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4th Sunday of Advent  

21 December 2017


2 Samuel 7.1-11,16; Canticle: Magnificat; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38


THERE are two annunciations in today’s Gospel: God’s to Mary, and Mary’s to God (Denis McBride, Waiting on God). After addressing Mary with the news of God’s redeeming plan, the angel awaits an answer. In one of his Advent homilies, Bernard of Clairvaux observes that the whole human race waits with him: “We, too, are waiting, O Lady. . . We shall be set free at once if you consent.”

Mary’s response is itself a work of grace; hence she is greeted by the angel in v.28 as kecharitomene, “graced one” (Robert Karris, “The Gospel According to Luke”, New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmeyer, Roland Murphy). Her assent unlocks a flow of grace which will restore the whole created order. In the words of one Orthodox hymn to Mary:


You have made answer for the creation
To the redeeming will of God.
Light, fire and life, divine and immortal,
Joined to our nature you have brought forth,
That to the glory of God the Father,
Heaven and earth might be restored.


Just as Christ is the “new Adam” (Romans 5.12-19; 1 Corinthians 15.20-22), a number of patristic writers describe Mary as the new Eve. For example, Irenaeus of Lyons writes that “what Eve bound through her disobedience, Mary loosed by her faith” (Against Heresies).

While it is Christ who wins our salvation, God makes Mary’s assent a crucial part of the story. This pattern — of God’s initiating a saving work, and then choosing to wait on humanity’s response — runs through the biblical story. As Isaiah tells his readers: “The Lord waits to be gracious to you . . . blessed are those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30.18).

In the Christ-child, God places himself quite literally in Mary’s hands. Jesus will take her features, and be nourished by her body. She and Joseph will teach him the words by which he addresses his Father in heaven. He will speak with their accent.

Mary’s response to God is not simply a matter of passive acceptance. As any parent or carer can confirm, raising a child is a demanding and active task. In saying “yes” to God, both Mary and Joseph are taking on the tough, dedicated task of nurturing and protecting.

This Sunday’s liturgy invites us to see Mary as a model for our own discipleship. In the prayer after communion, we ask God to “fill us your servants with your grace, that in all things we may embrace your holy will and with her rejoice in your salvation”.

If Mary is to be a model, the two passages from Luke set for Sunday (the Gospel and the canticle) highlight some of the qualities that she exemplifies. These qualities are themselves fruits of grace, and also enable grace to flow through her. She is thoughtful (v. 29, see also 2.51), obedient (v. 38), and courageous — not least in her willingness to risk scandal as an unmarried woman conceiving a son (vv. 27, 34). The Magnificat reveals her as a woman immersed in the scriptures and joyful prayer.

The Old Testament reading and the epistle place the story of the annunciation in the wider drama of salvation: 2 Samuel 7.1-16 looks forward, announcing God’s plan for David’s descendants. Instead of David’s providing God with a house, God will establish the house of David for all eternity. This is the promise fulfilled in the first chapters of Luke, but the fulfilment takes a wholly unexpected form. Having rejected King David’s offer to build a house for the ark of his presence, God instead takes flesh in the womb of a young woman of no earthly status.

By contrast, the epistle looks back. Paul’s final benediction offers a joyous summation of the message of salvation. After his greetings to individual Christians in Rome, he sums up the core of what he wants to communicate about God’s redemptive work: the “mystery that was kept secret through the ages” (v. 25). It is “now disclosed” in a form beyond all previous human imagining.

As our Advent journey comes to an end, God now waits for us to respond to his saving action with the “obedience of faith” (v. 26).

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