My private Oratory features an assortment of Holy Icons and small pewter statues, an old standing crucifix and a second-class relic of my dear patron, St. Philip Neri.
It also contains a stone I’d dug up while gardening, a perfect oval shape that I like to keep around because it reminds me of the question the women asked as they went to Jesus’ tomb after Passover: “Who will roll away the stone?” (Mark 16:3)
I like the question because it reflects our daily vulnerability and anxieties, our daily quandary: “I have these plans; how am I going to accomplish them? What can I do of myself; with what do I need help? Of what or on whom am I wholly dependent in order to do some things?”
The answers are always the same (I know the plans I have for you…) and yet different too.
What do you choose to surrender (pride, control, feelings, things)?
What do you choose to hold on to (usually, the same)?
What do you really ask?
Beginning prayer at the oratory means letting my attention slowly wander over the whole; eventually, as my prayer deepens, either my eyes will close or they will focus on something which I have “seen” a million times before but with fresh perspective. This morning I began the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary while simultaneously studying the Vladimir Theotokos Icon. I beheld Creator and created, sharing the same flesh, the same blood, entwined, together, and found the whole story, right there in the joyful mysteries.
The Annunciation: Since Eden, God’s purpose—slow and baffling, yet inexorable—has been to restore all things in Christ. There are so many things we do not know. Mary is hailed as “full of grace,” born without the stain of the “necessary sin of Adam” which has set Gabriel his task: will she consent—she full of grace, yet free—to be the Ark of a New Covenant, the Host for the Lord of Hosts, who needs her flesh and blood before he can shed his own as the spotless Lamb, the acceptable sacrifice?
We always assume that this was the first time this question had been asked, and perhaps it was; perhaps the human campaign needed to be where it was, before the New Ark could be created in grace. But what if other young women had been similarly graced, earlier, yet were unable—in their freedom—to manage the fiat, the complete detachment from the opinions and schemes of the world, which would allow participation in God’s difficult, mysterious scheme? Grace gives us the ability to believe, to trust and go forward, but we stupidly shrug off grace all the time in order to go our own way, satisfy our own minds, serve our attachments.
It does not matter if other virgins had been privileged with a similar visit by Gabriel; Mary said “yes.” That is what matters. Not knowing the Mind of God, she could not know that her act of surrendering flesh and blood would find its mirror and completion in another such surrender of what is (again) her own flesh.
The Visitation: In what Pope Benedict XVI describes as the “first Eucharistic procession,” Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, who rushes to greet her and cries out with mysterious knowledge: “How is this that the mother of my Lord come to me?” (Luke 1:43) Mary blooms into a prayer that echoes Hannah’s joy, the canticle we call the Magnificat.
In Elizabeth’s womb, the forerunner, John the Baptist, leaps for joy! Here is flesh-and-blood recognizing flesh-and-blood, but alive with something more, as-yet undefined.
The human family is yet mystical, and God’s own, shouting out in discovery of oneness.
The Nativity of Our Lord: And then there is a crack in history as the God of Israel does something unthinkable; he becomes enfleshed and sets his tent with us. He does not come as an oddity, as a “better,” or as something unrecognizable, demanding the fear and obsequiousness of all in his path. He is born of flesh, born of blood; Mary’s own blood runs in his veins and he is wholly her own, yet wholly the world’s.
He condescended to enter into the pain and fear, the tumult and whirlwind of the world, when he “set his tent among us,” not merely “dwelling” among us as lofty king, but literally “with” us, with hunger, the capacity for injury and doubt.
God entered in, not with a cacophany of noise and a display of raw power, but as the humblest and most dependent of creatures: a baby, lying in a manger, a place for the feeding of animals. He, who became Food for the World, entered with silence, as though he had put his finger to the quivering mouth of a troubled, sobbing world and said, “Ssshhhh…it is alright, I’ll keep you company…”
Thus, God submits to Creation, in order to save it. No wonder the heavens were rent with a joyful song. No wonder shepherds and kings are amazed.
The Presentation: Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple. Imagine how difficult it was to stay hydrated while traveling even a short distance in that region, especially for a new mother who is nursing her babe. One needed to know where all of the wells were, and to have water nearby. Here the Creator is dependent upon the very element upon which his spirit moved in the beginning (Gen.1:2).
God-made-Flesh is brought to the priests; Jesus is circumcised like every Jewish male, his foreskin shed. Even he, Son of Mary, Son of God, must be vulnerable, sensitively exposed to God and the world, in this way. Flesh is cut, blood is stanched, the baby yelps and is quickly embraced and consoled by his mother. The God of All Consolations cries out in pain, completely vulnerable, allowing humanity to succor him.
Anna and Simeon have been awaiting his appearance; they recognize the Incarnation, and Simeon speaks words that must simultaneously soothe and grieve Mary’s heart: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce…”)
Her heart, after all, is his heart, too. He is us.
The Finding of Our Lord in the Temple: We jump ahead twelve years; the adolescent Jesus has stayed behind in Jerusalem. Three days he is there, mirroring the three days in the tomb. I love that Mary and Joseph, who love Jesus and live with him, and who know him well, must still seek him out, like the rest of us. Flesh seeks after flesh and cries out, “Where?” and then, “Why do you? How could you?”
Flesh seeks after God, and God is found, but not fully understood. Not only is God found, but God submits, because this God, over and over again, tries to teach us by his own example. As God yeilded to Israel’s obstinacy and gave them a King, so he yields to Mary and Joseph. Later he will submit, again, flesh and blood surrendered, once for all; heart pierced, for the life of the world.
The lesson, over and over, is that fulfillment and completion lies in surrender, in the fiat, in the “yes,” in the detachment to all else; the submission of flesh and blood, mind and heart, for the wholeness of the soul. Flesh cries out, “O Love, where, why?” God cries out, “Here! O Love, know!”
The lifetime’s work.