Sunday, Dec. 18, is the Fourth Sunday in Advent.
On Dec. 18, Pope Benedict XVI will make a pastoral visit to Rebibbia Prison in Rome. At 10am, in the prison’s central church, the Pope will meet with the detainees and answer their questions. At 11:30am, before returning to the Vatican for the Angelus prayer, the Holy Father will bless a tree planted in memory of his visit.
On Dec. 22, the Pope will deliver his Christmas wishes to the Roman Curia, a “Vatican Christmas party” event that the Pope has distinguished with insightful cultural commentary.
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16; Psalm 89:2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
In today’s Gospel, which is also the Gospel used for the Immaculate Conception feast day, we see an angel treating a woman in a very unusual way.
He says to her, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
When the Gospel says Mary was “greatly troubled” at the greeting, we might think that it is the fact that an angel is appearing to her that greatly troubles her. But that’s not what the text says. The text says that what troubles her is “what was said.”
This greeting is fit for a queen — literally. Mary is confronted with an angel who is speaking to her as if she were royalty, and that seems all wrong to her.
The rest of what Gabriel says to Mary is justification for his decision to open the conversation in this dramatic way.
“Do not be afraid,” he says, first. This is the phrase the angels will say to the shepherds later, and the phrase the risen Christ will say to the apostles. It is also the phrase Pope John Paul II will favor in the 21st century. It is meant to mean: “You who feel you are unworthy for the great deeds being done among you, you need not be concerned. God is behind this decision, and you have no reason to worry about the things God does.”
Next, the angel explained why he is using royal language: Mary would conceive a son who would be called the Son of the Most High. He would rule forever. That puts her in a very specific position: the mother of the Messiah.
Mary knew exactly what he was talking about. She, too, had heard today’s first reading, in which David is promised an heir who would rule forever. She knew today’s Psalm by heart, which proclaims this covenant made with David and his descendants, of which she was one.
She knew that she was being invited to a task of enormous importance — and why an angel would treat the woman in her position like a queen.
Her response to the angel shows a maturity, courage and faith that has inspired generations of saints in the Catholic Church: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Her attitude of acceptance and service is also the burning core of the Christmas spirit.
Mary’s receptivity is what is most important about her, and it is what makes her a queen. The Church at Christmas receives her king. We at Christmas receive Christ into our midst.
Sometimes people consider it almost shameful to say that one of the things they love about Christmas is receiving gifts, but that is a key attitude for Christmas. When we are filled with joy by the outpouring of gifts at Christmas and realize all at once that we are unworthy of all of this, but that it is happening anyway, with Christ’s blessing, we are well on our way to the receptivity Christians are called to.
In this sense, Christmas gift receiving perfectly imitates the state we are in with regard to God. Grace is like Christmas: extravagant, unmerited and unending.
On Christmas morning we are a king for a day to celebrate the one who is King forever.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.