What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead
shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar
way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in
bodily form, for 'we no longer know Christ according to the flesh', but
He dwells in us spiritually and the father takes up His abode with Him,
the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us. (Gregory of Nyssa)
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - As the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ draws near, our Gospel readings tell us of several encounters between people and angels.The word angel is from a Greek word which means messenger. Angels communicate God's messages, His plans - and they invite the people to whom they appear to respond to God's invitation. The response matters.
The Gospel account from St Matthew told of Joseph's experience with an Angel. (Mt. 1:18-25) We heard the story of another angelic encounter between Zechariah and an angel (Luke 1: 5-25). Zechariah, unlike Joseph, did not initially respond with a full assent of faith. It grew gradually. .
We heard of the encounter between the little Virgin of Nazareth named Mary and the Angel Gabriel. (Luke 1:26-38) Today, I will focus in on one verse and use it as a springboard to speak about the way in which we are called to respond to the Lords messengers in our own lives:
"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you". (Lk 1:28).
The angelic words from this wonderful biblical passage form the opening words of one of the most cherished prayers in Catholic piety referred to as the Hail Mary. In the twenty years that I have served as a Deacon of the Catholic Church I have found that these words - and the prayer that they intone - are a source of great comfort especially when people are ill, in trouble, or facing death.
The Bible tells us that Mary was full of grace, filled with the very life and presence of God.That is what grace is. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, "Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.Grace is a participation in the life of God." (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1996,1997)
Mary was filled with that favor. She walked in a deep, abiding and intimate relationship with God. He was with her before she even responded to His invitation. God chose Mary even before Mary chose God. This order is vitally important if we want to grasp the deeper meaning of living the spiritual life.
We sometimes think that we brought God into our lives. This is hinted at in the use of popular language that, even if well intended, can lead us to believe that we do the initiating and somehow control the relationship. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus made this order of invitation and response clear in His words to His disciples, You did not choose me, I chose you (St. John 15:16).
I was raised as a Catholic Christian. My family practiced the faith until a tragedy shook our foundations. Afterward, we remained cultural - but not always practicing - Catholics. This occurred just as I began my turbulent teenage years. Later on, when I returned to the practice of my faith, I felt as if I had come home. I thought that I had found the Lord. In a sense, that was true.
However, I would soon come to discover that He had never left me; it was I who had wandered away. It took a while to understand what that meant as His grace unfolded in my daily life.
During that time I also discovered the prayer of the great western Church father, Augustine, which he uttered upon his own return to the faith and recorded in his wonderful Book entitled the Confessions:
"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you."
"Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."
St. Augustine understood - like Mary and countless men and women throughout the ages have understood - that it is the Lord who reaches out to us in His love. It is the Lord who offers His grace. We are the recipients of that grace, and it fills us according to the capacity that He has built within us. That grace moves us to respond to the Lord, to say YES, in word and deed.
This proper order of initiation and response has profound relevance for us if we truly desire to live the spiritual life. God is already there. He awaits our response to His relentless love and grace, which are both within and all around us.
We can learn this and so much more from the visitation of Mary by the angel or messenger of God. Her experience with the Angel Gabriel offers lessons for our own daily lives. They can help us to recognize the messengers in our own lives and teach us how to respond.
Angels still visit those who believe that grace is real and available, the favor and blessing of God. They come, bearing God's message to men and women are humble enough to open themselves to its dynamic, sanctifying and transforming action. The only real question is whether we have our spiritual eyes opened to see them.
Notice that the story is time specific. The angel came in the sixth month. Angels still come at the specific moment that God chooses to intervene in our own lives. The One who sends them does not wear a watch, keep a day-timer, or use a pocket computer. He is outside of time but always on time. He is never early. And He is never late.
The angel came to a specific person, "a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph." Angels appear to specific people in the real circumstances of their daily lives, in the midst of their human relationships.
The older I get, the more I am able to recognize the angels, or messengers, the Lord sends into my life. They come bearing His message, speaking to my specific circumstances at a specific time of need. The angelic greeting also tells us about our invitation into a relationship with God.
Gabriel's greeting was specific. Mary was addressed by her Hebrew name, implying that the God from whom the angel was sent knew Mary personally and had a relationship with her that preceded the visitation. So it is with each one of us. As the Great Hebrew Psalmist David sang:
"You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works! My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth. Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be." (Psalm 139).
The angel refers to Mary as full of grace. Mary was indeed favored and full of grace. The Lord of heaven and earth had prepared and chosen her as a fertile ground into which he planted the seed of His Word.
When we respond to the words of the Lord, we also become filled with grace - and Jesus is formed within us. In that sense, we become favored as well. An early father of the undivided Christian Church, Gregory of Nyssa, once wrote:
"What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for 'we no longer know Christ according to the flesh', but He dwells in us spiritually and the father takes up His abode with Him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us.
Perhaps the reason the scriptures tell us so little about Mary was because she was meant to serve as a mirror, a reflection, of Some-One who was much more important. It was His grace that filled her. She became the Handmaid of the Lord.
God brings new life to ordinary people who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and pure hearts that are opened to his invitation of love. Like Mary, they become full of grace through their encounter with the Lord.
A profound mystery is made simple by the life witness of Mary of Nazareth. She lived a fruitful life, marked by an innocent and childlike spirit. As Jesus said, "I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth that what you have hidden from the learned and the wise you have revealed to the merest of children." (Luke 10:21). His words help us understand that we, too, are to become as little children.
Each of us is called to become full of grace, by imitating her response. The Lord desires to be with us, to live within us in a world that hungers for His love-a love which can be borne in us and offered through us to others.
Mary shows us the way. She heard the promise, believed, was filled with grace, and conceived the Lord who is Love incarnate. We can do likewise if we learn to pray, to listen, to hear, to respond, to say Yes. We learn to live a life of YES from the Virgin of Nazareth.
In doing so we, like Mary, will discover that nothing is impossible with God. We will be filled with grace and help to bring Jesus Christ into a world still waiting to be born anew.
Deacon Keith A. Fournier is the Editor in Chief of Catholic Online and the Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and seven grandchildren, He is also a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties.
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