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Reflection on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Posted on December 20, 2020, by Agnes Ann Schum SL

An image of Mary and the angel Gabriel
by American artist by John Carrol Collier

Good morning, everyone!  Today, on this last Sunday of Advent, I want to tell you a story about Mary, the key figure of Luke’s Gospel, but my story hinges on a modern-day painting by American artist John Carrol Collier.  I ask you to use your imagination as I describe his painting, which depicts Mary as a young school girl in her early teens. She is about the age when girls in first century Palestine were betrothed shortly after reaching puberty. In the painting, our modern-day Mary is wearing ordinary clothes: a blue jumper and a white top (something like a school uniform), white socks and untied saddle oxfords. She’s standing outside the door of her modern-day-looking home, holding an open book near her face. It appears that she has just answered the doorbell and standing on her porch next to her is probably the most humbling portrayal of the angel Gabriel I have ever seen. We can almost hear him say, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Mary’s teenage eyes, as she looks over her open book, is one of shock and disbelief, as if to say, “Who is this guy and is he for real!”      

Now, let’s take a moment to put our young face, our young selves in this painting. How would we have reacted if that had happened to us? I think this is what the artist is trying to do by mixing the images of new and old worlds together. It’s true that Mary’s story happens in the real time and place in a town of Galilee called Nazareth during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It was not altogether different from our own story of today in this United States, in Nerinx, Ky., or Missouri or Colorado or Pakistan, in the year 2020. It was a world of uncertainty, hard times, divisions, political corruption, unequal distribution of wealth, violence and injustices of all kinds. (Sound familiar?)  However, in spite of everything else, it was also a world of supportive families and good friendships, of charity, faith and hope.

Luke’s Annunciation story tells us that when the angel appeared to Mary, Mary was much perplexed by the angel’s words. Now that’s an understatement if I ever heard one! Mary had NO idea what the heck was happening! Would any of us? It wasn’t like she was given a script for her life. There was no heavenly director to tell her, “Mary, now you go and stand over there and when Gabe comes in, look surprised.” No, of course not! Whatever it was that she was doing at the time, the angel interrupted her with his message of God’s proposed plan; however, let us keep in mind that she didn’t rush to say, “Sure, I’ll be happy to become a young, unwed pregnant woman and be the subject of gossip.” Mary’s curious mind and courage dared her to ask a pointedly clear, practical and direct question as to how all of this would come to be. Mary had to do the best she could in that moment — just as we do each and every moment of our lives to choose to say “YES” to our role in God’s plan for us. Like Mary, we, too, have had times in our lives when we have been greatly disturbed, when we have been full of questions, when life (like now) doesn’t make sense. Can we possibly learn from Mary’s ultimate act of trust that even the most unbelievable absurdities in life are somehow being held in the loving hands of a trusting God and that the Spirit will lead and not abandon us?

Luke’s story of Mary encourages us to take notice and to wonder with our minds and hearts how God is with us — today, in this place and time. That it’s OK to be curious and to ask pointed questions about where we are being asked to go and what we are being asked to do. Mary, the woman who will be the mother of Jesus, also calls us to listen to the ways in which God is forever stirring up wild possibilities in our lives, and how God continues to invite us into the ongoing story of wonder, inclusive of happiness and sorrows. And according to today’s Gospel, into a life where God’s joy ultimately reigns.


Agnes Ann Schum SL

Agnes Ann , who resides at Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky., is a member of the Motherhouse’s pastoral community care team.