Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B
December 21, 2014
2 Sam 7:1-5.8-11.16, Ps 89, Rom 16:25-27, Lk 1:26-38
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
Living Mary’s Mystery in Christ
In April this year, we celebrated with joy the canonization of St. John Paul II. He was known, and wanted to be known, for his love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. He said publicly that his favorite prayer was the Holy Rosary, which he would pray continuously throughout the day between appointments and more formally when he would walk and get some exercise. He took his motto, Totus Tuus, from a formula of total consecration to Mary, meaning that he was all Mary’s, that all he had was hers, that he received her totally into his life like St. John did at the foot of the Cross and begged her to give him her heart so that he would be able to love Jesus with it. He said that when he was in college, he had begun to wonder whether Marian piety could be excessive, whether many of his fellow Poles were so devoted to Mary that it could compromise their relationship with God. But he soon saw, with the help of St. Louis Marie Grignion de Monfort, one of the greatest writers on Mary in Church history, that Mary always leads us to Christ “provided that we live her mystery in Christ.” Our focus on Mary is always meant to help us to enter into her relationship with Jesus, to live the mystery of her life in Christ her Son and Savior.
Each year on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Church has us concentrate on Mary precisely so that we may learn from her how to prepare for and live the mystery of the birth of the Son of God, Christ her Son. Today we focus on what she teaches us in the mystery of the virginal conception of Jesus at the Annunciation. Next year we focus on the mystery of the Visitation, as she with fervent faith and charity takes the newly conceived Jesus on mission to sanctify John the Baptist in the womb and make him leap for joy. Last year we concentrated on St. Matthew’s account of the mystery of Jesus’ birth. What unites all three years is that the Church wants us on this fourth Sunday of Advent to focus on Mary’s living these three joyful mysteries so that we might imitate what she teaches us in these mysteries and obtain what they contain.
The need to relive Mary’s mystery
This need for us to take on this Marian perspective becomes more acute by the year. I think Mary would consider much of what we do to get ready for Christmas quite silly: running around from one store to another, waiting in interminable lines, burying ourselves in wrapping papers, running back and forth to the Post Office, attending various parties, all the while missing out on the essential reason for the season. Before we know it, it’s time for us to get dressed for Christmas Mass. Mary would want to help us leave so much of this craziness behind and focus on our spiritual preparation for Christmas.
There’s another reason she would want us to prioritize getting ready spiritually: We’re living in a culture that no longer supports Christmas like it once did. Out of a warped political correctness coming from secularist trends and a lack of courage on the part of Catholics to challenge that culture, we often no longer hear the saving name of Jesus Christ mentioned much, as if Jesus’ name and the expression “Merry Christmas” were vulgarities not to be mentioned in polite company. It’s becoming rarer to hear the Jesus’ mentioned even on radio stations that advertise that they’re playing Christmas music, where they instead focus on jingling bells, reindeers, Santa Claus’ coming to town, snowmen with corncob pipes, and whether there will be a white Christmas. Television programs and newspapers generally cover Christmas in two ways, obsessing, first, about how much shopping is being done and whether department stores will finish the year in the black, and, second, about those who generously give to support the needy. The latter focus is obviously a good one, but we also have to admit that it misses the main point: Christmas is not principally about anonymous people beautifully paying off strangers’ layaway bills at Walmart, but about God’s unbelievable charity and love toward us in paying off completely our infinite spiritual debt. We need help to focus on what’s most important and the Church gives us Mary precisely for that reason. To be ready for Christmas, we need to learn from her how to prepare, how to re-live the mystery of her preparation in Christ. Let’s see what she teaches us in the scene of the Annunciation that the Church gives us today.
Letting God build us a dwelling with Him
The first thing Mary wants us to relive is her becoming a fitting tabernacle for God. In the first reading today, David wants to build a house for the Ark of the Covenant, for God’s presence. But God tells him, rather, that he was going to build him a house and that his house, kingdom and throne would be established forever. We know that this promise was fulfilled in David’s descendant according to the flesh, Jesus. And when the Son of God took flesh and dwelled among us, he took up his first abode, his first tabernacle, in Mary’s womb, living there for the first nine months of his human life. In our lives we can sometimes be so focused on our doing something for God that we can miss the point that, like for David, God the Father wants to do something for us. He wants to make us a temple where Jesus Christ can come to dwell in a similar way to how he dwelled in Mary. But like David and like Mary we need to cooperate. Mary helps us to get ready to become a tabernacle, to become an ark of the new and eternal Covenant, to become a manger, to become Jesus’ swaddling clothes, enveloping him in our flesh as he gives us himself.
The second thing Mary helps us to relive is her interior preparation before we receive Jesus within. We know how God the Father marked the first Advent in her. Her Immaculate Conception, as we celebrated two weeks ago, was the preparation for holiness to receive God himself within her. The archangel Gabriel refers to Mary as “having been filled with grace.” She was filled with the presence of God and that presence would reach its culmination in the Incarnation. Before she could receive Jesus Christ worthily within her, she needed to be free from sin, and God preserved her from the first moment of her life. Unlike her, we were not conceived immaculately, but God the Father has given us the sacraments of Baptism and Confession so that we, too, can be cleansed interiorly by God and become a fitting abode to receive Jesus full of grace. In this, Mary continues the work of conversion and cleansing John the Baptist has been trying to do in us over the course of the last two weeks. We need to relive that mystery of interior purification and holiness.
Entering Mary’s Prayer in the Rosary and Angelus
The third thing Mary wants to help us relive is her prayer. Her expectant prayer was the prayer of the Jewish people awaiting the Messiah. The Archangel Gabriel said to her, “The Lord is with you,” and she sought correlatively to be with the Lord. She longed for him and filled her day with prayer. In so many of the beautiful depictions of the Annunciation throughout the centuries, like the one on today’s bulletin cover taken from the Annunciation tapesty in the Chapel of Our Lady,Mary has been depicted as kneeling in humble prayer. We’re never going to relive her mystery in Christ without prayer, without carving out the time to meditate on all God’s has done, is doing, and wants to continue to do. We can focus on two prayers in particular that help us to relive her mystery.
The first is the recitation of the Holy Rosary, in which we enter into Mary’s school and contemplate all the mysteries of her Son’s ife from within her contemplative heart. Every time we pray the Rosary, we repeat not once, not twice but 53 times the core of today’s Gospel, which are the words that God had the Archangel Gabriel announce to her and the words the Holy Spirit inspired St. Elizabeth to add. The Rosary allows us to enter more and more deeply into Marian contemplation.
The other prayer I strongly recommend is the prayer of the Angelus, which the Church prays three times a day, at the beginning of the day (traditionally at 6 am), in the heart of the day (traditionally at noon) and in the evening (traditionally at 6 pm). In it we enter three times a day into the heart of this Gospel scene, of the Angel’s announcement — “The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit — of Mary’s response — “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to be according to your word” — and the reality of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Then we ask her as Mother of God to pray for us that we may become worthy of the promises of Christ and then we finish by a beautiful prayer beginning God the Father to pour forth his grace into our hearts so that we, to whom the Incarnation was made known by the message of an Angel, may by Jesus’ passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his resurrection. That prayer that concludes the Angelus is the prayer the Church says throughout the world at the beginning of Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, pointing to the fact that one way we prayerfully prepare best for Christmas, one way we are helped to take more seriously the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation, is through the Angelus. There’s a reason why whenever people come to be with the Pope on Sunday — with Pope Francis today or with Pope Benedict and St. John Paul II before him — is to pray with him the Angelus. This is how central a prayer it is in Catholic piety. The Angelus and the Rosary both help us to enter into Mary’s mystery in Christ and help to relieve it in our own circumstances.
Recovering our Amazement
The fourth thing Mary wants us to relieve is her sense of amazement at the mysteries that God wants to accomplish within us. As pure as she was, as much as she prayed, little could she have ever imagined that, first, the long-awaited Messiah would be God the Son and that God the Son would be her Son according to the flesh. The Word of God took on her flesh and dwelled within her. She became for nine months the living temple of God, much more precious even than the temple that David wanted to build for God. Mary, therefore, can help us rekindle the wonder of our minds and hearts at the mystery of the Incarnation, not merely 2,000 years ago, but every day, whenever we worthily receive a human being’s greatest privilege, Jesus in the Eucharist. For many of us we have lost that wonder because the practice of faith has become routine. Mary can teach us how to rediscover that amazement as we approach the celebration of the Mass and the commemoration of the birth of her Son.
Becoming God’s mother with Mary
Lastly, Mary wants us to relive her mystery in the continual cooperation God wants from us, allowing God’s to grow within us and change our lives. As any parent knows, the conception and birth of a child transforms a parent’s life, changing sleeping patterns, eating or smoking patterns, spending patterns, and so much more. The celebration of the birth of Jesus is meant to alter our lives in a similar way.
Six years ago, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, gave some beautiful Advent reflections on how we’re called to imitate Mary as mother. He said that there are two essential acts of motherhood we’re called to emulate. Mary was told by the Archangel Gabriel that she was , first, to conceive in her womb and, second, bear a Son and he said, that we, too, are called to conceive and give birth to Jesus. The question is how. Fr. Cantalamessa answered that question by taking us to the part in the Gospel when Jesus was preaching in a crowded house and they told him that his mother and his relatives were all outside wishing to see him. Jesus replied by saying, “My mother and my brothers and my sisters are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” This shows us that we become “mother” to Jesus by a two-fold action: the first is to “hear the word of God,” which Fr. Cantalamessa relates to “conceiving” Jesus, the Word of God, within our hearts. The second action is to “put that word into practice,” which he relates to childbirth.
There are many people, he says, who are guilty of a sort of spiritual abortion or miscarriage, when the word of God that we’ve conceived within either is killed through deliberate sin or when it dies for other unintentional causes. The power of the Most High, the Holy Spirit, overshadows us so that the word that has been planted may grow and bear fruit, may come to light, but we need to treasure that word of God within us just like Mary did. We need to give birth to the word by putting the word into practice, by living with Jesus in our moral choices and actions.
On the other hand, Fr. Cantalamessa says that actions are not enough; they need to be actions in response to the conception of the Word. There are some insufficient forms of motherhood today in which a mother gives birth without first conceiving the child in a way, when child is manufactured, for example, in a test-tube through in-vitro fertilization. To all external appearances, a woman who has been artificially inseminated in this way seems to be a mother like any other, but not in the full sense God intended, which involves conception, then pregnancy, then birth. Spiritually there are many today, Fr. Cantalamessa says, who focus on action, even good action, but who don’t first “conceive.” Their actions are not a fruit of cooperation between a human being and God, but only a work of human “technique;” their actions are made, not begotten. There’s not a “hearing” first, there’s not prayer. To imitate Mary’s motherhood, we need both conception and birth. Our vocation like hers involves both.
Pope Benedict talked about how we’re called to conceive and give birth to Jesus in his exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. It’s one of my favorite passages in any papal document. He wrote, “Mary is the image of the Church in attentive hearing of the word of God, which took flesh in her, … an active listening that interiorizes and assimilates, one in which the word becomes a way of life. … As we contemplate in the Mother of God a life totally shaped by the word, we realize that we too are called to enter into the mystery of faith, whereby Christ comes to dwell in our lives. Every Christian believer, Saint Ambrose reminds us, in some way interiorly conceives and gives birth to the word of God: even though there is only one Mother of Christ in the flesh, in the faith Christ is the progeny of us all. Thus, what took place for Mary can daily take place in each of us, in the hearing of the word and in the celebration of the sacraments.” I want to repeat that last sentence. What took place for Mary can take place in each of us daily, when we hear the Word, when we receive the Word made flesh in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, when we allow Jesus and his word to grow within us in such a way that we give birth to him in loving actions. Pope Benedict stresses that we, too, are called to conceive the Word within — which is not just Jesus’ words but also the Word made flesh in the Eucharist — we’re called to nourish that word with our own life and allow Jesus and his words to grow within us; then we need to give birth to Jesus and share him with others. This is what Mary shows us how to do. This process happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, who seeks to overshadow us as he did Mary. Our response is likewise supposed to imitate Mary’s. She said, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” That’s what this week is meant to help us to do, so that we might say, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let my life develop according to your Word, O God.”
Reliving Mary’s Faith
In his Angelus meditation this morning to a packed St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis focused on this total response of Mary to conceiving and giving birth to the Word of God. He said, “Today, the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, … we fix our glance on the simple girl of Nazareth, at the moment in which she makes herself available to the divine message with her “yes,” [and] we capture … essential aspects of her attitude that are for us a model of how to prepare for Christmas. Above all we [ponder] her attitude of faith, which consists in hearing the Word of God through abandoning herself to this Word with full availability of mind and heart. Responding to the Angel, Mary says, ‘Behold the servant of the Lord: let it happen to me according to your word.’ In her ‘behold the Lord’s servant,’ full of faith, Mary doesn’t know by which roads she will have to travel, what sorrows she’ll have to suffer, what risks she’ll need to confront. But she is aware that it is the Lord who is asking her to entrust herself totally to Him, to abandon herself to his love. This is the faith of Mary!”
To relive Mary’s mystery in Christ is to live by faith in this same way. To abandon ourselves to God’s love, to entrust ourselves to his plan. This is the way we need to prepare for Christmas. We turn to her with the words of the Archangel, with the words of St. Elizabeth, with the words of the Church throughout the centuries and ask her to pray for us so that God may help us to learn and relive her mystery as a temple of God’s presence, cleansed and holy, prayerful, full of wonder and cooperative in his plans so that we, too, may be true servants of the Lord whose whole lives develop according to God’s word and will. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus!, whom we are preparing to receive now and let him grow, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate in just five days, and to whom be power, and honor, glory, and praise forever and ever.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 2 sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
Nathan answered the king,
“Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you.”
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?’“It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”
Responsorial Psalm ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29
The promises of the LORD I will sing forever;
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, “My kindness is established forever”;
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations.”
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“He shall say of me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the Rock, my savior.’
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.”
R/ For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
Reading 2 rom 16:25-27
Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Alleluia Lk 1:38
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel lk 1:26-38
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“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 called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.