The Oldest Advent Hymn

Today’s Gospel from Luke is the song Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “the oldest Advent hymn” – the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” Mary cries out, going on to express her confidence that God is at work in the midst of a world of struggle and pain. However bleak things might look, God has “remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

The Magnificat sings of a future of justice and peace brought about through the mercy of God. The Mary who sings this song, says Bonhoeffer, “is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

I’ve written more than once in recent weeks about hope. I have done so for the same reason we need to listen to the Magnificat: we need to hear over and over again the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of terrorism, poverty, war, suffering and heartache. In the midst of the things that tempt us to hopelessness, we affirm that changes can and will happen through the grace of God. This is the central message of Advent.


What Elizabeth Recognized

Today’s Gospel is Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth after learning that she (Mary) will bear a son. It is a story we all remember well.

When the angel appears to Mary, one of the things the angel tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. And so Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says adds: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” The title reminds us that the incarnation is not simply God taking on human form or a human becoming God. Instead, in this act of the incarnation, God was conceived and birthed in Mary’s womb, thus becoming simultaneously fully human and fully divine.

The Mother of the Lord. Psychologist writer Sydney Callahan writes,

The truth revealed in this Marian title astounds me. A woman bears God within her womb. God unites the Divine Word with human flesh. When we think of God as Mary’s newborn infant, we see the Lord of all creation in need of human love. Jesus is totally dependent upon his mother’s care. What risks God takes in loving us! And how much God expects of human kind in bringing the new creation to birth! Mary is the first to know the humility of God.

Callahan’s words are good ones to take to prayer as we celebrate these final days of Advent.

What Does the Assumption Mean for Us?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary, a commemoration of the death of Mary and her bodily assumption into Heaven, before her body could begin to decay.  (There is a difference between how the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church speaks about the end of Mary’s life, the former focusing on the raising up of Mary and the latter on her not being subject to death because of her freedom from original sin.)

What if anything does the Assumption mean for us?

For most of my Christian life, this was a feast I pretty much ignored, deciding it wasn’t something central or even all that important to my faithlife.  One of the difficulties for me is that the “Mary, Queen of Heaven” image that tends to be associated with this feast is not an image of Mary I relate to. When I see pictures depicting Mary’s Assumption or Mary’s Coronation as Queen of Heaven they bear no resemblance to the Mary of my prayers. Mary, the woman with the strength to say Yes to what must have seemed an insane and frightening proposition that she give birth to God. Mary, the woman at Cana who told the servants to do as Jesus asked. Mary, who stayed with Jesus til the end and then took the dead body of her son in her arms. Mary, who stayed with the apostles after the death, doubtless comforting (mothering) them in their loss of Jesus.  Even more so after my retreat earlier this summer, where I had such a sense of Mary’s supportive presence to Jesus throughout his public ministry, as well as during his earlier life.

If our picture of the Assumption is of a prone Mary being bodily lifted up by angels into heaven, it doesn’t seem to have much significance for us.  That, after all, is not what happens to the rest of us.

On the other hand, if our focus on the Assumption is on Mary’s experience as an embodiment of the reality of our Resurrection, it becomes something much mor meaningful to us. Jesus resurrection is, of course, the true victory over death – that which gives creates the possibility of our own resurrection and ultimate full union with God. But with Jesus there is always the nagging thought, “Well sure, he was God, of course it worked for him. He may have been fully human, but he was also fully divine from the get go.”

But Mary was human, like us. And Mary’s assumption into heaven, body and soul, symbolizes for us the reality of what will happen for all of – resurrection of the body into full union with God. You can phrase it various ways as a matter of dogma. But her experience is, in simplest terms, a foretaste of our own.


Month of May

Since it seems to me that it was just Labor Day, it is hard to believe that the month of May is upon us.  Yet here we are.

May, in the words of Pope Paul VI’s 1965 Encyclical Menso Maio,is “a month which the piety of the faithful has long dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, …. the month during which Christians, in their churches and their homes, offer the Virgin Mother more fervent and loving acts of homage and veneration; and it is the month in which a greater abundance of God’s merciful gifts comes down to us from our Mother’s throne.”

I grew up going to Catholic school, and still have memories of May processions and crownings of Mary, while singing Marian hymns.  (I may not remember the words to all of the other hymns we sang through grade school, but I still remember the words of all the Marian ones we sang.)

In Menso Maio, Paul VI spoke of the custom of choosing this month of May “for urging the Christian people to offer up public prayers whenever the needs of the Church demanded it or some grave crisis threatened the human race.”  In the year in which the Encyclical was issued, 1965, the Pope wrote that he felt “compelled to call for such prayers from the whole Catholic world. Looking at the present needs of the Church and the status of world peace, We have sound reasons to believe that the present hour is especially grave and that a plea for concerted prayer on the part of all Christians is a matter of top priority.”

When I look at the Church and the world around us – both here and abroad, it seems to me that “the present hour” is no less grave.

So, while I will not be participating in any May crownings of Mary, I will devote additional time to prayer for our Church and our world.

P.S.  St. Ignatius had a strong devotion to Mary.  Here is a piece by someone talking about what the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius taught her about Mary.

At Her Consent The Mystery Was Wrought

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation.  At Mass today we hear Luke’s account of the Annunciation.  Here is St. John’s of the Cross’ poetic description in his poem The Incarnation.

Then he called
and sent him to
the virgin Mary,
at whose consent
the mystery was wrought,
in whom the Trinity
clothed the Word with flesh.
and though Three work this,
it is wrought in the One;
and the Word lived incarnate
in the womb of Mary.
And he who had only a Father
now had a Mother too,
but she was not like others
who conceive by man.
From her own flesh
he received his flesh,
so he is called
Son of God and of man.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Healing vs. Curing

We have been celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes this past week at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes.  (No big surprise there.)  There was a parish dinner Wednesday and another gathering in between Masses yesterday.

Speaking about Mary’s appearance at Lourdes and the millions of people who travel to Lourdes each year hoping for relief from the illnesses, disabilities and diseases, the Deacon drew a distinction between curing and healing in his homily.

He observed that Jesus so often, when he met the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, both cured and healed them.  Cured them of their physical maladies and healed their spirit.  The first is nice, but the second is what is of most  value.

When people go to places like Lourdes, some are cured; we hear of those reports now and then.  (The Catholic Church recognizes as miracles a number of cures attributed to Mary’s intercession at Lourdes.)  But everyone who goes, whether or not they are cured, is healed.  Everyone comes away blessed and with their spirit refreshed, with the conviction they have been touched by God.

I think all of this raises a simple question: Are you looking to be cured or healed?

I Am the Handmaid of the Lord

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, something I have written about many times.

My prayer this morning focused on Mary’s final words to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

I am the handmaid of the Lord. As I repeated those words, I saw the reality that that is my primary identity – handmaid of the Lord. Everything else: wife, mother, daughter, friend, spiritual director, law professor and so on, is secondary to that primary role. Everything other aspect of my identity is a support and way of living out that primary element of my identity. I’m not saying other aspects are not important. (Certainly in Catholic thought family is of profound significance.) But they are supportive of my primary identity.

At one level that says nothing other than: God first, so it is not really a new realization. But for some reason, the recognition in this form was powerfully striking to me this morning.

“I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

Mary’s Message

Today the Catholic Church in the United States celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day that is of special significance to many communities, particularly Americans of Mexican heritage. On this day we celebrate the appearance of Mary to a humble Mexican man, Juan Diego.

The Church recognizes a number of appearances by Mary over the years. In all of those appearances, the message has been essentially the same: Conversion, Faith and Prayer. Turn to Jesus…have faith in Jesus.. and pray, pray, pray.

Mary’s appearances are never about her. Rather, Mary always emphasizes a return to Christ, a genuine personal conversion. And, in the various appearances reported, Mary often spoke of the importance of prayer.

Many people today react to the idea of Marian apparitions with some embarrassment or suspicion. And it is certainly the case that belief in apparitions is not a matter of faith or morals, so the Church doesn’t require that people believe in them.

But the truth is the God continually reaches out to each of us, sometimes dramatically and sometimes in simple ways. Our God is a self-communicating God who continually speaks to us. Is it so strange that one of the vehicles God would use to communicate with us is Mary, whom he chose to be the mother of Christ?

Throughout the history of Christianity, believers have always had a strong need to experience Mary in the midst of their daily life. At no other time is this truer than in times of affliction and need. It is no surprise, therefore, that many Marian apparitions are connected with people who are experiencing some kind of crisis in their own lives, in the lives of their local community or in the world at large.

Whatever else today’s feast is, it is a reminder to us to be open to the possibility of God speaking to us in many ways, including through Mary.

She Said Yes

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of The Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a mouthful, but the full title reminds people that when the Church speaks of “immaculate conception” it is referring to Mary, and not to Jesus.

In celebration of this feast of Mary, I thought I’d share one of the many annunciation poems that I love. Here is Paul Mariani’s poem, I Did Say Yes.

Thou heardst me, truer than toungue, confess…
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The barely prayable prayer as the words fall away,
Words unguessed or unguessable, soft silence only,
Penetrant silence, the pit, then something stirring…
Importunate, unquenchable mind, astray
Or aswarm, attuned for odd moments after, then
Drifting. Then a lull & a lifting, then self flickering back,
As the parched sunflower turns towards the sun…

A woman kneels, head bent forward, each cell attendant
Upon the flame which, consuming, does not consume,
But gently enwrapts, caressing, filling herself with itself,
The burning clouds lingering, then hovering off, like
Mist off a mountain, here in this kitchen, this cell, here,
Where the timeless crosses with time, this chiasmus,
Infinity & now, nowhere & always, this cosmos, this fresh-

Found dimension, all attention gone over now, as flame
Flickers and whispers, all care turning to ash, all fear,
All consequence even, all given over, ah, lover to lover
Now, saying yes, yes, whatever you will, my dear,
Yes echoing down the long halls of time, yes,
In spite of all disappointment, of the death of Love even,
The barely sayable yes again, yes again, yes I will. Yes.

Salvation as Transfiguration

As part of our Adult Faith Formation program at Our Lady of Lourdes, we are watching the Robert Barron Catholicism video series. This morning’s segment was the fourth in the series, Mary, the Mother of God.

I thought the video was quite good and the discussion we had afterward was very fruitful.

Among the things in the video that stuck with me was Fr. Barron’s description of salvation in the context of his discussion of the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption, which refers to the fact that Mary, through the power of God, is present in body and soul in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Fr. Barron described salvation as “the transfiguration of the body and soul into Heaven,” the perfection and elevation of the whole self. Not an escape from the world or the body, but the perfection and elevation of the entire person into the dimension of God.

With respect to Mary, he asked, what would it be like to face death sinless? Many of us approach death with fear because our sin alienates us from God. But for a sinless person, one utterly responsive to God’s will, death is like falling asleep. (We generally speak o Mary’s dormition, rather than death.)

The image of salvation as transfiguration is a powerful one to me. Perhaps it will be for you also.