Each year the celebration of a particular liturgical season such as Advent should have the reassuring quality of something familiar and rehearsed. It is familiarity that allows one to savour something particular and different each year, thanks to the grace of the season.
This year I have been forcibly struck by the way in which from the very first day of Advent, the Divine Office invokes Mary the Mother of God, usually with Magnificat antiphon of Vespers. The words of the angelic salutation, “Do not be afraid, Mary”, set the mood for the season.
This fear of the Lord is not something we are comfortable with any more, but it is a recurring theme of Advent. “The fear of the Lord is his breath,” Isaiah reminds us, when he speaks of the scion of the root of Jesse; the one who comes brings “a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord”. Fear, like all emotions, is from God and has its proper place in keeping us safe. But the fear of the Lord is not the same kind of fear as, say, fear of war, betrayal or the dark. These are fears of impending evil. The fear of the Lord is a gift of God which allows us to know who and what we are dealing with and reminds us that the relationship between God and the creature is not something that can be done on our terms. Such fear is all too easily lost, and lost at our peril.
Thus, although and because she is the highest honour of our race and grace reigns in Mary, it has increased in her the fear of the Lord – that is, a deep reverence for the majesty of God and a poverty of spirit which is not grovelling self-deprecation or self-doubt, but rather the ability to see reality without distorting everything through the lens of self-interest. Such fear intuits immediately the implication of the words “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”, and recoils initially from the apparent impossibility of being worthy of such a love, of conceiving the inconceivable nearness of God to his creature.
Craven fear – fear for the self – would remain paralysed from a preoccupation with “What does this mean for me?” Fear of the Lord is a spousal fear that wants to match the proportion of His self-communication totally but fears this is not sufficient when faced with the love of the Thrice Holy. The overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude at being loved in a measure so disproportionate to Our Lady’s own self-evaluation cries: “Let it be done to me.”
Though she could never have advanced her own claims to such a love, receiving it instead as a gift, Mary recognises and welcomes it as the place where her heart rests, and resting in it becomes the one in whom the gift takes flesh.
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