If you detected more than a breath of the Christmas season in our readings today, you are on solid ground: for today is the feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary, marking the beginning of Christ’s incarnation in the womb of his mother, nine months before his birth. It’s not exactly coincidental that this feast, with its Christmas theme, takes place so close to Good Friday and Easter. It was a conviction of the ancient world that one’s beginning and ending were linked. Jesus’ coming into the world at the incarnation was symmetrical with the conclusion of his course.
Put theologically, our forebears believed that the events that won our salvation at Eastertide were in keeping with the events with which the Gospel began. These events were coincidental in time but providentially placed. For the same reason, early theologians speculated that God must have created the world at springtime, because it was in springtime that God chose to redeem and recreate it through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Our spiritual forebears in medieval England created a unique image that illustrated this annual juxtaposition of Annunciation and Easter: Christ crucified on a lily. The lily has become an Easter symbol, of course, but before that was a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Saxon churchman Bede compared St. Mary to a lily because of her purity and spiritual power. She was the one, after all, as we heard in our Gospel today, who received the good news of salvation, and said “yes”: in the words of our Gospel, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).
Not only was our Lady the first to hear it, but even more, her cooperation through grace was required to put it into effect. Everything else that unfolded, to Jesus’ death and resurrection itself, hinged on that vital “yes.” Christ crucified on a lily; incarnation converging with death and resurrection; creation and redemption in the same field of vision.
The author of our reading from Hebrews points toward this same unity. “When Christ came into the world, he said… I come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:4,7). From the very first, Jesus’ willed to do the will of his Father. Hebrews puts into Jesus’ mouth the words of Psalm 40, about offering sacrifice, identifying them with Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. From the very beginning of his life, Jesus comes to do God’s will, implicitly putting his life on the line for the world’s salvation. He offers his life for us so that we might have life within us.
Jesus is obedient to God from the first, in all areas of his life. Hebrews tells us that he became like us in every way, except that he was perfectly obedient to God (Heb. 4:15). He knows our human state because he is human; because he is human, and has been tested as we are tested, he is able to sympathize with us (Heb. 2:18). He is obedient because we are not. At the end, he offers himself to death, holding nothing back, because we cannot make that offering. As it says in our reading, “It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).
We wonder at such a life, which from its inception shows such authenticity, integrity, and singleness of purpose. Not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of others. Not only do we wonder, but the world wonders. We’re not up to that high mark, but that’s the point: we don’t need to prove ourselves worthy of salvation because Jesus has proved us capable of receiving it. We pray for grace to show ourselves responsive to the will of God at work in our lives. Like St. Mary, whose decisive “yes” to God we remember today, we pray for grace to respond to God in faith. We make the words of Psalm 40 our own, “I come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7).