Monday, 9 April 2018

The Annunciation of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:10; Psalm 39 (40); Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38

In the first reading the Lord offers King Ahaz a sign, coming either from the depths of Sheol or from the heights above. This is where we would expect any decent sign to come from, from out of this world, either from the depths or from the heights, something to make us sit up and take notice.

The sign eventually given is not the one first offered, an offer Ahaz rejects. Instead it is the most natural, the most ordinary sign: a young woman will give birth to a son and her son will not only continue the line of David but will rule wisely and well. He is Hezekiah, one of the best of the kings of Judah, the son of Ahaz and the young woman.

More of the same, then, we might be tempted to say, but in the circumstances of threats against Judah, the southern kingdom, and the fall of Israel, the northern kingdom, a sign that Judah would survive and even prosper was, surely, a welcome one. And this is what the birth of this good king meant: God was still with his people.

Mary does not exactly ask for a sign when she hears Gabriel's message. 'How can this come about', she says, 'since I am a virgin?' The natural and ordinary pregnancy and birth of this child, another son of the house of David, becomes supernatural and extraordinary: the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the child will be holy and will be called 'Son of God'. Undoubtedly a sign from the heights above, then, this child who will rule wisely and well, and whose kingdom, unlike that of Hezekiah, will have no end.

What about the depths of Sheol though? Well, he is to be called 'Jesus', or 'Joshua', the one who led the people through the waters of the Jordan, out of the wilderness and into the land flowing with milk and honey. Let what you have said be done to me, Mary says, and the child is conceived in her body. The offering of the body the child receives from Mary is the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world: this is what today's second reading teaches.

The natural and ordinary is under constant threat from the depths of Sheol. All that is, and lives, and seeks to love, is pulled down by a void of nothingness from which it has come, by the fascination of evil which distorts its desire, by a kind of gravity towards death which brings disintegration, disharmony, and utter darkness.

So the body cannot remain peaceful and serene, natural and ordinary. As he grows in strength and wisdom, so too forces of evil gather against him and the kingdom that has no end is established through a battle that pits the heights above against the depths of Sheol. Asked whether he thought Vatican Two's document on the church in the world should be more optimistic or more pessimistic Cardinal Jean DaniƩlou replied 'both'.

We are unlikely to overestimate the power of darkness - part of its power is precisely to turn us the other way, to underestimate its power (except when we see it working dramatically in others), even to forget it as applying to ourselves. But we can never overestimate the power coming from above, the power of the Spirit that overshadowed Mary, the power of the holy king who is called Son of God, the power of the Father, infinite and eternal, wise and good.

The battle is engaged in the body Jesus received from his mother. All who are incorporated into that body draw close to this battle, Mary in the first place in the sufferings she endured, all who make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, the Church which is his body and which itself at times seems close to disintegration, disharmony, utter darkness.

We may not have asked for a sign, perhaps for fear of tempting the Lord our God. But we have been given one not in the ordinary and naturally beautiful body of the child recently born but in the body hanging on the cross, a body which Mary allowed to come about ('let what you have said be done'), a body that remains a sign of contradiction, revealing the depths of the world's sin but from whose defeated side flows the life of that kingdom that is without end, the everlasting kingdom of justice, love and peace.

You can listen to this homily here

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