Monday, December 19, 2011

Hail Mary, Full of Grace; Hail Mary, Full of Questions

4th Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation
December 19, 2011

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
28 And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 35 And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 37 for nothing will be impossible for God.” 38 Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26–38 (NAB)

The crowd is packed that evening on a winter’s night in 1975 on the Hudson River in New York, and thousands of cadets enter the auditorium from the cold outside, adding their grey uniforms to the depressingly grey clouds and cold night sky that is West Point in early January. They have been commanded to attend a lecture that evening, but it is from no military historian, politician, or even their commander-in-chief. Tonight they will hear from a very old Archbishop who in 4 years, at age 84, will be dead.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen walks slowly to the podium, not weak with years, but thoughtfully and carefully scanning the audience, smiling brightly, as if nothing he could do, no where he could be, or nothing he could say to anyone in the world was more important that what he would say to those cadets that evening. He wears the bright red colors of an archbishop, and even to a room used to regalia and a sense of formal parade dress, he is spectacular in appearance.

Halfway up in the crowd of grey uniforms, a slightly jaded ex-Catholic, with little use for religion in general and Catholicism in particular, sits in frustration. Yet another boring presentation by some old guy, and even worse, some old religious guy.

But this speaker is different.

Starting strong and getting stronger, Fulton Sheen speaks for over an hour without notes, and no one notices the time. Even the jaded cadet from Virginia is engaged. He hears Sheen say words that will be remembered, words about Christ, and words about the mother of Christ, Mary.
“There is, actually, only one person in all humanity of whom God has one picture and in whom there is a perfect conformity between what He wanted her to be and what she is, and that is His Own Mother. Most of us are a minus sign, in the sense that we do not fulfill the high hopes the Heavenly Father has for us. But Mary is the equal sign. The Ideal that God had of her, that she is, and in the flesh. The model and the copy are perfect; she is all that was foreseen, planned, and dreamed. The melody of her life is played just as it was written. Mary was thought, conceived, and planned as the equal sign between ideal and history, thought and reality, hope and realization.

"She is the one whom every man loves when he loves a woman—whether he knows it or not. She is what every woman wants to be when she looks at herself. She is the woman whom every man marries in ideal when he takes a spouse; she is hidden as an ideal in the discontent of every woman with the carnal aggressiveness of man; she is the secret desire every woman has to be honored and fostered; she is the way every woman wants to command respect and love because of the beauty of her goodness of body and soul. And this Dream Woman, blessed above all women, is the one of whom every heart can say in its depth of depths: "She is the woman I love!"
Sheen went on to a formal reception that night, and I went back to my barracks. But I never forgot what the old Archbishop said that evening, and it has helped me to understand more about Mary than I could ever imagine.
The Blessed Virgin, The Mother of God, theotokos, immaculately conceived, highly favored, blessed above all women.

Today we celebrate the 4th Sunday of Advent, and with it, the Annunciation to Mary.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
And they say that’s only a Catholic prayer.

Seriously, we Christians often don’t know what to do with Mary. While there are extremes of Marian devotion—I like to call them “Marian deviation”—that have been clearly and rightly condemned by the Catholic Church—everything from the appearances of Mary in Poppa John’s pizza in Glendale Arizona—I mean really, Poppa John’s? I would have thought at least Domino’s, since the founder, tom Monoghan, is a Catholic…to the absurd, where you have the picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a gang tattoo, plastered on Mexican billboards like the Golden Arches or the Coke logo—it’s just ludicrous.
On the other hand, some of my brothers are comfortable with a “Hail Mary” only in the fourth quarter of a Bronco’s game—which may be necessary today. They would name their church building St. Anything…rather than name it after Mary, named by the very Bible they claim is their standard, as blessed among all women.

So can we reject the extremes on both edges, and settle down to understand Mary…an unmistakeably human being unarguably touched by the Divine?

The short minutes we have today do not allow a deeper examination—into both Scripture and tradition, to inspired words and correct church teaching—to comprehend more fully these truths. I will leave you with two things about Mary on this third Sunday of Advent, but you have a lifetime to sort them out in your own heart, and apply them to your own lives.

1) Hail Mary, Full of Grace

In our gospel reading today, let’s listen to how the angel greets Mary. In the New American Bible, we read Gabriel say, Luke 1:8-30 “And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

The Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures reads “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”; this is not simply a Catholic translation….in fact, going into the original Greek will reveal far more about the praise that Gabriel has for Mary.

He says in the original khaire kekaritomene χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη—rejoice, the one having been favored. Not “about to get favored”, or “getting favored now”, but already having been favored. It is a pluperfect of state. When did she receive this, but if not in her birth, by divine grace. My Protestant brothers, long afraid of Mary, should open up their Bibles and understand who Mary is Biblically, she is the one FULL OF GRACE. Filled by God, Blessed among all women.   Her divine fiat—her yes to God—is but a continuation of her life of complete obedience to the Father. Answer the question—when was she filled with this grace? I think you will learn why she is favored among all women. She later says, “I am the doulous –the handmaid—of the Lord”

2) Hail Mary, Full of Questions

We understand as we read this that Mary’s was not the obedience of an automaton; like Eve, she possessed complete Free Will without any stain of sin, she was highly favored, but she did question.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And later in verse 34, she said to the angel “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”  

Here we find in the Blessed Mother,  not only the one greatly favored, but the questioning Mary. Here we see that for the first Advent, it was for Mary one of unanswered questions, ones whose answers were not clear, ones that were certainly terrifying, ones that took a lifetime for her to ponder in her heart, questions where only faith can fill in the unanswered.

Her response?

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
In Mary’s response, we can see that it’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to have questions. It’s okay to think that God owes us more of an explanation that He has provided thus far. To paraphrase the immortal Cuban philosopher, Ricky Ricardo, "God, you gots some 'splaining to do!"

It's okay to have the questions, sometimes if that's the only thing we truly own. In fact, with time, the questions can even become our guideposts even if they will never be our friends.

Rainer Rilke, the German Poet, wrote
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Advent is a joyous time, it is a time of great revealing, of great hope, of realization that God continues to reveal Himself, and we treasure ways in which we come to see His son more clearly. I wish that for you this season.

Christmas is next Sunday. Come to Mass. Bring everyone you know. Bring everyone you don’t know.
Come next week in anticipation. Come next week in hope. Come next week in joyful song. Come to see God made flesh, come to see our Savior, who is born in David’s city. Come to join of throng in praise. Come before Santa and presents and too much food and turkey-induced comas attack. Come to Christ, come to Christmas!

But it’s also okay to come next week with our unresolved questions, with our nagging, crippling fears, with things uncertain—and with little hope that answers will ever be found.

Come anyway!

Come especially! Take your place right by me…cause we all have those questions.

It’s okay to come to the manger, to come to the table, with questions like Mary—“how can this be”? and know that there are no easy answers.·    
  • No easy answers for loved ones lost and never returning to this world.
  • No easy answers as to why our spouses and friends are deployed on faraway foreign sands.
  • No easy answers for those who have lost jobs and are losing hope.
  • No easy theology to explain the gut-wrenching destruction of divorce.
But come…come with whatever faith you have…and muster the courage and the fortitude to say with Mary,

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.

Know that God is as please with your “may it be to me according to your Word” as He is with Blessed Mary.

--and She is proud of you, too (whether you believe in her or not!)

As you peer into the manger this Christmas, like Mary, make the faith-filled decision to bring your questions as well as whatever faith you can find. In God made flesh, in God with us—the Hebrew immanu-el—we will find that’s everything is all right.

May it be done to me according to your Word.” 

Surely, that will be enough.

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