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Third Sunday of Advent

December 15, 2013

Among the happiest memories of my childhood are visits to the Boston College campus with my father, a member of the class of 1950.  I remember being awed by the campus, especially the tower of Gasson Hall as the bells rang out the hour of the day. Years later, in 1991, I joined the faculty and moved to campus.

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One noontime, I noticed that the bells were ringing in a different pattern: a triple stroke repeated three times, with a pause between each set of three, followed by a longer peal of nine strokes.  Indeed, two times each day, the bells in Gasson tower ring out the Angelus.

For over seven hundred years, Christians have paused in the midst of their busy day to recite this simple prayer at noon, 6 pm, and 6 am (our bells don’t start ringing until 9 am).  Some of you may be familiar with Jean-François Millet’s lovely 1859 painting entitled Angelus, which is on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

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Millet captures the simple beauty of this ancient practice.  The first tolling of three bells marks the prayer: “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”  The second tolling of bells marks the prayer “ Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy word.  Hail Mary…” At the third tolling of the bells: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Hail Mary…”  As the bells toll nine times, the following prayer is said:  “Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”

For centuries, Christians from the humblest ranks to those of great power and influence have marked their day with a reminder of Mary’s assent to God’s bidding at the Annunciation.  Because of her openness, God entered into human history to bring salvation to all people.

Of course, you don’t need bells to ponder the mystery of the Annunciation.  In the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius invites the retreatant to continue the Contemplation of the Incarnation that began by taking a God’s-eye view of the world before the coming of Christ.  Now, Ignatius asks the retreatant to situate him or herself in the scene depicted in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel (Luke 21:26-38):

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered 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 called holy—the Son of God.  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Points 107 to 109 of the Spiritual Exercises[1] suggest that the retreatant imagine God looking upon the young girl Mary, as she is greeted by the angel Gabriel.  Ignatius invites the retreatant to let the imagination run free to compose the scene from Luke’s gospel.

[1] David Fleming, SJ  The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius:  A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading.

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As you begin the contemplation, let yourself be totally present to the scene, hearing the nuances of the questions, seeing the expression in the face and eyes, watching the gestures and movements that tell us so much about a person.

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Place yourself in that small provincial town in the middle of nowhere called Nazareth. See the young girl, barely past puberty, in a humble dwelling, obscure and simple.

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Is Mary in a room or a garden? Is there a scent of food cooking or is there an aroma of flowers. Are there sounds from the street or the chirping of birds or is there just silence?

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What is Mary doing when the angel Gabriel appears? Is she sitting, standing, working, daydreaming? Is it daytime or nighttime?

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Notice how our triune God works – so simply and quietly. A world goes on, apparently totally oblivious to the total evolution that has begun.

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Contemplate Mary’s complete way of responding to her Lord and God.

Contemplation entails more than a vivid recollection of a story from the past; contemplation is a way to enter into God’s dream for you and those around you here and now.  The late Gerald Fagin, S.J. puts it well:

We can easily romanticize the Gospel scene—Mary is at prayer, an angel appears, and she says a faith-filled yes. The Scripture also tells us that she was deeply troubled and wondered what the angel’s greeting meant. Certainly the angel’s explanation only left her with more questions and concerns. She did not say yes because she fully understood or had all her questions answered. She said yes in faith and trust. We do Mary a disservice to think she had some infused knowledge that dispelled all her doubts. She was a young woman of extraordinary faith. The “yes” at the Annunciation was not the first “yes” in her life nor would it be the last.  The really significant yeses in our lives also demand a great deal of trust and openness. We cannot know all the implications of them. We respond to the gift of God’s call in our lives. We say yes in hope and trust. Like Mary, we say “yes” to something being born in us that must grow and mature and take a shape we cannot predict. We are called to that depth of faith as we contemplate the story of the Annunciation and all the stories of the life of Jesus in the rest of the Spiritual Exercises. We are called to trust, obedience, surrender, and commitment in our own lives. We will hear an invitation to share in the work of Jesus and respond and live in faith.[1]

If you find yourself on campus at noon or at 6pm, listen to the bells of Gasson and take a few moments to recall Mary’s yes to God’s invitation.  But no matter where you are, with bells or without, take some time during these Advent Days to contemplate the Annunciation.  Ponder anew God’s boundless and unconditional love.  Be thankful for the gift of faith and pray that you, like Mary, will say yes to God’s invitation to a life of grace and love.  Be attentive to the words of Pope Francis in his Angelus address on December 8, 2013:

Let us look at her, our Mother, and let her look at us, because she is our Mother and she loves us very much; let her look at us so that we can learn how to be more humble, and more courageous too in following the Word of God, in welcoming the tender embrace of Jesus his Son, an embrace that gives us life, hope and peace.

[1] Fagin, G.  Putting on the Heart of Christ:  How the Spiritual Exercises Invite Us to a Virtuous Life

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