The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Meditation for the Annunciation on the Angelic Salutation
by fr. Lawrence Lew OP and recorded for Eternal Word Television Network which was first broadcast today, 25 March 2014.
In the United Kingdom the financial year begins in April, and many of us will know that the 1st of April is also known as ‘April Fools’ Day’. It’s thought that the pranks and jokes played on this day were meant to make fun of those ‘fools’, so called, who refused to observe the new Gregorian calendar introduced in France in 1582. That calendar had moved the new year to the 1st of January which is, of course, the day we generally accept as the beginning of the new calendar year. But what the ‘April fools’ of the financial sector recall is a much older and indeed, wiser, tradition. The new financial year begins in April because until 1752 in the United Kingdom, the new year began on Lady Day, that is, the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation.
It is fitting that Lady Day, the old English name for the day of the Annunciation, should have marked the passing of each year because the event it commemorates is truly epoch-making. Indeed, the Annunciation initiates a new creation; the cosmos redeemed by grace; and heaven and earth embrace. As a 15th-century English carol put it: “For in this rose containèd was/ Heaven and earth in little space, Res miranda”. And the “rose of such virtue” of which that carol sings is Our Lady; her womb, the “little space”, in which heaven and earth embrace because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Truly, this is a res miranda, a marvellous thing wrought by God’s grace.
So, for two millennia, Man has marvelled at God’s work in the Incarnation. We have delighted in the wonder of the Annunciation – that moment when God became Man at Our Lady’s Fiat – through carols, music, sculpture and art; through countless sermons, poems, meditations and prayers. And today I add another: ros ad Maria, a tiny dew drop added to the oceans; a little offering to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Let me explain that phrase, ros ad Maria. An ancient Dominican tradition holds that when Our Lady gave the Rosary to St Dominic, she said something to the effect that “heresy should not disappear until prayer should rise from the earth like drops of dew”. Hence, the word ‘rosary’ comes, not from roses, as it is often thought, but probably from the Latin ros, meaning ‘dew’. Each bead of the rosary is thus like a drop of dew that rises from the earth – a prayer; a praise to the Virgin; a sweet word that refreshes the earth and infuses our dry hearts with the grace of the Ave. Thus, I offer today ros ad Maria – a reflection to add to the rosaries of words, songs, and art already said about Lady Day; a dew drop to catch the light of Truth that Christ comes silently as dew-fall into his mother’s immaculate womb. As another 15th-century English carol says: “He came all so still/ There his mother was,/ As dew in April/ That falleth on the grass”. I offer this ephemeral drop of dew to praise Mary.
And this, too, is fitting on Lady Day: that we should cry out to Our Mother and Our Lady in praise when we think of the Annunciation of the Lord. For, as the 6th-century Byzantine hymn to the Blessed Virgin, the Akathist hymn, sings: “The Maker of heaven and earth covered you with His shadow, O Pure One, and came to dwell in your womb, and taught us all to cry out to you: Rejoice…!”
So, we shall begin here, too, with the angelic salutation which the evangelist St Luke gives in Greek as Chaïré, kécharitôménê! Now, opening word, chaïre can simply be a greeting like ‘hello’. This is the sense it takes when it is translated into Latin as Ave, and it is rendered into English as ‘Hail’. But you’ll have noticed that the translation I’ve been relying on for the Akathist hymn, and which we find in some Lectionaries, notably the Jerusalem Bible translation which is used in most British parishes, says: “Rejoice”! This is because the word chaïre does have that stronger secondary meaning of an invitation to joy. Something similar, perhaps, can be seen in the Filipino greeting ‘Mabuhay’ which is simply used as a ‘hello’ or a ‘welcome’ greeting. But it also carries that deeper resonance of an invitation to rejoice in life – buhay in Filipino – itself.
We saw on Saturday how the story of God and Man is essentially a love song, in which God comes in search of his Beloved, wooing humanity with passionate words, and finally with the eternal Word himself who is God’s love for Man made incarnate and visible. But the image of God as the Lover of humanity, the Bridegroom of the soul, is matched by another Scriptural image today: that of the covenant.
For Malachi prophesies in the name of God, the Lord of hosts, that “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight… is coming” (Mal 3:1). In other translations, the Greek form for messenger is used, so the “angel of the covenant” is coming. And the messenger, this angel, is understood to be Jesus Christ who bears in his own person and body the message of God’s covenant with humanity.
From the days of Adam, God has desired kinship with Man, and so he entered into a covenant with him. It would be a mistake to think of a covenant as a contract. For contracts exchange goods and property but covenants exchange persons; they establish a family bond. So, God becomes Father to Adam, and then, to Abraham and his descendants, and then, to Moses, and latterly to David and his house – as we have been recalling this past week. In each case, the covenant is renewed, and God promises that Israel will be his people and he will be their God (cf Eze 36:28). So, there is this exchange of persons, and the creation of kinship between God and the descendants of Israel.
But in Christ, the Second Adam, who is both God and Man, that kinship is perfected because it now encompasses not just one people but all of humankind for all time. So, because of Christ, all peoples can enter into a “new and eternal covenant” with God, and truly become members of God’s family. But there is an exchange of persons in a covenant, so it is not just that God receives our humanity through Christ, but also that we receive his divinity. And this is given to us in the Eucharist. Hence, Jesus says: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant” (cf Lk 22:20), for the Eucharist creates and renews our covenant with God, and we are made “one body, one spirit in Christ”. Through the grace of Christ, the Son, we have become truly God’s kin, indeed, his adopted sons and daughters.
Our kinship with God comes entirely through grace; it is God’s initiative and gift. It is not a birthright, not something passed on by blood or family lineage, but received through faith, which is God’s gift, and given through God’s grace. Today’s Gospel alludes to this. For the neighbours and kinsfolk have gathered for the naming of the baby, and when they hear that he’s to be called ‘John’, they say: “None of your kindred are called by this name” (Lk 1:61). They want something traditional, something handed down. But the fact that a new name is given stresses that something new is taking place, and it is God’s gracious initiative. The miraculous conception of the child already told us this, but the name that the baby is given underlines this fact. For the name ‘John’ means, “God has been gracious”. So, the naming of John stresses God’s initiative, God’s grace and gift, and Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faith in what God accomplishes by his grace. They no longer rely on earthly familial or tribal bonds to maintain a covenantal relationship with God but on his grace, which comes to all peoples through the messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ.
It is this extension of God’s covenant with Man to all nations, to you and me, that we will celebrate tomorrow night. The saintly Benedictine abbot Ansgar Vonier wrote that “covenant is an alliance between God and man; it is a peace concluded between divine Justice and the sinner; it is a friendship between the Creator and His creature”. And it is this alliance, this peace, this friendship with God that Jesus accomplished for all Mankind when he was born as one of us; when God became one with us.
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” – Hebrews 11:17-19.
Detail from a window by Edward Burne-Jones in Jesus College chapel, Cambridge.