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Making the Advent Journey with Mary: Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with You
By Deacon Keith Fournier
December 15th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
From antiquity, she has been given a special place of honor among Christians as the Mother of the Lord. 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. Each of us is called to be full of grace. The Lord desires to be with us. Mary shows us the way.
CHESAPEAKE, VA. (Catholic Online) - As we move closer to the celebration of Christmas, the Nativity of the Lord, our Gospel readings at Mass move away from John the Baptizer to that little Virgin whose "Yes" brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven. From antiquity, she has been given a special place of honor among Christians as the Mother of the Lord.
The great Bishop Ireneaeus was born in Asia Minor in the year 125. While a young man, he met the Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, (A.D. 69-155) who had known the Apostles personally. His work defending the faith against early heresies is still one of the best examples of apologetics we have. Along with many early fathers of the Church he saw Mary as a "Second Eve", writing these words:
"The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband.
"As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve."
The encounter between Mary and the Angel is referred to as the "Annunciation." We read of it in the Gospel of St. Luke: "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).
These words of greeting are the opening words of one of the most cherished prayers in Catholic piety called the "Hail Mary." This Angel calls Mary, "full of grace". She was filled with the very life of God. 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 use popular language that, even if well intended, sounds as though we brought God into our lives. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus made this clear in His words to His disciples "You did not choose me, I chose you" (St. John 15:16). Sometimes, in our religious subcultures, we actually end up communicating the opposite.
I was raised in a Catholic home and my family practiced the faith until a tragedy shook our foundations. Afterward, we remained cultural - but not always practicing - Catholics. This occurred before I even began my turbulent teenage years. I spent those years searching for the 'truth" only to find years later that He had already come to take up residence within me when I was baptized.
When I returned to the practice of my Catholic faith I felt as if I had "come home". I spoke of having "found" the Lord. In a sense, that was true. However, I soon came to understand 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. The heart of the Christian vocation is responding to his gift, giving our "yes".
During that period of time I discovered a beautiful prayer of the great western Church father and Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, which he uttered upon his own return to the faith and recorded in his wonderful "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 un-loveliness 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, 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 He fills us according to the capacity that He has built within us. The 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 many more things from the encounter of Mary with the angel or "messenger" of God. Her experience with Gabriel offers other important lessons for our own daily lives. Let's look at a few.
First of all, 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 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 "O highly favored one" or, in other translations, "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.
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. In a real and substantial way, when we respond to the words of the Lord, we also become filled with grace - and He is formed within us. In that sense, we become favored.
Another early father of the undivided Christian Church, Gregory of Nyssa, once wrote:
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. 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 wonderfully simple by Mary of Nazareth's witness. 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 be full of grace. The Lord desires to be with us and to give Himself through us, to a world that hungers for His love. Mary shows us the way. She heard the promise, believed, was filled with grace, and conceived the Lord who is Love incarnate. We can participate in His continuing redemptive mission if we learn to pray, to listen, to hear, to respond, to say "Yes".
This is part of making the Advent journey with Mary. Years ago I wrote a little book of reflections on Mary. It is called 'the Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" and some copies are still available here.
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