our own Yes to the Lord. The nine continuous peals of the bell seem to echo the nine months of gestation for the incarnated Yes of God to the world.

Emilie Griffin, author of several books on spirituality, once shared an incident as she was on a weeklong retreat in the Colorado mountains at the Nada Hermitage in Crestone. She was placing a long-distance call to her husband in Louisiana. As she has placed the call, the Angelus bell began to ring. When her husband answered, she said, “Oh, my timing is off, they’re ringing the Angelus.” He responded, “No, your timing is perfect.” And they said the Angelus together over the phone.

Later on, she was asking herself, what century is it? Her inspired reflection was, “Yes, even in this twenty-first century, the Incarnation (or God becoming man) belongs to all places and times.3

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is. 7: 10-14; Heb. 10: 4-10; Lk. 1: 26-38]

A major contrast between Jewish religion and the surrounding pagan religions was that Jewish religion is an historical religion. Pagan mythology was focused on the world of the superhuman gods and heroes. When they were interested in human affairs, if they were interested at all, it was to demand service from mortals. Life on earth was a series of repetitive cycles modeled on the rotations of the heavenly bodies and the agricultural seasons. Human life had no ultimate goal in which it would find fulfillment. The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, often called the proto-history, are also situated in a world that is remote from ours. Jewish tradition which is also our tradition begins when God entered into history and called Abraham. God chose a particular human being belonging to a clan of the Semitic peoples and from that historical beginning he formed the Jewish people in history and through historical events.

Christianity continues Jewish tradition as an historical religion. When I read Luke’s gospel I am struck by the care with which he places the events of our salvation into historical settings. God sent the angel Gabriel to a specific geographical location: Nazareth in Galilee; to a particular human being: Mary; engaged to a man named Joseph from the lineage of David; to announce that our Savior would be a human being with a name: Jesus; to whom she would give birth. Yes, Mary would conceive miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit. Her son would be divine and he would also be human. Born of the Virgin Mary Jesus accepted the limitations of human existence and became like us in all things except sin. He accepted the limitations of time and space. He lived his life and carried out the will of his Father in Palestine on the margins of the Roman Empire. He accepted misunderstanding, opposition, rejection and finally death. Jesus did not remain aloof from history and the human condition; he embraced it.

The Incarnation occurred in history, and it also transcends history. Through his body the Church, which includes you and I Jesus Christ continues his work of salvation in our time and in our situations. He calls each of us to share in his work of salvation and sends his Spirit to empower us and to guide us in making our contribution. He asks that we respond to the generosity he has shown to us by following Mary’s example and saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.” We too may be perplexed and apprehensive about what this may mean for us. For our encouragement we have the example of Mary and the disciples and the saints down through the centuries. We have the example of Jesus himself and his promise that he will always be Emmanuel: God with us.

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38 ]

I would be willing to bet that everyone in this church has had a similar experience—whether in grammar school, later in high school or even in college. There had been a presentation we didn’t pay attention to, or perhaps we had been given a homework assignment that we hadn’t done. But the teacher decided to have a little examination and call on someone in the class. Suddenly, our name rang out and we had an immediate realization of our self and of the fact that we were standing in the face of the teacher and all our peers. This uncomfortable and maybe embarrassing experience is a vivid impression of the double nature of our being named. It evokes a very personal level of self awareness at the same time that it reveals how intertwined we are in a group, a family, a community. We are given a name by those who give us life and we grow up identifying our selves with this name by which we are known in our family.

There is a new awareness that has become almost commonplace in psychology and philosophy, namely that we only know ourselves in knowing others. The self is what it is only in relation to that which is other than itself. I think many of us grew up with a different sense that we were supposed to be independent, self-sufficient, rugged individualists. The formation from our culture clouded and obscured the very basic Christian teaching that our being exists in relation to a personal creator, to the Body of Christ, to the communion of saints.

Luke is an artist in the way he portrays the beginning of the church as a deeply relational reality. He describes it in what we might call feminine terms,in terms of relationship and networks. A masculine description would look to hierarchy and power structure and be concerned with “making a name for oneself.” Luke litters this text with names. The place has a name, Mary and her spouse have names; her cousin has a name; even the angel has a name; the new child is given three names. The name is not intended to separate or isolate any person or agent, but to clarify the role of this particular concrete and unique individual in a network of relationships. They are who they are in relationship to the other persons and agents. God reveals himself as an utterly personal agent. He is someone who is wearied, who desires and takes delight,who finds favor, who elects, chooses and summons. He is very present: God-with-us; “Here I Am;” the Lord is with you. In his Synodal Exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict states:“The novelty of biblical revelation consists in the fact that God becomes known to us through the dialogue which he desires to have with us.” God does not issue pronouncements and decrees, he initiates a dialogue, an exchange. He calls people by name and awakens them to a communion by evoking their uniqueness. The astounding reality is that we know ourselves only in knowing this Other, in finding the mystery of our own being made alive in being addressed by the mystery of God.

St. Bernard encourages us to “call on Mary.” We invoke her name to enter into relationship and dialogue with her. We know ourselves in knowing her. I think the Gospel text offers insight into ourselves as we understand the moments of her dialogue with God through the angel. There are three steps in her journey of conversion.

First, she was ATTENTIVE. She opened a space to be addressed, to suspend any hesitancy to follow the leading of this dialogue. We usually resist any troubling interference, raise our defenses, refuse to suspend our normal disbelief. Her silence allowed her to be sensitive to a new word, to hear the word as it had never been spoken before. Secondly, she ADMITTED the limitations of her own understanding and being. Her total self-knowledge also removed all obstacles to seeing reality as it is—not covered by illusions or deceptions. But this clarity was articulated with the cry: “How can this be?” I would tend to think she had many occasions in her life to cry:“How can this be?”, when the demands and events of life overwhelmed her capacities and understanding. But not evading the crucible in which the contradictions of life are given full play was the source of the emergence of the Spirit. The angel was not just “talking about” the Spirit, but the Spirit was an event in this dialogue as much as the Word was an event. This is the Spirit of new life, of fecundity and creativity, of binding and relationship. The same Spirit at the heart of the Trinity was the Holy One binding all creation into the nearness of God. Mary’s ACCEPTANCE was a response in and to the Spirit which created a new name and a new self-understanding for her: the Handmaid of the Lord.

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38]

One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from a poem by Dylan Thomas. It goes, “And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose that I am bent by the same wintry fever.” The poem is about the cycle of life and death present everywhere in the world. Roses blossom and die, people are born, grow and die and yet we cannot communicate about this except with our own species. There must be millions of species of living things in the world that come into being and then fade away into nothingness, but each is locked in its own incommunicable language. We are dumb to tell the crooked rose that we are bent, grow old and die for the same reasons as all of nature.

When we see the pile of ashes on the table in the middle of Church on Ash Wednesday we are looking at the ultimate reduction of all living things, including ourselves. Yet, in these ashes there is a spark, a flickering of fire that never goes out. It is the desire to live forever, to live and never go out of existence. One of the tensions in our life is the knowledge that we are going to die and yet desire to live forever. For most of us, faith resolves this tension but how strong is our faith? Is there a lingering doubt? Does the answer come too quickly? Can we let some of the tension season our faith? Do we have a residue of disbelief? I would call it a holy residue because it is good for us to live in the pain of the possibility of being lost. The pain of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus is shared by all even if you were baptized as an infant. In our adult life we have to be converted over and over. If we don’t live in the land of unlikeness and emptiness we will not appreciate the land of promise and fulfillment.

In his famous sermon on today’s feast St. Bernard masterfully situates us in the time before Christ. It is a time of longing and despair. A time of having the gate still locked and guarded by a Cherubim with a flaming sword. To understand Bernard’s insight into the mystery of Mary and the Incarnation we have to be able to enter into our own darkness, our own fear of eternal loss. Bernard situates us on the other side of the divide looking for a way across. He puts the whole weight of salvation on Mary’s reply to the angel. He describes the scene as if all creation is waiting in that space between question and answer. Addressing Mary he says, “Abraham is waiting, David is asking it of you—the whole world is waiting… and rightly so because on your answer…depends the salvation of the whole race(Sermon 4 On the Glories of Mary. No.8-9).

It is difficult for us to get into this way of thinking. We have heard this Gospel passage so many times and we know the outcome so well that we do not think that Mary had a choice or that she had to deliberate in answering the Angel. Bernard’s insight, it seems to me, is that salvation did depend on the consent of one individual woman from a poor Jewish family many centuries ago. God does not force us. You might say Jesus did the same with Peter when he asked him who he thought he was. Christ built his church on Peter’s response. Salvation and the Church built on the response of two human beings! If Mary refused we would still be longing for a Messiah.

The importance of our response to God’s invitation cannot be exaggerated. Mary’s, “be it done to me according to your word” is the pattern for all time. We should repeat these words at every turn of events as we journey through life. These words opened up a place for God in Mary’s heart. What happens to Mary, happens to us. St. Leo said, “We are reborn in the Spirit through whom Christ was conceived.(Office of Readings, Thur. 4th wk of Lent). In other words, just as Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are conceived in the womb of the baptismal font by the same Spirit and are born into new life with Christ.

Solemnity of the Annunciation

[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Heb 10:4-10; Lk 1:26-38]

Pablo Picasso, around the turn of the last century, spent a year or so in the throes of a deep personal crisis; a crisis from which there emerged the famous painting: “Women of Avignon“—considered by many to be the single most important painting of the last century. One art historian, writing about Picasso’s personal crisis while painting this picture, called it an experience of “moral solitude.” This is an interesting and fruitful concept. Moral solitude, if I understand it correctly, is something deeper and more painful than physical solitude. Morality is the art of choosing the true good—”moral solitude” is experienced by a person who has made a choice; what will later be seen to be a truly momentous choice. He has chosen something good – but this good he has chosen, and desires with all his heart, has been shown to him in a creative inspiration. It is something new; something no one except him has ever seen before. Consequently, he finds himself committed heart and soul to a pursuit that he doesn’t know how to talk about to anyone, and being committed, proceeds—alone; works; struggles; dreams his dream—all alone; walking, maybe for years in that darkness called “moral solitude”.

Our Blessed Mother, who we remember today, on this Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, was, in her way, a visionary and an artist, whose life’s work would be vastly more important than anything Picasso ever painted. Like many other great artists, Mary made her passage through the “dark valley” of moral solitude. Mary, it might be said, is the icon of moral solitude. In one of the most beautiful tributes to her I ever read, Fr. John Lynch entitled a book-length poem about her: “A Woman Wrapped in Silence.” Mary was, all her life, a woman wrapped in silence; a woman, who because of an absolutely singular inspiration of the Holy Spirit, walked all her life in the darkness and uncertainty of moral solitude.

In today’s gospel, we see described Mary’s intimate and very personal encounter with the infinite mystery of God’s plan of salvation. After a fearful moment of astonishment and disorientation, Mary, quite alone, with no one to encourage or reassure her, looks straight into the face of Mystery and says, “Yes . . . let it be done to me . . . .” It was a yes that would effectively, surround Mary; engulf her in a vast solitude in which she would remain for the rest of her life. Mary, in a certain sense, was always alone. Alone the night Joseph decided to divorce her; alone the day Simeon prophesied: “A sword will pierce your heart . . .“; alone the day Jesus was separated from her in the temple and when found inquired: “Why are you searching for me . . .“; and at the wedding at Cana; asked by her son, “Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me?“; alone the day she heard Jesus say to a crowd of people: “Who is my mother? Everyone who does the will of God – is my mother.” Alone at the foot of the cross; given away by her son to another: “Behold – your mother . . .

In all these lonely moments, Mary would have been pondering in her heart the words of the angel Gabriel, unable to explain or justify to anyone what she knew must be true—and yet impossible to share because it simply was so far beyond anything anyone had ever seen or imagined before—and yet which she must be faithful to; always alone.

Maybe the mystery the church gazes at with wonder this morning is how this vast, engulfing moral solitude in which Mary lived all her life, became, by God’s mysterious design, THIS BLESSED COMMUNION manifest here this morning in this church and in churches all over the world! Is it not a miracle, brothers and sisters,—truly a miracle that Mary, whose life may have been the most solitary any person ever lived, should be revealed in time to be the mother of us all; the mother of the universal church; the woman who, more than any other human being except her Son, is THE IMAGE of that blessed and joyful communion we call the church of Jesus Christ!

Standing in this mystery of Mary’s identification with the church, it is hard to know whether our communion has burst through and cracked open the hard soil of her solitude—or . . . if Mary’s solitude is the reality we are all sinking into; a solitude that is shaping our reality now as the Catholic Church in North America. In Fr. Lynch’s poem, this two sided mystery of Mary as a “woman wrapped in silence“, and the very image of our communion as believers, is given beautiful expression. Envisioning Mary after Jesus’ death, he writes:


“The wide arc of an empty sky was curving
Over her and over far horizons.
She could trace the bend and sweep of it,
And followed down its fall of utter silence,
Till it closed around her on the rims
Of earth and was a circle, stilled, complete.
She was alone. He would not come to her
Again. She moved a little, and the sound
Of movement lifted up against the day
and fell, and did not rise. She was alone,
And in her she could feel the flow of time
That had begun and would go on, go on,
To days, in silence, on and on. She was
A woman now who was alone with time,
And in her heart, the wait and ache of time.”