24 December [Fourth Sunday of Advent]
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel as sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
When the prophets of Israel spoke of God's intervention in human history, they imagined it as another thunderous event like Exodus or Mount Sinai. No one imagined that it would be an event so hidden in ordinariness as the conception of a child.
There are many stories in world literature about the disappointment of expectation when the reality appears. The first play I ever saw in a theatre was called Professor Tim. The main character was an elderly and wealthy relative whose return from America was eagerly awaited by his family in Ireland. Their disappointment was extreme when he arrived. He staggered around day after day with a whiskey bottle, making caustic remarks about everybody. He was quickly ostracised by everyone (but perhaps there was one exception, probably a local down-and-out; I can't remember). At the end of the play he suddenly revealed that it was all an elaborate game to find out what they were really like. He disinherited the lot of them, and left all his wealth, I suppose, to the one person who didn’t reject him.
All such stories have some resonance of the Incarnation. Some great religious happening on a mountain-top or in the skies would compel your attention; it would impress you greatly but would not sift your spirit or test your depth. It would match your expectation, and would therefore not bring you to a new awareness. It would be all 'out there', and to that extent only a spectacle. We have a great hankering for religious visions and transparent messages, even long after all the ‘moving statues’ have stopped appearing to move. Our religious sensibility has been deeply affected by television and the cinema. But the Incarnation comes closer to us than any spectacle; it comes behind the eye, so to speak.
I spent some time a few years ago in a Cistercian monastery. Monks have many choral Offices throughout the day, three of them being at 6 am (not the first of the day!), noon and 6 pm. As they stood in choir, waiting, facing the altar, the Angelus bell was rung. I expected that they would recite the Angelus, but instead they stood there in silence for a couple of minutes. Somehow it was deeply affecting. The Word became flesh - this flesh. The Word entered our world silently, unobserved. "When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word" (Wisdom 18:14-15).
In Nazareth the Catholics indicate Mary’s house as the place of the Annunciation, while the Greek Orthodox indicate the site of the village well. Nobody knows where it took place, but the symbolism of both places is very affecting. The kitchen and the village well are the most ordinary places in a most obscure village. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip asked. Yes, the greatest of all.
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