Fra Angelico, The Annunciation. 1433-4. San Domenico, Cortona.
This sermon was preached at the 8am and 10am masses at S. Stephen’s Church, Providence, on Sunday December 21, 2014, the fourth Sunday in Advent. The mass setting was Duruflé’s Messe Cum Jubilo and the offertory anthem was Parsons’ Ave Maria.
Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; though the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.
Many of you may know that every day in the Lady Chapel here at S. Stephen’s begins with the Angelus. If you are not familiar with this short devotion, it is simply a pattern of prayer which meditates on the miracle of the Incarnation from the perspective of Our Lady. It consists of a series of three short responses interposed with the Hail Mary, and a final set of petitions asks God to give us some portion of the same grace which filled Mary. Most of the text comes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, which we’ve just heard chanted, along with a few bits from a few other places. If you don’t know the full text, you can easily Google it, or look it up on Wikipedia. If you have smart phones, you even have my permission to look it up now!
I ask all of my students to memorize the Angelus (and, for that matter, anyone else whose arm I can twist!) because I am convinced it contains in a nutshell the whole of the Christian mysteries, and the entirety of Christian prayer. If you can’t find it on your phones, you can also find it in the chapel after mass, or just email me and I’ll send you a copy. It’s worth memorizing, or as someone from 8:00 suggested, print it out and put it in your wallet or your purse. Pray it throughput the day: for help, in thanksgiving, whenever it occurs to you.
The name “Angelus” comes from the first word in Latin of the first set of responses. “The Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.” In Church tradition, Mary is at prayer when the angel appears to her. In art she is often depicted sitting or kneeling, with her prayer book open in front of her. The fact that this is her posture when at the angel’s Annunciation the Holy Ghost overshadows her connects prayer with the Incarnation in a very profound way.
Every time we pray, we open ourselves to the possibility that God will overshadow us, and that we will be incorporated somehow more and more fully into the promises of God from ages past and into his ongoing plan for the redemption of the world. Every time we pray we assume the posture of Our Lady when she became the Mother of Our Lord. Every time we pray we are connected to the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, born for us and our salvation.
“The Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary:” in continuing with the Hail Mary we join in that angelic greeting. We salute the beginning of the world’s redemption. “And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.” We adore the child in her womb, and we pray that his life might carry us through our own death.
If possible, Mary’s response to Gabriel is even more astounding than the Angel’s salutation: “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be it into me according to thy word.” In art it is usually clear that Our Lady is surprised to see the angel; in some pieces she even looks fearful and unsure. And yet there is great strength in her response. “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord.” She echoes Isaiah’s response to his vision of God in heaven, “Here am I, send me.” This is also in the same vein as Samuel, as a boy in the temple, hearing the voice of God, and replying “Speak Lord, your servant listens.” “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord.” Responding in this way places Mary squarely within the prophetic tradition. Meditating on her words helps us take hold of our own responsibility to do the will of God in the world.
But the second part of her reply is even more freighted with meaning: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Be it unto me — another way of saying, ‘Let it be.’ “Let it be to me according to your word.” This is the same verb tense and voice which God himself uses at the very beginning of Genesis to create the world: “Let there be light; let there be a firmament in the heavens; let the waters be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.” “Let it be to me according to thy word.”
It’s easy to be confused about Mary’s response. These days many people seem to see it as merely a passive, powerless assent to the frightening message of a powerful angel. But make no mistake. “Be it unto me according to thy word” is the supreme act of personal agency, connected as it is with God’s own creation of the world ex nihilo, from nothing. In the beginning, the earth was barren and void. At the Annunciation, Mary is virgin and innocent. Her “Let it be” begins an entirely new creation, as human flesh, formerly subject to all the laws of mortality and decay, is now knit forever to God himself, in whom is life eternal, unending and unbegun.
“Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” To pray these words is to embark on an amazing journey through heaven and earth and back again. It is to contemplate the mystery of our salvation, and it is to receive its promise. We return to the Hail Mary with eyes wide in amazement at what God has wrought through Our Lady’s response.
But amazement is not enough. The Angelus continues with a brief commentary on the Annunciation from John’s Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Our amazement at what God has wrought becomes articulated in the central doctrine of the Christian Gospel: that in Jesus, God himself has become flesh and dwells among us. We are not left merely to wonder at the grand scope of our thoughts. We are not allowed to think ideas about God are enough. We are brought face to face with the reality that the Word which spoke creation into existence, which spoke through the prophets and gave hope to the Israelites in exile; the word which had promised salvation from the moment Adam and Eve first left the Garden: the Word has become flesh, a human person, Jesus Christ. This short commentary forces us to see that at a certain point our prayer must leave the world of ideas behind and enter the way of Love: the way of sacrifice and death, repentance and forgiveness.
The Angelus returns us to the Hail Mary, and our amazement has turned to gratitude, as we bless Our Lady for her role in bringing about such a Savior.
The devotion begins to wrap everything up with a humble petition: “Pray for us, O holy mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.” Promises we have already begun to receive, which have taken root in us in our baptism, which are nourished in us by the other sacraments. We strive our whole lives long to be worthy recipients of these gifts, much as we strive our whole lives to return faithfully the love of our family and those closest to us. As we strive to requite the love which we have received, this petition reminds us that we do so in the company of Our Lady who continues to abide with us in the communion of the saints, all of whom pray for us. They pray in her footsteps, and their continuing prayers for us help us to be people in whom the Incarnation of Our Lord is manifest today: as it was manifest in them in their own lifetimes, and chief of all made manifest in that manger in Bethlehem with ox and ass, straw and wood, angels and shepherds, and Our Lady at the center with her Child.
Finally the Angelus concludes with a collect in which the whole circle is completed: Annunciation and Birth to Suffering and Death, to resurrection and eternal glory. We pray that we might be incorporated into this pattern of grace, that we might at last join the Archangel Gabriel, Our Lady, and all the saints and angels, in the eternal contemplation of Our Lord’s saving death and resurrection.
The Angelus is a short prayer: you can say the whole thing – slowly even – and be finished in a minute or less. And yet it contains the seeds of the entire Christian mystery, and the fullness of Christian prayer. The event which it commemorates, Gabriel’s visit to Mary, no doubt took a similarly brief period of time. Yet in those few moments, salvation began for the whole world, a new creation dawned, and God was made flesh.
As Advent draws to a close this year, and Christmas draws near, I commend to all of you the discipline of praying the Angelus. (If you don’t have the text, let me know and I will get it to you.) As we pray it together, and rehearse in our spirits the saving deeds of God, may we be brought near to Bethlehem, join our Lady in prayer, and hear the Angel’s message. May we offer ourselves as a manger for our Lord, and be made new as he is born in our hearts.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Amen.