Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fr. Carl Schlichte,  OP

One of the things that struck me as I reflected on the Gospel today is that Mary is “greatly troubled” not about the angel’s coming to her, but what the angel said to her! It seems to me that every other time that an angel appears to someone in the Bible, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are not a greeting, but “Do not be afraid!” In other words, an angel’s mere presence (whatever that might be like) is literally awe inspiring, even overwhelming, to the average person. The fact that Mary is not startled or afraid because an archangel addressing her is the first tip off that she is not your average person! She wonders aloud how what is being told to her will come about (as any of us would!), but ultimately she surrenders herself to the mystery that is God and the divine plan. How many of us would do that, even if we have “all” the facts?

As you know, I was on my annual retreat the week before last. As I often do, I took along a book to guide my reflections. There were a couple of ideas that the author presented I thought you might find interesting and worthy of reflection yourselves. The first is a concept from Buddhism: that of “near enemies.” Instead focusing on avoiding the opposite of a desired virtue, the “far enemy,” rather, focus on rooting out those things that look like, even feel like, the virtue one is trying to acquire but are not, the near enemies. It strikes me that far enemies are generally easy to spot, but near enemies are more subtle and insidious. Perhaps too, since it is easier to know far enemies, might it be a temptation to give most of our attention to them, thus allowing near enemies to set up camp in one’s mind and heart, practically unnoticed?

The second idea is about prayer. “Ostensibly the One to whom we pray is not surprised that we often experience him as seemingly corrupt, uncaring, or hard of hearing; God is not worried about his reputation; he knows he seems far less interested in our concerns than we want him to be. No reason is offered; that’s just the way the Father is. One of the most ancient metaphors for the spiritual life is combat, and Jesus seems to suggest that the devil might not be one’s only adversary; the Father himself can seem like a foe who needs to be roused or won over or outfoxed or overcome. This kind of prayer is not what quiets the anxiety or lowers the blood pressure; it rarely leads to bliss. To pray as Jesus describes demands both the courage of a warrior and the docility of a disciple…Perhaps this is why Jesus says the kingdom of heaven can only be taken by force.” (Msgr. Michael Heher, The Lost Art of Walking on Water.) Yet, in his own prayer, Jesus addresses this One as Abba and invites us to experience the Father in the same way. Talk about work!