In the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayers which the friars pray throughout each day, a special antiphon for the concluding canticle appears this morning as part of the final days of Advent leading into Christmas.
Oriétur sicut sol Salvátor mundi, et descéndet in úterum Vírginis sicut imber super gramen, allelúia.
"The Savior of the world will rise like the sun, and descend into the womb of the Virgin like rain on the grass, alleluia." This imagery of the divine fecundity so often imaged in rain giving life to the earth so that it may bring forth fruit reminds me of one of my favorite paintings at the Saint Louis Art Museum: Artemisia Gentileschi's (1593 - 1654) painting of the mythological character Danae.
Danaë's father had been told by an oracle that his daughter's offspring would destroy him, so he locked her in a chamber impenetrable by potential suitors. Undeterred, the god Zeus transformed himself into a shower of golden rain and impregnated Danaë. Artemisia adopted the seventeenth-century preference for golden coins rather than rain to depict the presence of the sly god. This very early work shows Artemisia's accomplished handling of the female nude as well as her penchant for narrative nuance: the coins thrust between the young woman's fingers become visual metaphor for the seductive but forceful entry of the god. -- (www.slam.org)
In anticipation of the celebration of Nativity of the Lord Jesus at Christmas, today's antiphon seems to highlight the parallels between the Gospel story and the Greek myth. Yet, although Zeus' invasive violation of Danae provides an illustration of the common trope of the aforementioned divine fecundity, there is a difference of the utmost importance between Danae's impregnation and Mary's receptivity of the Incarnate Word.
In the Gospel of Luke we hear the dialogue between Mary and the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Here we see the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sends his messenger to seek the permission of the lowly Virgin to share in her humanity and be born from her. Unlike the Greek gods, He makes no violent entry nor imposes himself involuntarily upon her. So too is it with us -- He seeks our permission to enter our lives, to dwell in our hearts and give us a share in his divinity just as he shared in our humanity. This is the invitation of Advent and the hope of Christmas. Invite the Lord to come into your heart, to take hold of your very self and transform you and your life into fertile ground for his divine presence. Though we may wonder "How can this be?" the Lord will do amazing things for us and through us if we but take Mary's words as our own: Be it done unto me according to thy word.