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Marist Bulletin - Number 227


The Meaning of Christmas

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Br. Seán Sammon, Superior General

The feasts of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus stand like two bookends placed exactly nine months apart and encompassing a record events, some known and others now lost to history. On the one hand, we have the age old story of the visit of an angel by the name of Gabriel to a young woman called Mary. And on the other, are the events that we mark this evening: the birth of Jesus Christ in humble circumstance at a time when his parents were traveling and far from home. How do we make sense of these extraordinary tales of angels, and virgin births, shepherds and wise men from the East, and, at center stage a young Jewish woman and a new born baby?

Luke’s account of the Annunciation provides us with a powerful example of the positive response of a young girl to an invitation on the part of God. We are told that Mary was living an obscure life in the village of Nazareth. And into this world comes the angel. Though both he and she are frightened, Gabriel’s gaze and Mary’s raised eyes collide as he began to sing his song.

The usual interpretation of Luke’s words depicts Mary’s response as a model of humility self-sacrifice and submissiveness to the will of God; obedience understood as acquiescence. Such an understanding, however, fails to account for the woman of strength who spoke so clearly to her son at Cana, stood at the foot of the cross, and was a source of consolation to the apostles at Pentecost. How we might wonder did the timid and retiring soul described by the evangelist ever become the model of what it means to be Church, the first disciple, the example par excellence of the Christian life?

If this tale and that of Christmas are to be understood as two examples of obedience to God’s will, then we better get the story right. For Mary’s response to God’s message brought by Gabriel was a radical and free decision on the part of a young woman to risk her life on a messianic adventure. Hers was the response of a disciple, not a servant.

Obedience always comes at a price. And that fact stands to reason because we are just as free to say “no” as “yes” to what God asks of us. To say “yes,” however, is to accept the invitation to be part of the adventure that is called salvation history. In undertaking this journey we must realize at the outset that there are no guarantees, the costs of taking the risk are unknown, where our decision might take us is yet to be discovered.

Today, however, when it comes to obedience so many of us want to be absolutely sure about what we are getting into before signing on the bottom line. And so we ask endless questions, weigh the pros and cons of saying yes or no, and calculate the cost. We are rarely naïve anymore and surely not foolish. How unlike Mary of Nazareth. For if the Annunciation and the feast we celebrate today have any message for us, surely naivete and foolishness are at the heart of it.

To risk your life and mine on a messianic adventure, that is what God is asking of us in so many ways. Just as God did with Mary. Luke tells us that she was “greatly disturbed by Gabriel’s message,” but in spite of that fact still took a chance, acted with audacity and boldness, put her life into play. Are we willing to do the same is the question that is before us today. And we know the outcome well: an abundance of life here and hereafter. A blessed and happy Christmas.

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