Listen to the unexpected

Blessed Fra Angelico produced various depictions of today's Gospel story of the Annunciation. Although the 15th-century Dominican painter created significant variations on the same scene, it is said that he never retouched his paintings because, like the iconographers of Eastern Christianity, he believed that he produced them under divine inspiration; thus, they should not be changed.

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Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-1214a, 16
Psalm 89
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Fra Angelico's "Annunciation of Cortona" offers a telling commentary on today's Gospel about Gabriel's mission to Mary of Nazareth. It is filled with symbols of sacred history. One striking element is that the artist linked Mary and the angel by writing the words of their conversation in the space between them. The angel's declaration that the Holy Spirit will come upon her is straightforward, but her response, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word" is written upside down and backward. Whatever Fra Angelico's intent, that depiction portrays something fundamental about the implications of the human response to God's invitation.

Gabriel's message to Mary was anything but expected or predictable. In spite of what legends have added to her story, the Gospel tells us nothing of her background or personality, not one word about her piety or righteousness. We know nothing more than that she was a young woman, engaged to a man named Joseph and living in a little-known town 90 miles from Jerusalem. The only thing that singles her out is that God was with her, that she had found favor in God's sight. It was all God's doing.

What then was her role? It is as simple and profound as the Latin word fiat (may it be done). That is the same word we find in Genesis 1 when God creates the world. Fiat lux is "Let there be light." Here we have Mary echoing the creative word of God, making possible what had never happened before. And yet, the dialogue Luke provides shows that Mary did not consider herself capable of carrying out the angel's prediction; only after hearing that God would overshadow her and the Holy Spirit come upon her did she pronounce her "fiat." She spoke not from a position of ability, but of availability. Fra Angelico depicts the effect all of this would have on her life by painting her words upside down and backwards.

From the moment Mary spoke those words, her life was irrevocably changed. She had given herself over to God's designs in a way that no other person had ever been asked to do. Her very life was to be turned upside down. She could no more anticipate the implications of her fiat than one can make sense of their painted depiction without a mirror.

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Here we have the crux of today's readings. God invites humanity to be available. We are to cultivate our attentiveness and generosity so that we can hear well and be open to what God hopes to do through us, even though it may seem unimaginable, much less fit our plans.

In our first reading from 2 Samuel 7, David has conceived a great scheme to build a temple. It sounded like a great plan, a generous act of public praise, and the prophet Nathan told him to go for it. But, after a nighttime encounter with God, Nathan returns to tell David, "I was wrong, and so were you."

David's plan was a great one, but that was the problem: It was his plan, not God's.

David had to abandon his plan for God's earthly dwelling because it was not big enough. God could not be confined in a structure of stone and cedar. The God who had accompanied Israel through the Exodus willed to remain present through living people, through any who would hear the word of God and say "fiat."

What do these readings say to us as we prepare for Christmas? Both of them remind us of God's desire to dwell in the midst of humanity. They speak of being open to God's unforeseeable plans. Blessed Fra Angelico preached with paint that Mary was available; she allowed her life to be turned inside out in response to God.

Contemplating Mary and David, the simple woman and the powerful king, we see that the key to discipleship, the essence of being servants of God, lies very little in the plans we make or the gifts we would give to God. The message for us, as for Mary, is that God continues to want to do what has never been done before, and that can happen only to the extent that we are willing to listen to the unexpected and to put our very selves at the disposal of God's plan. Then, we can pray the prayer Mary very likely taught Jesus: "Thy will be done."

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA, a charitable foundation that supports work with people with disabilities in Ecuador.]

This story appeared in the Dec 5-18, 2014 print issue under the headline: Listen to the unexpected .

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