The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Homily for December 21, 2008: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Shortly before I was ordained, a teacher asked my class if anyone knew the one moment in scripture that was depicted more often in art than any other.

Everybody agreed: it must be the nativity.

But we were wrong. It’s this moment we encounter in today’s gospel. The Annunciation. Artists have painted it, sculpted it, and imagined it more than any other. It towers over the popular imagination.


You can speculate on the reasons why. It’s certainly dramatic: this is the true beginning of the life of Christ, the very moment when our salvation began. And it is a perfect marriage of heaven and earth, the human and the divine.

But there is something else to it that I think speaks to us in a powerful way in the 21st century.

It is this: the Annunciation is wildly, defiantly countercultural. It is rebellious. It is a challenge that is offered – and, to our amazement, accepted.

Gabriel comes to a virgin and tells her something stunning. She will bear a child. It is an event she never anticipated, one she never planned for. She’s practically a child herself, in a poor town, and she is being told that God wants her to play a critical role in salvation history. The angel makes clear: what is about to happen to her will change the world.


And in that moment, Mary utters her first words in the gospel…words that speak for all of humanity, in all our confusion:

“How can this be?”

She seeks an answer, an explanation, some plausible reason for something so implausible.

How many of us have asked the same question?

How often have we struggled to understand God’s plan in our lives?

How many of us have been blindsided by events we never expected – a twist on life’s path that we never saw coming, for better or for worse — and asked ourselves, in fury or despair or bewilderment:

How can this be?

And here Mary is told, simply:

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

And that is enough.


That is all she needs to hear. She will accept God’s will and she will carry it out.

It’s – in every sense – extraordinary. How is it that someone so young can so easily say “Yes” to what will undoubtedly be difficult, and painful, and maybe even scandalous? The very idea of it is a shock. It goes against our culture.

We live in an age when it’s so easy to say “No.” We can make life what we want it to be – even if that’s not what it should be.

You can fight aging with botox, avoid dieting with liposuction. You can make a baby in a Petri dish. You can get a mortgage for an overpriced house with a three-car garage that you can’t afford. And, if it all becomes too stressful, society tells us that you can get rid of anything that’s just inconvenient – even an unborn child.


But Mary didn’t. Mary wouldn’t. She listened to another voice. The voice of an angel. When Mary asked the question the world asks so often of God – “How can this be? “— the answer ignited in her a fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of possibility.

The answer is this: it can be because God wills it to be. Nothing is impossible with God.

How often we forget that. How often we disbelieve it, or mistrust it.

But the lesson of the annunciation is so clear.

At this dark moment in time, at this darkest time of the year, what is being announced is hope. Mary, we’re told, was troubled at what she heard. But what follows is a message for all of us. In our moments of confusion, when we are troubled by what God brings to us…nothing is impossible.


Angels will speak. The Spirit will come. A light will break through the skies and guide the world to a savior in a stable.

How can this be?

It can…because nothing is impossible with God.

On this final Sunday of Advent, Mary is challenged. And so are we. The gospel asks us to look deeply at the unexpected, and the miraculous, and the mysterious.

It asks us to consider possibility. And it asks us to look into our own hearts.

How do we respond to the Gabriels in our own lives?

How do we react when God suddenly knocks on our door to announce a change in plans?

When the doctor calls…

When the market fails…

When a child becomes ill…or a parent is bedridden…or the pregnancy results aren’t what you thought they’d be…or wanted them to be.


We may find ourselves brought up short by life. We may feel disappointment, confusion, maybe even anger. And we may ask those words that Mary asked so long ago, “How can this be?”

How will I get through it? How will I manage?

The answer is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago.

And that is what we cling to.

It is possible.

Because nothing is impossible with God.

Illustration: “The Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896.

Comments read comments(7)
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posted December 20, 2008 at 2:38 pm

Everytime I read this and pray before the Tabernacle, I weep, for it IS the most beautiful reality.I am speaking of The Annunciation, not your homily ofcourse!:)

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posted December 20, 2008 at 3:06 pm

p.s….i agree with elizabeth:homerun!

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posted December 20, 2008 at 6:34 pm

God sent me to your homily tonight.5 months ago, my wife of 25 years told me she is divorcing me. “How can this be?” has been a constant refrain. We were both raised in traditions which take the wedding vows seriously; her father’s a Deacon in the Church, for crying out loud.Yet here I am – – – “How can this be?”I yearn for the faith Mary showed.

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posted December 20, 2008 at 8:07 pm

How can this be? might be the most human of all questions, and the one that leaves us most open to God. I love your characterization of the Annuciation as counter-cultural and rebellious. I wrote earlier this year for Philadelphia’s Catholic paper about the Holy Name of Mary and the same question “how can this be?”

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posted December 22, 2008 at 1:09 am

Wonderful job. Love the illustratin as well.

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posted December 23, 2008 at 5:57 pm

A wonderful homily! Anyone appreciating the truth of it would enjoy the poem “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov.

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