A Sacramental Worldview
by Rev. Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her first born son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields an keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you; you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.:" And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
The annunciation is one of the most commonly depicted scenes in sacred art. It is scene on which we Catholics often meditate, whether we are looking at an image of it or we are praying the rosary or the Angelus. As we near the end of the Advent season, let us consider the annunciation not as something that we merely think about but as something that we can touch. That is, let us consider it with a sacramental worldview.
The Christian faith is a sacramental one. That means that liturgy and the sacraments have an essential place for us, because they are means by which Christ is present and at work in his church. What is signified in the sacred liturgy is truly brought into effect. That is clearest to us at specific moments in the celebration of the seven sacraments. The priest's words in the confessional, "I absolve you from your sins," are Christ's words, and what they signify is truly brought into effect - namely, the forgiveness of sins. The priest's words at Mass, "This is my body," are Christ's words, and the body of the Lord becomes truly present. Again, what is signified is not just symbolized but in reality is brought into effect.
This principle is also true more broadly of all the words and actions of the sacred liturgy. When we are physically present at Mass this Sunday and hear the Gospel of the annunciation proclaimed there, the mystery of that event becomes present to us, and we are mystically present in the scene with the Virgin Mary and the arch-angel Gabriel. We don't simply remember a past event. That mystery is made present to us here and now.
The same principle is also true of liturgical seasons. If we didn't have a sacramental worldview, we might think of liturgical seasons only in terms of the externals: the color of the vestments changes from green to purple; the "theme" we are asked to reflect on is different; the music selection changes; and so on. In reality, much more is going on than a mere change of "theme" or decoration.
Each season is a privileged time and has its own grace, meaning that Christ is present and at work in his church in a specific way in each liturgical season. During Lent, for example, Christ is at work purifying the members of his body. Our 40 days of Lent participate in his own 40 days in the desert as he overcomes evil and demonic temptation in combat. During Advent, on the other hand, Christ is at work in his members in a different way. He is present and silently growing, as he did in the womb of his mother Mary, now preparing us for his coming.
With these things in mind, let us return to today's Gospel, the scene of the annunciation. One thing that comes through to us as this Gospel is proclaimed is Mary's faith. It is a faith that seeks understanding and direction ("How shall this come to be, since I do not know man?"), and this in no way indicates any sort of imperfection in her faith, only a desire to cooperate most perfectly with God's will. By her pure faith, she seeks to cooperate with God's will exactly as it is expressed through his messenger; "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." And the passage concludes quite simply, "Then the angel departed from her." No attention is drawn to her. No one is there to congratulate her. No fireworks go off outside. Mary simply believes. And the child begins to grow silently within her.
The sacred liturgy gives us the ability to "touch" Mary's own faith, to believe with Mary's own faith. It is by that faith that the Christ Child grows silently within each of us. The spiritual writer Caryll Houselander describes this beautifully, and at the same time captures the meaning of the whole season of Advent: "It is a time of darkness, of faith. We shall not see Christ's radiance in our lives yet; it is still hidden in our darkness; nevertheless, we must believe that he is growing in our lives; we must believe it so firmly that we cannot help relating everything, literally everything, to this almost incredible reality."
During this season of silent growth, this is the faith that prepares us for his coming.