Friday, March 25, 2011

The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Isaiah 7:10-15 / Luke 1:26-38

"There are no stupid questions." This is a phrase, or at least its equivalent, often repeated by teachers addressing their students. What they hope to do in speaking this way is to remove fear or anxiety from their students, a fear of losing face in asking something foolish, something that reveals perhaps an innate stupidity, or a colossal lack of attention, or perhaps an embarrassing deficit in common sense. The teacher knows that quite often these fears are misguided or misplaced. Moreover, even when they are true, the question itself may be worth asking, the answer worth giving, for the edification not merely of the questioner, but also of all those who come to hear the question posed and the answer given. Furthermore, the failure to ask a question may itself evidence an intolerable sense of self-importance, perhaps even one masking as a desire not to disturb, not to bother the teacher inappropriately. Even so, when there are things one wants to know which may be rightly asked, all the more when they have been solicited, it is the silent student, the one without questions, not the one who asks, that one should worry about.

This is why Mary and Ahaz stand in such stark contrast. Mary, although in fear and awe of the angelic visitation in Nazareth, does not hesitate to seek to know more. In the face of Gabriel's quite incredible announcement — Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God: behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus — Mary does not hesitate to seek a deeper understanding — How shall this be done, because I know not man? Ahaz, on the other hand, knows his need in the face of the enemies of his people. He has come to his own conclusions about saving the kingdom and his reign, and is perhaps worried that he has gone astray, that he may be the cause of his people's plight. God knows his fear, and the hardness of his heart. God knows that he will resist knowing what must be known, will resist hearing how God will deliver his people, and so, through the prophet Isaiah, he opens the door wide to any request from Ahaz — Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God, either unto the depth of hell, or unto the height above. Ahaz, however, will not be consoled, and so feigning piety, he remains closed to divine illumination — I will not ask, and I will not tempt the Lord.

Today we celebrate the coming in the flesh of the Son of God, the Word, the Logos. We celebrate that awesome mystery by which the very pattern of all that is, the living and personal source and exemplar not only of things in their raw being, but in the details of their intelligibility, in the wonderful particularity, however delightful or terrifying, of all that the are, took our human nature to grow, as we do, in the womb of his mother, be born in weakness and dependence, be raised in obscurity, come to proclaim the Good News, only to be betrayed and abandoned by those he loved, suffer torment and die on the Cross, and on the third day, rise again from the dead unto glory and everlasting life. In other words, the very basis of all meaning, of all understanding, the source and end of everything that is, and thus the true answer to every question, came this day to be among us. He came, that is, to be available, to be the response, the answer to the questions we had not even thought yet to ask.

If the Word, the Logos, the Answer has come among us as one of us, that we might receive him and, in so doing, be made one with him, how could we refrain from asking? How could we, when the source of meaning has dwelt among us, draw back like Ahaz from questioning the Lord? We must instead be like his Blessed Mother. To receive within our hearts that Word she received in a surpassing and singular way into her womb means to be the kind of person who wants to grow in understanding, not the one who in feigned piety remains in an ignorance to conceal from ourselves our own shortcomings and pride. To receive the Word we must, like Mary, receive all he has to say in humble obedience — Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word — but that humility does not exclude, indeed it requires the questioning stance, the yearning for deeper understanding, that was also the hallmark of Mary at the Annunciation.

Today marks the coming of the Word in our flesh, a Word that has spoken from eternity and now has come among us in time. Let us not draw back from hearing that word by failing to ask and to seek, by failing to demand a deeper embrace in the midst of our questioning of him who is the answer to all we will ever want to know.

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