Fourth Sunday of Advent, 24 December, 2023: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a-16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
I don’t need to tell you how many beautiful paintings of the Annunciation there are. It is, perhaps, too easy to miss the more ominous details not only of those pictures but in today’s Gospel.
Think, for example, of Mary’s predicament as a girl who is betrothed but not yet married, becoming pregnant—and with an unprecedented explanation that seems incredible.
That her son would be king of his kingdom forever is a message she hears in the reign of Herod the Great, a monarch surviving on intrigue, betrayals, murders, precarious foreign diplomacy and oppression of his people. Being a king is dangerous business and would you want that for your own child—and forever? And we know that Jesus’ life will end in crucifixion.
All that admitted, there is no evidence in the Gospel that Mary surrendered to mere acquiescence. She, in fact, hastens to her cousin Elizabeth to celebrate a common joy only women can imagine. There is no need to deny the challenges ahead to still be affected by the poignancy and beauty of this entire episode.
All those beautiful paintings make an important point: within the contingency of being human, with all our limits and dangers, there remain not only beauty and joy, but hope in this Annunciation. Does its costliness make that joy all the more precious?
Certain medieval representations of this scene show Mary spinning the thread for a new curtain for the Temple’s Holy of Holies or knitting a seamless garment for her son-to-be—her creation of his human form enshrining divinity. She is collaborating with God as creator, actualizing the Incarnation of the Divine Eternal Word. As her body will be stretched out of recognition in the nine months ahead, so our common humanity is stretched with the capacity for divinity.
Whatever challenges lie ahead, have we any right to privilege the negative and forget the beauty continually breaking through, continually outfitting us for our Gospel vocation?