Homily for December 18, 2011: 4th Sunday of Advent

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Someone once told me that this event we have just heard in the gospel has been depicted in art more than any other in scripture, with the possible exception of the crucifixion. I’m not surprised.  The Annunciation stirs the imagination in powerful ways – the human intersecting with the Divine in a moment unlike any other in history.   It almost defies illustration.  But countless artists have tried.

Very often, you will see Annunciation in a painting or stained glass window, and it’s depicted with one striking detail: Mary, holding in her hands or reading an open book. In fact, in the rectory office we have a statue of Mary as a little girl, standing beside her mother, St. Anne, and even there, she is carrying a book.

One artist has said this is to show Mary reading Isaiah, learning that a virgin would give birth to the savior.  A priest friend once offered me a different take, saying that it shows her devotion to The Word – the Word that she would one day bring into the world as Jesus Christ.

However you interpret this detail, it remains a compelling way of thinking of Mary, especially as we near Christmas, and encounter readings like this one and think more deeply about The Word Made Flesh.  And this morning, as we reflect on The Word, I wanted to look more closely at one word in particular that recurs in this passage.  It’s a word Luke uses again and again in the story of the Nativity, three times alone in just this short passage.  You might easily overlook it.  But we shouldn’t.

The word is simple, but deliberate:


In literal terms, it means: “To see,” or “Observe.”

But in scriptural terms, it goes even deeper.  It is emphatic. It’s like a yellow highlighter in Luke’s hand, drawing our attention.

And so we have the angel Gabriel underscoring his annunciation.

Twice, he says: “Behold!”  Look! Miracles are unfolding around you and within you.  Behold!

And what does Mary say in response?

She replies to the angel, and to us, with the same word.  In a way, she speaks to him in his own language.  Coming from her own lips, it has even more impact.

Behold, she says.  I am the handmaid of the Lord.

In other words: Look! You have told me some thing extraordinary.  And now, here, before you, is something else extraordinary: a woman ready to do God’s will.  I am His handmaid.  His servant.

In effect, Mary, this woman of The Word, a woman so often depicted with an open book, is saying: the rest of the pages of my life are blank.  I am God’s book now.  Let Him write His story within me.


But there is even more to this moment – something that has implications for all of us.

We tend to think of the Annunciation as focusing on the angel telling Mary what is about to happen.

But I’d like to suggest another Annunciation in this scene from Luke.

It’s not what the angel says to Mary.  It’s what Mary says to the angel.

It is the moment when Mary declares her consent — surrendering to God’s will, sacrificing herself and her life for Him and, ultimately, for us.

Behold, she announces.  I am His.

It is that “Annunciation within the Annunciation” that, I think, speaks to all of us.  It is dramatic.  It is humbling.

And it is ours.

Because in that moment, if we let her, Mary speaks for all of us.

We aren’t all going to encounter angels, announcing to us that we are going to be part of salvation history.

But we all can declare our own desire to continue what Mary began – our desire to help bring Christ into the world.   And it starts, as it did with Mary, by giving ourselves over to God’s will for us – His surprising, sometimes challenging plan for us.

If someone had told me 20 years ago that one day I’d be standing in this pulpit, wearing these vestments, preaching every Sunday morning, I would have laughed.

But God knew better.  He had something planned.  He does for all of us.  Just as he did for Mary.

As one commentator has put it: unlike most of us, Mary didn’t pray, “Thy will be changed.”

She said, instead, “Thy will be done.”

Following her beautiful example, we can also follow her faith, her obedience, her trust, her love.  And in doing that, we can also, like Mary, help make Christ manifest.  We can help him to be born once again into our world – a world desperately in need of mercy.  And charity.  And compassion.  And hope.

We can remind others of “Emmanuel” – that God is with us.

That is our call — not just at Christmas, but every day.  God is asking us to do nothing less than to continue the Incarnation.

What will be our answer?

“Behold” was the cry of angels, and the affirmation of Mary, and it can be ours, as well.

We can make it our own fiat, our own assent.

So, this week, these last days of Advent, in this time of waiting: let us wait, and pray — and behold.

Behold – our own yearning for the Prince of Peace to come into our world.

Behold – a woman who gave herself to God, and gave to us an example of obedience and faith.

Behold – like an open book, our lives are waiting for God to write His story within us.

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14 responses to “Homily for December 18, 2011: 4th Sunday of Advent”

  1. Lovely. Thank you.

    I have often given workshops on the art of Advent, and the multiplicity of Annunciation images—and how they change over the centuries, as refinements in theology and artistry reflect one another—is one of my favorite topics. In many medieval and Renaissance depictions, the book Mary is reading when she is visited by the Archangel, anachronistically in the good sense, is a breviary or Book of Hours. Sometimes there is even a crucifix on the wall of her virginal bedchamber. Dutch painters, in particular, fill the scene with objects symbolic of Mary’s virginity: barred doors, crystal vessels of clear water covered with a white linen cloth, locked jewel caskets. The relative positions of Gabriel and Mary change to show the rise of Marian devotion. In the earliest images, the Angel towers over her, as she bows humbly; in Leonardo’s they are on an equal plane, inclined toward one another; by Botticelli the Angel is at Mary’s feet and she swoons gracefully above, with the same goddess-like face as the artist’s Venus (the two can be superimposed and align perfectly). My favorite among contemporary Annunciations is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s, shown here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_The_Annunciation.jpg —but that may strike some readers as depicting “too human” a Mary, as the Australian ad you posted the other day did.

    In any case, thank you for breaking open this most grace-filled of mysteries, in which Word and flesh come together. It’s worth mentioning that the word “miracle,” like “behold,” means “Hey, look here!” Thank you for pointing the eyes of our hearts in the direction of the meaning of the season.

  2. “Behold … like a yellow highlighter in Luke’s hand, drawing our attention.” Delightful image.

    “…like an open book, our lives are waiting for God to write His story within us.” – I will carry these words with me this week.

  3. jkm
    I have integrated art into most of the classes and workshops that I have presented over the years. I came across the works of Tanner when I was researching African-American painters but had not seen this particular work of his. Thanks.

    Deacon Greg has shown one of Fra Angelico’s paintings but another one that I find fascinating has the words in Latin coming out of the mouth of the Angel: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. Interwoven are the words “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” coming out of Mary’s mouth, but upside down. (After all, she is responding to the Almighty in heaven.)

    The colorful wings of the angel in some paintings of the Annunciation, e.g., the “Annunciation” by Jan van Eyck intrigued me. I think (and I hope that I am right) that it may be an allusion to the Greek goddess, Iris, who is the personification of the rainbow and a messenger of the gods. The Greeks that Iris was a link between the gods to humanity.

    While most Annunciation paintings have the angel and Mary looking very somber and composed, Mary in Simone Martini’s Annunciation altarpiece looks terrified and the angel in van Eyck’s painting has a delightful smile as if to say: “I have some good news that may be surprise you.”

  4. You make some good connections, but overall it falls flat on doctrinal content. This is basically a pep talk homily. It is so generic that even a non-Catholic could use it.
    You need to be clearer how Mary is different from us as “full of grace,” while also stating that we need to be in the state of grace to make Christ manifest in the world.

  5. “stating that we need to be in the state of grace to make Christ manifest in the world.”
    WRONG ANSWER. That is the heresy of “Donatism.” It was condemned way back over 1,500 years ago!

  6. Bernice Wilson:
    This is a homily – an exposition on the Scripture that is designed to move the hearers to take the message to heart. It is not a class in Systematic Theology.

    You may want to read a few of the sermons (which technically are more like homilies, since he was a trained rhetorician) of St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest theologian in our western tradition. He knew how to use the literary genre to move his hearers to live as true Christians.

  7. Thankyou….I am not able to attend Mass at the moment because spiritual disturbances. EWTN’s homily is not available until the next day on line. Thankyou for your beautiful words…they are precious and I pray that my guardian angel will help me to remember them.
    God Bless you always,

  8. Thank you for your message. I like, among other things, your reference to “Behold” and the book that Mary has at the annunciation.

  9. Thank you for your beautiful homily for this Fourth Sunday of Advent. It is fitting that you spoke of artistic depictions, because when you preach you paint pictures with your words.

  10. Bernice has a point. I am glad you refer her to St. Augustine though. His homilies are superb in expounding the doctrinal and moral implications of Scripture. Among others Sts. Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and John Chrysostom did the same. There was no fluff in what they said. Although I would not recommend their length (some were preached for 2 hours), their content would be much appreciated at Mass today!

  11. Another interesting detail in many Renaissance Annunciations is that Gabriel is vested in the dalmatic of a deacon—sent, as Deacon Greg was with this homily—to proclaim the best of Good News.

  12. Dcn. Norb, you are much mistaken.
    Donatism claimed that sacramental validity depended on the minister being in the state of grace. St. Augustine who opposed Donatism claimed that sacraments work ex opere operato and do not depend on the ministers state of grace. But, the personal disposition of the person is important for the effects of grace in one’s life. To claim the state of grace is not necessary to manifest Christ in one’s life as you seem to do is more akin to the heresy of Pelagianism! Remember St. Augustine taught that pagan “virtues” were vices because they were not done in the state of grace. And defined doctrine of Trent teaches the necessity of the state of grace to bear fruit and earn merit.
    A deacon should know these things.

  13. “Remember St. Augustine taught that pagan “virtues” were vices because they were not done in the state of grace.”

    My reading of Augustine in the “City of God” is that he considered pagan virtues not “virtuous” because the pagans were seeking praise, honor and glory (reward) in this temporal, earthly city in their practice of the virtues as opposed to the Christians who practice such virtues with an orientation toward eternal reward in City of God.

    Where do you find his mention of the term, “the state of grace” with respect to the pagan, who demonstrates virtue?

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