Words on the Word
Solemnity of the Annunciation
Isaiah 7:10-14: Therefore the Lord will give you a sign.
Hebrews 10:4-10: The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins.
Luke 1:26-38: Hail, full of grace.
We live in anxious times. At the western frontier of Ukraine, a long procession of mothers and children seek safety while their husbands and fathers leave for the front — as do many women soldiers, too, for that matter. Just yesterday President Zelensky spoke about corpses piling up in Mariupol, with noone to bury them. More and more nations, Norway included, send weapons. Thereby they get involved in the conflict. Nato is mobilised. I was startled when, last week, ambling along the harbour in Tromsø, I found a large war ship moored just behind Hurtigruten. Round about, people were sitting outside drinking beer, pretending it was spring; and there lay the ship, massive and grey. Next morning it was gone.
We all hope for a speedy, just resolution; we tell ourselves that a European great war is out of the question. Surely that sort of thing cannot happen in 2022, when we drive petrol-free cars and order supper on our mobile phones?
We don’t realise how exceptional it is that Europe has known seventy years of prevalent peace. Still, in the midst of our cultivated calm, one senses unease. Fear has accompanied us a long while already. Covid taught us how much angst there is within us and about us. I sometimes think of the pandemic as a magnet drawing fear, attracting fragments of anxiety hidden deep inside us and in society. When restriction were lifted six weeks ago, we thought: ‘It’s over at last!’ Twelve days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Is security then an illusion?
To be human is to be insecure. We are vulnerable beings. vulnerability makes us afraid, which is natural. It is striking therefore that the context for our first reading is fear. Ahaz, who receives the promise of Emmanuel, is king of Judah, a small state under threat from a superpower. When Isaiah brings him the oracle of God, the Assyrian army is stationed along Judah’s frontier. Ahwaz’s heart and the heart of his people ‘shook’, Isaiah tells us, ‘like the trees of the forest shake before the wind.’ The expression speaks for itself.
How does the Lord respond to this fear? Not by pledging military might, not even by pledging victory. What he promises is a sign that, in the circumstances, must have seemed almost absurd, being itself an image of vulnerability: ‘A Virgin shall conceive.’ Shortly thereafter Israel fell. God does not show his power politically. But the promise given remains in the people’s heart, a source of hope.
When the promise is fulfilled 700 odd years (700 years!) later, the Holy Land is again in a precarious state, subject to pressure from a foreign invader — the Roman empire, this time. Once again people pray for a military leader. Once again God’s answer is of a different dimension.
The Annunciation of the Lord is an ineffable mystery, accomplished in silence. ‘The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.’ He who is the origin of all things, exposed himself to our insecurity. Thus he blessed it. Jesus proclaims: ‘Do not be afraid!’ He does not say he will preserve us from pain. To be alive is painful! But pain is no barrier between us and him; he is with us, as Emmanuel, also when we suffer. Even death, the final solitude, becomes a place of encounter. It has lost its sting. Christ has assumed it on our behalf, opening it up from within.
What we are made for, Brothers and Sisters, is not merely life in this world, but eternal life. In order to comprehend our difficult but beautiful life here and now, we must see it in the light of the life we are called to hereafter. We must interpret time on the basis of eternity, not the other way round. That is how we’ll make choices that are right, responsible and life-giving. That is how our earthly existence will be an expression of beatitude. If we try to shape it on simply earthly criteria, it remains for us a tearful enigma, a frustrating jigsaw puzzle devoid of an intelligible pattern.
‘The Word became flesh.’ Only the Word carries answers to our deepest questions, also the ones we pose regarding right relationships between nations. The Word ‘dwelt among us’ in the Virgin Mary, the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ as we call her in the Litany of Loreto. She could say Yes to the angel’s message because she had, by way of preparation, conceived the Word in her heart — thus Augustine once observed, no doubt rightly.
The Church calls Mary’s heart ‘immaculate’. It gives expression to the state of grace which permitted her to say Yes freely, unconditionally, knowing that this answer would cost her everything. When a creature stands before the uncreated God, the Lord’s glory consumes all that is not compatible with eternity. Isaiah, who had seen God, knew this from experience. The Blessed Virgin likewise. Her immaculate heart is an incarnate version of the burning bush, alight, but not devoured.
This evening, in communion with the Holy Father and the whole Church, we consecrate Russia and Ukraine to her immaculate heart. We ask God to burn away sin, to purify spots, to illumine darkness. We acknowledge that the source of the peace we need is not of this world. A political project is required, but it does not suffice. We need gifts of grace with the power to transform our hearts, our lives. We are participants in something immense. Through the heart of Mary, in which the Word found a foothold in this world, we beg for help. We place our lives at the Word’s disposal, ready to let a heart penetrate our hearts also. Salvation is, and will always remain, sealed by the sign of the Cross. There is no other way. It leads through darkness towards the light.
In today’s collect we ask to ‘be conformed to the [Word’s] divine nature’. Let us, through the prayers of the Mother of the Word, pronounce our Amen wholeheartedly, in order to let it work efficaciously in our converted, enlightened, Christ-bearing lives. Amen.
Image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from the Peterskirche in Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.