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Our joy and our grace

Sunday, December 24, 2006
Christmas Eve

The Annunciation is the turning point in human history because it is the moment in which the Word became flesh in the womb of Mary. It is at once the fulfillment of Old Testament joy and the beginning of New Testament grace. These are the first words of the new testament according to Luke: 'hail, full of grace', 'rejoice, highly favoured one', 'chaire kecharitomene' - be joyful (chara) you who are full of grace (charis). It is not accidental that, apart from the Crucifixion, this is the gospel event most often represented in art. In this moment the greatest joys spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures are fulfilled as the new grace of the Christian reality comes to be.

What were the greatest joys spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures? One was the joy of a barren woman discovering that she was to have a child. Such was Sarah, the aged wife of Abraham, who bore Isaac, the child who ensured the fulfillment of God’s promises. Such were the mother of Samson, and Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist. The prophets of Israel used this imagery of the barren place that comes to life, the dry and sterile land in which water appears and life flourishes (Isaiah 41). God saves by turning the dry places into fertile ground. Mary says to the angel, ‘how can this come about since I am a virgin?’ Here is a different kind of infertility, a conception even more extraordinary than those of Samuel, or John the Baptist. Here, without any violence or intrusion into His creation, God’s creative power brings into being the human nature that the eternal Son of God took to Himself.

Another great moment of joy is the joy of being in God’s presence. The most striking example of this is the dance of King David as he welcomed the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. His wife, watching from a window, was not amused that her husband should throw off his clothes to disgrace himself in front of the servants. David’s joy was unrestrained, however, a joy overflowing because God was in the midst of His people (2 Samuel 6). The prophets speak of this also. Zephaniah, for example, says ‘rejoice for the Lord is in your midst, your God, the Holy One of Israel’. He even goes as far as to speak of God dancing for joy in the presence of his people, the exact mirror image of David in the presence of the Ark (Zephaniah 3). The angel Gabriel says to Mary ‘rejoice because the Lord is in your midst’. God is with us in a new and remarkable way: how could we not be joyful?

A third great experience of joy in the Bible is the liberation of slaves. The defining moment in the history of the relationship between the Hebrews and their God is the crossing of the Red Sea. The Lord brought them out of the land of Egypt and led them from the place where they had been slaves to a place of freedom, a land flowing with milk and honey. This joy too is contained in the Annunciation, for the child who is to be born of Mary will be called Jesus (or Joshua). The name means 'the Lord saves' and the first Joshua was the one who finally led the people across the river Jordan and into the Promised Land. The child born of Mary is the new Joshua, saving his people from their sins and leading them into the Kingdom of God.

Joy that the barren is now fruitful. Joy that the Lord is in our midst. Joy that slavery is ended and freedom established. Add to these a final moment of great joy, that of the renewal of the covenant. The people sinned again and again, but just as often God offered a covenant to them and taught them to hope for salvation (Jeremiah 36; see also Isaiah 54). The new covenant whose first act is the annunciation to Mary is the one foretold by Jeremiah, an everlasting covenant sealing the everlasting love with which God loves us. This covenant will be sealed in the blood of the one born of Mary, in Mary's blood we might even say, the sword of His passion piercing her heart also.

The grace announced here is life in the presence of God, freedom in an enduring relationship of love with God. It is the moment in which the new creation begins. And here is a final, joyful wonder. In the first creation the only one to speak was God. ‘Let there be light’, God said, ‘and so it was’ (Genesis 1). But in the new creation a new grace appears as God enables His human creatures to participate in the work He is doing in them and for them. ‘Let what you have said be done to me’, Mary says. God makes it possible for us to reciprocate, to love Him in return. This is the most remarkable mystery of grace, that God who comes to save us gives us the saving victory. It is one of us – Mary’s Son, our Brother, Jesus Christ – who has achieved salvation for humanity. He is truly our joy and our grace.


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