Being Catholic on Annunciation Day, 2019


This is the will of God: Your sanctification. (I Thessalonians 4:3)

God wills our holiness. Our salvation. Our union with Him.

In the unfolding of this unimaginably kind divine will, God became man in the womb of the Virgin. She freely submitted to God’s will, to become God’s human mother. Her free submission echoed the free submission of the eternal Son, Who, becoming man, declared to His Father: ‘Behold, I come to the earth to do Your will.’ He said it again thirty-three years later. ‘Father, let this chalice of suffering pass from me! But not my will, but yours, be done.’

We had a parish-cluster discussion yesterday afternoon about Pope Francis’ ministry. We had various opinions among ourselves on a number of subjects. But we all agreed about the challenge we face:

One the one hand, we know that our membership in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church includes loyalty to St. Peter’s successor. There is no other sure way to belong to Christ’s Church, the family of faith founded on God’s incarnation in the Blessed Mother’s womb.

But on the other hand: From outside the Church, people see this very institutional loyalty of ours as morally unsound. How can you continue to associate yourselves with such a corrupt institution?

We cannot dismiss this question as anti-Catholic bigotry. To the contrary, human decency and genuine honesty motivate the question. Our institutional loyalty to the Church looks dishonest and indecent to non-Catholics, and we have no solid argument to offer them in rebuttal. Our only arguments involve appeals to realities of faith, which we cannot reasonably expect non-Catholics to accept.

We have to live here. We have to face this challenge. We will not blindly deny that the house is on fire, and that no competent firemen have yet arrived at the scene–at least as far as we can tell.

But we also will not abandon our faith in the unfathomably kind divine will, which Mary fulfilled on this holy day. And which Jesus fulfilled. And which is, simply: Our salvation.


Our Lady’s Holiness, and Our Lord’s

El Greco Virgin Mary

The Blessed Virgin longed for salvation. She longed for the completion, the fulfillment of God’s loving plan. Her total consecration to God from the moment of her own conception in her mother’s womb did not make her less eager for the redemption of the sin-soaked world; it made her all the more eager for it.

The idea that Jesus and Mary could ever “compete” for our admiration or devotion; the idea that they could have a “holiness contest?” No.

The perfectly holy Blessed Mother longed to conceive the Christ more than any human being ever long for anything. Because she longed like no one else ever has for the salvation of the world.

Once she had conceived Jesus, Mary longed to give birth to Him, to gaze upon Him–more than any mother has ever longed to give birth. Not because Mary experienced extraordinary physical strain during pregnancy, but because her matchless purity as a human being made her long more than anyone else to see God.

Holiness as a human being doesn’t make you long for the holiness of God less. It makes you long for God more.

So maybe we could put it like this: Human holiness during this pilgrim life = emptiness. The spiritual life involves emptying ourselves, as much as we can, of all the folderol that distracts us from the one, true thing—God. We strain throughout our lives to have the emptiness that our Lady had from Day One.

On the other hand, divine holiness is fullness. Divine holiness fulfills the fundamental emptiness of us lowly creatures made of dust and ashes.

Mary is a mother. Not just any mother–she was empty enough to conceive a son by believing in God’s love for His creation.

Jesus is a son.  Not just any son. The Creator.

Our Lady vs. the Gnostics and Pelagians

The Angel Gabriel from heaven came. He came to Our Lady on March 25. But we couldn’t have Annunciation Day on Palm Sunday. Or during Holy Week, or the Easter Octave. So this year, Mary will give birth on December 25, after only 8 ½ months.

At the Annunciation, the holy Incarnation occurred. Actually, calling the mystery the “holy” Incarnation is redundant, since “Incarnation” means God becoming man, and God is Holiness Itself, of course.

After she conceived the Lord in her womb, the Blessed Mother traveled to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin, and she sang her canticle, the Magnificat. Mary called herself a lowly servant upon whom the Lord had looked with favor, showing the strength of His arm and scattering the proud in their conceit.

Pride gets in the way of our friendship with God. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has identified two forms of pride that lead to heresy. And he asks us to examine our consciences for these dangers.

Gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics called themselves Christians. But they didn’t really believe in the Incarnation or the Church. Instead, they held to what they regarded as their own privileged knowledge of God.

gaudete et exsultateI think this heresy does indeed continue to lurk all over the place. Many people put their own ideas ahead of the teachings of Scripture and the Church.

For instance, statements like: “God is greater than any religion, since religion is something that human beings do.” Okay, true enough. But how about this: “God is greater than that idea—the idea that God is greater than any human religion.” After all, God is in fact so awesomely great and transcendent that He became a man and practiced religion Himself. The religion of Jesus is the true religion, because it is not just a human religion, but is also the work of God.

Pelagianism. The ancient Pelagians thought that they could perfect themselves through their own efforts. They called themselves Christians because they regarded Jesus as their great example. But the Pelagians refused to confront the fundamental fact about human salvation. They refused to acknowledge: without Christ’s grace; without God giving His justice and goodness to us, even though we did not deserve it–we would have no hope. The Pelagians would not acknowledge the utter neediness of the human situation. Therefore they could not really rejoice in the gift that God has given us by sending His Son.

Again I think our Holy Father is absolutely right that this heresy lurks everywhere today: wherever human egos put themselves in the place of God, Who lovingly places on our shoulders not a burden of servitude, but the sweet and gentle yoke of His Son Jesus.

Let’s contemplate Our Lady singing her Magnificat. The angel had demanded that she have faith beyond the limits of human conception. Her prospects for a comfortable life had gotten thrown out the window. The entire course of history would turn on the life of the fruit of her womb. And she would have to go along for the ride, without having any idea ahead of time how it would all unfold.

Yet she sang with solemn, exuberant joy—not about herself, but about the good, merciful Lord. God had drawn her closer to Himself than any human being ever; He had made her the queen of His saints. And she had the rough-and-ready humility to take a mother’s delight in it.

The Drama of Our Lady’s Yes


Archangel Gabriel came from heaven to greet our Lady and to make a declaration. ‘You will give birth to the divine king. Name Him Jesus.’ [SPANISH.]

Then Mary asked a reasonable question, touching on the birds and the bees. The archangel gave her an answer, mentioning the Holy Spirit.

There was a brief silence. Let the sexual harassers of the world take note: nothing would happen without Mary’s consent. The Archangel Gabriel waited for an answer. Our Lady had the power to decide whether or not she would become the Mother of God.

Let’s listen to St. Bernard, as he narrated the drama of that moment in one of his sermons:

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him.

St. Bernard goes on. He speaks to our Lady on behalf of the human race:

We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

We all find ourselves involved in that moment, the moment of the Annunciation, as the archangel awaited our Lady’s consent. In a sense, we were all there, waiting. Yes, each of us has our own unique course of life to run. But none of us escapes the common fate of all the children of Adam. We need a Savior. We need the Messiah Who can liberate us from our own weaknesses, Who can atone for all our mistakes, and Who can give us a life that death cannot destroy.

St. Bernard continues, describing how everything will unfold if the Virgin says Yes:

Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

…”O blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith.” St. Bernard has profound insight into Our Lady’s soul. Her consent to the Archangel required a great act of Christian faith. She had  to believe–to believe that God loved the world so much that He would give His only-begotten Son. She had to believe that the Holy Spirit could make her the Virgin Mother of the eternal Word. And she had to trust that God in His providence would see her through all the excruciating difficulties that she knew she would face.

In other words, Mary conceived a son in her womb by believing precisely what we believe. That God is one God in three divine Persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that the Son willed to unite Himself to our race, so as to become our Savior. In one all-important moment, Christ’s human life began, and Christianity began, with a young girl believing in the magnificent providence of God.

As we just heard, St. Bernard concludes his narration with dramatic fervor, coaching the Virgin, exhorting her, fathering her. ‘Believe, young lady! God is that good.”

Did Mary believe? She did. How do we know? She said:“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

The Opposite of Sexual Harassment

This month we read St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation three times at Holy Mass. We read it on December 8; we read it today; we will read it again on Sunday.

You can’t meditate on the Annunciation too much, of course. We spend at least two decades of Hail Marys a week meditating on it, if we say the Rosary every day. And we try to recite the Angelus at least once a day, if not three times a day.

El Greco Annunciation

We’ll talk about this more on Sunday, when we will read this gospel passage yet again. But let’s focus for a moment on a highly topical aspect of the Annunciation, given all the recent news about men getting fired for being aggressive pigs.

Let’s remember that the Annunciation does not only involve the angel’s message. The angel brought an amazing message, but that’s not the whole thing. The Annunciation also involves: Mary consenting to the angel’s proposal.

In other words, what happened at the Annunciation is like the polar-opposite of sexual harassment. A predatory man makes a sordid suggestion, and then he won’t take No for an answer. Meanwhile, the Archangel Gabriel made a sublimely pure and beautiful proposal, and then patiently waited for a Yes before he made another move.

mary-logo1Mary could have said No. She could have said: Wait a minute. Give up normal married life and the prospect of a large and prosperous family? Expose myself to unimaginable solitudes and sufferings? Jump off into the abyss of faith, just because you say God has a plan here? No, thanks. I’m not that kind of hero. Go annunciate to someone else.

Mary could have said all that, and who would have blamed her? But, instead, she said Yes. Just like Jesus gave Himself up completely to the will of the Father and went obediently to the cross, Mary gave herself over completely to the supernatural plan announced by the archangel, and she wound up at the foot of the cross.

Only the immaculate one could have managed such an all-encompassing Yes. Only Mary conceived without sin had a heart pure and unified enough to say that Yes. To say it once and for all, and never doubt, and never flinch from a single duty that her unique mission imposed upon her.

(That’s why we read this passage on December 8, by the way. Even though reading about the Annunciation on Immaculate Conception Day can cause some confusion regarding whose conception was immaculate, and Whose was virginal.)

Anyway, let’s just pray. O Mary most-pure, help win us the graces we need to imitate your sinless, selfless Yes.

Henry Tanner Annunciation, A Couple Books, y Homilia en Español


A kind parishioner gave me a large print to hang in my office, as a Christmas present. A Realist rendition of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit, with our Lady looking appropriately Semitic. Years ago I laid eyes on the original, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Quite a coincidence to receive this gift today, since I was just reading Bill Bryson about his visit to the museum, which he recounts in The Lost Continent:

My friend Hal pointed out to me, in the middle of Fairmount Park, the palatial Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had become the city’s top tourist attraction, not because of its collection of 500,000 paintings, but because its front steps were the ones Sylvester Stallone sprinted up in Rocky. People were actually coming to the museum in buses, looking at the steps and leaving without ever going inside to see the pictures.

…Ever read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton? Talk about a magnificent Realist-school work of art. As exquisitely precise as Jane Austen’s finest, with the polar-opposite emotional effect.

…Between December 21 and 24, we read at Holy Mass from the near-beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the accounts of the Visitation and the birth of St. John the Baptist. These Mass readings include the great Gospel canticles, which the Church sings daily in the Divine Offices for morning and evening, the Magnificat and the Benedictus. Tomorrow morning, the Advent Mass readings conclude with Zechariah’s song. Here’s a homily on it, in Spanish. (You can read the English by clicking here.)

…Cada mañana, la Iglesia saluda a la madrugada con la oración. Una de las oraciones diarias de la mañana de la Iglesia es el cántico que Zacarías cantó cuando se enteró de que el Cristo había venido.   Los monjes, monjas, sacerdotes y muchos laicos, también: todos cantan o recitan esta misma canción como parte de nuestras oraciones cada mañana.

“Bendito sea el Señor, que ha llegado a su pueblo y levantó un Salvador poderoso, cumpliendo sus promesas a los profetas.”

La canción de Zacarías expresa el contenido de la promesa de Dios con una manera particularmente elocuente.  El Señor prometió que Su pueblo serían liberados de las manos de los enemigos, de modo que sea capaz de “culto sin temor, santo y justo a los ojos de Dios.”   El Salvador recién-nacido hace que esto sea posible para nosotros:  Adorar a Dios sin miedo, de pie delante de Él en la santidad.

philadelphia-museum-of-artEsta es la paz de la humanidad, este culto sin cargas.  Los ángeles cantaron, y nosotros tambien cantamos : “Gloria a Dios y paz a los hombres de buena voluntad.”  Esta es la salvación: adorar a nuestro Creador con un corazón en reposo, con la conciencia tranquila.

El antiguo Israel tenía muchos enemigos, pero el enemigo verdadero es el pecado, la falsedad –vacío interior que sólo conduce a la muerte.  El pecado hace que sea imposible adorar a nuestro Creador y Señor sin temor. Porque la verdad es la verdad, y los ojos de Dios ven todo. Si no estamos en un estado de verdadera honestidad con nosotros mismos, nunca vamos a estar en un estado de paz real.

Cristo ha venido precisamente para liberarnos de las garras de este, nuestro mayor enemigo: nuestra falta de honradez con nosotros mismos.  Nuestro orgullo grandioso tonto.  Los sabios de entre nosotros siempre han declarado: “Tu primer deber es conocerte a ti mismo!”  Y no hay objetivo que ha sido más imposible que logremos.

Cristo no vino a la tierra para decirnos que somos maravillosos, que somos hot-shots, que tenemos todo junto.  Porque no somos, y no lo tenemos. Lo que vino Él a hacer es morir por nosotros, por amor a todos nosotros los pecadores incorregibles.

Así que podemos estar sin temor ante Dios Todopoderoso y admitir la verdad: que no somos perfectos. No somos divines.  Somos Don Nadie.  Estamos indefensos y perdidos sin la ayuda de Dios.  Cristo nos ha liberado de nuestros pretextos ridículos por su hermosa demostración del hecho de que Él ama a todos los Don Nadies.  Él ama a perdedores desventurados.

Es realmente sólo interesado en perdedores. Las personas hermosas, perfectas Él deja a su libre albedrío, para disfrutar de su supuesta genialidad en su propio ámbito de autonomía–que en realidad es un reino de espejos rotos y la decepción que nunca termina.

Pero, para nosotros los ineptos irresponsables, el amor de Jesús puede darnos la fuerza para conocernos a nosotros mismos en la verdad.  Él derramó su sangre por nuestros pecados, para que todo lo que tenemos que hacer para ser libre de ellos es confesar– en el gran acto de honestidad cristiana que cumple con todas las antiguas profecías.   ‘Señor, ten piedad de mí, pecador.’  ‘Hijo, tu fe te ha salvado! Tus pecados son perdonados. Sigue tu camino.’

Entonces podemos adorar a Dios sin miedo!  Podemos conocer la paz emocionante de un día vivido completamente en la verdad. Y podemos ver con alegría como la aurora de lo alto amanece sobre nosotros en toda su gloria.

Bendito y alabado sea el Señor Jesucristo, ahora y siempre y siempre y siempre.

St. Bernard Articulates Our Lady’s Annunciation-Day Desire

Francisco Ribalta, Christ Embracing St. Bernard, at the Prado in Madrid


If anyone could get inside Our Lady’s head, the Mellifluous Doctor, who died 863 years ago today, could do it.

Did the Blessed Virgin react with blank and passive submission to the Annunciation?  Or did the archangel find a woman full of intense, pure, feminine desire?

Every year on December 20, we read a dramatic sermon of St. Bernard’s in the Divine Office.  The whole world awaits the Virgin’s response to the Archangel Gabriel.  Speaking on behalf of the human race, the preacher begs her to co-operate with the plan the angel has laid out.

In his next sermon, St. Bernard expressed the spiritual longing that moved Our Lady to say yes…

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word.

May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word.

May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived, that is, clothed in flesh which may remain.

May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time.

“God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1), to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures.  Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.

Be it done unto me, not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me.

In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.”

Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me.

Thomas Merton loved St. Bernard almost more than life itself. Merton explained the Doctor’s words like this:

The Incarnation of the divine Word is due entirely to the desire for Him which the Holy Spirit enkindled in the Immaculate Heart of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.  The hunger and thirst of Mary for the incarnation of the Word are the cause of our own hunger and thirst for Him.


Annunciation-Day Faith


Let’s try to hear the Archangel Gabriel’s words as Mary heard them, letting go of our knowledge of subsequent events.

You will bear a son, who will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Now, Mary had faith as pure as anyone has ever had. But she also certainly had a practical turn of mind. Her subsequent question aimed solely at the immediate logisitcal difficulties. Usually no man means no baby.

Had Mary not thought in such humble, practical terms, she might have asked: “Hold on. What are you talking about? Can you please explain the meaning of your grand phrases?”

Son of the Most High. Throne of David. House of Jacob. Endless kingdom. Sounds grand. But what exactly does it all mean?

Now, one thing Mary certainly understood immediately, with no need of explanation. The angel was telling her that she was to give birth to Moshiach.

Bar Elyon (Son of the Most High), throne of David = Messiah. Mary certainly instantly understood this much: The angel was telling her that she would give birth to the Messiah.

1967-Cadillac-EldoradoClear as a bell. Except for the fact that the entire New Testament drips with evidence that, while the Jewish people awaited the Messiah with eager longing, they hardly had a clear consensus about what the Messiah would do exactly.

Kick out the Romans. Distribute raisin cakes. Make the High Priests more honest. Sing better than King David himself. Bring an end to history. Give a new beginning to history. Not a lot of clarity there.

So, back to the Blessed Mother: One thing did immediately happen. She got pregnant. She said Yes to the angel, and she got pregnant. So she knew that the angel did not lie. She had the Messiah in her womb. Then, nine months later, more proof came: the shepherds and wise men arrived, making momentous declarations about the baby.

But, putting ourselves once again in Mary’s sandals: Wouldn’t all these proofs that Yes, He is the Messiah–wouldn’t they have made the obscurity and total normalcy of the ensuing years all the more mysterious? She knew He was the Messiah. But He grew up and became a carpenter.

If it were you or me mothering this Messiah, we would certainly be thinking, “My boy’s the Son of the Most High. Where’s my Cadillac? Why aren’t I rich and famous, like Queen Elizabeth?”

Mary watched her only Son, the Messiah, be crucified and then die in agony.

‘But the angel said something about the throne of David and an endless kingdom… What the…?’

Mysterium fidei. In the gospels, don’t we hear the Lord Jesus trying to get the people to grasp this over and over again? The mission of the Messiah is a mystery of faith. The only Cadillac involved is the interior Cadillac that carries us straight to the throne of the heavenly Father, the Cadillac that does us more good than a million Rolls Royces.

Believing. Like Mary believed, without understanding, from Word One spoken by the Archangel Gabriel, all the way through to Easter Sunday morning.

Our Lady Awake

The Lord promised king David that the Messiah would spring from his loins. The house of David would produce the Savior and Redeemer, the everlasting king whose reign of peace would endure with the perpetual youthfulness of God Himself.

But, the prophet told the king, it would all come to pass at a future time, when David himself slept. Slept in death with his fathers.

king davidOn the other hand, when the time came, a thousand years later, for the fulfillment of this prophecy, the Blessed Virgin Mary was very much awake.

We don’t know what hour of the day or night the Archangel Gabriel arrived. Whenever it was–early morning, midnight, late afternoon, evening time–whenever it was, Mary was not snoozing.

The idea of the Blessed Virgin Mary sleeping–actually, it’s hard to picture. Did she snore when she slept? Hard to imagine the Blessed Virgin snoring. I, for one, do not think she snored.

Certainly, our Lady slept sometimes. I mean, people need sleep. Sometimes she would close her eyes for a little while, and St. Joseph would hold the baby.

But, of all the people who have ever lived, the Blessed Virgin Mary may well be the one we would least associate with the idea of snoozing. Lounging. Lolling around. Vegging. Binge-watching whole seasons of Law and Order, supine on the couch for hours. No.

When he came to speak with our Lady, the Archangel Gabriel found her alert and recollected. Reading, perhaps. Or meditating. Or praying for her family, or neighbors, or future husband. Reflecting on a passage of the Torah, or one of the books of the prophets. Or quietly chanting a psalm to God.

espressoNot anxious. Not agitated. Not stressed. Not buzzing on the first-century-Palestine equivalent of Starbucks or 5-Hour Energy. No. Calm. But altogether awake.

“Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord has chosen you.”

She didn’t say, “What’s that?” or “Come again,” or “Huh?” She heard it very clearly the first time.

Now, what does it mean for a member of the human race to be truly awake?

Our survival of course demands our taking action to provide for our sustenance, so we cannot sleep all the time. We have to wake up and do something to keep from starving to death.

When we bestir ourselves, what do we perceive? Family, neighbors, the world around us. The buzz of tv or the ambient muzac. My own appetites. My own thoughts, my own meditations. My memories. My anxieties.

What about being awake like the Virgin Mary, at the moment the archangel chose to visit her?

Seems like she perceived all the elements of her environment, and her interior life. She perceived it all, and she perceived something else, too.

alarm clockSeems like Mary perceived that the day–or the night, whichever it was, at that moment; she perceived that the walls around her, her house, her town, her homeland, her family, her thoughts, her desires, her imaingation; she perceived that all of this had a Master. Everything has a Source and Guide and Goal. It all has a oneness, because everything is the work of the hand of one great Artisan.

And this Artisan communicates. This Artisan converses. This Artisan expresses with consummate eloquence the true meaning of… of existence, of why I am here, of why there is something, rather than absolutely nothing. Why there is light, and not absolute, endless darkness.

Listen, I am all for the traditional forms of Christian art and the famous depictions of the Annunciation. If we had eyes to see the Archangel Gabriel, we would probably see that he looks a lot like Fra Angelico painted him to look.

But angels are not material creatues, after all. And they communicate with each other in pure light, with a kind of harmony that makes the beautiful sounds, the most beautiful sonatas and symphonies we have ever heard sound like jangling gongs.

So, maybe when the Archangel came to the Blessed Virgin, it didn’t look like anything we have ever even imagined, nor did it sound like anything we have ever heard. Because we tend to snooze through life.

Maybe what happened was: She was awake and alert enough to hear a harmony in all the things she perceived. In what she could see and feel, in what she could remember and imagine and believe–in all of it, she heard a single song. All the elements of history produced at that moment a song, a sweet lay that opened the next moment up to her, like an eternity in an instant, with this invitation:

“Give birth to the One Who made all this. Give birth to the One Who will bring it all to fulfillment.”

She was awake enough to hold all this in her perception, awake enough to respond with everything–her entire self, completely at her command.

That’s who we are, as a race–the human race. Creatures who can wake up like the Virgin Mary. Who can be awake, like her, to God’s eternal Word.

El Greco Annunciation

The Christmas the Lord has Planned

Every year, at Holy Mass on December 19th, we read from Luke 1. And we confront the question: Why did Zechariah get punished for asking the Archangel Gabriel a question about John the Baptist’s birth, but Mary did not get punished for asking about how Jesus could be born?

And the answer is?…

–Zechariah—a wise, old priest—should have known better than to doubt.

–St. John the Baptist got conceived according to the traditional, birds-and-the-bees method, so Zechariah’s question was petulant. Whereas Mary asked a perfectly honest question.

–Zechariah was a chatterbox who talked too much anyway.

Remember how, two years ago, a lot of people worried about the Mayan apocalypse? And fifteen years ago, a lot of people worried that Y2K would crash everyone’s computer? 1,015 years ago, most of Western civilization sat waiting for the world to end at the turn of the first millennium.

New Agers Mayan templeI don’t mean to make fun of any of these people. In a way, they had the right idea. Zechariah failed to give God credit for being able to do something totally unexpected.

Do I know what Christmas is supposed to be like for me spiritually? Aren’t I supposed to have such-and-such feelings, such-and-such ‘faith experiences’ at Christmas? That’s the way it always is. It’s traditional. Christmas is a time for my traditional emotions.

For me personally, Christmas is traditionally a time to be tired and out-of-sorts. Because I have a cold. Because Our Lady decided to appear to St. Juan Diego in December instead of July. Thereby turning Advent from difficult to practically impossible for the Martinsville/Rocky Mount/Roanoke-Catholic priest to manage.

Traditional spiritual experiences.

But what if these are not what the Lord has planned for us for Christmas AD 2014? What if this Christmas will involve spiritual graces for me unlike any I have ever received before?

Lord, help us open ourselves up to the future that You have planned for us! Open us up to the Christmas that You have planned for us! We don’t know how to plan like You do. What You have in mind is much better, much more interesting, and much more wonderful than anything we have ever thought of.