Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jack frost nipping at your nose… There have been candy canes in the classrooms and days of baking cookies. Music on the radio, untangling Christmas lights; Santa Claus, and maybe that treasured, quiet moment by the fireplace where you snuggle with your beloved as snow lightly falls. Ah, Christmas.
But this Advent season started with an exhortation to “stay awake” and to “watch”—exhortations that warned us of danger. The danger was that we might miss Christmas because of our busy-ness; today the danger is that we might miss it by making Christmas… sentimental. All of the Christmas trappings, lulling us to sleep, tempt us to see today’s visit from an Archangel as a kind of dream-sequence of blurred trees and soft voices. Yes, Christmas can become a kind of sentimental thing where, in the end, the baby Jesus is reduced to a precious moments doll that is “nice” and “cute” … but that is all.
Surely, there is more to Christmas than that.
The Final Battle
J.R.R. Tolkien, a Catholic author who lived through the First and Second World Wars and who was a daily communicant, wrote metaphorically about the Catholic life and its struggles through a series of fantasy books entitled The Lord of the Rings. These books, later adapted to film, drew from the entirety of the Catholic heritage (including the Old Testament) and told of battle after battle between men and goblins and other evils, battles that are waged around the ultimate of weapons (a ring of power) that could cover the world in a suffocating darkness. The books are the ultimate in the good-versus-evil genre.
For ancient Israel, this good-versus-evil battle played out literally through many wars with the nations surrounding her. Today’s reading, however, announces a time of peace—a peace that has come from God Himself. He says:
I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
A few of Israel’s victories had come when the Ark of the Covenant preceded her in battle. The Ark of the Covenant (think: Indiana Jones) was a sacred treasure of Israel that held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the miraculous manna-bread from the desert, and the rod of Aaron that had turned the Nile to blood. The Lord overshadowed the Ark, as like a cloud, and wherever it went, there was the mighty God.
In this moment of remembrance, God makes a promise to David: He says:
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
From all your enemies. But what other enemies were there that had not been destroyed? Paul answers us when he says:
The final enemy to be destroyed is death.
This presumes that the enemy which has brought death—namely, the devil—will also be destroyed. This is precisely what begins to happens when Jesus dies on the Cross on “Good Friday.” On that day, the enemy-- not Jesus-- but the enemy is vanquished and the dawn of victory begins. Hence, we call Good Friday “good.” And on the third day, when dawn breaks the darkness, we see that Jesus, the Light of the World, is victorious.
In the ancient church, it was traditionally held that Good Friday happened on March 25th-- the same date of the Annunciation.
The Secret of the Annunciation
J.R.R. Tolkien, realizing this historical fact, sees that there is a connection between Good Friday and the Annunciation. That is, if Good Friday is the day of victory, the Annunciation is the day that God paratroops behind enemy lines, all secret-ops like, and begins the final assault against the ancient tyrant of this world. Tolkien, therefore, orchestrates his book in such a way that the greatest victory and the destruction of evil—namely, the ring of power—happens on March 25th.
This changes everything.
The Annunciation is not just some nice Taster’s Choice moment between a humble Israelite girl and an distant angel. This is a secret council behind enemy lines wherein Gabriel reveals to Mary the secret weapon: Mary is to become the New Ark of the Covenant, the one who will proceed the New Israel, the Church, into the victorious battle against Satan. As the New Ark, she will not be carrying the Ten Commandments or the manna or the rod, but within her will dwell the very author of the Law, the very Bread of Life, the very Blood of Salvation, Jesus Christ, which the Old Ark and its contents prefigured.
In this moment, Mary is more than a poor peasant girl. The Archangel Gabriel greets her by saying, “Hail!” This is a crucial point. You see, Gabriel could have greeted Mary in the common tongue of Aramaic or Hebrew—shalom—but he says the Greek word “Chaire!”—Hail! This is an elevated greeting which means “rejoice” and whose root is the same for “grace.” Grace and joy are related. But more, this word, “Hail!” is a greeting for royalty. Kings and Queens are greeted in such ways—not peasant girls.
And so Mary ponders what this greeting may mean: how can she, so humble and poor, be greeted in such exalted ways?
It reminds me of Tolkien’s small, humble characters called Hobbits. Of them, he says “Even the smallest person can change the course of the world.” In Tolkien’s books, it is the smallest and most unnoticed who draws the wars to an end.
In this moment, Mary has a decision. Does she agree to this battle? Does she agree to this exalted vocation—a calling beyond anything anyone may have imagined for her? In this moment, God’s plan is laid out. All creation waits. Gabriel waits. What will she say?
In this moment, Mary’s YES will be like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains. Mary’s YES will conquer Eve’s NO. If Mary says yes, she will have obtained in that moment a victory more decisive than any battle waged on earth.
And so she says: Behold.
We have heard this word before. It means to see deeply, almost beyond appearances, and to the mysterious. Gabriel has said “Behold, Elizabeth has conceived…” See the mysterious at work!
Even on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate says, “Behold, the man.” See, your king! (Of course, the people respond not by beholding, but by shouting all the louder: Crucify Him!)
From the Cross on the same day, Jesus says to us, “Behold, your mother.” See… bring her into your home and to your heart! See the mysteries at work!
So, when Mary says “Behold!” her yes is so total that it echoes the very plan of God: His plan becomes her plan.
Nine months after that March 25th day, the world would celebrate Christmas.
Victory in Battle
Let us conclude with the last words of today’s Gospel. It says,
And the angel departed from her.
This may seem like a throw-away line, easily dismissed as a transition to the next part of the story. But it tells us something profound: after all of this is revealed and Mary says yes, the angel leaves and Mary is alone.
But she is not alone. While the world resumes its daily activities, within Mary is Jesus Himself. In the coming months, she would hold her belly and ponder upon the words Gabriel proclaimed to her: Hail, my queen … I have been with you wherever you went … I will give you rest from all your enemies…
Her interiority and her prayerful pondering will aid her when she hears the words of Simeon the priest-prophet when he tells her that a “sword will pierce your heart also”—swords that are used in battles. She will need to hear again and again in the depths of her heart the command to rejoice—that first command of the Gospel—as her Son is taken from her and scourged and crucified. Yes, as the battle comes for her and her Son, Mary will find victory as she ponders about the Jesus that grows within her.
What can we take from this?
The Church wants us to consider this battle and this victory. Just like Mary who ponders, the Church once more ponders the Annunciation so as to prepare ourselves for Christmas. Even the opening prayer to today's Holy Mass is the very same prayer used on the feast day of the Annunciation!
So, Behold! Behold your Savior and His Mother in these last days before Christmas.
And let’s be honest: this is such a battle! Yes, it is such a battle to pray sometimes—especially when prayer can be dry or we’re tired. It is such a battle to not give up when we have so much else to do. Or, if we know we are to go to confession, it is so easy to say “not this year.” No! Fight! Battle! This is the year! This is the day! The victory is now. This is where we prove our valor—prove ourselves worthy of the victory that God brings us this Christmas. Prove that this isn’t just a sentimental holiday that ends in the Returns line at Target. Behold that this is the day in which the light breaks through the darkness and is victorious over it forever! This is Christmas. Behold!