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12.20.2020 Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Annunciation


Hans Memling


Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York

Memling modeled this Annunciation scene on the left wing of Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Columba Altarpiece (now in Munich), but his innovative rendition portrays the Virgin overcome with emotion and supported by two angels, rather than kneeling.

Like other fifteenth-century Flemish painters working in the wake of Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling cloaked religious imagery in the language of everyday life of the time, and paying particular attention to nature.

This Annunciation scene takes place in a well appointed bedchamber, though many of the domestic furnishings would appear to have symbolic connotations. The carafe of water, through which light passes unadulterated, and the vase of lilies are symbols of the Virgin's purity, while the empty candleholder signifies her imminent role as bearer of Christ, the light of the world. The Gabriel's priestly garb alludes to the celebration of the Mass and, therefore, the incarnation of Christ. A soft glowing light falls on the Virgin and suffuses the room, elevating the scene from the realm of the ordinary and signaling the sacred nature of the encounter.


Luke 1:26-38

26 “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34 Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38 Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”


The context

The story of the Annunciation takes us from the Temple, a holy place par excellence, to a house, to the intimacy of a personal meeting between God and one of His creatures; it leads us into ourselves, into the deepest part of our being and our story, where God alone can reach and touch us.

The birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, a woman thought to be unable to bear a child, overcame the powerlessness of humankind in the circumstances, and transformed a seemingly hopeless situation into an occasion to collaborate with God.

On the other hand, the birth of Jesus, to a virgin who is “full of grace” and awaits her reply: it is God who waits for our yes so as to work in and through us.

The Introduction

The Word enters into our life. Luke presents the people involved, and the places and the time:

· A virgin called Mary: The angel Gabriel was sent by God to this young virgin who

lived in an out-of-the-way place. The name ‘Gabriel’ means God is ‘strong’. The name

‘Mary’ means ‘loved by Yahweh’ or ‘Yahweh is my Lord’.

· Betrothed to a man called Joseph, of the House of David.

· Nazareth was a small city in Galilee while the centre of Israel was Judah and


· The account begins with the expression “in the sixth month”. It is the sixth month

of the pregnancy of Elizabeth. The need of Elizabeth, a woman advanced in age who

is expecting her first son with all the attendant risks, is the background to this entire


Mary and Zechariah

· The angel had appeared to Zechariah in the Temple.

The angel appears to Mary in her house: The Word of God reaches Mary in the

environment of her daily life.

· The angel greets Mary: The visit of the angel to Mary reminds us of the visit of God

to different women in the Old Testament. These invariably announced the birth of a

son with an important mission in God’s plan[1].

The words of the angel reflect similar words said to Moses, to Jeremiah, to Gideon

and to others with an important part to play in God’s plan[2].

The words to Zechariah meet with doubt and result in his inability to talk.

· Mary is surprised at the greeting and tries to understand the significance of these

words. She is practical. She wants to understand. She does not accept just any

invitation, She enters into a Covenant with God[3].

Just as happened in the visit of the angel to Zechariah, the first greeting of God is

always: “Do not be afraid!”

The angel recalls the promises of the past which will be fulfilled thanks to the Son

who will be born to her and who is to receive the name of Jesus.

He will be called the Son of the Most High and in Him the Kingdom of God will be

realized. This explanation of the angel is given in such a way that Mary is indeed not


Mary’s answer

Mary is aware of the mission which She is about to receive. She allows her heart to be read to its very depths. She speaks of herself and her wishes. She knows that for God the impossible is possible. She does not doubt or harden her heart and mind. She does not count the cost. She only wants to be fully available and open to touch of the Almighty.

In a gesture of utter poverty, She places before God her virginity. This is a complete surrender of herself, a surrender full of faith and trust. It is her preliminary yes.

· Mary continues to be practical.

· She does not allow herself to be overcome by the greatness of the offer and

continuous to acknowledge her lowly state.

· She examines the offer through the criteria which she has available to her:

humanly speaking, it was not possible: “But how can this come about? I have no

knowledge of man.”

The call to serve

The angel explains that the Holy Spirit, present in God’s Word since the beginnings of creation[4], is able to realize things which seem impossible.

· Mary describes herself with the title of a servant, ‘Handmaid of the Lord’. This title

from the Prophet Isaiah represents the mission entrusted by God not as a privilege,

but rather as a service to His people. The Word of God reaches Mary and makes her

available to serve others. Mary leaves the place where she was living and go to

Judah, a distance of more than four days’ journey, in order to help her cousin

Elizabeth. Mary begins serving and fulfilling her mission on behalf of the People of


Later Jesus will define His mission as a service: “I have not come to be served, but to

serve!” He learned from his Mother!

· The response of the angel clarifies everything for Mary[6], and she surrenders:

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your


God’s Action

God awaits an answer, the all-powerful respects the decision of this woman, who represents each one of us.

The dialogue continues; the covenant grows and is strengthened. God reveals the ‘how’. He speaks of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, who does no violence but preserves her virginity intact.

Gabriel speaks of the human experience of Elizabeth. He reveals another impossible thing made possible, almost like a guarantee.

And then, comes the last word when Mary, like each one of us, must make a choice: to say yes or no, to believe or doubt, to open the door or to close it. “Nothing is impossible for God.”

This miracle repeats itself right up to today. When the Word of God is accepted by us, something new happens, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit! Something new and surprising such as a Son born of a virgin or a son born to a woman of advanced years, like Elizabeth, whom all said could not bear a child!


“To Yahweh belong the earth and all it contains,

the world and all who live there;

it is He who laid its foundations on the seas,

on the flowing waters fixed it firm.” (Ps 24: 1-2)

Father, You came down to me; You have come to me;

You have touched my heart;

You have spoken to me and promised you’re

Your presence and salvation.

By the grace of the Holy Spirit, who overshadows me, I, together with Mary, have been able to say to ‘yes’, ‘Here I am’, to You.

Now there remains only the fulfilment of Your promise, of Your truth:

“You are to conceive and bear Jesus.”

Lord, here is the womb of my life, of my being,

of all that I am and have, open before You.

I place all things in You.

Enter, come, come down again, I beg You, and make me fruitful, make me able to give birth to Christ in this world.

May the overflowing love I receive from You find its fullness and truth in touching the brothers and sisters that You place beside me.

May our meeting, Father, be fruitful, a gift to all.

May Jesus be the Saviour. Amen.

Mary, Mother of Jesus, intercede for us, that we, too, may have listening hearts: hearts that hear the voice of God in every detail of our lives and respond to the needs of those around us.

In the events of every day life, whether they are ordinary or remarkable, help us to listen to what God is saying or may be asking of us. Pray that we, like you, may treasure God’s word in our hearts and act on it. Amen.


Is the Lord truly with me, in my life, in my desires, in my affections, in my choices and actions; that others can meet Him in and through me? Perhaps for this to be true, it is necessary that I should absorb more of His presence in my life, for me to eat and drink of Him.

The Annunciation to Mary begins our immediate preparation for the coming of Jesus among us:

· There was fear on the part of Mary at this most unexpected call, leading to her

questioning as to how this could all happen.

· Then there was the sign that Elizabeth was expecting a child before Mary said ‘Yes.’

· She did not say “Alright! I will do it”, but rather “Let it be done unto me according to

your word.” It was ‘Yes’ to a way of life, a ‘Yes’ to the Word of God, leaving the

initiative always with God. “Here I am!” (Is 65:1) says the Prophet; Mary replies,

“Here I am, I am the servant of the Lord”; and Christ himself says, “I come to do Your

will” (Ps 39:8).

The Bible is ‘littered’ with this pronouncement of kindness: “Do not be afraid”; like a river of mercy, these words are found throughout the sacred books, from Genesis to the Apocalypse. It is the Father who constantly repeats to His children not to be afraid, because He is with them. He will not abandon them. He will not forget them. He will not leave them in the hands of their enemies. It is like a declaration of love from God to humanity, down the generations to each one of us; it is a pledge of fidelity that is relayed from heart to heart and from hand to hand, and finally comes down to us.

Unexpected calls can evoke fear and questioning, leading to a desire for a sign before saying ‘Yes’.

· Have I been through that experience? In my prayer I ask for Mary’s freedom and

openness to God’s surprising ways? Can my fears get in the way of a generous

response to God?

· The Lord is with each of us and we have found favour with God and He has a

mission for us to fulfil.


[1] Gen 18: 9-15: Sarah, mother of Isaac: “They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’” 1 Sam 1: 9-18: Anne, mother of Samuel: “… ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Judges 13: 2-5: Manoah's wife, the mother of Samson: “… His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son…’” [2] Ex 3: 12: “He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’” Jer. 1: 8: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Judges 6: 12: “The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.’” Ruth 2: 4: “Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’” Joel 2: 21-23: “… Do not fear, O soil … Do not fear, you animals of the field … O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain.” Zephaniah 3: 14: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Zechariah 2: 10: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord.” [3] Gen. 26: 28: “They said, ‘We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you.’” [4] Gen 1: 2: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” [5] Luke 1:39: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” [6] The angel said, “See, your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible with God”.

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