Category Archives: Mary

What Can I Give?


Grace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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During these liturgical feasts of Christmas, the Holy Family, and Epiphany, we celebrate the giving and receiving of gifts.  There are the physical gifts around our Christmas trees that we give to each other; there are the spiritual gifts of presence and prayer that we share; and most of all, there is the gift of God in human flesh for the salvation of us all.
God gives himself to us!  That is an incredible, extraordinary, marvelous, and life-changing gift which we receive if we allow our hearts to be open to his coming, but it is also a gift which begs the perennial human question in response to this action of divine mercy,
“What can I possibly give to God in return?”
So often I feel like the old shepherd in the film The Nativity Story who feels that he has no gift to bring to God and to others.  He says this to Mary and Joseph, who are warming themselves by the fire he had offered to them on their way to Bethlehem because they seemed cold.  While they are sitting by the fire, Mary says to the shepherd, “I will tell our child about you.  About your kindness.”  The shepherd replies, “My father told me a long time ago that we are all given something.  A gift.  Your gift is what you carry inside.”  Mary then asks him, “What was your gift?”  The shepherd says, “Nothing.  Nothing but the hope of waiting for one.”
I would say that many of us feel similarly.  Growing up, we are frequently asked by others questions like these:  “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”  “How do you want to use your gifts?”  “What will you do to make a difference in this world?”
Sometimes we have an idea of what we would like to do with our lives, so we say what that might be.  But that vision often changes with our circumstances, and by the time our student lives are over, and we are working to make a living, sometimes we wonder, “How did I get here?”  “What I have missed?”  “Where am I really going?”  “This is not what I had planned.”  “Am I really making a difference in this big world?”  We can feel small and poor because the world can be a lonely and confusing place.  The gifts that we thought we had don’t seem to be massively impacting the world, we don’t feel fulfilled in giving of ourselves to our daily labors, we’re working in ways that don’t make use of our gifts because we’re struggling just to scrape by, or we’re still searching for our gifts.
I remember during one year in high school when I was on a retreat, my small group leader asked the members of our group to make a list of ten gifts that we have.  I thought about it and wrote down two or three, which seemed inconsequential to me and not of much use.  Then tears started to form in my eyes because I couldn’t think of any more gifts to write down.  I felt so small and poor in comparison to others around me.  I could only hope that I was wrong and wait for someone to tell me how immeasurably blessed I am and what a difference I can make in this world.  I didn’t know it then, but I had to understand first what “gift” really is and what “making a difference” means.
When someone does tell us about a gift that we have, which we did not initially recognize in ourselves, it is great news to us – just like when the angel appears to the old shepherd and announces to him the great gift of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  When we receive news of such a gift, we are taken aback, an awareness is awakened in us, and we go to seek out what this great gift is and how we might share it.  When we find it and touch it, we are surprised by joy, and we express thanksgiving by sharing it with others.
And so, in The Nativity Story, the old shepherd travels to the stable in Bethlehem to see what this gift is that he almost despaired of waiting for in thinking that he had nothing to give.  When he approaches Mary cradling the infant Jesus, he kneels down and looks at the newborn Jesus with amazement.  He then slowly reaches out to touch Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to do so.  He seems too good to be true.  And why would he want to give himself to me, a poor, lowly shepherd with no gifts to give in return.
As Christina Rossetti writes in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,”
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?”
magigiftsThere are people who can give their property as shelter – a stable for animals that the Holy Family uses – and there are those like the magi who can give gold, frankincense, and myrrh out of their wealth.  But what can poor, lowly shepherds give?  They don’t seem to have anything of real value to give to such an extraordinary person – God made flesh in love for us.  The old shepherd withdraws his trembling hand, but he continues to gaze in wonder at this newborn child, this indescribable gift.
Mary, however, turns to the old shepherd and holds Jesus toward him, saying,
“He is for all mankind.”
Encouraged by these words, the shepherd then slowly reaches out his hand again to touch the infant Jesus.  TouchWhen he finally touches Jesus, the shepherd is overcome with emotion and closes his eyes.   Mary then says to the shepherd,
“We are each given a gift.”
The old shepherd’s eyes widen with realization.  It’s as if Mary is saying to him, “Touch him.  He is your gift.  He is what you carry inside.  Touch him, open your heart, and he is yours!”  This infant Jesus is a gift for all human beings, including the old shepherd himself.  We are each given the profound gift of love, God in the flesh, become one of us and who shares in our suffering and in our joy.  That is the gift that we carry in our hearts – love himself.
Thus, this Christmas event radically transforms our understanding of “gift” and of “making a difference.”  Our epiphany is this:  His striking manifestation to us as true God in true human flesh reveals to us that our sinful humanity is not worthless.  He loves us!  He has mercy on us!  He is one of us!  This gift of Jesus leads us to recognize how we might share that gift of love with others.  The old shepherd, even when he thought he had nothing to give, had the gift of love:  he gave to the Holy Family kindness, warmth, comfort, and friendship, even though he was just a stranger on the road.  Even though he may have felt cold and empty, he still carried the little flame of hope inside.  The gift of Jesus helped him to recognize the value and purpose of his own life.  Life is not just about survival.  It is so much more than that.  Love makes the difference.  Talents that we have may be gifts, but they will remain just abilities if not given to others in love.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7,
“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
They are gifts because they are not our own; they are meant to be shared.  They are gifts precisely because they involve a gift of the self in love to the other.  Gift is an embodied act, and it is the way in which we are to see the world.
We are each given a gift.  What gift do I carry inside?  Do I know what gift I can give to the Christ child in my heart?   What can I give?  As Christina Rossetti writes in the last stanza of her poem,
“Yet what I can I give Him:  give my heart.”
givehearttogodWe can’t really give anything to God, except what has been first given to us.  When we give gifts, it is because something or someone makes a claim on us, and we want to express our gratitude.  It can never really be an exchange.  In the case of God, moreover, God makes His claim on us; we cannot make a claim on God.  No gift of our own will ever really be adequate to express our thanksgiving.  We can only offer back the gift he has given us first:  His love.  Our love is formed and perfected in His love, and it is that we are to give.  Jesus is the gift that we receive, and at the same time, he is the gift that we give in our worship because he is the true gift, the perfect gift, the gift of love.  He is the only one who leads us to the Father, and the way we meet the Father is through love.  Jesus is this love.  In our hearts, if only we prepare Him room, dwells Love incarnate.  The gift that we can give Him is our hearts filled with love , as we give of ourselves for each other.
worksofmercyHow can we do that?  Through the practice of mercy, which is what God demonstrates for us as the face of mercy in Jesus.  We can do corporal and spiritual works of mercy for each other, and in doing so, we give our hearts to God.  Likewise at Mass, we “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer.  We can proclaim the praises of the Lord, as Mary does in her Magnificat, humbly lifting up her heart to God and magnifying His name.  That is how we can make a difference in the world.  It starts person to person.  Mercy must be practiced constantly for love to bear fruit.  In Jesus, our poverty is made rich because he is the gift of love, and he invites us to become sharers in that gift of love.  Our life reveals its meaning in gift.  Let us lift up our hearts to embrace that love and to share it with all we may encounter.  Let us approach the newborn Jesus each day, gaze upon him in wonder in each person we meet, touch his face, and realize this gift of love that animates our lives.  Let us walk rejoicing and share this gift with gratitude.

Our Guadalupe

unnamedAustin Cruz

University of Notre Dame, ’16

Master of Theological Studies (History of Christianity)

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Given both my Mexican-American descent and my strong devotion to Mary, it may come as a shock to some when I say that I have not always loved Our Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, there was a time when her image was nothing more to me than a pious painting, an image that had been taken up ad nauseam by my ancestral people. It probably goes without saying that the Mexican people have a great love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They hang her image on the walls of their churches and place her in their homes and businesses. They light candles, which bear her image, and place decals of her image on the back of their trucks. A great number of men and women have even gotten tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe placed somewhere on their bodies. And just to give one recent example of how inextricable she is from Mexican culture, her image was briefly used a few times in last year’s animated film The Book of Life, a film that is centered on the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. yet makes no reference to God or Christianity throughout. All of this is to say that the Mexican people have a special love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she herself is inseparably linked to Mexican religious and cultural identity.Granted, it is easy to understand why they love her. In December of 1531, she appeared to the humble, Nahuatl Indian, Juan Diego, at Tepeyac, a hill right outside of what is today Mexico City. Her mission to him was rather simple; she wanted him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a hermitage dedicated to her right there at Tepeyac. She wanted it built so that all people could come to it and receive her love, compassion, help and protection. Being only a lowly Indian, Juan Diego knew that his task would be difficult, but at the Virgin’s request he took up her mission. After he had twice failed to convince the bishop of the truth of the Virgin’s request, Our Lady of Guadalupe sought to aid him through the provision of a sign: Juan Diego was to go up the hill and pick the Spanish flowers, which had miraculously grown there in the middle of winter, place them in his tilma, in order to carry and to show them to the bishop. He did as was told. And when he had showed them to the bishop she provided him with another miracle as a sign of the abundance of her love: as he released the flowers, her image miraculously appeared on his tilma. The fact that she herself had provided her own image (that is to say, that it was not painted by human hands) and that the image has miraculously been preserved to this day has led the Mexican people to exclaim: “She has not done so for any other nation.”
It is a beautiful story, to be sure. And even though I heard that story many times in my life, (for several years my older brother had played Juan Diego in our parish play), I could not bring myself to embrace Our Lady of Guadalupe in any particular way.

OLofGuad5Perhaps it was because she was so uniquely tied to one particular people, even if it was a people that I am descendant from, that I felt that she lacked a universal quality that I imagined  Our Lady of Lourdes or an Our Lady of Fatima had. How can a devotion that seemed so limited, so incarnated within a very distinct culture be considered so great?

Or perhaps my aversion to her was more precisely based on the fact that, even though I am of Mexican descent, I do not speak Spanish, have no rhythm, and do not identify with many characteristics of popular Latino culture, and thus, felt that I could not connect with such a figure as Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought that to claim her would be to claim for myself an identity that I struggled to fully own.

So, what changed? Why is it that in the past year and a half I have probably talked more about Our Lady of Guadalupe than any other image of Mary?

I do not know that I can describe it any other way than to say that she began to call out to me. I began to feel compelled to look at her image, an image that had so many times before left me unimpressed. The more I beheld her image, the more I found myself drawn to contemplation of it. And thus, I began to realize that what I had taken to be a simple rendition of the Virgin Mary within a primitive culture was in reality an icon of the universal mystery of a mother’s love.

Struck by this realization, I desired to return to the narrative of the Guadalupan events, to see if there was anything within the story itself that I had dismissed as unsophisticated. And, of course once again I had found so much beauty and depth in what appeared to be a simple text, much more than the purposes of this post would allow me to reflect on. But there is one thing that I wish to share, something which each time I read it moves me to my core, and it is Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mission as stated in her own words. She says:

“I very much want and ardently desire that my hermitage be erected in this place. In it I will show and give to all people all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection, because I am your merciful mother and the mother of all nations that live on this earth who would love me, who would speak with me, who would search for me, and who would place their confidence in me. Their I will hear their laments and remedy and cure all their miseries, misfortunes, and sorrows.”[1] (emphasis mine)

It is particularly this message that makes Our Lady of Guadalupe so special. It is a message that could perhaps more simply be restated in the form of a question: “Will you let me be your mother?” It is a question she asks to all people, to all nations. She places no restrictions and she makes no conditions. Despite her appearance within a particular culture and within a particular time, it is a question that requests a universal response.

If perhaps, like me, you have ever had trouble growing close to Our Lady of Guadalupe because she came incarnated within a particular culture you do not recognize as your own, I encourage you to spend time with her in prayer this advent season. Though she may have done for the Mexican people what had not been done for any other nation, take comfort in the fact she did this as a sign of the depth of her love for her children of all nations. Join in the celebrations at your parish, contemplate her image, which she left on Juan Diego’s tilma. And rejoice in the fact that we have a mother who, like her Son, is no stranger to our own particular needs.

[1] This quotation is taken from verses 23-25 of the Nican Mopohua, the foundational text for the traditional Guadalupan events written in the native Nahuatl. For more an English translation and more on this text, see Mother of the New Creation by Fr. Virgilio Elizondo.

Hidden Annunciations

Renee RodenRenée Roden, ND ’14

Teacher and Playwright, New York City


And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. [Mary], having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of greeting this should be. (Luke 1:28-29)

The Annunciation is a moment in history that is frequently depicted in Western art. And for good reason, given that the moment when the eternal God took up form as a human inside the womb of the Virgin Mary is certainly a contender for the title of Most Important Moment in all of Creation. Throughout the millennia since that moment, myriad artists have captured the moment in paint and pen—from ancient iconographers to pre-Raphaelites. Take, for example, this famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci. The painting’s composition is fairly typical an image of the Annunciation: Mary sits in a landscape that combines both elements of a private bedchamber and a garden landscape, to emphasize the private and intimate moment of conception occurring. She is a “garden enclosed” (Song of Songs, 4:12) In her chambers, the Virgin is pondering the Scriptures—the Word of God—and lo and behold Gabriel appears, and announces the Word of God will take flesh inside of her.UntitledOne of the most captivating images is, in my mind, Botticelli’s mystical and intriguing image of the Annunciation. For in this painting, the Virgin and the angel appear to be in separate spaces. In the Da Vinci painting, Gabriel and Mary exist in a common visual world. But in the Botticelli painting, a strong column cuts the picture in half, demarcating a clear, sharp divide between the world of the angel and the world of the virgin. Although Mary humbly inclines her body in response to the words that Gabriel speaks, indicating he has had some effect on her, she does not seem to see him. There is a distance between the two figures that implies a divide between their two planes of reality. In this moment Botticelli has captured the divide between the supernatural and the natural that the Incarnation bridges.

This painting suggests to me that perhaps the revelation of Gabriel to Mary was, like many revelations of the divine in our lives, not as clear as we imagine it to be. As we ponder this great mystery from our privileged position of the future, we see the story clearly. Oh, of course, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, must, in this moment clearly understand and accept God’s will for her life, because she was conceived without the stain of original sin, and thus she is fully open to God’s will, etc., etc. The story is quite clear to us.

But Mary, even in this moment of divine revelation, during which she learns of her role as the Mother of God, does not have a full understanding of what is occurring. Gabriel greets her with the words: “hail, full of grace” and Mary, the Evangelist tells us, is troubled. She does not understand what this greeting means.

Untitled 2When Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she identified herself in a manner that was also troubling for Bernadette’s contemporaries. She identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. Not just as “one immaculately conceived,” but as “The Immaculate Conception.” St. Maximilian Kolbe dedicated his life to understanding this mystery, and teasing out the mystery of who Mary Immaculate is, and why she identifies herself as THE Immaculate Conception. Maximilian begins with attempting to understand the relationship between Mary, the Mother of God, and with the Holy Spirit, her spouse and the Third Person of the Trinity.

In the reflections he wrote in the hours before he was arrested by the Gestapo, on the night of February 17, 1941, Maximilian Kolbe wrote that the Holy Spirit is “The flowering of the love of the Father and the Son.” Thus, “the Holy Spirit is, therefore, the “uncreated, eternal conception,” the prototype of all the conceptions that multiply life throughout the whole universe. The Father begets; the Son is begotten; the Spirit is the “conception” that springs from their love.”

Maximilian Kolbe describes the Holy Spirit as the “uncreated Immaculate Conception,” the eternally conceived in the love between the Father and the Son. And Mary, who was so closely united to God, “most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, was the Immaculata, who never contracted the slightest stain of sin, who never departed in the least from God’s will. United to the Holy Spirit as his spouse, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature. Thus, Mary is the created Immaculate Conception.

St. Maximilian goes on:

“In the Holy Spirit’s union with Mary we observe more than the love of two beings; in one there is all the love of the Blessed Trinity; in the other, all of creation’s love. So it is that in this union heaven and earth are joined; all of heaven with all the earth, the totality of eternal love with the totality of created love. It is truly the summit of love.”

The title of Immaculate Conception is truly magnificent. Mary has been given the gift of belonging to the fundamental reality of the Trinity in a very intimate way. Thus, the Immaculate Conception, meaning Mary’s intimate union with the Trinity, becomes an image for us of how deeply God loves us, and how keenly He thirsts for our union with Him. He desires each human being to be brought into the deep union of the trinity, with no spot of original sin, no obstacle to mar the perfect gift of love between Creature and Creator.

Mary’s revelation at Lourdes is truly astounding: for Mary reveals herself using a name for herself that she would never have been able to fathom during her earthly life. This humble handmaiden of the Lord did not know who she truly was, during her life here on earth. Mary of Nazareth could not have known she was the Immaculata, for the accomplishment of the mission of the Immaculate Conception was the death and Resurrection of her Son. Mary’s own purpose on earth would never be fully clear to her unless viewed through the lens of the Paschal Mystery.

Certainly, Mary knew something of the mission God had given to her: to be the mother of Jesus, who she knew was the Son of God, the one who would redeem Israel. But she did not know the depth of her own vocation. When we see Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we see her as an image of how God wishes we all could be: united so intimately with Him, with no blot of sin to mar our union with Him. Mary knew nothing of this. She did not know that, as the Immaculate Conception, she would become a model of discipleship, the pinnacle of all creation, a sign for all time of how God wishes for each of us to be united to Him.

Although Mary proclaims in her Magnificat that from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1: 48-49) she could not have fully understood her own importance, nor how true that statement would be. For the historical Mary of Nazareth could not see herself with the clarity with which we see her today. The full truth of her own Magnificat would remain hidden from her her entire life on earth.

For Mary would never know this name for herself–the Immaculate Conception–until she had entered into the beatific vision of heaven. The hiddenness of her own vocation reiterates the great beauty of this sign of God’s love for us all. It causes me to wonder what sort of graces we all have been blessed with, that we will never fully understand until we have finished our pilgrimage and are finally home with God.

This brings to mind the fifth of the glorious mysteries of the Rosary: Mary is crowned queen of heaven and earth. Unlike the other mysteries, this mystery of the rosary is not in Scriptures, or apocryphal sources (such as the narrative attributed to St. John, that narrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin), But perhaps it deserves its place in the mysteries of the rosary, as a marker of the “most highly favored one,” the one who is full of grace, finally coming fully into her own, finally understanding that mysterious greeting of the angel so long ago. What a surprise it must have been to Mary, the woman who identified herself solely as the handmaid of the Lord, to learn how highly exalted her place was in heaven.

Perhaps we will not be able to fully understand ourselves this side of heaven. What marvels God is working in us and through us now, that we will never be able to see until we have finally fully entered into heavenly union with God. In the words of St. Paul:“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, is what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2,9).

Waiting with “stirred up” hearts

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
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Once again we have concluded a liturgical year, and with Evening Prayer on Saturday, November 28, we begin a new one with Advent. Taking its name from the Latin “ad-venire,” and translated as “to come to,” Advent is the season encompassing four Sundays (and weekdays) lasting until midafternoon of December 24. For Christians everywhere these coming 26 days are meant as a time of two-fold preparation. In the days just ahead, we are directing hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time as well as commemorating the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas.

An ancient collect (opening prayer) for the first Advent Sunday from the seventh-century Rome and Gaul reads: “Stir up Thy might, we beg Thee, and come.” Accordingly, in some regions the first day of Advent is still referred to as “Stir-Up Sunday!” A connected tradition is the creation of some kind of pudding or cake that all family members can help stir up symbolizing the readiness of everyone’s heart to prepare for Christ’s birth.[1]

Recalling salvation history leading up to the Incarnation, we perceive that God’s heart, as it were, was the first to be “stirred up”! The first pages of Genesis tell us of the light and life, the splendor and grandeur God’s love stirred up so that creation could come into being as a result. It culminated and overflowed, so to speak, when he stirred up a creature in his image and likeness with whom he could share his Love. Yet, this paradisiacal harmony was short-lived when our first parents, being like God, tried to be God. Their hearts were stirred towards themselves and as a result preferred death to life and darkness to light. Still, God’s love was not directed away; he did not abandon his people.

After a long time of waiting God’s heart was stirred up again by a girl, Mary of Galilee. How wonderfully far God has reached out to his creation, to humanity, to you and me, in the revelation of himself in order to aid us fallen people! How swiftly he has bridged the spaces of that infinite distance which separates the Creator from the creature through this pure and humble handmaid! And all creation waited in hushed silence for the girl’s heart to rouse a new and everlasting covenant. She stands at the center of this mystery. She was the first to experience the wonderment of nature, which along with her sublime faith, pledged for the mystery of the Incarnation!

And so a day came when God’s love became man. Already in the womb he “stirred up” when, through the embrace of his mother and Elizabeth, he met John, who in turn leapt for joy! Both pregnancies were stirred up by an Annunciation: Zachariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and Mary were visited by God’s Messenger, the Angel Gabriel (Lk 1:11-20; 1:26-38). Both women said Yes to their child, though both found themselves in difficult circumstances: old age for Elizabeth and unconventional for Mary, her conception being out of wedlock.

Their Yes was not a momentary agreement; it had to be lived daily. Scripture tells us that their faith was tested severely. In Mary’s case, to name but a few instances, when confronting her parents and Joseph with her pregnancy; or when riding on a donkey to Bethlehem in her last month of pregnancy; or when having to give birth in a cave amidst the smell and dirt of animals.

Likewise, we can well imagine what it must have felt like for Elizabeth to bear a child in her advanced age and not being able to communicate with her husband, rendered mute by the angel. We do not know how the people of Ein Karem reacted but I think it’s safe to say that not all were disposed well and that the couple’s odd situation stirred up unkind gossip.

poem-image-6001Advent invites us to reflect on the annunciations in our life. They were and are moments when we not only sense intellectually but also feel in our hearts that God’s Love is stirred up in us. Such annunciations often change the course of our lives. They can awaken new strength and vigor, and often call us to a new level of self-giving. This is most evident when we reflect on Mary’s Annunciation. How does a woman react when she feels God’s own physical presence and growth stir up within her? Mary’s pregnancy evolves into a unique faith experience involving her total self: the physical, psychological, and mental dimensions of her being. Simultaneously, her faith experience is the culmination of all of the Old Testament’s positive attitudes towards God. Mary’s faith is a personal crystallization of what generations before her had experienced on an often troubled and disturbed faith-journey. At the same time, her faith represents a qualitative leap from conditional to unconditional trust in God. For Mary, faith is no longer only a quality of life, it becomes Life itself—divine Life.

Advent is a time when you and I wait to celebrate what the world waited for two millennia ago and what we prepare for to come. In a culture of instant gratification, we are not used to waiting any more. And yet, love and life need to grow and mature in order to last and bear fruit. Mary knew how to fill this time of waiting with quiet longing and anticipation. Thus a Christian Advent becomes an opportunity to reawaken within ourselves the true meaning of waiting by letting our faith be stirred up for the mystery of Christ, the Messiah, who was expected for long centuries, and yet not recognized by the rich and powerful of his day when he was born in poverty, in Bethlehem.

This Advent, may our hearts be stirred up as we join Mary in her waiting. One way to do so is the daily prayer of the Angelus which recalls the Mystery of the Incarnation and at the same time the three steps of Christian existence:

  1. To listen and receive: The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary and she conceived of the Holy Spirit!
  2. To decide personally and freely: Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.
  3. To let it be done and trust that God knows best! And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us.

Let us pray,
Pour forth, we beseech Thee, Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that, we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

And as we wait, allow the Father’s Love to stir up your whole being again and anew for Christ to be born in the manger of our hearts.

[1] See more at:

Sermons in the Cemetery

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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I like to spend time in cemeteries where the dead preach to me, where the sermon is always the same: “Yield”.

When the wind has not been too punishing in late October,
the trees that line the graves still hold their leaves
in early November,
here in Northern Indiana.

The sighing breeze
passing from some place to some other place
flatters the trees and speaks to their leaves,
persuading them to release their grip
and flutter to the ground,
sometimes alone and sometimes not.

These leaves come to rest upon the grass resting upon the soil that rests upon the precious remains of lives once lived and now at rest.

There these leaves thus wait upon
the force of breeze or wind or rake
to tell them what’s next.

Otherwise they wait for frost.

And all the while below the soil the precious remains of lives once lived and now at rest uphold in silence the tiny drama unfolding above, where trees sprout new leaves for the breeze to persuade to flutter down to meet the grass in early November, provided the winds of October mind their manners.

And all the while in the passing of time, each thing below says to each thing above: “Be it done unto me according to your word.”

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.

Over This Your White Grave

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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Over this your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?

Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.

Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
a prayer:
Give her eternal peace–

-Karol Wojtyla

Saint John Paul II, like so many of us, grappled with questions of human fragility and mortality, seeming meaninglessness in death, and the deep pain of losing a loved one.

Poland, 1921 – the infant Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the arms of his mother, Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla.

Karol Wojtyla, as he was known before he became pope, wrote this poem in Krakow, Poland in the spring of 1939.  His mother had died of heart and kidney problems ten years earlier, when Karol was just barely nine years old and had not yet made his First Communion.  After she died, Karol’s father took him to one of Poland’s Marian shrines, Kalwaria, close to their hometown of Wadowice.  It is likely that Karol’s lifelong devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, really began during that time and was strengthened amidst his grief at the loss of his own mother.

The pain of Karol’s loss is very much present in this poem – a relationship that was, a relationship that could have been so much more – yet her life was cut short by her illness and subsequent death.  Years after the event, he continues to reflect on his mother’s death and his own emotions.  Perhaps the reader is to interpret this whole poem as a metaphor for the place in Karol’s heart where the memory of his mother resides.

Each stanza of this poem begins with the words, “Over this your white grave,” which leads the reader into three striking images.  First, there appears an image of a white grave, on top of which is strewn white flowers.  Yet, second, there seems to be a certain covering or “veil” over the grave.  Third, the reader perceives an image of Karol standing over the grave, feeling deeply his love for his mother that still persists even after all these years without her physical presence in his life.

The color white plays a significant role in this poem as well, describing both the grave and “the flowers of life” which cover it.  White often symbolizes notions of purity, innocence, undying fidelity, respect, and peace, and it is frequently used to accentuate important moments in the course of the human life, such as birth, baptism, First Communion, marriage, and death.  In this poem, the use of the color white seems to convey a tone of reverence and tranquility in the presence of the beloved dead, and white seems to frame Karol’s devotion to his mother and his recollections of those pure, essential moments of life (“the flowers of life”) in which love was given and received.

While the color white may indicate aspects of the state of death, it may also point toward new life.  Memory and mystery come together in death and are transfigured in light of Christianity.  Karol writes about some sort of “veil” being lifted, almost like a burial shroud.  Perhaps the reader can interpret this as an image pointing toward the burial shroud being “lifted” from the body of Jesus in his Resurrection, revealing that this man, who underwent human suffering and death at its most horrific, conquered death and is risen with a transfigured body.  Like death, the Resurrection is something so beyond human comprehension.  Nevertheless, it uplifts us; it gives us hope.  Perhaps that is what Karol begins to see.  There is hope; there is something that breaks the bonds of death.  Death does not have the last word, and it is this hope that will give him peace.

Something intriguing happens in the last stanza of the poem.  In the first part of the stanza, Karol continues to address his mother using the first person, but then, he switches to the third person for the rest of the stanza, which is a prayer for eternal rest for his mother.  I suggest that this shift in address occurs because he has learned to let himself into the arms of his spiritual mother, Mary.  Her embrace has been one of utter consolation for the young Karol.  Throughout his adolescent years and the beginning of his priesthood, he was often seen praying the rosary, lost in contemplation before an image of Mary, or sometimes even lying prostrate on the floor before the tabernacle.

jp2maryThis entrustment of his life to Mary becomes a recurring theme throughout his life, especially during his papacy.  After he was critically injured in an assassination attempt, he visited Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to express his gratitude for the protection of the Blessed Mother, placing the bullet with which he was shot into her crown.  He made several subsequent pilgrimages to various Marian shrines around the world, and he led an effort to consecrate the whole world to the protection of Mary.  He promoted the rosary as an essential form of devotional prayer, even giving to the Church the Luminous Mysteries to help us further meditate on the life of Jesus, imitate Mary in her pondering of God’s action in her life through the sending of His Son, and emulate her example of love and humility.  John Paul II’s papal motto was “Totus Tuus,” which means, “Totally Yours,” and is addressed to Mary, for in the act of entrustment of our hearts to her, she leads us to her Son, Jesus, who alone is the One to whom all our love is ultimately directed.

Let us, too, entrust ourselves and our loved ones, especially those who are sick, suffering, dying, or have passed on, to the maternal embrace of Mary.  For it is she who knows most intimately the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus.  It is she who carried God in the flesh at his most vulnerable state – as an infant in her womb and as a dead man taken down from the Cross and buried in the tomb, and it is she who carries the Church and all people, especially at their most vulnerable state.  It is she who understands the pain of human loss, and it is she who enjoys the fullness of life in God’s glory in heaven.  Let us be wrapped in her mantle, a veil which protects and uplifts us, and brings us ever closer to her Son who conquered death and gives new life.

Heavenwards: ascending to God through prayer

 Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
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Fall is a time to enjoy a colorful Indian summer, to be grateful for another rich harvest, and perhaps there is even the opportunity to fly a kite. There is something fascinating about seeing planes or kites soaring “up to the highest height … up through the atmosphere.” Just like Mary Poppins, we too, may have experienced that “when you send it flying up there, all at once you’re lighter than air, you can dance on the breeze over houses and trees, with your fist holding tight to the string of your kite.” I like the image of the kite: firmly and tightly held it ascends, entrusting its course to the power of the wind.

Some students at a Catholic school in Wyoming had a similar experience recently. Their principle had the inspired idea to teach the children that, like kites in the wind, our prayers, too, ascend to God. During October, the month of the rosary students and teachers prayed the Rosary together. For this special event, however, they held more than the traditional beads in their hands; they also surrounded a chain of 59 balloons strung in the shape of a rosary, complete with a cross that they released at the end of the prayer service. Watch the spectacle for yourself! As we near the end of this month of the rosary, we can hold this delightful image in our minds and the moment may also give us a new incentive to persevere in praying our daily (decade of the) rosary.

History teaches us some mighty lessons about the rosary’s importance. Above all we are reminded of the Battle of Lepanto, the last battle at sea confronting Catholic naval forces primarily from Spain, Venice, and Genoa under the command of Don Juan of Austria with the most powerful navy in the world, a Moslem force employing thousands of Christian slaves as rowers. Distraught by the disadvantage of the Christian party, St. Pope Pius V called upon all the faithful of Europe to pray the rosary for victory! We know today that the triumph of October 7, 1571 prevented the Islamic invasion of Europe, thereby evidencing the Hand of God working through Our Lady.

History catches up with us! Today, Europe and the USA are challenged by an enormous emigration of nations as never before. Anti-migration fences are built to stem the influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty. Innate angst is reactivated: “These people are different, they belong to a different culture and religion,” we often think to ourselves. “Some come from countries where Christians are persecuted. They move in our neighborhood and who knows how this will affect us. Will it work out? How much will this demand of us, not the least being financially demanding. Will we be safe?”

Yet our conscience reminds us that they are human beings who have left everything behind, who have risked everything to save their children and themselves. They became refugees in the hope of a better life, of (religious) freedom, and safety? As in the parable, they are our neighbor. We must respond with charity. Even if their values and religion do not entirely match ours, we can have compassion and understanding for the desperate family that was betrayed by a faulty raft, leaving a baby, seemingly asleep in the surf, still wearing his little shoes and red shirt.

Is it not time to take the rosary beads in our hands asking Our Lady to meet this challenge with love and mercy? Perhaps we need the childlike faith of the school children who took it for granted that their prayers in the sign of the rosary went straight before the throne of God.

Perhaps, autumn’s shorter days give us chance for introspection: am I on the right track? Are adjustments needed? Do I have my life’s goal in mind and do my actions reinforce it? Meditating on the mysteries we are directed heavenwards from where the world and each individual are best valued and understood. The Our Father, the ten Hail Marys, and the Glory be…center us on the stations of our redemption and remind us that our own lives are a re-enactment of Jesus’ life on earth. Aware of the tremendous gift of our election as children of God, helps us to let go of our own biases and, like a kite or balloon rosary, fly in the merciful embrace of God where all will be well!

The Rosary in Real Life

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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October is the month of the Rosary, and today we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Our Lady of the Rosary. At this time of year I always find myself reflecting on the ways in which praying the Rosary (and not praying the Rosary) has shaped my life of faith, and inevitably, my mind returns to my childhood days of praying the Rosary with my family.

When I was eight, I was the only girl in a family of four children (there are six of us now). My mom was pregnant with my sister, and my dad was traveling for work pretty much all the time. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I realize how chaotic these few years were, and yet I recall them with tender fondness, recognizing them as the years when our family was knitted—soldered together—into an incredibly close unit. It’s only with the benefit of theological reflection that I realize how much the Rosary was a part of this. When my dad began traveling, my mother began the practice of gathering us children together every night to pray the Rosary as a family. We prayed for my dad’s safe return home each weekend. We prayed for the security of his job. We prayed that our home would be kept safe in his absence. We prayed for the health of our mother and the baby she carried in her womb. We prayed for our extended family. We prayed that we would do well in school and in our extracurricular activities. We prayed that we would all make good friends and that we would learn to be better siblings to each other. In other words, we offered up in our family prayer the heights and depths, the profundities and the mundanities of domestic life, and in praying the Rosary in particular, we placed ourselves under the loving maternal gaze of Mary.

Lest you get the wrong idea about my family, though, let me clarify. Here is a picture of what we decidedly did not look like when we gathered together each night for our family Rosary:

Family Rosary

No photos were ever taken during our nightly prayer gatherings, so let me paint a word picture of what actually transpired each night. First, there was The Great Debate about whose bedroom we would use for prayer. Since the kid whose room it was usually got to lie down in his/her bed while everyone else either knelt on the floor or squeezed onto the bed to sit, this was a crucial part of the process. Naturally, the next step was to figure out who was going to sit/kneel/lie down where. Someone would always snag the extra pillow to kneel on and there would be a brief but intense battle for comfy real estate for one’s knees. Next, we had to determine whose turn it was to hold the cool glow-in-the-dark rosary and who would have to use the not-quite-as-cool rosaries with the non-glowing plastic beads. And all of this usually transpired in a span of 5 action-packed minutes, before we even made the Sign of the Cross.

These are still the coolest.
These are still the coolest.

Inevitably, though, my mother would call us all to order with an “All right, we’re starting!” and begin “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” And we were off. For the next 20-ish minutes, there would be moments of quiet grace and moments of unbridled pandemonium. My mother would recite the opening prayers and the first decade, and then my brothers and I would each be called upon to lead a decade in turn, starting with my oldest brother and moving down through the lineup. Like our behavior during the pre-game action, our recitation of the Rosary itself was usually far from perfect. Without fail, someone would forget which mystery we were on; someone else would say either too many Hail Marys (an unforgivable error) or too few (usually a welcome mistake). Someone’s knee or elbow would encroach on neighboring territory, resulting in a furious yet silent turf war; someone would yawn or sneeze or cough or emit some other bodily noise that would elicit uncontrollable, shoulder-shaking, repressed laughter. Most commonly, we would just get bored and count down the beads until it was all over and we could finally go to sleep.

This is what it’s like to pray the Rosary in a real family, in the real world. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s discombobulated, but it’s also authentic. Real family life is messy, chaotic, and discombobulated, so why would the life of prayer be any different? Prayer is the way in which we lift up our lives to God exactly as they are, not as we would have them be. And by continuing to turn to God even and especially when life it at its most chaotic—when, for example, the sole breadwinner is constantly traveling to provide for his growing family while his wife cares for the children and runs the household—that chaos is infused with meaning and transfigured into the precise way by which that family is drawn closer to God and to one another.

Whether it was prayed while crowded in a darkened bedroom, driving through the Kansas countryside in the family mini-van, gathered in the living room with extended family on occasions of great need, or even before Mass with our parish family on Sundays, the Rosary was a leitmotif that continuously ran throughout life in my parents’ household, and without even realizing it, my siblings and I were being formed in a life of faith that was rooted in and indeed inseparable from daily practice. We were being drawn together as the domestic Church (though we would never have called ourselves that)—a tiny community united around Jesus and Mary that was being immersed and slowly formed in the mysteries of God’s love poured forth in the Incarnation.

In his recent address for the Meeting with Families in Cuba, Pope Francis stated:

The family is a school of humanity, a school which teaches us to open our hearts others’ needs, to be attentive to their lives. When we live together life as a family, we keep our little ways of being selfish in check. . . . No doubt about it: the perfect family does not exist; there are no perfect husbands and wives, perfect parents, perfect children . . . Those families don’t exist. But that does not prevent families from being the answer for the future. God inspires us to love, and love always engages with the persons it loves. Love always engages with the persons it loves. So let us care for our families, true schools for the future. Let us care for our families, true spaces of freedom. Let us care for our families, true centers of humanity.

In praying the Rosary as a family, we were participating in an intensive course of study in this “school of humanity.” We weren’t perfect, our prayer wasn’t perfect, yet we learned to forgive one another’s imperfections and also acknowledge our own. We became better at being a family.

MaryRosary_0Pope Francis’ description of the family as the “school of humanity” resonates with Pope St. John Paul II’s description of the Rosary as the “school of Mary” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §§1, 14, 43). What better way to learn how to be human than by placing one’s family under the tutelage of the Blessed Mother, who taught her Son how to be a part of his human family? Through the Rosary, we contemplate with wonder and awe the mystery that Jesus experienced life on earth precisely as a member of a family, or as Pope Francis said so beautifully in his recent off-the-cuff remarks at the Festival of Families, “God came into the world in a family.”

I’ll admit it: there are times when I struggle with the Rosary as much as I did when I was eight, probably for the same reasons that many people struggle with it. My mind wanders. I still get bored sometimes with the repetitiveness, even as I try to focus on the mystery at hand. If I attempt the Rosary lying in bed at night, I fall asleep 99% of the time. There have even been phases in my life when I’ve let the practice of daily recitation go by the wayside altogether. And yet, despite the manifold struggles I face with the Rosary, I keep coming back to it. Because every time I pick up my beads, I remember with deep love the many chaotic nights spent in prayer surrounded by my mother and brothers (and my father when he was home). I realize again the truth of the well-worn adage that “the family that prays together, stays together,” a phrase my mother repeated often (usually when we children were secretly griping under our breath about having to pray the Rosary—no perfect families, remember?), and taken up by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. In this letter, John Paul II encourages families to take up anew this practice of praying the Rosary together:

The Holy Rosary, by age-old tradition, has shown itself particularly effective as a prayer which brings the family together. Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God.

Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television. To return to the recitation of the family Rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of his most Blessed Mother. The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the center, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on. (§41)

Having grown up in a family that prayed the Rosary together, I can attest to the truth of this passage and many others like it in John Paul II’s letter. To this day, I share an incredibly close relationship with my parents and siblings, and I firmly believe that the strength of our collective relationship is largely due to the life of prayer that we cultivated together (sometimes willingly, sometimes very unwillingly). The messiness and chaos of family prayer not only makes for vivid and often hilarious memories later in life, but most importantly, it makes for stronger families. If you are blessed with the gift of children, do your family a favor. Tonight, before bedtime, gather together, dust off the rosary beads, and start with just one decade. Embrace the mistakes that will inevitably occur, and persevere through the messiness. Practice this life of prayer, then practice some more, and years from now, through the grace of God and the intercession of Mary, you will see your children’s children immersed and schooled and formed in the same inexhaustible mysteries of God’s unfathomable love that form the very heart of the Rosary.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.


Follow Carolyn on Twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

The Coronation of Mary: Noblesse oblige

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

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On August 22, the octave of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the liturgical calendar calls to mind the Queenship of Mary. Invoking Mary as Queen is one of the many devotional practices attributed to Our Lady “from the earliest ages of the Catholic Church…, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis” (Pius XII, Encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, 1954, 1). Iconographers have depicted Mary’s royal dignity starting in the twelfth century on when monarchies and therefore kings and queens were rampant. Artists have captured the scene of Mary’s arrival in heaven where Christ, sometimes accompanied by God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, places a crown on her head. Another imaginative rendering shows Christ and Mary enthroned next to each other, wearing matching crowns, an indication of the Queen Mother’s influence in the kingdom of God. Incredible, yet true: a human being, a woman, reigns with Christ, the King! Noblesse oblige!

The French idiom—03a_altarliterally meaning nobility obliges—is a reminder that genuine nobility extends beyond privileges requiring of members of this status to adopt a way of living and acting in conformity with their dignity. Accordingly, Our Lady’s crown points to her solicitude and intercession for her people to the King. The New Testament does not explicitly refer to Mary of Nazareth as queen, although there are some indirect and subtle allusions to her regal rank. In the Gospel of St. Luke Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42) and Mary herself prophesied in her Magnificat that “all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:45).

While some may dismiss such self-appraisal as arrogant and deceitful, we may be able to detect in Mary’s Song a fundamental law in God’s kingdom: “He exalts the lowly” (Lk 1:52)! As handmaid of the Lord, God promotes her to royalty. But as queen she remains God’s humble handmaid! We are reminded of Jesus’ instruction: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26). There we have the heavenly scale of values to determine authentic nobility! Noblesse oblige!

Champaigne_visitationThe concluding invocations of the Litany of Loreto praise Mary as Queen, a title attributed to her as early as the second century by Origen († 253/254) and Ephrem the Syrian († 373). Marian antiphons such as the Salve Regina, Regina coeli and Ave Regina coelorum, as well as the fifth glorious mystery of the rosary underscore Mary’s royal dignity which originates in her creation: Queen, conceived without original sin! Mary’s royal dignity reaches its crowning achievement when at the end of her days God took her to heaven with body and soul: Queen assumed into Heaven! Noblesse oblige!

Usually we consider the crowning achievement of a life to be a onetime event exceeding all expectations! It may be a public award, a successful business transaction, a dream wedding, or the arrival of a longed for baby. What was Mary’s crowning achievement? Answers to this question may vary; however, one valid response certainly would be Mary’s vocation to become the Mother of Christ, the King of heaven and earth! It had to be a royal experience! Just imagine: for nine months “He whom the world cannot contain, shut Himself up within her womb” (Gradual of the Solemnity of the Mother of God, January 1)! During this sublime time of expectation, as the intimacy with the fruit of her womb increased, Mary’s fiat and Magnificat undoubtedly became the solid rock foundation of her life. birth-of-jesusYet, it wasn’t all that regal! At the latest in Bethlehem, Mary learned that the kingdom of this infant King is not from this world. There was no palace or splendid robe; no royal household or carriage; no golden crown or throne! In fact, the crowning achievement of His life consisted in the throne of the cross and a crown of thorns! From crib to cross Mary faithfully followed Him on this royal way. Her receptivity for the Almighty and His wish enabled her to freely renounce whatever contradicted the divine plan, even if her heart was pierced by a sword. Mary’s crowning achievement consisted therefore in her complete self-emptying in solidarity with and conformity to her Son’s surrender to the Father. By offering her dearest possession she was given in return a new motherhood in the salvific economy of grace (cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 23). “In this way Mary became the first of those who, serving Christ also in others, with humility and patience lead their brothers and sisters to that King whom to serve is to reign, and she fully obtained that state of royal freedom proper to Christ’s disciples: to serve means to reign (ibid., 41; cf. LG 33)! Noblesse oblige!

Vatican II underscores that in her perfection, Mary as the eschatological icon shines forth “as a sign of sure hope and solace for the pilgrim People of God” (LG 68)! Hence, Mary was the first of those who “will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12; cf. 1 Pet 5:4; Rev 2:10). The crown in this case reaches beyond a person’s mere achievements: it is an undeserved reward! It is a gift of Love we cannot merit to the extent that it is given to us! Mary’s royal way as “Queen of All Saints” is challenge and call for all of us! Noblesse oblige!

“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (St. Leo the Great, Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3: PL 54,192C. Cf. CCC 1691).

The Christmas homily ofmary_crowned St. Leo the Great of course alludes to the unmerited gift of baptism through which we have become “a royal priesthood” (cf. Rev 5:10; 1 Pt. 2:9). By participation in Christ’s royal mission we are summoned, like Mary, to manifest in daily life the dignity imparted on us. This sublime nobility calls for a suitable self-conquest which lends us wings and inspires a royal conduct, even if at times we feel lowly and miserable! Do we wear our spiritual crown mindful of what it represents? Is our thinking, willing and loving influenced by a royal feeling for life? Noblesse oblige!

As we celebrate Mary’s crowning achievement let us remember:

  • God crowned Mary because she mastered all of life’s situations in a regal way!
  • Christians throughout the centuries have crowned her in recognition of her powerful intercession before the throne of God!
  • Even the angels ungrudgingly bow before their Queen!
  • I, too, am called to crown her with a life worthy of such a Mother. Noblesse oblige!

The Perfume of Possibility: The Feast of the Assumption as the Olympiad of Christian Hope

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Glorious things are spoken of you, O Mary, who today were exalted above the choirs of Angels into eternal triumph with Christ (Entrance Antiphon, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Elite athletes exist at the edge of the possible and the physically absurd.  Consider for a moment the 30th Olympiad, recently concluded in London.

  • The marathon runner, who pushes his or her body beyond human limitations to complete the 26.2 miles in the same time that it takes to drive a car from South Bend to Chicago.
  • The swimmer, whose powerful legs and lungs, enables her to move through the water in record time, all the while performing with grace.
  • The sprinter, who runs so swiftly, with such ease, that we re-imagine what the human being can do when formed according to such perfection.
  • The gymnast, who defies all laws of gravity, in the vault, the parallel bars, the floor routine.

And as the Olympics end, do not all of us (no matter the lack of our own athletic prowess) in some way expand our imaginations to what we ourselves can do.   While I may not run a two hour marathon, I could train to run a single marathon in under six hours.   I’ll never be Michael Phelps, but I could push myself to my own physical and mental limit.  I’m not Gabby Douglas, but I can at least do a somersault that entertains small children.

The feast of the Assumption is to Christian hope what the Olympics are to the routine of exercise.  Mary, falling asleep in the Lord, is received body and soul into heaven.  She becomes for us the perfume of possibility, an icon of the destiny of the Church herself.  The Preface of the Feast of the Assumption declares:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.  For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people; rightly you would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously brought forth your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.

Mary receives the grace of transfigured life because she bore the Incarnate Son into the world.  From her own body.  For Mary, the Incarnation was not an idea or a theological principle.  It was an event that took place through the particularities of her body, her own narrative, her own history.

  • The Incarnation, for Mary, was the angel’s greeting piercing through the silence of her contemplation of the Word of God.
  • It was the moment in which her cousin Elizabeth proclaimed, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk. 1:43-44).
  • It was the stretch marks, imprinted upon her pregnant body–a permanent, bodily sign of her fiat.  A sign that still remains, even in her bodily assumption.  
  • The Incarnation was the birth of her child in poverty, yet greeted by angels–all the while the Word of God made flesh soaked in the words of love addressed from his mother.  Love itself knew the possibilities of human love through his mother.
  • The Incarnation was the promise of the sword that would pierce her heart, the sorrows of a life lived with God.
  • It was learning that her son was not “hers” alone but the Son of the Father, come to make all of humanity brothers and sisters in Christ.  Do whatever he tells you (Jn. 2:5).
  • For Mary, the Incarnation was standing beneath the cross, as the faithless world rejected the light that had come into the world through her yes, through her faithfulness.  Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother (Jn. 19:27).
  • It was the realization on Easter day that the promises uttered so long ago in Nazareth had come now to fulfillment, that death itself had been conquered, the kingdom of God made manifest.
  • The Incarnation was the ascension of her Son into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in the upper room, leading to the preaching of the Good News through all the world.  He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Lk. 1:52)

So it is only right that the Church sees Mary’s own falling asleep, her dormition, as taken up into the mystery of the Word made flesh.  All her life, Mary had allowed the Word of God to dwell deeply inside of her:  in her contemplation of the Old Testament prophecies, in the angel’s greeting, in the cooing of her infant Son, in his preaching throughout Nazareth, in her stance beneath the cross, in the infant Church, and now at her death.

And this, dear friends, is the hope of all Christians, of all humans (isn’t as Henri de Lubac notes, Catholicism a promise addressed to all human beings?).  Not simply that we will one day be taken body and soul into heaven.  No, that our whole lives will be lived as a mystery infused by the Word of God, echoing it in our words and deeds through all ages.

The feast of the Assumption is thus the Olympiad of Christian hope itself.  It expands our imaginations to what is possible, if we allow ourselves to be taken up into the mystery of Christ.  We come to sniff the perfume of possibility, of what our humanity can become in Christ Jesus (himself the privileged icon of human transformation).  That we are indeed elevated above the angels, not because of any remarkable effort on our own behalf.  Instead, through our humanity, the Word continues to take flesh if only we would let it be done.  If we give ourselves over to the mystery of God’s love, unfolding in time and space, through the life of the Church.  And Mary, as the queen of the saints, prays that her destiny might be ours.  That all the joys and sorrows that are imprinted upon our bodies, our cities, our nations, may not be erased or forgotten but transfigured through the gift of the Holy Spirit in her Son, Jesus.  For in contemplating the grace of life bestowed to the Virgin, we learn to long for that very same fire of love that she received.  May the scent of resurrected light inflame our hearts on this arch-feast of Christian hope.