By: Tom Lyman on March 23rd, 2023
The Grace Found in the Will of God
Annunciation | Fiat | serving others
The great Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, March 25, is the liturgical day when the Church recalls and meditates upon the moment when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced to her that she had “found favor with God” and that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son whom she would name Jesus. She gives her “yes” or in Latin “fiat,” fiat referring to the full Latin scripture verse where Mary replies to Gabriel “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”— “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It occurs exactly nine months before Christmas and was considered of such great importance that from the 6th century through the 16th, it was celebrated as New Year’s Day! If you consider it, this is the moment when Jesus Christ actually comes into the world, first present in His mother’s womb. Now that’s worthy of celebration, or at least a significant liturgical and spiritual observance of the day.
For me personally, this day always calls to mind one particular year when this feast fell on a day I was serving in hospital ministry at a hospital south of Boston. The deacon who was my supervisor gave me a list of Catholic patients to visit when I arrived. He stopped as he was handing it to me and said, “This man here (let’s call him John) would particularly like a visit.” He must have told me at the time that John was at the very end of his life, but I somehow forgot that in the course of the visits that preceded my arrival at his room. Not remembering this important information, I made my way around to the patients on my list, and after about six or seven, I came to John’s room. A nurse was just leaving as I entered, and she quietly told me, “He could go anytime.” Her words failed to prepare me for the patient I would find.
There was John, in his late 80’s, lying in his bed, pale, barely breathing, with his eyes open and fixed ahead of him. This was not what I was expecting. When I visited patients, I would usually introduce myself, ask them how they were, and have some pleasant conversation before offering to pray with them. This man was in no condition to do any of that. What should I do? How could I be of any help to someone so helpless?
I slowly sat down next to John and fell back on a habit I had long practiced with my aunt, who had become so severely affected by her disease that it was sometimes hard to know if she was still the same person. I committed to the belief that she was still there, always there, and therefore I would talk to her just like everyone else, whether she could still respond or not. I would give her the dignity of remembering her just as she always was. I greeted John and introduced myself and told him that I was serving with the Catholic chaplain’s office. After that, I still felt like I had no idea what to do next. Interiorly I prayed something like “Lord, I have no idea what to do.” I knew from the deacon that John had already received the anointing of the sick, and so a priest need not be called. Now what?
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my copy of Magnificat. I opened to the day’s readings. It was March 25, 2011. I found myself saying, “Why don’t I just read you today’s Gospel?” I read the familiar words from Luke 1:26-38, “The Angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph...” As I quietly read, I heard the faintest sound from John, almost like a tiny hiccup. Nonetheless, I continued the reading and completed it: “The Gospel of the Lord.” Just as I finished, the nurse came back and picked up John’s limp wrist to take his pulse. She waited and with appropriate solemnity said “He’s gone. I’ll call the doctor to certify” and she left.
I sat there stunned. John had just died with me. I had been granted the privilege of being the last person to be with John, to speak to him. I who a few minutes before, had no idea what I should even do for him! As it was hitting me that I had been with him in his last moments, I realized that, through me, John had been given the grace to be listening to the words of the Gospel in his final moment on earth. This alone made me realize that God had done something with me—for John—that this was not my doing alone, but God’s doing in me.
As I pondered how this grace had begun to unfold in my visit to John, two women rushed into the room. “Dad!” they exclaimed, and they rushed to embrace their now deceased father for the last time, full of the sadness one would expect in such a moment. Once they had settled down, I introduced myself and explained that I had been at their father’s side as he died. They shared that they had been blessed to spend plenty of time with him in the days before. I told them that I had been reading him the Gospel as he passed over into eternal life. Through tears, one of John’s daughters asked me, “Would you read that same Gospel to us right now?” Deeply moved, I did read them that same Gospel, admittedly through tears of my own. After a moment, the oldest daughter said, “You know, our dad had a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. He even carried around a medal of her in his pocket every day.” That was when I knew for certain that this was God’s doing, and not mine.
As I left that simple hospital room, I was so overwhelmed by all that had happened that I sat down on a bench near an elevator and marveled at all that had transpired. You did this, Lord! I had no idea what to do, but you did. You knew the perfect thing for this man’s final moments, and you gave it to him through little old me, who has his own sins and failings. In this whole experience, which may have only taken 15 minutes, God showed me that despite my unpreparedness, my inexperience, my fear, he would act in and through me if only I would put my trust in Him and say, like Mary, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
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