Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B), 2017.
In the traditional Anglican liturgy for churches that keep the Catholic tradition of liturgical expression, today’s service for the Fourth Sunday in Advent would begin, as all Sundays, with what is known as an “Introit.” That is the Latin word for “Entrance.” Rather than having an opening hymn, or often after the opening hymn while the altar was being incensed, there would be a Cantor who says—usually chants—the Introit. It consists of an antiphon verse, then a psalm verse, and finally the Glory Be, with the antiphon being repeated again. In my own efforts to expose our Parish to a wide offering of liturgical expression, this is what I follow whenever there is a Mass in All Souls’ Chapel, such as there was this morning for the Lady Mass and as there will be on Christmas Day on Monday morning, 10 am.
I mention all this by way of background so that I can read before you now the beginning of the traditional Introit for this Mass, and then offer a reflection. Here it is: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and bring forth a Savior.” Although initially obscure seeming, there is real poetry even in this one sentence, which is the antiphon, through its three images.
In the first image, we have the heavens, and we are asking them to drop down from above. This seems to be an unspeakable sort of petition. And yet, the Mass, centered on the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s actual Body and Blood, is often described as a window to heaven—indeed, “heaven on earth”—a transcendent experience in which we by grace rise above everyday life, even climb the holy mountain to witness, in the Eucharist, the Transfiguration of Jesus. And what comes from heaven for the people of God but the true Manna from heaven, the Living Bread. God always wants to offer Himself to us eucharistically—God already knows what we want. But He also always wants us to ask for it. And so we ask for His presence, time and time again through the Mass—His presence, that we might taste and see that the Lord is good.
In the second image we ask the skies to pour down righteousness. So often the biblical pattern is for one thing to be expressed in two ways that nearly repeat but through the small differences, help to deepen the meaning. Heavens dropping from above is close to skies pouring down righteousness. Heavens and skies; dropping from above and pouring—both similar. Its the word righteousness that invites the deeper meaning. Righteousness, as a general rule, means holy, upright living; it means a prayerful life that is ever aware that the divine presence is everywhere and in all places and things. The righteous person is he or she who is trying unceasingly to unpack what Saint Paul calls the “revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.” The righteous person is he or she who prays with Scripture and seeks, then, to read all of life through a scriptural lens. So this image of skies pouring down righteousness means a desire to become, by heavenly grace, a more committed disciple of Jesus Christ: carrying their cross, walking in His steps, following Him, seeking and serving Him in all persons.
Finally that third image, in the words: “let the earth open, and bring forth a Savior.” The coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is an event within which is wrapped all of creation. And this, ultimately, is why throughout the Sundays in Advent it has been so fitting to sing the hymn “Joy to the World” before the Gospel—as a recognition within the eyes of Faith that the Incarnation of God involves Blessed Mary and Blessed Joseph, the Shepherds and the rest of those named in the biblical narrative, yet also is involves the rest of the world, all of creation. Joy to the world—joy to the earth—heaven and nature singing, fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeating the joy. The Christian experience of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, is ever an invitation to joy and the wonders of His love. Our Church must always be a church of joy.
Brothers and sisters, joy is the experience of the Church because joy was the experience of Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, the Mother of God. Because joy was her experience is why the archangel Gabriel addressed her how he did. He said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” In this greeting, the heavens dropped down from above, the skies poured down righteousness, and the earth opened to bring forth a Savior. What joy!
And here it must be said that the joy was a two way street: great joy both for Mary and for Gabriel. For Mary it was joyful because in this holy encounter of holy light, she is made firmly aware of why she was born, firmly aware of who she was, and what was the divinely conceived purpose of her life: to ever bring God to people through her.
And it was great joy for Gabriel. Biblical scholars point out that the word “Hail” is, in the original biblical context, not merely a greeting like a hello, or in the parlance of the young folk, “yo,” but rather a distinctly joyful way to greet a person. Gabriel is filled with joy—why? Because he is able at this moment to announce to Mary the Incarnation—the ancient hope of old long spoken through the prophets. And incidentally this fits with the Jewish theology of angels, in which there is an established tradition that when the holy angels first beheld human beings, they bowed in reverence of them. Why would they bow? Because human beings are God’s highest creation. And as glorious as the Angels are, they are not the medium for the definitive expression of God incarnate: a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who when the time had fully come, was sent forth by God as his Son, born of woman, born of Mary. Through human beings is how God makes Himself most known, most available, and most loved.
Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, then—Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you—we should understand as spoken to Mary by Gabriel bowing before her: firstly, out of divine respect for Christ, and therefore secondly out of respect for her, the Mother of Christ, indeed the ark of our salvation, the most highly favored lady, whose soul shall laud and magnify Christ’s holy name, and who, as the model Christian disciple, teaches us the glory of saying Yes to God: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Let us pray: O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirits, that we may conceive the holy Jesus in our hearts, and may bear him in our minds, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect in Christ Jesus. Amen.