This month we commemorate the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the feast of the Archangel Gabriel who announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of the expected incarnation of the promised Redeemer.
The circumstance under which God gave a sign to the Judeans was, one might say, typical of His methods.
The unified kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel began suffering internal hardship under the unwise Solomon. After his death, his son Roboam ascended the throne and became king.
In a long line of kings, Achaz was one of the worst rulers of Juda (736-728 B.C.). To the north of him, the Israelite and Syrian forces under Phacee and Rasin were massed at Ephraim to deflect a possible attack of the powerful Tiglath-Pileser III. To the south, the Edomites had just seized Elath, a border town at the crossing of caravan routes from Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia. The Philistines to the west were restive.
Achaz made an unsuccessful attack against his northern foe. Even Isaias’ promise of divine protection could not restore confidence to Achaz who was a devout worshiper of Baal and Moloch.
Achaz hoped to make an alliance with Tiglath-Pileser III. But, the invader captured Damascus, killed Rasin, the Syrian king, made Phacee a vassal and carried many Israelites into the first Assyrian Captivity. Achaz allowed temple treasures to be carried to Damascus. As a subject-king he presented himself before Tiglath-Pileser III. He returned to Jerusalem, closed the temple and set up false gods throughout Juda. He died unrepentant. It was at this time that the prophet brought to him the great prophecy and sign that a virgin would be the mother of the Messias. This did not move Achaz to repent of his evil ways.
Despite all the evil of which our ancestors were guilty, God continued to extend a thread of hope. Amid all the ritual murder of their own children; after all the other various and sundry expressions of perverse wills, God still held out a hand of forgiveness.
Amid all this misery, God gives them a sign of hope: hope in that long-awaited, and oft-spoken of Redeemer.
The sign which these perverse people were given by the Lord Himself was this: “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emanuel” (Isa.7,14). And this prophecy and sign were fulfilled when the Archangel Gabriel “was sent to a Virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”
No one expected this to happen to Mary, because no one but God knew her fullness of grace. Like all daughters of Israel, she was preparing herself for the inevitable duties of a wife. But God’s ways are not man’s ways.
The angel greeted Mary with a startling greeting: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Virtue is always surprised at its greatness because the essence of all virtue is humility. It was no different in the case of one whose virtue surpassed that of all mankind. The angel consoled Mary, saying: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end”(Luke 1,30-33). And truly, He does reign in the house of Jacob because He still reigns among the twelve tribes of true Israel.
Being a virgin, Mary simply said to the angel: “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”
To which the angel replied: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God.” To give assurance to Mary of the supernatural nature of all this, the angel gave her a visible sign: “And behold, Elizabeth thy kinswoman also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month; for nothing is impossible with God” (Ibid. 1, 35-37).
Indeed, what is impossible with God? Impossibilities attributed to God are the lamentable limitations born of human reflection upon oneself. Those lacking supernatural grace reduce the power of God to their own narrow field of intellectual vision. The Catholic believes in the fullness of Mary’s grace because the Catholic partakes somewhat of that fullness; the Protestant and the Talmudist cannot believe in the fullness of Mary’s grace because both are empty of all grace. Having rejected the grace of faith, both are doomed to remain in their ignorance until they abjure their perverse errors and opposition to God, and humbly make room to receive His grace.
The only public official who had the courage to publicly confess that Jesus was heir to the throne of David was the much maligned Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Forced by political threat and intrigue (the PACS of his day!) to condemn an innocent man to death, he had some remorse and tried, although feebly, to make up for his awkward position. He ordered that the only crime of which Jesus was guilty be placed over His Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans.”
Some might argue: Too little, too late! But, at least Pontius Pilate did not blaspheme God by mocking His divine works!
We also commemorate a great Greek Father of the Church, St. John Damacene. Iconoclasm - the attack upon the use of holy images - is noting new. The Greek emperor, Leo II, published an edict against the cult of holy images in 726. Like all enemies of Christ and Christianity, there were those ‘hidden’ elements who use the official capacity of civil authority to do their bidding. Their favored tactic is to make ‘laws’ prohibiting the visible practice of religion.
When Leo II initiated his program against the cult of holy images, John took up the defense in a series of discourses directed against the Iconoclasts. Hiding behind the cloak of authority, Leo was infuriated. But, because John was in Saracen territory and well out of Leo’s reach, he could do nothing to stop John.
Evil men never rest. They plot and plan into the wee hours of the night. Leo had a letter forged, and allegedly addressed to himself by John in which it appeared that John was informing him of the weak state of the defenses of the city of Damascus, and supposedly begging Leo to come and liberate it from the Saracens.
This letter was then forwarded to the caliph with a letter from Leo, explaining that this was only one of the many such letters that he was constantly receiving from the caliph’s Christian subjects and suggesting that the caliph should know about it.
John was brought before the caliph. In spite of his protestations of innocence, he was judged guilty and punished by having his right hand cut off. The hand was hung in the public square, but at John’s urgent request was restored to him toward the end of the day.
John spent the night in prayer before the image of the Mother of God. During the night, our Lady appeared to him and cured him. In the morning, the caliph saw the hand perfectly restored and in place. There was nothing more than a slight line of suture to suggest what had happened. The caliph was impressed so much that he became convinced of John’s innocence. Thus, John was restored to his former place of honor. Because of all this, John requested to withdraw to a monastery. Reluctantly, the caliph granted his request. John had been a very important official in the caliph’s household, yet considered it a privilege to live in a monastery, subjecting himself humbly to the obedience of his Superior.
No doubt, because of his great humility, St. John Damascus sought to pass his life unknown. His prayer was granted because there is very little known about this great intellectual giant of the Church. He had written in his second Apology: “If an angel, if a king preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, close your ears. For I still hesitate to say, ad did the Apostle let him be anathema, as long as I see any possibility of resipiscence….It does not belong to kings to legislate for the Church… to kings belongs the maintenance of civil order, but the administration of the Church belongs to the shepherds and teachers.”
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