Today, Mother Church puts before us two very significant readings from her sacred Scriptures, and their comparison can show us a fact of fundamental importance concerning our relationship with God and also provide us with sure guidance for the conduct of our spiritual lives.
Let us look first of all at our Gospel reading:
(The angel Gabriel) said, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you! ..... Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Mary said: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
While some scholars have thought that Mary consecrated her virginity to the Lord in her early years, others have disputed such an idea as being inconceivable for a young girl living devoutly among the Jewish people who held marriage and childbirth in such great honour, and even more so bearing in mind the attitude to childlessness in Mary’s own family background where her cousin Elizabeth considered childlessness to have long been ‘her reproach among men’ which the Lord had finally deigned to take away through the birth of her son John, the future Baptiser. Moreover, today’s readings show us that the idea of a formal consecration or dedication of her virginity by Mary is not necessary if we can rightly follow the teaching available to us in the first reading about King David and use it to carefully appreciate Our Lady’s answer to the angel Gabriel.
David, you heard, had planned to build a temple for the Lord:
When the LORD had given King David rest from his enemies on every side, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” Nathan answered the king, “Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.”
It was God, however, Who would build the temple He wanted when the time was right. Therefore He sent Nathan back to David with this message:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Should you build Me a house to dwell in? When your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a Father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before Me.
In those words there is a most important point for us to recognize and appreciate: what we do before God is essentially secondary to the attitude in which we do it. David was adopting a somewhat condescending attitude to God:
Should you build Me a house to dwell in?
David, we are told, was a man after God’s own heart, but here he had spoken from his position of recent security, power, and assumed personal achievement, all of which had led him to speak ‘generously’ to God.
A somewhat faint trace, it might be thought, of the original pride that had led Adam to follow Eve into disregard of God’s authority and providence; nevertheless, any trace whatsoever of the original catastrophic evil would, in such circumstances and if left uncorrected, quickly sour David’s present zeal for the glory of Israel’s God and sincere gratitude for His goodness. Therefore the prophet was instructed to lovingly make it clear to David, Who was doing the leading and guiding, Who would protect and save.
Mary, on the other hand, could never think like David of bestowing anything on God, because of her insatiable longing to give Him glory and receive His blessings; she had no treasured virginity to offer Him, because her total, life-long, desire to belong entirely to God, was her virginity because it was so absolute; and that overwhelming passion was not – like a supposed vow -- alien to Jewish aspirations, as we know from St. Paul, who had been himself a supremely observant Jew:
Brothers and Sisters: In regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who, by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy … an unmarried woman, a virgin, is anxious about the things of the Lord so that she may be holy in both body and spirit, (but) she who is married cares about the things of the world. (1 Corinthians 7:25, 34)
So, in her reply to Gabriel, Mary can only speak from that looking-to and longing- for God which was fundamental to her character: there had never been any question in her mind such as ‘who shall I marry?’; and even now, hearing the angel addressing her, no marriage-envisioning question such as ‘who has been chosen for me?’ came to her mind, nothing but those limpidly simple words:
How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
She had always been, and had always longed to better-be, ‘the handmaid of the Lord’; and whereas David had spoken generously out of his present fullness to God, Mary was complete emptiness and total longing … with nothing to offer other than that abiding and absolute longing for God, which we rightly call her virginity, the supreme and spotless virginity of her immaculate being.
David lived long enough before God in his restored humility and hope, not only to gladly look forward to, but also to prepare for, the beginning of the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise through his son Solomon who did indeed build an earthly Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. However, this first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians after some 350 years and was not replaced until a second and most truly splendid Temple was later built by the wicked King Herod, who did indeed produce a wonderful structure which amazed the world of its time but was in no way pleasing to God in so far as it had not been built for God’s glory – as was the case with Solomon’s temple before -- but for Herod’s own glory and the renown of his kingdom under the watchful eyes of his imperial overlords in Rome. And, in the event, it was those very Roman overlords who -- as Jesus foretold -- not only destroyed, but indeed totally obliterated, that symbol of Herod’s glory before one hundred years had passed.
And so, God’s word to David by the prophet had been aimed over and beyond Solomon, for it envisaged Jesus Himself, Whose risen, glorious, Body would become the ultimate Temple of God among men: a Temple not built by human hands, and one where Jews and pagans without distinction would have access to the Father in the one Spirit.
The Jews said to Him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking about the temple of His body. (John 2:18-21)
Consequently, our Gospel story was all about God choosing when (in the fullness of time), by Whom (His own Son), and through whom (the immaculate virgin Mary of Nazareth), salvation would ultimately be offered to the human race:
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and 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.
It is God alone Who gives salvation and works wonders. However, we are by no means excluded from His purposes, for we are called – in Jesus -- to share in and contribute to His work. For, although the Lord did not allow David himself to build the Temple in Jerusalem, his desire to do so was most pleasing to Him, and therefore He rewarded David with great blessings, the greatest of which being that He, the Lord, would build David a house, and from that house the Messiah Himself, Israel’s supreme King, would eventually come.
With Mary, on the other hand, her desire was so supremely pleasing to God that it would be immediately and most sublimely fulfilled in the way God wanted: Mary would indeed remain a virgin; notwithstanding that however, she would give birth to a Child, her Child indeed, but above all, the very Son of God Himself incarnate.
We find a similar pattern repeated in the lives of certain great saints, People of God: Francis of Assisi longed to be a martyr for Christ, he even went to preach Christ among the Muslims. Though God had His own plans for Francis, He did make him great, and even gave him the signs of Jesus’ own martyrdom: the stigmata! Again, St. Thérèse of Lisieux most ardently desired to become a martyr, or else a missionary; indeed, she did not know how to satisfy her manifold and ardent desires for God’s glory. God, however, wanted her to remain in the solitude of an enclosed convent where she was to serve Him with whole-hearted love in each and every one of the minutely regulated, and very ordinary, details of her life as a nun. For all that, He did love and respect her ardent desires, as is shown by the fact that He had her proclaimed as the heavenly patroness of all those living, working, and dying in the mission fields of Mother Church today.
My dear people, it is a fact that God alone does the work of salvation, for to Him alone is the glory and power. Nonetheless, He wills to associate us in the work His own dear Son accomplished in human flesh and blood, to the extent that even the bread and wine we offer Him at daily Mass must be, and must be declared to be, made by human hands. Moreover, God does not use human beings like tools: for, in Jesus, we are called to co-operate with Him as true children trying to please and glorify their heavenly Father; and it is through such work that we are enabled to receive, by the Holy Spirit, the gift of a personal share in God’s own infinite holiness and eternal blessedness.
Since, in the work of God, there is absolutely nothing any of us can do of ourselves, therefore, none of us can excuse ourselves by complaining that we are less talented than others. Whereas our physical powers and mental abilities are personally distinct and strictly limited, our spirit, on the other hand, is capable of being tuned into the infinity of God Himself, and this happens for each and every one of us through our exercising the freedom -- won for us by Jesus -- to love good and reject evil. The true criterion for a faithful servant of God is, therefore, the nature and the depth of that person’s desire for God and the goodness He wills. What do you desire most sincerely and – ultimately -- above all else? Do you want to make something of your life with and for God, to love and serve Him faithfully and supremely? Do you want, most sincerely, to become a true Child of God in Jesus? If you can say “Yes” to such questions, and if you can keep on aspiring to serve Him even though, despite your efforts, you see little of real worth in your life … if you will keep on telling God of your desire even though you have not yet been able to hear any reply, then you will indeed be used by Him for His purposes -- be they secret or manifest -- and you will become a disciple after Jesus’ own most sacred heart, and in Him, a true child of the heavenly Father.
Of course that is not easily done, nor is it to be done in the short term, for it is a life’s work. Today, people want to see results come quickly, that is part of the character of our modern Western society; and when, in the spiritual life, things do not seem, are not seen, to come quickly, the temptation for many is to give up the attempt to live life religiously.
There are other ways of succumbing to sin and the world however, than by openly falling away from the practise of the Faith. Some yield to pride, and try -- by subtle or by blatant means -- to make themselves appear holy, to put on for themselves what they cannot wait to receive from God, seeking to establish a reputation in the sight of men rather than humbly persevering before God Who might seem to be ignoring them.
Those, on the other hand, whose mind and heart are firmly centred on God, though they may, at times, be painfully aware of their own nothingness, do not thereby become downcast or disheartened, precisely because their mind is always occupied with desires for His good-pleasure and glory, and thus they are always looking forward and hoping in Him rather than despairing of themselves.
People of God, our readings offer sure guidance for our celebration of Christmas: following our Mother Mary who, responding to the angel Gabriel’s God-given message, expressed her total and unconditional longing for God, let us, welcome Jesus -- the very Word of God made flesh -- into our lives anew this Christmas with like sentiments of love and longing, of trust, hope and commitment:
I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your Word.
There is no surer way to find Christmas joy and peace.