|The Annunciation and the Crucifixion (from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)|
We seem to be suffering from many interruptions to our Lenten devotion over the few days. Last week, we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph, that righteous man whom God chose to be the custodian of the Holy Family. We rejoiced in the humble place that God made in His eternal plan of salvation for the humble carpenter of Nazareth. But today, on this the feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate the feast which gives rise to our Lenten penances and points us towards the resolution of this sorrowful season. For in the message given by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin, we are shown not only the pivotal role of the Virgin in the economy of salvation, but we are also shown the entire purpose for the mysteries we are about to celebrate this coming week.
We are first privy to the importance of Our Lady in the divine plan for the redemption of humanity. Every dogma and doctrine our Catholic faith professes about her stems from this moment in the Gospels. She was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb so as to be prepared for this encounter with the angel. She had already sworn herself to the state of virginity, and she will in fact remain a virgin all her days, as the angel promises. She is proclaimed to be the Mother of God so as to affirm the complete divinity of Him whom she was made worthy to bear as her son. And at the end of her earthly life, having been the dwelling place of the Most High, she will be assumed body and soul into Heaven so as to remain free from mortal corruption.
All of this stems from this short encounter. How rich is every word we hear from the lips of Our Lady! However, there is only one word that we desire to hear upon her lips, we poor souls clamoring to God for our redemption and our salvation. It is the word that was missing from the lips of our first parents in the garden, when they partook of the sinful fruit. It is the word that God has always desired to hear from His people, yet how often He was rebuked by His chosen flock. It is a word so simple, yet so potent with meaning. That word which we desire to hear and do hear proceed from the lips of Our Lady is “FIAT.”
As we hear the angel proclaiming the glories of the One who will be born from the virginal womb, we seem to hold our breaths, waiting for the response of the Virgin. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in his magnificent homily on this text, displays our patience for her answer most brilliantly: “The angel awaits your reply, for it is time that he should return to God, Who sent him. We, too, are waiting, O Lady, for a word of mercy—we, who are groaning under the sentence of condemnation. See, the price of our salvation is offered to you; if you consent, we shall at once be delivered... Hasten, then, O Lady, to give your answer; hasten to speak the word so longed for by all on earth, in limbo, and in heaven... He whom you have pleased by your silence will now be more gratified by your reply.”
And so she indeed replies to the angel and to God with that most humbling word, “Fiat” - “Let it be done.” By this one word, Our Lady begins to unravel the damage of the Fall. By this one word, as the hymn Ave Maris Stella tells us, she receives the Ave of Gabriel which transforms the name of Eva. By this one word, the Virgin gives assent to God, thus undoing the knot of Eve’s disobedience through her obedience. Just as the human race fell through a woman first, so now does the human race rise again through a woman first. The parallels between the fall in the garden and the Annunciation fill the works of the Church from the earliest centuries. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, from the second century, draws out this comparison between the disobedient virgin and the obedient Virgin, reflecting that “[the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve ... was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary” (Adversus Haereses, V.19).
O wondrous assent! O glorious obedience! See for yourself, brethren, how we are to respond to the promptings of God. See how we are to truly live out our lives, not only in Lent, but every day of our mortal existence. We must desire the will of God in our lives, lest we fail to produce the fruit which God desires to bring forth through us. But we must also contemplate the meaning of this will, of what it is that God desires for each one of us. This contemplation must draw us towards the second meaning of the feast, to be found in the proclamation of the angel to Our Lady.
Why is all this happening? Why is God subjecting Himself to the lowliest of His creatures, as she refers to herself, through His conception in her virginal womb? This is what makes the Annunciation a wonderful starting point for our preparation and celebration of the Sacred Triduum approaching so soon. The words of Saint Gabriel reveal to us the mission of the one whose very name, whose most holy name, begins this revelation of the divine mission.
The angel first reveals the name that shall be given to the child, the name of Jesus. In this name is signified His purpose for coming, for the holy name comes from the Hebrew words for “the Lord saves.” The very name of Christ indicates His mission while on earth, but the words of the angel do not cease at this point. The angel says that this child will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. Who is great as is God? The message reveals the character of this child as being God from God, light from light, true God from true God, as we profess every time we recite the Nicene Creed. Only one can truly claim the title of the Son of God by being truly begotten, not made, by the Father. And it is this child who will possess this title in its fullness.
The angel concludes his proclamation with the declaration that this child will receive the kingship of David, a kingship which shall not end over the house of Jacob. Understand that the angel speaks here of the eternal house of Jacob, now assumed into the holy Church of God, which will continue without end in this world, and in the world to come. Yet, how will this child receive the kingship which is due to Him? How does any king receive His kingdom except to do battle so as to secure it from those pretending to have a right to it? It must be the same with Christ, since His kingdom has been stolen and claimed by the devil. Remember the temptation in the desert: Satan claimed to have possession of all the kingdoms of the world and that it was in his power to give them to Christ if only for a single act of worship.
And so, Christ will indeed do battle for His kingship, but in His own great way. He will wage war with the weapons of obedience and fidelity to His heavenly Father, by teaching and doing those things necessary for our salvation. That battle would conclude on Good Friday, upon the cross of death, which becomes through the precious blood of Christ the new tree of life. We cannot fully appreciate the weight of the Passion without understanding everything that has led Christ and led us to this moment, nor can we truly rejoice in our feast today without appreciating the consequences of all that the angel declared unto the Virgin.
Let us, then, rejoice in the message the angel has brought not just to Our Lady, but to us as well. Let us rejoice in Emmanuel truly dwelling with His people. Let us desire to conform our lives more to the example of our Lord and our Lady. First, let us imitate our Lord by subjecting ourselves to the motherly care of our Lady, whom God Himself was pleased to make His earthly mother. No one can love the Son without loving His mother. Yet, at the same time, no loves the mother best than when they love her Son. Let us also imitate our Lady by loving the Word of God and desiring to yield to the will of God for our lives, come what may. Only in this way can we truly live the Christian vocation to holiness, whatever our individual vocations may be. Let us strive to hold their examples before us this Lent and all the Lents of our lifetimes, so that we may be prepared at last for the eternal Easter celebration, where Christ reigns triumphantly with His Queen Mother in that kingdom which shall not end.