And the Word was made Flesh
This verse from St John’s Prologue sums up the essence of the Christian Faith: The eternal Son of the Father, He who is ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,’ assumed our human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary. He remained what He was from all eternity (the well-beloved Son of the Father) and also He became what He had not been previously (the Son of Man, our brother.) We contemplate this great mystery every Christmastide and every time we meditate on the Last Gospel at the end of the Mass. The light of Christmas enlightens our whole life, and calls us to the joy of forgiveness and salvation.
In the story of the Annunciation, we find in a microcosm the whole Gospel: all that Jesus did and suffered for our salvation. It is also the time of the fulfilment of the long preparation of Sacred History and the Old Testament, from the promise of a redeemer made in a veiled manner to our first parents after their Original Sin, from the calling of Abraham and of Moses, from the magnificent and tragic history of the people of Israel. God had promised his people a Saviour, a Messiah, and He fulfilled that promise on the day of the Annunciation.
The Angel Gabriel greets the Virgin Mary, and recognises her as the one who is full of Divine Grace, of God’s favour. That is why Mary is the Blessed One. God had prepared her so that she could accomplish that greatest of all vocations, to become the mother of the Son of God. It was wholly appropriate that she should be preserved from all stain of Original Sin, and that she should appear before men ‘decorated with all the favours of the Divine Spirit’ as Blessed Pius IX put it.
In that way, she anticipates by her Immaculate Conception, the grace of salvation, which will be won for all mankind by the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Her Immaculate Conception does not place her outside the work of the Redemption. Mary appears before us, the first of the saved, who benefited in anticipation from the grace of Salvation that her Son was to win for all of us. The Just of the Old Testament were sanctified by the work of Christ (because their teaching and the example of their life prepared the hearts of the people for the coming of the Messiah); in just the same way, the perfect holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the result of the divine grandeur of her vocation: to give the world its Saviour.
The Biblical account reveals to us the nature of the Son who was to be born of the Blessed Virgin. It truly is the Son of the Most High, the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, to whom Mary gives her human nature. This conception is a virginal conception. The glory of Mary’s virginity remains for ever, a sign of her total gift of herself to God, a gift made from the dawning of her conscience. The Magnificat which she proclaims in front of her cousin Elizabeth, shows the degree to which she understands the great work which is being realised in her and by her. It is the most beautiful example of a song of the workings of Grace, marvelling at the work of God that is being accomplished for our sake. That is why the Annunciation is the first of the Joyful Mysteries.
If the Mystery of the Annunciation is first and foremost the mystery of the Incarnation (God made man, becoming one of us) it is also the mystery of the human vocation; that is to say, the mystery of the creature cooperating with his own salvation. The salvation of mankind depended on the Blessed Virgin’s Fiat. The whole of humanity hung upon Mary’s response. Listen to St Bernard of Clairvaux: ‘We too, we are waiting, O Our Lady. Condemned to a miserable sentence of damnation, we are waiting for a word of pity. So, at this moment, you are offered the ransom that will win our salvation. Agree: and we shall be free. We were all of us created in the eternal Word of God; but alas, Death has had his way with us. One short word from you is enough to make us anew, so that we may be called once more to life. O sweet Virgin, Adam implores your answer in tears, exiled as he is, with all his descendants, from Paradise. Abraham also implores your answer, as does David, and indeed all the Patriarchs, your forebears, who are also living in the shadow of death. The whole world awaits your answer, prostrate at your feet. And they are right to do so, because on your word hangs the relief of the wretched, the ransom of captives, the deliverance of the condemned, and in fact the salvation of all the sons of Adam, the whole human race. Do not delay, O Blessed Virgin Mary… Quick! Answer the angel, or rather through the angel, answer God; say but one word and welcome the Word; proclaim your own word, and receive the Word of God; pronounce one fleeting word, and conceive the eternal Word.’ (In Praise of the Virgin Mary)
But before acquiescing to the Angel’s request, before giving her Fiat, the Blessed Virgin asked about the conditions of her mission: ‘How shall this come about?’
We can be quite sure that, unlike Zachary, she did not doubt the word of God; but she wanted to commit fully to her mission: with all her intelligence, with all her will, with all her freedom, in the fullest and most complete way, so as to give herself fully to the Divine Will. Not seeing how God’s work will be brought about, she asks the angel, and is rewarded with a further revelation: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” Two ways of expressing the same reality. The child who is to be born comes from God.
The breath of God is creative. It hovered over the waters from the beginning. It intervenes in the creation of Adam. It gives the heroes of the Old Covenant the power to achieve marvellous and supernatural works. It inspired the prophets and gives wisdom and discernment to the judges and kings. But none of these possessed it in its fullness. It is given to support a particular mission. Nonetheless, the coming of the Messiah is marked by an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit of God (as prophesied by Joel, 3, 1-5, and fulfilled in Acts, 2, 17 – 21), and the Messianic king was to possess it in its fullness (Isaiah, 11, 1-2). Here, that same breath of God is the active principle in the conception of the child. No man has any part to play in this. It is a truly virgin birth. The expression ‘cover you with its shadow’ is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant, in which the tablets of the Law were kept: the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and ‘the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.’ (Exodus 40, 34-35) Now you know why the Litanies call Our Lady the Ark of the Covenant.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is given us as a model of vocation and a model of faith. She sets no limits to the work of God in her. By the mystery of the Annunciation, may we ask for the grace that we never reduce to our own size the truths of the faith and the doctrine of salvation; that we never limit it to our own feeble capacities, or to our petty interests. Instead, let us implore the Holy Spirit to raise our hearts and our souls so that we may welcome in its fullness the message of the Faith. Let us also pray for the grace always to respond more generously to our own vocation; let us develop our intelligence and our will so that we may welcome our vocation as it is revealed to us day by day, and that we may devote all our strength, and all our abilities to respond to it as best we possibly can. Let us also believe that God wants our happiness (although the Devil is always seeking to make us believe the opposite!) and that each of us has a place in His plan of love and salvation. Our joy from this day forward, and our eternal salvation, depend on the way in which we respond to our mission.
If we are already engaged in a way of life, in our family, professionally and socially, let us pray for the grace of perseverance, of fervour and of renewal. If we are searching for our vocation, let us pray to Our Lady of Wisdom to enlighten us and to show us the surest path (which is never the easiest!). If we are worried about our future, or the future of those dear to us, (as Charles Péguy was when he set out for Chartres) ask the Blessed Virgin Mary for the grace of detachment and confidence. She is our admirable and eternal model of a vocation lived out fully in faith, a mission perfectly accomplished. As St Thomas Aquinas wrote, in giving her assent, she represented the whole human race.
The birth of Our Lord, and all the accounts of His childhood, reveal the great mystery of the Incarnation to mankind. Each incident is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to reveal who this Child, born in the poverty of a stable in Bethlehem, really is. We can reflect on what the Angel announced to the shepherds, what we are told about the adoration of the Magi, who came from the East and representing all the pagan nations, signifying the universality of salvation, what Simeon told the Blessed Virgin Mary on the occasion of the presentation of the Child Jesus at the temple, and so on.
Joy is, of course, the dominant note of this mystery of the Nativity, just as it is for the liturgical season of Christmas. But to experience this joy of salvation, we need a humble and believing heart, totally accepting of the message of salvation. “In contemplating these mysteries, the Faithful will not forget that if God has condescended to clothe Himself in the lowliness and infirmity of our nature, it is in order to elevate the human race to the highest degree of glory. In fact, in order fully to understand the eminent dignity, even the superiority, which God, in His goodness, wishes to bestow upon mankind, is it not enough to remember that Jesus Christ, who is truly God, is also truly man?” (Roman Catechism, §2).
The Word assumed a complete human nature. It is in His humanity that He reveals God who is, in His nature, invisible. We see the infant lying in His manger and we adore our Lord and our God. ‘In His fullness, we have received everything,’ as St John reminds us in his prologue. In taking to Himself a body, in becoming flesh, God sanctifies our state. On the day of our baptism, and of our confirmation, we received the Holy Sprit from Christ, who transforms the whole of our being (body and soul) into a temple of the Divine Presence.
Christian asceticism consists of letting sanctifying grace invade our whole being. But that is a real struggle for us, as we are damaged both by the consequences of Original Sin and by our own personal sins. The struggle for purity, for example, by mastering our sensibility, our affectivity and our sexuality, makes us grow and mature, to become capable of an authentic liberty, that of giving ourselves to, and accepting, our vocation. It is a struggle, but it is also a grace to pray for, with perseverance and without being discouraged by any falls or setbacks. It is precisely to free us from our idolatory of, and our enslavement to, evil desires that Christ took on a human nature, like us in all things but sin.
The Hidden Life in Nazareth
We know practically nothing of the first thirty years of Our Lord’s life, in Bethlehem, in Egypt, and then in Nazareth. The Gospel account simply tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom, in stature and in grace, in the sight of God and men; and that He was subject to Mary, His Mother, and to Joseph, His adoptive father.
Charles Péguy spent a long time contemplating this mysterious hidden life. He contrasted the thirty hidden years with the three years of our Saviour’s public life, and the three days of His Passion. He sees a profound unity expressed by these facts; as he is always meditating on the Saviour and His Work. From the first moment of His conception in the womb of His Mother, Jesus is the Redeemer. His hidden life therefore communicates this grace of salvation won for us men. It reveals the grandeur of the every-day, of the accomplishment of simple virtues and of the humble daily realities of our life; the necessity of work to obtain what we need for ourselves and for those in our care, the importance of family life and of social live, sanctified by prayer and our liturgical life; the importance of fidelity to the Gospel’s demands in whatever state of life we are called to… Everything is an occasion for sanctification, and for evangelisation by our example as well as by our spoken words.
The world increasingly ignores these Gospel demands, that reality. That is why, for Charles Péguy, the greatest adventurer there is, is the father of a family, since he is responsible not just for his own life, but for that of his family; he risks more than anybody else, since his choices affect his whole family. He suffers for others: for those for whom he is responsible. He has no claim on anybody, although everyone has a claim on him. In that way, he is like Christ Himself. By His Incarnation, Christ assumed responsibility for all men. Péguy’s own experience led him to be particularly sensitive to the significance of the Hidden Life as it related to the salvation of the world: “It is, paradoxically, the father of the family, the family man, who is the adventurer, who does not just undertake some adventures, but only one, one great, one immense, one all-encompassing adventure; the most terrible and the most consistently tragic adventure; whose whole life is an adventure, the very fabric of life, that ordinary fabric, the daily bread…. Such is the adventurer, the true, the real adventurer.”
Christ knew the adventure of daily bread. The head of a family is never sure about the next day. But in that way of life, he imitates Christ; ‘It is in fact noteworthy, it is momentous, that it is this family life, so decried, so despised, (and Christians should pay more heed to this fact), it is momentous that it should be this family life, so attacked from all sides in our own day, that Jesus should have chosen; that He chose this life from all other possibilities, really, historically, to live for the first thirty years of His earthly existence.’
So, instead of fantasising about other states of life, let us welcome the reality of our current situation, sure that God will give us the grace to accomplish our vocation day by day, despite our weariness, our laziness, our discouragement… It is in that way that we will establish Christendom: first in our own life and then in the world. It is in that way that we will become saints.