4 minutes reading time (835 words)

Homily - Feast of the Annunciation - Bishop McKeown

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Wednesday, 25 March 2020 | St Eugene's Cathedral, Derry 

On the surface, two figures are at the heart of today's Gospel passage – the Angel Gabriel and Mary. But at the centre of the feast is the unseen figure of Jesus. After all, today's feast is called the 'Annunciation of the Lord'. The Gospel dialogue may be between Gabriel and Mary – but the conversation is all about the Word becoming flesh. The opening line of the Gospel makes it clear that Gabriel was sent by God. The Lord is at the centre of the first reading, promising a sign to the reluctant King Ahaz. Indeed, the whole of the Bible is God-driven - from Creation to the reconciliation of all things in Christ. Thus, today's feast – like all our Church celebrations - is about the sovereignty of God and not about the self-generated glory of any human creature.

Let us look firstly at Gabriel. It is clear from the meaning of the word 'angel' that he is a messenger. Angels appear in the Bible as servants of God. They are not sweet and fluffy. Gabriel has a job to do, does it and leaves. There is a modern trend to portray angels as cute tokens of good luck – offering protection and asking little. That has nothing to do with the Christian scriptures. Eternal life comes from facing the realities of the human condition with Christ. Angels without Jesus are meaningless. On their own they reveal nothing about God. They may be like a plastic soother for a baby, offering temporary comfort but zero nourishment.

Then there is Mary. There is little information about who she is except her name, her hometown and her status as a woman, engaged to be married. She is understandably frightened by this extraordinary encounter. Like so many characters in the Bible before and after her, she protests at the impossibility of what she is being asked to take on.And at the end – like Moses and many of the prophets – she submits to a divine call.

What might that tell us? Mary is the first disciple of the New Testament. God calls her and all of us disciples of Jesus to be used by heaven to do great things. The divine works through the human. Grace builds on nature. An adult faith grows by moving from trying to get God to see sense and fulfil our plans – to letting grace fill and expand our heart to be of service to the divine dream. A secular culture crushes our call to be great and says the best we can expect is tinsel and candyfloss, sparkling today and thrown on the rubbish heap tomorrow. Jesus says that we can be great on the inside and not just shiny on the outside. Ordinary people like each of us are all called to be bearers of the holy in our world. When the disciple says that she or he is the servant of the Lord, unimaginable things are possible. At the beginning of this strange journey for Mary, she would tell us not be afraid of God's outrageous dream for each of us. That is the only path to becoming a saint.

Yes, Mary is blessed among all women – and, as the Gospel, tells us, all generations will call her blessed. But she knows that this is because the Almighty has done great things for here and holy is God's name. She knows that everything is God's work. The only merit comes from God, not from her. That is the exemplary faith that we honour in her.

Finally, there is the hidden central figure, Jesus. This the beginning of the journey that will lead to him offering his body once and for all, replacing the Old Testament tradition of offering bulls and goats. Jesus assumes human flesh through which he will take upon himself all the sins of the world. And he will remain comparatively hidden for most of his life – as he still continues to be in life of the Church.

No wonder Mary could not understand what was happening. What Gabriel said sounded preposterous. Who on earth would believe such a story?

Thus, despite many pious representations in art, the Annunciation was a startling event. Life changed forever for Mary and for the world. God continues to break into our apparently self-contained world through those who have hearts to listen and the maturity to wrestle with the divine call. God comes, never to frighten but only to call us all to holiness. The only response, Mary would tell us, is to say. "let it be done to me according to your will."

We are in the middle of extraordinary, uncertain times. But God is active in the middle of it for our sanctification. And Mary tells us that in His will is our peace.

+ Bishop Donal


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