Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 18, 2011 – St. John’s
We are at the threshold of our celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. The opening antiphon for this Mass quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “Shower, o heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause righteousness to spring up” (Is 45:8). This already anticipates the mystery of the Incarnation: God’s gift of his Son descends and accomplishes in Jesus Christ the full flowering of creation, of our humanity–heaven and earth meeting in the Word made flesh. The old liturgy for this fourth Sunday of expectation had this opening prayer: “Stir up your might, O Lord, and come, and help us by your great power.” The Alleluia-verse continued the theme: “Come, Lord, and do not tarry.” The Offertory antiphon quoted from the simple narrative of the Annunciation that we heard as our Gospel. To the young Mary, “full of grace,” most highly favored, comes the announcement that she may give birth to Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, son of David, and to this announcement she replies with her “Fiat: Let it be done to me according to your word.” And by being able to say this, in utter humility and self-surrender, Mary shows indeed how fully graced she was.
At that moment, St. Thomas Aquinas said, Mary was representing the whole human race, speaking for us all, giving our human Yes to the divine call, expressing our grateful obedience. With this scene, in which in a sense God waits for Mary’s response, something crucial about Christianity is illustrated. We know that the initiative in our redemption is utterly and entirely from God’s side, as many NT texts say: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). “The proof of God’s love is that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8). “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us [first] and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10). But this salvation would not be accomplished without humanity’s cooperation. It would not be some great act of God’s might alone. It would require that one of us, a brother of ours in this flesh, live our life to the full, live it freely; it would require that his freedom be realized and exercised as love, fidelity, courage and obedience, so that, as a lovely Preface of the Mass says: “what we had lost by our disobedience might be restored by his obedience.”
And this arrangement, this economy (to use the ancient word) of free cooperation already begins with the consent of Mary, without which the salvation would not be accomplished. St. Paul placed Adam and Christ in counterpoint: Christ is the new Adam from whom humanity could get a new start. The Fathers of the Church rather quickly extended this into a contrast between Eve and Mary: Eve’s disobedience counterbalanced by Mary’s obedience. They even played on words: The “Ave” of the angel’s greeting reversed the name of Eva: from Eva to Ave.
God’s freedom requires and enables our freedom, then. Salvation may even be said to consist in the liberation of our freedom, so that in Mary we could already express our Fiat in imitation of the Fiat that Christ would utter in the Garden and on the Cross. In the same way, still today, God will not save us without us. That is how St. Augustine once put it: “The one who created you without you does not justify you without you.” He will not save us without us because he cannot save us without us. We are not like statues whose dirt may be washed from their inert bodies. We are human beings, and it is what most defines us as human beings–our intelligence and freedom–that is being saved. Salvation is light, new knowledge and wisdom, in our minds; it is the freeing of our freedom; it is new love in our hearts; it is empowerment to take up a Fiat-life here on earth in response to the call of God. The heavens have to rain down righteousness, yes, but the earth must also sprout new growth. And it is this meeting of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ that is the great mystery we will be celebrating on Christmas. Thanks be to God!