Homily for December 20, 2020 – The Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16, Rm 16:25-27, Lk 1:26-38
The knot tied by the pride of Eve has been loosed by the humility of Mary. Of course, I’m altering a bit the quote from St. Irenaeus. Instead of humility and pride, he contrasted obedience and disobedience. And his quote goes on to say, “For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”
It was through the vice of pride that the serpent tempted Eve in the garden. As the story goes, he had coaxed her into the fatal bite by the words, “God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Gn. 3:5). Eve was not satisfied with her creaturely state. She didn’t want to be a servant; she wanted to be a master. She wanted to be on a par with the gods, having full knowledge of good and evil. Like Lucifer, she had said within herself, “I will not serve.” Pride compelled her to stretch for what was beyond her reach, and in so doing she lost what she had.
In meditating on the gospel text for Mass today I am struck by Mary’s humility. When the Angel Gabriel appears and heaps praise on her, she is “greatly troubled” not by the fact that a heavenly messenger has just appeared to her but “at what was said,” and she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Being so lowly in her own estimation, she has trouble believing that such an exalted greeting could truly be meant for her. It’s as if she’s saying, “Excuse me? This couldn’t possibly be meant for me! You must have the wrong person.” If it had been Eve she might have been thinking, “Man, it’s about time someone recognized my greatness!”
The angel goes on to reassure her that yes, she is indeed the intended recipient of his privileged message. And he continues with a string of references from Scripture indicating that she will be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. False humility might have tried to protest and call attention to itself. But Mary seems to take it in stride, knowing that it all depends on God and not on her.
I interpret Mary’s one question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” not as an objection (like, “But that’s going to interfere with my plans to be a consecrated virgin”) but more of a practical question (like, “So does that mean God wants me to begin having marital relations with Joseph?)
As Bede the Venerable pointed out in our second nocturn reading this morning, Mary’s final response is one of humility: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Even though she is to be the mother of her Lord, she does not let it go to her head. She is at home in her role of servant, of handmaid, of slave. Mary sought lowliness and was exalted. Eve sought exaltedness and received, instead, disgrace.
Trust seems to be closely linked with humility. Mary doesn’t seem to be anxious about how she is going to explain her pregnancy to Joseph and the other townspeople. She does not bemoan the fact that she has had very little training for so tremendous a role. She knows that if this is the work of God, the more useless she is, the better. Her final words are so simple and yet so profound: “May it be done to me according to your word.” And her “Fiat” echoes down through the ages.
The taller the structure, the more important the foundation. If you’re going to go high, you’d better go deep beforehand. We recall the book read in our refectory by David McCullough about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Roebling went to a lot of trouble with the help of caissons to burrow down deep through the muck and get to bedrock. He even ruined his health in the process because they didn’t understand “the bends” yet. But the result is a spectacular bridge that is still in function to this day, 137 years later.
God had a massive plan in view for his beloved creation. He knew that it could only be built on the deep foundation of humility. When the stormwinds came, the foundations of Adam and Eve had proved to be sand. But Mary had just what it took to establish a firm footing and accomplish salvation for his people. Our redemption rests on Mary’s Fiat. And it is even fair to say that the Church is founded on Mary’s humility — a structure over which the gates of hell will not prevail.
And so, brothers, let us do all we can to cultivate the virtue of humility in ourselves so that the Almighty can do great things in us too.
Mary, model of humility, pray for us.