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Annunciation of the Lord

by V. Rev. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.

 

“The Lord Himself will give you a sign: the Virgin shall be with child…”

Every year we hear this prophecy of Isaiah, and we instinctively know it was fulfilled in the virginal conception of Christ in the womb of Blessed Mary.  And indeed that is true.  It’s not just an adaptation of an ancient text to fit a mystery of our faith; this prophecy, even as it flowed out of Isaiah’s mouth, literally referred to the incarnation of the Son of God by the Holy Spirit.  And yet, because the selection offered is truncated, we miss the wider historical context in which the prophecy was made, a context which only adds to the profundity of this prophecy.

King David died in the year 970 B.C.  His son Solomon, in 930.  Because of his infidelities to right religion, the kingdom was divided into the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel and the tribe and a half of the southern kingdom of Judah.  The twelfth king of Judah was Ahaz, reigning in the second half of the eighth century B.C.  At some point in his reign, the kings of Syria and Israel ganged up to overthrow him, and they marched on Jerusalem.  And God’s reaction was to assure Ahaz he would not be defeated, offering him the sign he declined to ask for, apparently out of piety and humility.

But who was this Ahaz?  Was he really so pious?  Scripture records that he made molten images of the Baals, burned his own sons as an offering to the demons worshiped by the nations roundabout, removed the altar Solomon had built, erected a new altar in its place, and closed the temple.  Yes, he was evil.  So when Isaiah offers to give him a sign that Jerusalem would not be defeated by the combined forces of Israel and Syria, his demurring was completely hypocritical.

And Isaiah replied, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: the Virgin shall be with child…”  Interestingly, signs in the Old Testament didn’t always come before the thing of which they were a sign but rather afterwards.  One famous example is that, at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God commanded Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, and the sign that God really was commissioning Moses to do this was that, after it was done, Moses would return to Mount Sinai with the people to worship God there.  At other times, the sign did come before what it was intended to confirm, as we would expect.  Gideon’s fleece, now wet when the ground was dry, now dry when the ground was wet, confirmed that he was to defeat Midian.

But here, the sign works both ways.  The virginal conception of Emmanuel was the sign that came after, confirming that it was God Who prevented the Syrians and Israelites from overthrowing Jerusalem.  But the salvation of Jerusalem from the Syrians and Israelites was also a sign that God would send His Christ from a virgin mother.  “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” Isaiah told Ahaz.  

And these signs are fitting for each other.  Freedom for the earthly Jerusalem from foreign foes is a suitable sign to prefigure the liberation of the heavenly Jerusalem from sin and the devil.  And vice versa, salvation in Christ Jesus is a fitting and more than fitting sign to prove it was God Who saved Jerusalem from her enemies.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, was with them both then and later.  The sign was perfect.

And so, the generosity and mercy of God is brought into even greater relief.  He promised a miracle, yet not to those who were worthy but most unworthy.  He lavishes His greatest gifts even on the ungrateful.  We see difficult, stubborn, vexatious, impious and wicked men, and we shrink back and decide not to do as much good for them as we could.  God sees the same men and gives His very self.  The Apostles Christ sent unto men living as beasts and turned them into angels.  To render unto the wicked the greatest kindness and benefits is nothing less than divine.  And in this do we celebrate the Annunciation as God would have us do: never to be injured by anyone without returning a special gift of love.

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The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses.  It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”

Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import.  In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid.  Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.  

But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man.  Man has to leave one place to go to another.  God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one.  The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one.  And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.

The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son.  Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is.  Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home.  Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.

The reaction of son and father are perfect.  The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his.  He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.

When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love.  We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism.  The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation.  Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel.  “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.”  In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.

This is the happiness of our eternal Father.  His food is our salvation.  His joy is our redemption from sin.  As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.”  This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints.  And it is for us every time we go to confession.

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