It is the custom at Silverstream Priory, as it is in many Benedictine monasteries, to gather in Chapter on the Ember Wednesday of Advent to hear the solemn proclamation of the Gospel of the Annunciation, the Missus Est, so called from the first words of the text: Missus est angelus Gabriel, “The Angel Gabriel was sent from God” (Luke 1:26). Following the Gospel, the abbot delivers a sermon Super Missus Est, that is, on the Gospel of the Annunciation. Here then is the sermon preached in Chapter at Silverstream Priory on Ember Wednesday, December 19, 2018. Super Missus Est
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26–27)
My dear sons, the inbreakings of God are always unprecedented, prepared long in advance by His providence, and personal. The inbreakings of God are unprecedented, in that even while weaving patterns of continuity in the life of each man, the work of God is always new. We read in the prophet Isaias:
Remember not former things, and look not on things of old. Behold I do new things, and now they shall spring forth, verily you shall know them: I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. (Isaias 43:18–19)
The same God who spoke through the prophet Isaias, speaks again in the Apocalypse:
And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true. (Apocalypse 21:5)
There are in every life, and not exceptionally in our monastic journey, moments and hours of weariness and discouragement. Who among us has never felt fear or lassitude? Who among us has not known hours when the little flame of hope burns low and the encroaching darkness seems menacing? Such moments and hours are not foreign to God’s designs. God prepares us for the inbreaking of His grace by allowing us to experience weakness, temptation, failure, and even desolation. He makes us desire the inbreaking of His grace by hiding His face from us and by showing us the enormity of our transgressions. This He does, not to cast us down but, rather, to make our eyes scan the distant horizon for the first glimmers of His advent. Aspiciens a longe, ecce video Dei potentiam venientem; “I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming” (Responsory, Aspiciens a longe, First Sunday of Advent). Have you listened well on these past Sundays to the chant of the Advent Prose, Rorate Caeli? Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness: let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour. Be not very angry, O Lord, neither remember our iniquity for ever: thy holy cities are a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation: our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee. We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing, and we all do fade as a leaf: our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away; thou hast hid thy face from us: and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people, and send forth Him who is to come: send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth, from Petra of the desert to the mount of the daughter of Sion: that He may take away the yoke of our captivity. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, my salvation shall not tarry: I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions: fear not for I will save thee: for I am the Lord thy God, the holy one of Israel, thy Redeemer. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness: let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour.
And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. (Luke 1:28)
The angel, having entered the house where the Virgin dwelt, immediately saw her as God saw her: full of grace, radiant with the unsullied beauty of Eve before the fall, and even lovelier than Eve, for the beauty of the Virgin is, in advance, the blossom of the Blood of the Lamb that soaked the earth in Gethsemani, the garden of the New Adam’s agony. Her immaculate holiness is the fruit of the Blood poured out on Calvary, the altar of the new sacrifice of the long-promised Lamb. Did not Abraham prophesy to Isaac: “God will see to it that there is a lamb to be sacrificed” (Genesis 22:8)? The angel bears from heaven to earth the announcement of a new beginning from a New Eve. Since that day and hour, every new beginning in grace requires the presence of the Virgin Mary. Souls sometimes read the story of their own journey and ask why there are so many false starts, so many aborted attempts to begin afresh, so many hopes that rise feebly only to be dashed against the jagged rocks of life’s harsh realities. I myself have not been spared such questions, and I suspect that some of you have not been spared them either. I can say this: that to all these questions of ours God has given His answer in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Where the Immaculate Mother of God is present, there is always hope. Where the Immaculate Mother of God is present, there will always be grace for a new beginning. If you desire to begin afresh, turn to Mary, full of grace. Ask her to open you to the grace of the Annunciation. And if you haven’t the strength, or the confidence, or the faith to utter an unconditional “Yes” to the plan of God, ask Mary to say “Yes” on your behalf. The word of the Mother, given on behalf of the little child who is afraid to speak, is sufficient for a new beginning in grace. Only remain close to her. She is your security. Where Mary is, you have nothing to fear.
Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: 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 for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end. And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? (Luke 1:29–34)
In every new beginning there are elements that cause one to wonder, and even to doubt. The promised thing that at one moment seems so close and so full of promise can, at another moment seem distant and unreal. The Virgin of Nazareth was, for a moment, taken aback by the word of the angel. The angel, in his response to the Virgin, pronounces the Name of Jesus. What must have been Mary’s response to hearing the Name of Jesus for the first time? She had not yet given her consent and already the promise had a name. The Name of Jesus acted upon Mary. The sound of it filled her Immaculate Heart, like the most exquisite chant reverberating through the space of a great vaulted church. The Virgin of Nazareth, and Saint Joseph to whom the Holy Name was also divinely revealed (Matthew 1:21), were the first to practice the Jesus Prayer, the prayer of the heart in its simplest and purest form: the repetition of “the name which is above all names” (Philippians 2:9). In our life too, the Name of Jesus received from heaven, held in the heart, and repeated day and night in the reverberation of a ceaseless prayer, dispels doubt, instils hope, and allows one to say, “Yes, even the things I thought impossible are possible,” and with the Apostle, Omnia possum in eo qui me confortat, “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13)
And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: because no word shall be impossible with God. (Luke 1:35–37)
Every new beginning in grace is overshadowed by the Holy Ghost. The fecundity of this divine overshadowing is, however, given only to souls who are content to rest beneath it. Agitation, febrile movement, the solicitation of a hundred distracting thoughts, and fears, and fancies, leave the soul in a state of unrest such that the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, though divine and efficacious, is impeded in its operations. The operation of the Holy Ghost was supremely, indescribably, and perfectly fruitful in the Virgin Mary because she alone, being free from sin, was able to rest in a perfect silence and receptivity beneath His divine overshadowing. Certain of our monastic observances — notably silence, enclosure, and regularity — exist only to hold us still beneath the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, to open us to His operations, and to assure the supernatural fecundity of our life. The fruit of a monk’s life is, in some way, proportionate to the quality of his silence, of his observance of enclosure, and of his humble regularity in the ordinary rhythms of the monastic day. There will inevitably be temptations to squirm, to move from one thing to another, to go in search of something else, but all of these must be unmasked as ploys of the Evil One who is, from the beginning, the enemy of all fecundity.
And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:38)
It is never too soon or too late to begin afresh. The Annunciation is a mystery played out again and again in every man’s life. There is never a moment when God is not announcing the advent of His grace and waiting humbly for our little word of consent. For this reason, there is a never a moment when a new beginning in grace is impossible. The bell of the Angelus reminds us three times a day that God is waiting for our “Yes”. And it reminds us also that there is present, very close to us, and full of sympathy for our human waverings and infirmities, the Virgin of Nazareth who first said “Yes” for us, and who will say “Yes” with us, and who, whenever it is necessary, will say “Yes” on our behalf. Begin afresh. Begin with Mary. Begin in Mary. Begin by Mary. The God who “wrought for her his wonders” (Luke 1:49) will work wonders still in every place and in every heart where Mary is invoked, even in this place, and even in these hearts of ours.
These things I shall think over in my heart, therefore will I hope. The mercies of the Lord that we are not consumed: because his commiserations have not failed. They are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, said my soul: therefore will I wait for him. The Lord is good to them that hope in him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good to wait with silence for the salvation of God. (Lamentations 3:21–26)