Sermon on the Annunciation,
Incarnation of the Eternal Word


The Annunciation of Mary - ALBANI, Francesco - from The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

The Angel Gabriel relates God's Word to Mary, as God the Father and the Holy Spirit hover over the scene in anticipation of Mary's Fiat. The lily is symbolic of Mary's virginity and purity, and the Old Testament Book is symbolic of Mary's intimate knowledge of the coming Messiah to be born of a Virgin.

 

Saint Thomas calls the mystery of the Incarnation of the
Eternal Word, "the miracle of miracles".

 

Sermon on the Annunciation,
Incarnation of the Eternal Word


by Saint Alphonsus Liguori

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Saint Thomas calls the mystery of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, "the miracle of miracles". What greater prodigy could the world behold, than a woman become the Mother of God, and a God clothed in human flesh. Let us therefore consider today these two prodigies.

First Point: Mary, by her humility, became the Mother of her Creator.

Second Point: The Creator, in His goodness, became the Son of His own creature.

 

First Point
Mary, by her humility, became the Mother of her Creator.

God, having determined to manifest to the world His immense goodness, by humbling Himself so far as to become man, to redeem lost man, and having to choose a Virgin Mother, sought among virgins the one who was the most humble. He found that the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed all others in sanctity, as greatly as she surpassed them in humility, and therefore chose her for His Mother. "He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid" - Luke 1:48. "She did not say", remarks Saint Lawrence Justinian, "He hath regarded the virginity or the innocence, but only the humility, of His handmaid". And before him Saint Jerome had said, that "God chose her to be His Mother more on account of her humility than of all her sublime virtues".

Now we understand that Mary was that one who was spoken of in the sacred Canticles under the name of Spikenard, a small and lowly plant, which by its sweet odor, drew the King of Heaven, the Eternal Word, from the bosom of His Father, into her womb, there to clothe Himself with human flesh, "While the King was at His repose, my Spikenard sent forth the odor thereof" - Canticles 1:11; which Saint Antoninus thus exclaims: "Spiknard, from its being a small and lowly herb, was a type of Mary, who in the highest degree gave forth the sweet odor of her humility". Before him, Saint Bernard had said: "She was indeed worthy to be looked upon by the Lord, whose beauty the King so greatly desired, and by whose most sweet odor He was drawn from the eternal repose of His Father's bosom". So that God, attracted by the humility of the Blessed Virgin, when He became man for the Redemption of man, chose her for His Mother. He would not, however, for the greater glory and merit of His Mother, become her Son without her consent. "He would not take flesh from her", says the Abbot Williams, "unless she gave it". Behold, whilst this humble little Virgin was in her poor cottage, sighing and entreating the Lord, as it was related to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, that He would send the world its Redeemer, the Archangel Gabriel came, as the bearer, on the part of God, of the great embassy, and saluted her, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women" - Luke 1:28. Hail, O Mary, full of grace; for thou art rich in that grace which surpasses the grace given to all men and angels. The Lord is with thee, and always was with thee, assisting thee with His grace. Thou art blessed amongst all women; for all others fell under the curse of sin; but thou, as the Mother of the Blessed One, wast preserved from every stain, and always wast, and always wilt be blessed.

What answer does the humble Mary give to a salutation so full of praises? She does not reply; but, astonished at them, is confounded and troubled, "Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be" - Luke 1:29. Why was she troubled? was it that she feared an illusion? No, for she was sure that it was a celestial spirit who spoke to her. Her modesty was perhaps troubled at the sight of an angel, under a human form, as some have thought? No, the text is clear, "She was troubled at his saying", to which Eusebius Emissenus adds, "not at his appearance, but at what he said". This trouble, then, proceeded entirely from her humility, and was caused by the great praises, which were so far from her own humble estimate of herself. Hence, the more she heard herself praised, the more deeply did she enter into the depth of her own nothingness. Saint Bernardine of Sienna writes, that "had the angel said, O Mary, thou art the greatest sinner in the world, her astonishment would not have been so great; the sound of such high praises filled her with fear".

But the Blessed Virgin, I say, already understood the sacred Scriptures; she well knew that the time foretold by the Prophets for the coming of the Messiah had arrived; she knew that the seventy weeks of Daniel were completed, and that the scepter of Juda had passed into the hands of Herod, a stranger, according to the prophecy of Jacob; she also knew that the mother of the Messiah was to be a Virgin. She then heard the angel give her praises, which it was evident could apply to no other than a Mother of God. May not a thought or doubt have entered her mind, that she was perhaps this chosen Mother? No, her profound humility did not even allow her to have a doubt. Those praises only caused her such great fear, that the angel himself was obliged to encourage her not to fear, as Saint Peter Chrysologus writes, "As Christ was pleased to be comforted by an angel, so had the Blessed Virgin to be comforted by one". Saint Gabriel said, "Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God" - Luke 1:30. As if he had said: Why fearest thou, O Mary? Knowest thou not that God exalts the humble? Thou in thine own eyes art lowly and of no account, and therefore He, in His goodness, exalts thee to the dignity of being His Mother. "Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call His name Jesus" - Luke 1:30.

In the mean time the angel waits to know whether she is willing to be the Mother of God. Saint Bernard addresses her, saying, "The angel awaits thy reply, and we also, O Lady, on whom the sentence of condemnation weighs so heavily, await the word of mercy". "Behold, O holy Virgin, the price of our salvation, which will be the blood of that Son now to be formed in thy womb. This price is offered to thee to pay for our sins, and deliver us from death ; we shall be instantly delivered if thou consentest". "Thy Lord Himself desires thy consent ; for by it He has determined to save the world. He desires it with an ardor equal to the love with which He has loved thy beauty". "Answer, O sacred Virgin", says Saint Augustine, "why delayest thou the salvation of the world, which depends on thy consent?"

But see, Mary already replies to the angel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word" - Luke 1:38. O admirable answer, which rejoiced Heaven, and brought an immense treasure of good things to the world. Answer which drew the only-begotten Son from the bosom of His Eternal Father into this world to become man; for these words had hardly fallen from the lips of Mary before "the Word was made flesh"; the Son of God became also the Son of Mary. "O powerful fiat!", exclaims Saint Thomas of Villanova; "O efficacious fiat! O fiat to be venerated above every other fiat!", for with that fiat, Heaven came on Earth, and the Earth was raised to Heaven.

Let us now examine Mary's answer more closely, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord". By this answer the humble Virgin meant: Behold the servant of the Lord, obliged to do that which her Lord commands; since He well sees my nothingness, and since all that I have is His, who can say that He has chosen me for any merit of my own? "Behold the handmaid of the Lord". What merits can a servant have, for which she should be chosen to be the Mother of her Lord? Let not the servant , then, be praised, but the goodness alone of that Lord, Who is graciously pleased to regard so lowly a creature , and make her so great. "O humility", exclaims the Abbot Guarric, "as nothing in its own eyes, yet sufficiently great for the Divinity. Insufficient for itself, sufficient in the eyes of God to contain Him in her womb, Whom the heavens cannot contain". Let us also hear the exclamation of Saint Bernard on this subject. He says, "And how, O Lady, couldst thou unite in thy heart so humble an opinion of thyself with such great purity, with such innocence, and so great a plenitude of grace, as thou didst possess?" "Whence this humility", continues the Saint, "and so great humility, O Blessed One?" Lucifer, seeing himself enriched by God with extraordinary beauty, aspired to exalt his throne above the stars, and make himself like God: "I will ascend into Heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant . . . I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the most High" - Isaiah 14:13-14. O, what would that proud spirit have said, had he ever been adorned with the gifts of Mary? He being exalted by God, became proud, and was sent to Hell; but the more the humble Mary saw herself enriched, so much the more did she concentrate herself in her own nothingness; and therefore God raised her to the dignity of being His Mother, having made her so incomparably greater than all other creatures, that, as Saint Andrew of Crete says, "there is no one who is not God, who can be compared with Mary". Hence Saint Anselm also says, "there is no one who is thy equal, O Lady, for all are either above or beneath thee; God alone is above thee, and all that is not God is inferior to thee".

To what greater dignity could a creature be raised than that of Mother of her Creator? "To be the Mother of God", Saint Bonaventure writes, "is the greatest grace which can be conferred on a creature. It is such that God could make a greater world, a greater Heaven, but He cannot exalt a creature more than by making her His Mother". This the Blessed Virgin was pleased herself to express, when she said, "He that is mighty, hath done great things to me" - Luke 1:49. But here the Abbot of Celles reminds her, "God did not create thee for Himself only; He gave thee to the angels as their restorer, and to men as their repairer". So that God did not create Mary for Himself only, but He created her for man also; that is to say, to repair the ruin entailed upon him by sin. We now pass to the second point.

 

Second Point
The Creator in His goodness
became the Son of His own creature

Our first father Adam sinned; for, ungrateful to God for the many gifts he had received from Him, he rebelled against Him by eating the forbidden fruit. God was therefore obliged to drive him from before His Face, and to condemn him and all his posterity to eternal death. But afterwards, pitying him, and moved by the bowels of His mercy, He was pleased to come on Earth to become man, and thus satisfy the Divine Justice, paying with His own sufferings the punishment which we deserved for our sins.

"He came down from Heaven , and was made man". This we are taught by the Holy Church: "And He was made man". O prodigy, O excess of the love of God; a God became man! Did a prince of this world, seeing a worm dead in its hole, wish to restore it to life; and were he told that to do so, it would be necessary that he should himself become a worm, enter its dwelling, and there at the price of his life make it a bath in his own blood, and that thus only could its life be restored, what would the reply of such a prince be? "No", he would say, "what does it signify to me whether the worm comes to life again or not, that I should shed my life and die to restore its life"? Of what import was it to God that men should be lost, since they had merited it by their sins? Would His happiness have been diminished thereby?

No, indeed. It was because God's love for men was so truly great that He came upon Earth and humbled Himself to take flesh from a Virgin; and taking the form of a servant, became man; that is, He made Himself a worm like us: "But emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man" - Philippians 2:7. He is God, as the Father, immense, omnipotent, sovereign, and in all things equal to the Father; but when He was made man in the womb of Mary, He became a creature, a servant, weak, and less than the Father. Behold Him thus humbled in the womb of Mary; there He accepted the command of His Father, Who willed that after three-and-thirty years of suffering, He should die cruelly executed on a Cross: "He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross" - Philippians 2:8. Behold Him as a Child in the womb of His Mother. He there conformed Himself in all things to the will of His Father, and, inflamed with love for us, He offered Himself willingly: "He was offered because it was His own will, and He opened not His mouth: He shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter, and shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer, and He shall not open His mouth" - Isaiah 53:7. He offered Himself, I say, to suffer all for our salvation. He then foresaw the scourging, and offered His body; He foresaw the thorns, and offered His head; He foresaw the nails, and offered His hands and feet; He foresaw the Cross, and offered His life. And why was He pleased to suffer so much for us ungrateful sinners? It was because He loved us; "Who hath loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood" - Apocalypse 1:5. He saw us soiled with sin, and prepared us a bath in His own blood, that we might thereby be cleansed, and become dear to God: "Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered Himself for us" - Ephesians 5:2. He saw us condemned to death, and prepared to die Himself, that we might live; and seeing us cursed by God on account of our sins, He was pleased to charge Himself with the curses which we had deserved, that we might be saved: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us" - Galatians 3:13.

Saint Francis of Paul had, then, indeed reason, in considering the mystery of a God made man and dying through love for us, to exclaim, "O charity! O charity! O charity!" Did not faith assure us of all that the Son of God did and suffered for us, who could ever believe it? Ah Christians! the love which Jesus Christ had and has for us indeed drives and forces us to love Him, "For the charity of Christ presseth us" - 2Corinthians 5:14. Tender indeed are the sentiments expressed by Saint Francis de Sales on these words of Saint Paul; he says, "Knowing then, that Jesus, Who was truly God, has loved us, and loved us so much as to die, and to die on a Cross for us, is not this to have our hearts under a wine-press, and to feel them forced and so strongly pressed that love issues from them by the very violence with which they are pressed; and the greater this violence is with which they are pressed, the more sweet and amiable is it".

But here came the tears of Saint John, "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not" - John 1:11. Why did the only-begotten Son of God become man on Earth, suffer and die for us, if it was not that we might love Him? "God became man", says Hugo of Saint Victor, "that man might love Him with greater freedom". "Jesus Christ", says Saint Augustine, "came on Earth principally that man might know how much He loved him". And if a God loves us so much, He requires, with Justice, that we love Him. "He made known His love", says Saint Bernard, "that He might experience thine". He has shown us the greatness of the love He bears us, that He may obtain our love at least out of gratitude.

 

O Eternal Word, Thou camest from Heaven on Earth to become man and to die for man, that Thou mightest be loved by man; how is it, then, that among men there are so few who love thee? Ah, infinite Beauty, amiable Infinity, worthy of infinite love, behold me; I am one of those ungrateful creatures whom Thou hast loved so much, but have not yet known how to love Thee; nay even, instead of loving Thee, I have greatly offended Thee. But Thou becamest man and didst die to pardon sinners who detest their sins, and wish to love Thee. Lord, behold me; see, I am a sinner, it is true; but I repent of the crimes I have committed against Thee, and I desire to love Thee; pity me. And thou, O holy Virgin, who by thy humility becamest worthy to be the Mother of God, and as such art also our Mother, the Refuge, the Advocate of sinners, do thou pray for me, recommend me to this Son, Who loves thee so much, and refuses nothing that thou askest Him. Tell Him to pardon me; tell Him to give me His holy love; tell Him to save me; that with thee I may one day love Him face-to-face in Paradise.

Amen