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The Meaning of Christmas

27/12/2005: General House

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.

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