It is a truism that our experiences influence the way we interpret events. I think that the same thing could be said of words. Quite often a word may contain a number of associations. At least I have found that true in my own case.
I remember standing in St. Peter’s Square on a November afternoon when I first heard the phrase: “Annuncio vobis gaudium magnum” (“I announce to you something of great joy”). The cardinal continued his message by revealing that Angello Roncalli had been elected pope and would take the name of John XXIII. I was also present to hear the same words when Paul VI was elected.
And I heard them again on radio and TV at the time of the elections of subsequent Holy Fathers.
Thus the very word “annunciation” carries in my mind, and indeed scripturally speaking, the idea of joy. Gabriel was sent to speak to Zechariah “and announce to you this good news” (Lk 1: 19) -- the good news which continues to be the source of our joy. At the very outset, two things should be noted. The first is that God takes the initiative and reaches out to Zechariah, and to humanity and to ourselves. We must never forget that in the spiritual life all is a gift -- a sign of God’s continual attempt to touch us. Paul himself said: “What do you possess that you have not received?” (1Cor 4: 7). In the face of this truth, we come to realize that the primary response in our prayer life must be one of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Secondly, as this first annunciation (chronologically speaking) evolves, we realize that God is reaching out in love and friendship to us. Indeed, as redemptive history points out, it seems almost to culminate in the idea of friendship: “You are my friends” (Jn 15:14). On a purely natural level, St. Augustine wrote about friendship: “...our conscience condemns us if we do not meet friendship with friendship. When we do, we open ourselves to transforming possibilities--personal, civic and even spiritual.” If this is true on a human level, how much more explosive are the possibilities open to us on the level of the divine-human friendship. And God’s invitation to us to enter into his friendship is one of the sources of our Advent joy as well as reminding us that this sacred season provides us with an opportunity for deepening our friendship with the Lord.
We might begin our spiritual journey through Advent by focusing upon the two figures we meet at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Elizabeth and Zechariah. There are a number of points to be highlighted. Both are described as “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no children...” (Lk 11: 6-7).
The question of why God had not blessed them with children--in the context of a culture which so valued having children--must have been raised in their spiritual strivings. In their spiritual tradition, moreover, they would have brought their confusion and disappointments to the Lord, as the psalmist often did.
At this point, we might stop to highlight the fact that when we are hurting, frustrated, discouraged, etc. it is important to realize that it is perfectly acceptable to address these questions to the Lord. But even in our hurts, we must maintain hope. Many years before Luke penned his description about the spiritual state of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the inspired author of the Book of Lamentations described his hurt and discouragement. But his words also contain the truth upon which to anchor our hope:
My soul is deprived of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is...
But I will call this to mind
as my reason to have hope.
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent.
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness. (Lam 3: 17-23)
Paradoxically, as we look forward during this Advent season to birthing Christ in our self and in our world, it can happen that we find ourselves, for a myriad of reasons, caught in darkness and discouragement. At these times, it is helpful to make a personal pilgrimage into memory to discern signs of God’s faithfulness--a true source of strength and joy.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.