Fourth Sunday of Advent
"Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled." (Lk 1:45)
Recently I went on a visit, with my youngest brother, to an Aunt in France, actually the Jura region very near the Swiss border, a place where in ancestral terms my siblings and I can trace all our maternal line down to the 15th century (thanks to interested genealogists). If you think that fanciful, it is only my mother who was not born in the region, every other Grand'Mere came from three small villages grouped together around the ancient town of Poligny.
We spent a few very tranquil days celebrating with her a 90th birthday and as part of our short break often went down into the town to wander around the ancient Poor Clare monastery of St Claire where the relics of St Colette are enshrined and to spend time in the magnificent Collegiale of St Hippolyte, built to replace another parish church in the 15th Century. As I remarked to my youngest brother,: 'this is where a huge amount of our Catholicism comes from', and inbuilt into this is that deep and abiding love of Notre Dame that is a hall mark of this region.
I remember well a sermon on the Feast of the Assumption in that same church, where the Curé pointed out that he had counted more than 20 statues of Our Lady in the building, spanning the 15th to the 19th centuries. Because the church is so vast one simply accepts them as part of the art, set in various chapels and spaces, the main one being a beautiful 15th century Burgundian statue of Mother and Child known as N D de Fondateur, where the canons of the chapter, before the revolution, gathered each night to sing the Salve.
Why am I sharing this travel narrative? Simply to point out that part of Catholic, (also Orthodox and Anglican) faith has been from ancient times to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary in a solidly realistic manner, acknowledging her as a living part of the Communion of Saints, whose presence is felt, known and loved because of her gift to us of the Word made flesh, born because of her acceptance and openness to God's call.
I see in these and other images, not the sentimental saccharine piety, which I have to say simply turns me off, but my family's robust, peasant and therefore honestly basic love for Our Lady, enshrined down the centuries in these images that people gave, lit their candles in supplication to pray before her, and show their love. That to me is the essence of this Gospel of the Annunciation, which we hear just before the end of Advent in the great feasts of the Nativity. It's Gospel of our own maternal line, the link between Mary and our Mothers, for Jesus is our brother, that child is also each one of us. It is an icon of accepting unconditional love.
In a world that is bitter, where ego and greed are rampant, where before us each day some rapacious and unthinking politicians reverse laws that guard our environment and our living creatures, we need a voice of hope and of promise that this will not always be allowed to happen, that it will change. Mary is one we can turn to, her acceptance of the Spirit is a challenge to each one of us, she didn't complain about her lot but did something, bore the Saviour and stuck by him to the end!
That then is our task, loving Mary is loving Christ, and she says to us the words Pope Francis has on his door: "Stop complaining and do something to make your life better." She will always help us.
Prayer and Lectio
The artist studies his unfinished work; he contemplates this stainless lily that must be extricated from the thorns and the mud, this sacred mouth that is capable of pronouncing the supreme Fiat in an attitude of patience, piety, compassion, understanding, supplication, and counsel. There must be nothing pure in human nature that does not share in this fruition and nothing impure that does not share in this purification. (Emmaüs, 291)
From the angel of paradise to the angel of the Apocalypse, who swears that time is no more, from the angels who flog Heliodorus to the one who guides the child Tobias, from the angel who consoles Hagar to the one who delivers St Peter, all sacred history is visited by these formidable, instructive, and sympathetic brothers. But the culmination of their ambassadorial functions is Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin of Nazareth that "you have found favour with God" and that "the power of the Most High shall overshadow you" (Lk 1:30, 35).  (Présence, 257)
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Je vous salue Marie, pleine de grâce
Le Seigneur est avec vous,
vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femme
set Jésus, le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni.
Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu,
priez pour nous, pauvres pécheurs
maintenant et à l'heure de notre mort.
Fr Robin Gibbons is an Eastern Rite Catholic Chaplain for Melkites in the UK. He is also an Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
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