The Last Sunday of Advent – as the last week of daily Mass readings – frames Christmas with the Gospel readings that lead up to the birth of Christ, the “annunciations”: to Joseph (in Matthew), to Zechariah (for Elizabeth), and to Mary. This readings are important because they “tell” us what is happening.
Our reading from Romans this Sunday points to the importance of this “telling.” “According to my gospel,” says Paul, “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.”
The words of the Gospel, and of the Scripture and proclamations that surround the Gospel, explain to us what is going on. Those words make possible what Paul here calls “the obedience of faith,” whereby we accept that proclamation. In fact, this Sunday’s explanations of who Jesus is take us into the importance of words.
Our Gospel reading is the Annunciation, in Luke. It concludes with Mary’s fiat: “May it be done to me according to your word.” Obviously the Lord’s Prayer has an important point when it says, “your will be done.” But notice that Mary’s fiat is something different: not “will” but “word.”
In fact, this Gospel is important – some of it, at least, worth memorizing – because it tells us who Jesus is. “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.” The Church gives us these words – just as Luke gave them, and Gabriel gave them to Mary – because without the words, we don’t know what is happening.
We say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But a picture cannot tell us that this baby is God. A picture cannot tell us that he is “Son of the Most High,” that he will sit upon a throne, that he will rule. Just like a picture cannot replace Gabriel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” No, we cannot know that the Lord is with her, or that she is full of grace, without words.
It’s unfortunate that the words of our translation water it down to “she was greatly troubled at what was said.” Rather, the original says she was troubled at his word. She “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” – but “pondered” translates “dialogos”: she “dialogues,” “words back and forth,” rolls those words around. She ponders the word.
Think of that. An angel appears! An awesome image! But what shakes Mary is the words. Because the words show that an appearance much less impressive than the angel – the appearance of an impoverished child – is something vastly greater.
So Mary “says” to the Angel (in Greek, she “words”), “how can this be,” and he words back, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” No words, no clarity of what is going on. Ponder these words! Holy Spirit. King. Son of the Most High. The Lord is with us. Fullness of grace.
The first reading takes us back to David, to unpack these words about him “the throne of David his father.” Ignore the words of 2 Samuel, and we can’t understand the words of the Angel in the Gospel.
David wants to build at temple. But the Lord speaks to him. The Lord says that his impulse is good – how nice to know, through the Lord’s words, how to judge our feelings? And the Lord tells him to wait: like Mary, David to is a handmaiden, accepting the commands of his Master.
And then God, through Nathan the prophet (the word means “speaking forward”), makes a promise: “he will establish a house for you. . . . 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.”
Promises are words. They articulate things that could not be without words: what will happen in the future, and the firmness of the kingdom, and the fatherly relationship.” Without hearing the word, we have none of this.
But finally, the words articulate God’s power. Romans calls God, “him who can strengthen you . . . the only wise.” How we need those words!
The Angel tells Mary, “nothing will be impossible for God,” and “of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And the Psalmist “sings” “the promises,” the “faithfulness,” the “covenant,” and the relationship of the “Father.” How we need these words!
Are you listening to God’s word? Do you let him explain to you what’s really going on – both in the manger and in your life?