This is what Christ said, on coming into the world... God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.
We are celebrating the Solemnity of the Annunciation, just a few days before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Just before entering into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and sacrificial death, then, we find ourselves rejoicing in the mystery of the Incarnation, as if with Christmas festivity. Is this somehow a distraction? Are these two mysteries, one evoking sorrow, the other joy, somehow separate or conflicting? No indeed: they perfectly complement one another, of course. They are explicitly brought together in today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews.
Typically, the author of Hebrews weaves his argument through, supports it, illustrates it, with a text from the Old Testament Scriptures, according to their Greek translation. In the passage we read today he takes some verses from Psalm 39, or according to the Hebrew numbering Psalm 40, and puts them in the mouth of Jesus. Set in that context, the words he quotes express clearly both the Incarnation and the sacrificial death of Jesus. And each of these mysteries is shown to be an expression of the perfect obedience Jesus gave to his Father’s will.
But I should like to ask now a question. Why was all that God’s will? Why should the eternal Son of God abase himself, even to accepting all the limitations of our human nature? Why should he begin his human life in complete dependence on his mother, then undergo the whole process of growing up, accepting the discomforts and inconveniences of life we all experience, all the while in the lowly condition of a poor labourer’s family in an obscure occupied Province of the Roman Empire? Why then willingly endure temptation, hostility, rejection, betrayal? Why, finally, go willingly and knowingly to his Passion, to suffer an unjust judgement, mockery, spitting and blows; the Roman scourge, the Crown of thorns, the way of the Cross; the nails, the terrible hours of the crucifixion, and at last the lance, and the tomb?
Why did God will all that? Why did Christ undergo all that? Pope Francis, I suspect, would reply to those questions with a single word. Mercy! He did it out of mercy, and out of love for us: in order to save us, and to raise us up to himself.
But still I have a question. Why mercy? Why forgiveness for us, and poured-out love, and the status of sons, and an inheritance of divine glory? What is there in us to warrant all that? Open any newspaper, or listen to any news programme, and you’ll find depressingly confirmed the negative judgement on humanity reached by St. Paul: “they are steeped in all sorts of injustice, rottenness, greed and malice; full of envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite; libellers, slanderers, enemies of God; rude, arrogant and boastful; enterprising in evil, rebellious to parents, without prudence, honour, love or pity” (Rm 1:29-30). So why Mercy? Why not just sweep away all this festering sink of corruption in a new and definitive Flood?
I’d like to answer that question now with a single word of my own. The word is Mary. In Mary, God’s love found an answering love. The willing obedience Christ offered to his Father found an answering obedience in his Mother. His goodness, and purity, and generosity, and selflessness, found their image also in Mary.
The Angel’s words to Mary come, then, as if a hideous cacophony should suddenly fall silent, and in its place we catch the sound of an achingly beautiful melody. The Angel’s words to Mary come as if a glow of light and warmth should emerge unexpectedly out of the cold surrounding darkness. Or it’s as if we’d been stifling in some foul atmosphere, and were suddenly to find ourselves inhaling fresh air, heady with the fragrance of Spring flowers; or as if our diet had been of unremittingly stale and tasteless food, and all unexpectedly we were offered a delicious morsel, made with real butter, and honey.
Hail Mary, the Angel said, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Can any words that have ever been uttered in all of human history bring more consolation and joy and hope than these? So we repeat them, time and again, and endlessly. Hail Mary, we cry, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! You, in whom God’s plan of salvation perfectly achieved its end! You who fully accepted the divine mercy, and paid it all back in gratitude and love and worship! Hail, Immaculate Mary, all beautiful within as well as without: worthy daughter of God the Father, Mother of Christ the Son, loving Spouse of the Holy Spirit! With the Angel we lovingly address you, we honour you, we rejoice in you!
Without question, God the Son would have undertaken the Incarnation, and accepted his sacrificial death, for the sake of Mary alone. But Mary is not alone. We are with her, and in her. For where Mary is, there too is the Church. Whatever the sins of her individual members, the Church in her constitution is also the Immaculate Spouse of God: all beautiful, all pure, all holy; an ever fruitful Mother, infallibly advancing on the road towards heaven. And what is true of the Church is true also, mutatis mutandis, of the baptised soul. United with the Church our Mother, each of us becomes, in imitation of Mary, a worthy recipient of God’s mercy. With Mary, we also receive grace in abundance; the Lord is with us also; we also become capable of responding to the obedience of Christ with an answering obedience of our own.
Just as a little proof of that, one year ago today one of our brethren made a solemn, life long vow of obedience. Why did he do that? Out of love for Christ and of his Church; also, in order to gain the promised reward; also, in order to intercede for the salvation of sinners.
And he did it in obedience to what he believed was God’s will for him. And what is God’s will for us? Our passage from Hebrews tells us today. God’s will is for us to be made holy, by the offering of his body, made once and for all by Jesus Christ.