Reflection for the Vigil of the Fourth Sunday of Advent

20 December 2014

by Mary Elizabeth Schwieger, OSB

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 1:26-38 

The story of the Annunciation has to be one of most beloved stories of all times, written about, meditated upon, sung in a variety of genre, painted by numerous artists and proclaimed in every language, several times each year.  It is a profound story of a virgin, to whom an angel appears and tells her she is to become the Mother of God.  How impossible that seems to us!!! But even more astonishing is the reality that God chose this event to enter our world and to become human.  How holy! How sacred!

As I was preparing this reflection I read an article in the NCR written by Sister Mary McGlone on Fra Angelico's painting of the Annunciation.  Fra Angelico, a 15th century Dominican, painted several variations of this event and it is said that he never corrected anything.  One of the most famous of his paintings is the Annunciation of Cortona.  Clearly the work is not intended to be historical.  Mary seated in a luxurious setting is dressed in a way that the simple girl from Nazareth would never have dreamed of. The Angel Gabriel leans towards Mary with reverence.   I was intrigued by Sister Mary’s comments on the writing that appears on the painting.  It depicts the conversation between the angel and Mary. The words are written in Latin and in gold.  The angel’s message, shown in two lines, flows from left to right:  “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God..."  In between those two lines, Mary's response: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord"is written upside down and backward. Somehow Mary knew that after accepting God's request and invitation, nothing would ever the same.  Her life changed forever and changed the life of the whole world.  From God’s perspective, everything must have looked very normal.  From our point of view, this mystery appears upside down and backwards.

As I reflected on this reading and this painting, I was drawn into this space between Mary and the Angel.  It appears to be a holy and sacred space.  Something amazing and mysterious happened here where Mary’s availability, readiness and humility enabled her to hear and experience God’s word and to respond in utter faith.   

For all of us, there is a space between God and us where dialogue can lead to conversion, transformation and communion with the Divine.  It is in this space where many of us heard our call to enter Benedictine life.  It is where our "Yes" may appear to be written in gold, upside down and backwards.  

There is a sacred space between each of us where we share of ourselves as we "listen with the ear of our heart" to see one another as Christ.  When we are mindful and aware of its sacredness this is where communion with one another happens.  We often fill this space with the clutter of grudges, jealousy, stubbornness, selfishness or our own ego.  Are we able to fill this space, like Mary, with our availability, readiness and humility?  Do we keep this space open and free by our lectio, Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist?  Is our space empty at times so that it can be filled with joy and delight?

The space between us and nature calls us to reflect on our world and our use of our natural resources. Wars, violence, hatred can make this a dark and negative space.  However, our letting go of prejudice and the desire to get even, and to work for justice and equality for all, can promote a positive space where God's actions can happen. 

There is also the space between our whole community and the Divine.  When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours does not our dialogue of the psalms create a holy and sacred conversation with God?  Can we imagine an Angel appearing to us as a group and delivering a message about our future?  Would we be united in our response?  Do we have the faith, hope and love to trust the unknown?

As Benedictine women living together, this time of Advent invites all of us to reflect on God’s divine conversation with us. Like Mary, are we able to proclaim "Behold your handmaids, be it done unto us according to your word?"  Is our response; holy, sacred, written in gold, upside down and backwards?