Homily for Mass for 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B

21 Dec 2014


Welcome all to this Solemn Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This has been a week like no other in this great city. Grateful for the messages of condolence and solidarity we have received from all around the world, today we are especially mindful of the victims of the Martin Place siege, commending their souls to Almighty God and praying for consolation for their families. We pray also for healing for the injured and traumatized, and in thanksgiving for the survivors and the police and emergency workers who assisted them. We pray also for our civil society, its leaders and members, that this terrible day does not mar the spirit of our community going forward.

This week was a stark reminder of why our world needs Christmas, needs the Prince of Peace to come among us. Come Prince of Peace. Come, O come, Emmanuel. 

Homily for 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 December 2014

In the dormitory of the Dominican Priory of San Marco in Florence is one of the Renaissance’s greatest renditions of today’s Gospel passage (Lk 1:26-38). Late medieval spiritual artists distinguished various phases in this story: the ‘Mission’ of the angel, the ‘Fright’ of the Virgin, the ‘Colloquy’ between them, the ‘Consent’ of the Virgin, and so on. In Fra Angelico’s great Annunciation we have ‘the Salutation’. Through a window onto a medieval cloister, we look upon one of the most beautiful archangels ever painted. Angelico had the architect put a skylight above the painting so that sunbeams would shine directly on the angel; he then cleverly embellished Gabriel’s wings with silica. It has the effect of making the wings seem to flutter, as if the angel had just landed.

Gabriel has just landed and he immediately genuflects in homage, saying by his posture what he says in his words: Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. In representing this moment the angelic messenger and the angelic painter give an example to the passer-by. As the friars passed on the way to their cells, they were being exhorted by the fresco to pray the Ave Maria. Indeed, at this stage in its evolution the Hail Mary had only the first half of the prayer as we know it today and at the concluding words ‘of thy womb Jesus’ the friars would genuflect like the angel.

As the light of a new dawn floods the scene, there sits the Virgin, dressed not in glorious technicolour as in most of Angelico’s oeuvre, but in the stark black and white of a Dominican habit. She is seated, not on a glorious throne but on a cheap three-legged friar’s stool. So she is humble as a religious – yet she is larger than life, unequivocally Queen of heaven and earth, and no mere frightened visionary: no, she is about to give her answer.

Great artists, like the Fathers of the Church in their spiritual classics, invite us into the scene. We all wait, in anxious anticipation. We all listen, hoping for salvation at last. Eva said NO on our behalf; but Eva in reverse is Ave. So through the one to whom the angel says Ave can begin the reversal of what Eve and Adam wrought! All creation is hushed and awaits her response. The angels listen, the dead listen, the faithful of Israel listen, even the animals and plants and sun and moon listen. It is the turning point of all history. What will she say?

And Mary said, “Fiat. I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me!”

At last humanity in her says a great YES to God. A new future dawns for us all. Immediately the Word takes flesh of the woman and comes to dwell amongst us. Christmas is on the horizon. The Church bids us genuflect or bow in the Angelus, when we come to the words “And the Word was made flesh – and dwelt amongst us”. The Church directs us to bow our heads on Sundays when we come to the words in the Creed “and by the power of the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man”. On the Feasts of the Annunciation and Christmas we actually genuflect at those words, as Angelico’s archangel did. Strangely in Australia people resist bowing their heads in the Creed: perhaps because our democratic culture is not much into bowing and scraping. Yet surely there is one moment in all history that can bring even egalitarian Australia to its knees: the moment time stood still, the moment of the Incarnation. At that moment the angel asks us also: will you have God do to you as He wills?

Often, I suspect, we say YES, as Mary did. Most of you, most of time, live good lives. You fulfil your responsibilities. You are merciful, generous and just. You live the ten commandments that are key to loving God and neighbour. You come to worship God on the Sunday before Christmas when many of your peers are focused entirely on shopping or cooking or the small picture of lives. You are here, not because you are saints – though some of you are, I guess – but because you see a bigger picture than the commercialism and parties, the reason for the presents and the Christmas dinner; and you are saying Fiat, YES, as Mary did.

Amidst the ugliness of this week past two people were killed saying YES to God. Reports have emerged of the heroism of the café manager, Tori Johnson. Apparently seeing an opportunity, this hostage grabbed the gun from his tormentor; tragically it went off killing him, but triggering the police action to save the rest of the hostages. Katrina Dawson, the other victim, was apparently shielding her pregnant friend from gunfire. That kind of self-sacrifice, is a yes to goodness and to God. The response of the people of Sydney has been similarly positive, as spontaneous floral tributes appeared in Martin Place and campaigns of solidarity on the internet. Leaders of all religious, political and ethnic backgrounds have called for calm, for prayer, for harmony and support. Services have been offered for the victims, their families and friends. In all sorts of ways we have reaffirmed our common humanity and highest aspirations, our YES to God.

Sometimes, of course, we say NO. We can be more like the first Eva than the second. Like the One who tempted the first Eve we can say: I will not serve; I won’t be accountable to anyone; I want to be the god around here. Most of us, I suspect, say YES more often than NO. But if you are aware of times you’ve said NO, especially any big Noes to God, get to Confession this week before Christmas.

I wonder if more often than YES or NO, we say MAYBE. Yes, God, I’ll let you do what you want with me, as long as it’s not too hard, as long as it’s not too different to what I want, as long as you give me this or that in exchange. We are not hard-hearted or closed-hearted so much as half-hearted; rather than running hot and cold we are lukewarm. That can be in our marriages, family life, friendships, work life, studies, civic life, faith life. And MAYBE can be as dangerous as NO sometimes. It can be a way of saying NO without saying it; a half-commitment can be a refusal to commit, like those who delay RSVPing in case a better offer comes along.

When the Archangel Gabriel genuflected before the Blessed Virgin she didn’t say MAYBE, thank God. Come this Christmas, when you genuflect in the Creed; come today when you bow your head in the Creed; say YES with all your heart and so make your heart a crib for the Christ-child.