Tag Archives: Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Family: Not Just a Model

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Those of us suspicious of the pious platitudes that too often make their home in Catholic homiletic practice know that the feast of the Holy Family is a “code-red” day for such platitudes. We families assemble in our parishes and are exhorted that we should conform our domestic life according to the peaceful, loving relationships of Jesus, Mary, and Jesus. The image of the Holy Family that we receive is one pictured on holy cards where perfect beauty and order and HolyFamilyattention are mutually given by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (I suppose there were no smartphones to distract attention…otherwise Christ would have been found in the temple playing Angry Birds).

Those of us with toddlers normally do not hear this point of homiletic insight (ironically) because our children want to take up their vocation as amateur arsonists by playing with the candles placed before the statue of the Blessed Mother or take a swim in the baptismal font. But for those of us able to attend to the preaching this day, we walk away with a sense of guilt that our own family lives (whether married with children or not) are too messy. Not one of us come from or are perfectly replicating a family that includes the Word made flesh, the Virgin conceived without sin, and the most just Joseph. Our family histories are marked by sin, by violence, by disorder. Even more so, not everyone in our parishes are themselves part of such families. Single men and women (with and without children), the infertile, the divorced, the widowed–should they tune out on the Feast of the Holy Family because this day is not ultimately about them?

The problem with the homiletic platitudes delivered on this feast day in the Octave of Christmas is that it quickly reduces the mystery of the Incarnation into a series of moral maxims nearly impossible for most of us to fulfill. It is Christianity as a form of works righteousness, an American gospel of “try a little harder and you too can be like Mary and Joseph and Jesus.” Liturgical feasts are not lessons of morality (at least primarily). They present to us some facet of Christ’s own life (or life in Christ in the case of the saints) that the universal Church HolyFamilyatWorkshould contemplate. In the case of the feast of the Holy Family, we contemplate nothing less than the total, self-emptying love of the Word made flesh, who chose to dwell among the human race in a family.

For those of us who have experience with families, I find this fact at least as shocking as the cross. Family life is exceedingly difficult. To be in a family involves learning to give yourself away even when you have no desire to do so. It is learning the virtue of obligation, of being there, of taking up one’s duties as a husband or father, a wife or mother, a child or a sibling. Yet, the real difficult part (and where salvation comes from) of family life is learning to “forget” that this love that you offer to the other is an obligation in the first place.  Of course, wives and husbands are obligated to one another. They may even take turns with particularly onerous tasks (like getting up in the middle of the night to soothe a crying child). Yet, only the most ridiculous of marriages operate out of a system of exchange in which a couple keeps track of every thing that his or her partner is obliged to do.

This obligation extends to child as well. As a child, I have called home to speak to my parents every Sunday since I went off to college in the year 2000. At this point, this phone call is obligatory (on the part of the caller and the receiver of the call I should say). Yet, the grace of family life is that obedience and obligation is transformed into gift. What we owe is to become what we give out of love. If family life is a Nativityschool of love, it is not because existence within a family (at least for those of us who are fallen) is intrinsically harmonious, full of good will and cheer. Rather, family life teaches us to give and to give and to give, forgetting what the gift costs and costs and costs. Everything.

The scandal of the feast of the Holy Family is that the Word made flesh, the very creator of the universe, learned the art of this gift-giving from us. He was obedient to Mary and Joseph, obliged to live under their care. The absolute love that he manifested in his ministry and upon the cross was not only divine love. Rather, it was a love made possible because he learned to love from Mary and Joseph. He learned what it means to give oneself away without counting the cost. The prayers of Christmas often speak about the marvelous exchange of humanity and divinity that took place in the babe born in Bethlehem. This exchange of divinity and humanity did not conclude at his birth but unfolded as the Word became flesh, became part of a family. And now too (after all it’s an exchange), our very own families in all of their messiness can become a place where the Word becomes flesh, where obligation becomes love, where the fullness of salvation unfolds.

For this reason, the feast of the Holy Family is not intended to make us feel bad that our families fall short of the measure of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (and they do and will). Rather, it presents to us the fact that even the messiness of family life is part of our salvation. And our family life (like that of the Holy Family) is not absolute peace and perfection. The Holy Family exists in a world in which the innocents are slaughtered, in which they become migrants in Egypt, in whichDeathofStJoseph they lose their son in the temple, in which they gather around Joseph at his death, in which Mary watches her son die upon a cross at the hands of the Roman Empire. Even in this mess, salvation does unfold.

Thus, I would urge homilists of all sorts to preach not pious platitudes but the mystery of salvation that all families need to hear.

  • We all need to hear that the Word became flesh, forever transforming what it means to be in relationship with one another.
  • We all need to hear that God loved us so much that God entered into the messiness of history not as idea but as embodied in a family.
  • We all need to hear that our salvation is inseparable from those very real obligations that we enter into as members of the human family as a whole–obligations that become gifts.

That is, the feast of the Holy Family is not simply for perfect families, with 2.5 children, with a nice house, where fighting and discord is absent. Rather, this feast is for the divorced, for those that struggle to love a parent who has done something atrocious, for those that long for children but cannot have them, for those who are forgotten and unloved, for single moms and single dads, for those who have left their homeland and families behind to send money to feed spouse and child, for those who are single but don’t want to be, and on and on. Even here, even in this messiness, the Word wants to become flesh and dwell among us.

And for our families, the goal is not to become merely like the Holy Family (Mom = Mary, Dad = Joseph, Child = Jesus). Rather, it is to become like the Word made flesh himself. To enter into the sorrowful places of the world, the places where neither obligation or love is found, and to offer the gift of love that is the heart of Christmas. This is a feast worth celebrating and preaching upon. This is the feast of the Holy Family.

December 20: O Clavis David

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Previous posts in this series:
December 19: O Radix Jesse
December 18: O Adonai
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and
no one shuts; you shut and no one opens.
Come and lead the captives from the prison house,
who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.

As the Key of David, the Messiah will open the gate of heaven that has been shut since the fall of Adam and Eve. In addition, He will open the gate of the prison that has bound humanity since that same time: the prison of sin and death. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Is 22:22).

A key is a symbol of authority: the one who wields it has the power to imprison and to set free, and the One who wields the key to the House of David has an authority and a power that none can impeach. In this antiphon, the Messiah is not the holder of the Key of David, the Messiah is the Key of David. In His very Person, the Messiah is the One who forever opens the door to life and who will, at the end of all things, forever shut the door to death and destruction.

As the Key of David, the Messiah is the great liberator, not only on a universal, eschatological level, but also on a personal level. He is the One who can truly say: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61:1-2a; see also Lk 4:16-21). The Messiah comes to all, but He also comes to each, seeking out every single person imprisoned by doubts, fears, or addictions. The Key of David comes to unlock the prison of the heart, where the soul is held captive, bound by the chains of sin. He comes, fulfilling the words of Isaiah: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you” (Is 35:4).

The Key of David comes – He, the way, the truth, and the life – leading “the captives from the prison house” on the path to beatitude: “A highway will be there, called the holy way; no one unclean may pass over it, nor fools go astray on it. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee” (Is 35:8, 9b-10).

“The Divine Child”– A Sermon by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

HopeHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was an orthodox priest whose liturgical vision of truly integrating liturgy and life (and history, and theology, and everything else!) is one that we remember and try to cultivate on Oblation. He passed away on December 13, 1983. This weekend, in honor of his memory, the St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary linked to a post from 2011 where they shared this sermon of his. Yesterday was Gaudete Sunday, and although Notre Dame students are in the midst of finals, we hope that this sermon serves as a reminder of the joy of Christmas. We look forward to the coming of Christmas and preparing our hearts for Christ, with this sermon on what it means that our Savior came to the world as a little child. May we trust in the mercy and love of the Christ child as we draw closer to Christmas.

And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

“The eternal God was born as a little child.” One of the main hymns of Christmas ends with these words, identifying the child born in a Bethlehem cave as “the eternal God.” This hymn was composed in the sixth century by the famous Byzantine hymnographer Roman the Melodist:

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels, with shepherds, glorify him!
The wise men journey with the star!
Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!
(Kontakion of Christmas)

The Child as God, God as Child…Why does joyful excitement build over the Christmas season as people, even those of lukewarm faith and unbelievers, behold that unique, incomparable sight of the young mother holding the child in her arms, and around them the “wise men from the East,” the shepherds fresh from night-watch in their fields, the animals, the open sky, the star? Why are we so certain, and discover again and again, that on this sorrowful planet of ours there is nothing more beautiful and joyful than this sight, which the passage of centuries has proven incapable of uprooting from our memory? We return to this sight whenever we have nowhere else to go, whenever we have been tormented by life and are in search of something that might deliver us…

It is the words “child” and “God” which give us the most striking revelation about the Christmas mystery. In a certain profound way, this is a mystery directed toward the child who continues to secretly live within every adult, to the child who continues to hear what the adult no longer hears, and who responds with a joy which the adult, in his mundane, grown-up, tired and cynical world, is no longer capable of feeling. Yes, Christmas is a feast for children, not just because of the tree that we decorate and light, but in the much deeper sense that children alone are unsurprised that when God comes to us on earth, he comes as a child.

This image of God as child continues to shine on us through icons and through innumerable works of art, revealing that what is most essential and joyful in Christianity is found precisely here, in this eternal childhood of God. Adults, even the most sympathetic to “religious themes,” desire and expect religion to give explanations and analysis; they want it to be intelligent and serious. Its opponents are just as serious, and in the end, just as boring, as they confront religion with a hail of “rational” bullets. In our society, nothing better conveys our contempt than to say “it’s childish.” In other words, it’s not for adults, for the intelligent and serious. So children grow up and become equally serious and boring. Yet Christ said “become like children” (Mt 18:3). What does this mean? What are adults missing, or better, what has been choked, drowned or deafened by a thick layer of adulthood? Above all, is it not that capacity, so characteristic of children, to wonder, to rejoice and, most importantly, to be whole both in joy and sorrow? Adulthood chokes as well the ability to trust, to let go and give one’s self completely to love and to believe with all one’s being. And finally, children take seriously what adults are no longer capable of accepting: dreams, that which breaks through our everyday experience and our cynical mistrust, that deep mystery of the world and everything within it revealed to saints, children, and poets.

Thus, only when we break through to the child living hidden within us, can we inherit as our own the joyful mystery of God coming to us as a child. The child has neither authority nor power, yet the very absence of authority reveals him to be a king; his defenselessness and vulnerability are precisely the source of his profound power. The child in that distant Bethlehem cave has no desire that we fear him; He enters our hearts not by frightening us, by proving his power and authority, but by love alone. He is given to us as a child, and only as children can we in turn love him and give ourselves to him. The world is ruled by authority and power, by fear and domination. The child God liberates us from that. All He desires from us is our love, freely given and joyful; all He desires is that we give him our heart. And we give it to a defenseless, endlessly trusting child.

Through the feast of Christmas, the Church reveals to us a joyful mystery: the mystery of freely given love imposing itself on no one. A love capable of seeing, recognizing and loving God in the Divine Child, and becoming the gift of a new life.

Excerpt from Celebration of Faith, Vol. 2: The Church Year by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994.



This Really Happened Once

Meredith HollandMeredith Holland

Master of Theological Studies Candidate

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry


“Jesus had a body like yours and mine, which means that he 024233ate, drank, and slept. He experienced sexual longings and urges. The adult Jesus felt joy and sadness, laughing at things that struck him as funny and weeping during times of loss. As a fully human being with fully human emotions, he felt both frustration and enthusiasm. He grew weary at the end of a long day and fell ill from time to time. He pulled muscles, felt sick to his stomach, and maybe sprained an ankle or two. Like all of us, he sweated and sneezed and scratched.” – Fr. James Martin, S.J., Jesus: A Pilgrimage (12)

The humanity of Jesus is easy to overlook. We remember the wisdom of the parables and the power of the miracles, the mystery of incarnation and the newness of the resurrection. We forget that the humility of God in becoming man is also an entering into the history of humanity, for this is the language and experience through which humanity could come to know Him.

I recently heard Fr. James Martin, S.J. speak at Boston College; his startling account of the humanity of Jesus, along with the historical theology of Karl Rahner, has been swirling in my head ever since. To put it quite simply, this really happened once.

Rahner understands his Christian existence as a rational participation in the transcendent mystery of God and thus necessarily attached to the narrative of Jesus and the Church through which humanity comes to know Christ.

“My Christianity however means not only radical frankness in adoration, devotion, and love for the ineffable mystery of God; it is not only what we might call a transcendental, ‘pneumatological’ character. My Christianity has also and essentially a historical dimension.” – Karl Rahner, Courage for an Ecclesial Christianity (7)

Jesus was not superhuman, but rather the perfect fulfillment of human nature made possible by the inseparable coexistence of the divine nature of Christ. The narrative of Jesus Christ, who lived in a particular time and place, is a tale of victory, one that embraces all of history and humanity. An encounter between the transcendent God and the earthly humanity occurs in the reality of history, through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the sacramental Church that is the human response to this divine gift. The historical origin of the Christian faith and the humanity of Jesus necessitate participation in the community that is the body of Christ and an attempt to live into the fullness of this humanity.

Our desire to establish an individual identity makes us reluctant to allow ourselves to be taken into the one narrative of Jesus Christ that is the Christian faith. The spiritual demands are much easier to observe than the very essential ecclesial attachment of the faith. How could it be that the whole of humanity is wound up in this one narrative?

The beauty of the narrative of Jesus Christ and the Church is that it has the incredible capacity for this participation and existence; all of humanity is invited into this mystery. As Rahner finds in his vision of an ecclesial Christianity, “in ‘our Father’s house’ there are many rooms among which we can and indeed must choose, if we want to justify our own life before God” (11). The story of Jesus may be that of one person, but one that can be encountered in an infinite number of ways and through the narrative of every other human being.

As creatures, our humanity must necessarily be oriented toward the Creator; our origin and the origin of the Christian faith is outside of oneself. Often, this outward direction is a deep struggle against a 8blonging for a personal self-sufficiency and freedom. And, yet, there’s something romantic about this participation, something that satisfies a deeply human desire to be a part of something greater than oneself. The narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the one story in which all of our narratives are collected, such that they unified without being uniform. This participation does not confine, but rather frees the Christian to a more human existence.

This attachment to the Church is not a laying down of oneself, but a taking up of a great responsibility to participate in the transformation of the world; the Church calls us into the messiness of the world. The Christian faith is a historical one, grounded in the fully human and fully divine Jesus who lived in a particular time and place and came to enter into that very messiness and offer himself for its salvation.

Jesus Pulls a Fast One

From a friend of the Center for Liturgy, Rick Becker, on attending Mass on 8/13/14: Jesus Pulls a Fast One

What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.

But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.

Just like you love and forgive me.

Practical Mercy: The Wisdom in Feeling Small

Dorothy Therese

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Previous Posts in this Series:
The (Human) Dignity in Making Time
Blessed Are the Grouchy
Can’t Read My Poker Face

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose…
-Thomas Merton

“Do you think Jesus ever felt discouraged?” I asked, leaning against an office door, silently reminding myself not to cry at work. Our social work intern smiled at me and said, “Yes, for sure.”

Of course he did: people were hating on the Savior of the World all the time! They were constantly suspicious of Him; they tried to corner Him into betraying Jewish law and government officials. He experienced agony in the garden; He was betrayed by His friends; He was taunted as He carried his Cross; and He died for us, for people who were constantly critical of Him.

(c) Sudley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationTheologians have been discussing for centuries the mystery of Jesus’ suffering—of God’s suffering, in the person of Jesus. When the woman at the well says the Messiah is coming, Jesus says, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (Jn 4:26). But He experiences the consequences of others’ sin, and as a human with feelings, of course He experienced pain. I would dare say there were moments when Jesus felt small.

I recently studied at a prestigious university for a master’s degree, and I remember thinking frequently that I had completely fooled everyone involved in admissions. How could they possibly think that I am worthy of such an honor? Of course no one is, we are all simply beneficiaries of God’s gifts to us—but good grief, did they know me at all? As time went along, I was successful in my coursework and internships and discovered so much about myself in the process, strengths and weaknesses alike. And I still can’t believe I’ve been honored with the degree; God provided more than I could have ever imagined for myself, as he always does.

Now I’m working at a homeless shelter where no one, staff or guests alike, cares one little bit about my fancy degree, whether or not I feel worthy of it. The guests care whether I successfully hand them a bus pass, or confirm their negative drug test, or rid their room of bed bugs, or write them a letter of residency right when they want it done. They care that I care about them, that I listen to them, that I offer them some glimmer of hope in their relatively stinky lives.

I felt small at my fancy university and I feel small in a different way at my humble job at a homeless shelter. I was born to be a leader and I know I have a capacity to make a real difference. But every day at work, I just feel small. And as we know, “Your playing small does not serve the world” (Marianne Williamson). So in the Christian life, what is the significance of feeling small?

Recently when I returned home from work feeling frustrated by my seeming failures—one step forward and ten steps back, a friend responded, “But what an honor that you get to work with the poor.” I was startled—oh yeah, that Matthew 25 business, the whole reason I started this job to begin with. Sometimes I start rolling along my frustration train, completely burdened by other people’s problems, by how overworked I feel, by all the negative feedback, by working too many hours a week and achieving seemingly nothing but a creeping feeling of burnout.

And yet, Thomas Merton wrote:

“…no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.” 

PrayerThe cosmic dance which is always there. Even in weakness. I’ve been beaten with a humility stick—by the homeless mothers at our shelter, so frequently difficult to handle, and, in a gentler way, by the God who keeps poking me until I finally listen.

I pray for the wisdom to be small, to learn from all my mistakes and from the daily experience of life with the urban poor. And I pray for the wisdom to be strong, the courage to stand up for what I believe and to love with the heart of Christ, a heart that suffered, and through suffering, brought us redemption.

I’m confident Jesus felt discouraged at times. But He didn’t despair because He knew in His sacred heart the true meaning of His suffering. Oftentimes at work in my utter discouragement I drop by forehead on my desk and ask for the grace to go on. And my strength is made perfect in weakness—when I realize that not only am I not their Messiah, but I’m not the perfect case worker or the perfect human being trying to help.  I’m just doing my best, and I’m confident God is working through me. I measure my success now not by successful move-outs but by those moments that I finally shut up and listen, by the times I stop in someone’s room just to chat, by the children I look in the eye as I’m hugging and tickling.

Divinity entered humanity so that humanity could become divine. God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. There is wisdom in feeling small.

And his mother kept all these things in her heart: Mary as the Model of Contemplation

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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As May draws to a close, I take a moment to think about this month in which we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in a special way. In every church I’ve visited in these past weeks, statues of Our Lady are adorned with crowns or wreaths of flowers; roses are often laid in tribute at her feet; nearby votive candles seem to be burning in greater number than usual. As I prepare to turn the calendar, I wonder if the devotion practiced by so many throughout this past month will continue, or if we children will allow the busyness of the summer season to turn our attentions from our Mother and her Son. Regardless of the month or the season, Mary calls to us in order to draw us to Jesus; with a mother’s love she longs to teach us how to be more faithful children of God. Yet what is this lesson that she offers?

Madonna and ChildSaint Luke gives us a beautiful answer in his Gospel. He writes: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (2:19), and tells us yet again: “and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51b). On these two separate occasions—the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant, and finding Him there as a twelve-year-old child after searching for three days—Mary reacts to the mysteries of God in the same way. She reflects. She ponders. She keeps all these things in her heart. Luke’s repetition of a seemingly insignificant detail in fact demonstrates to us what it means to be a faithful disciple: one must contemplate the mysteries of the God revealed in the Incarnate Word, Jesus. In her life of contemplation, Mary provides us with an example of one who sought tirelessly “the one thing” that is needed (cf Lk 10:42). As Blessed John Paul II wrote in the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, “No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit” (§11). And in continuing to contemplate the face of Christ throughout her life, Mary constantly discovered new depths of the Father’s love for the whole of creation, and she witnessed the grace of the Spirit being poured into the hearts of all who accepted her Son.

The beauty of Luke’s words and the perfectly serene images of Mary from the traditions of visual art can belie the intensity and the truth of what it means to live a contemplative life. Reading into the Gospel narrative from the ease of hindsight, it’s easy for us to mistakenly think of Mary as somewhat prescient, even to go so far as to dismiss her as a model for imitation on the grounds that her status as “full of grace” automatically endowed her with a perfect understanding of God’s intent with regard to her and her Son. But Luke shows us that this was not the case: at the Annunciation, Mary poses the question of logistics to the angel, “‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’” (1:34). Finding of Jesus in the TempleWhen she and Joseph find Jesus in the temple after three heart-sickening days of searching, her first words to Him are filled with the anguish of a distraught mother: “‘Son, why have you done this to us?’” (2:48b). In fact, during his account of the finding of Jesus in the temple, Luke conveys both Mary and Joseph as “astonished,” saying “they did not understand what [Jesus] said to them” (1:50). As a human being, Mary undoubtedly struggled along the way to understand the divine plan in which she consented to participate; however, the grace that permeated every fiber of her being allowed her to remain in a state of radical openness, humility, and obedience before God and the divine plan for the salvation of the world. Therefore, she who asked “how can this be” was also able to state moments later, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38).

Mary’s contemplation of the divine presence in her life was anything but passive or complacent; while she pondered all things in her heart, she also carried the Good News of the Incarnation to others. Just after the Annunciation narrative, we read that Mary “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste” to tend to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (1:39). Mary’s life of contemplation filled her with a desire to share with others the divine mysteries that had been revealed to her, so that they, too, might become people whose souls “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” (1:46b).

Wedding at CanaBy first pondering all things in her heart, Mary was then able to open others up to an encounter with the mysteries of divine love, as she did at the wedding feast of Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). When we imitate her spirit of profound adoration, we see more clearly the face of Christ in our midst, we discern more readily the path to which God is calling us, and the miraculous occurs.

Mary teaches us to seek the face of Christ in all facets of life, whether in the radiant light of joyous moments or in the darkness of sorrow and death, and even in the midst of our astonishment or confusion, to continue open ourselves up to profound trust by pondering all things in our hearts. As we contemplate with our Mother the mysteries of her Son, she becomes for us “a means of learning;” she teaches us “to ‘read’ Christ, to discover his secrets and to understand his message” (RVM, §14), so that we may then share that message with all people.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Sophie JacobucciSophie Jacobucci

Echo Apprentice,
Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire
Master of Theology Candidate, University of Notre Dame

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Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin.”
–St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §510)

Think about our modern day definition of virginity. In the Oxford Dictionary we read, “a person, typically a woman, who has never had sexual intercourse,” or “ a person who is naïve, innocent, or inexperienced in a particular context.” Most of us have looked at it as a type of inexperience of an intimate act, or a lack of maturity and knowledge about something. Yet, Saint Augustine writes that Mary, as the revered Mother of God, remained a virgin throughout her entire life, even when she had the experience of giving birth and nursing Jesus. This tells us that there is something more to understand about the concept of virginity.

Triptych-Adoration of the Kings, Annunciation detail-Sir Edward Coley Burne-JonesThe Church confesses that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, which affirms the corporeal aspect of the event. She became pregnant, not in the usual biological fashion, but by the power of God, the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church sees the virginal conception as the sign that Jesus truly was the Son of God who came in a human form like our own (CCC, §496). This affirms the common belief that Mary did not have intercourse with Joseph. Rather, the Holy Spirit brought about Jesus’ conception in the womb of His Mother. Now this seems odd to our human reason. How could a man not be involved? The Gospel accounts understand the conception as a divine work that surpasses all of our human understanding and possibility. This is not simply mythology because we don’t understand the physical nature of conceiving without having intercourse. It is a fulfillment of the promise given through Isaiah. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Is 7:14; see also CCC, §497).

It is in contemplating this mystery that we can look to the faith of Mary to help us in our understanding. Historically, there was significant opposition to the idea of the virginal conception. Though we cannot dismiss that reality, we must acknowledge that Mary’s conception of Jesus without loss of her virginity is a mystery. It is a part of the totality of all mysteries in which we have faith, from Jesus’ Incarnation to His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and beyond. Saint Ignatius of Antioch said, “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence” (CCC, §498). In that silence we are beginning to see the truth of Saint Augustine’s statement. Virginity is a state of being and not simply a physical or mental attribute that is possessed.

Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it,” meaning that Mary retained a real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Incarnate Son of God (CCC, §499). We see the meaning of virginity in the humanity and divinity that are a part of Mary’s role as the Mother of God. Mary, Mother of InnocenceThe divine worked in Mary; the acceptance of this life is virginal because it is entirely the Spirit’s gift to man. The spousal character in relation to God is fulfilled perfectly in Mary’s virginal motherhood (CCC, §505). This perfect fulfillment is the opposite of the definitions of virginity discussed above. In a basic physical and mental sense those definitions tell us what is missing—the experience of intercourse, the naïveté of an experience. In short, a virgin is missing out on something. But as we read before, Mary remained a virgin and was certainly not missing out on the fullness of grace and bearing a child (CCC, §722).

The meaning of virgin is gift, the Spirit’s gift to man. Mary is a virgin because her virginity is a “sign of her faith” and her undivided gift of herself to God’s will. Gift. The view shifts entirely as we understand how virginity is a gift. Mary’s faith enabled her to become the Mother of the Son of God (CCC, §506). We’ve been challenged by modern understandings of virginity. Looking at the words of Saint Augustine and the Catechism we find that virginity is a gift, something of the divine working in us, in the same image of Mary’s own grace and holiness. We realize the imperfection of language and the limitation of the definitions that attempt to capture the gift of holiness that Mary possessed. The physical and spiritual realities have been joined in her existence as a Virgin Mother, and this invites us to probe deeper into our understanding of her life and role in God’s plan, while also looking at our own sense of virginity.

Jesus Lives: Singing the Resurrection

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Looking out my window this morning, it’s difficult to remember (let alone believe) that spring has “arrived.” The air is still cold, the skies are overcast, the wind is still bitter. Looking at my life as a Christian, it’s sometimes difficult to remember (let alone believe) that I am still in the heart of the Easter season. Easter liliesAs I walk into my parish, I notice that the Easter lilies are starting to droop ever so slightly, and the other decorations, while still beautiful, have become less dramatic—something to which I am accustomed.

In her recent post, Anna Adams spoke eloquently about the incredible duration of the Easter season and provided some wonderful insight on how to keep the Easter fire burning for those in academia who are now enduring the stress of wrapping up another semester. Maintaining this Easter joy is something that proves difficult for everyone, not just those living in the world of a university—I find myself wondering yet again how the bloom can have fallen off the lily so quickly, and how one can celebrate the joy of Easter throughout the entire season.

But the brilliance of the Easter season lies precisely in the fact that it is so lengthy. Just as our Lenten observances are intended to have lifelong ramifications, so too are our Easter celebrations. We are bathed in the radiant light of the Resurrection for fifty whole days so that it might leave an indelible mark on the way in which we view the world. This is the period of mystagogy for the newly-baptized, and a time of thanksgiving and renewal for the entire Church: we spend these fifty days marveling at the miracle of the Risen Lord, learning from Him how we are to continue to manifest His presence in the world through lives of self-giving love, contemplating the Love that conquers even death itself, so that by the time Pentecost arrives, we are ready to go out and proclaim the Good News as the Apostles did.

Emmaus iconThe time of mystagogy is a time to plumb the depths of mystery; it is a time to learn to see and hear the story of the Resurrection with new eyes and ears that have been purified by Lenten sacrifice and prepared by the celebration of the Triduum. In the early Church, this mystagogical process took place largely through preaching, and today, the weekly homilies can continue to help us understand better the mysteries of Easter. In addition, the music of the Church can provide another source of theological wisdom and mystagogical insight that continues to resound throughout the entirety of the Easter season, drawing our attention again and again to the Resurrection story, opening our ears and our hearts to hear the message anew. The different hymns of the Easter season turn the kaleidoscope of the Story as it were, presenting the brilliant colors in different shapes and patterns, holding up different facets of the mystery for our contemplation. Even those hymns that we hear every Easter resonate within us differently from year to year, for we are different people each time we encounter them, and so they become inexhaustible treasures for continuing to plumb the depths of the mystery of the Christian faith that is (to borrow from Augustine) “ever ancient and ever new.

Since 2008, one such hymn has become a sort of touchstone for my contemplation of the Easter mystery; in fact, it’s the same hymn I chose to feature in my post about Easter this time last year. I write about it again this year because it continues to teach me how to live in the reality of the Resurrection. This Easter hymn, entitled Jesus Lives, presents an incredible catechesis on the mystery of the Resurrection. Moreover, its very title presents a simple, profound statement that can serve as the bedrock for a life of faith, hope, and love. Jesus lives. Jesus lives. And the world is reborn. And I am made new.

Jesus Lives
Text by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-59) from Sacred Hymns from the German
Music by Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO (1930-2008)

Jesus lives: thy terrors now can, O death, no more appall us;
Jesus lives: by this we know, thou, O grave, cannot enthrall us, alleluia.

Jesus lives: henceforth is death but the gate to life immortal.
This shall calm our trembling breath when we pass its gloomy portal, alleluia.

Jesus lives: our hearts know well naught from us his love shall sever;
Life nor death, nor pow’rs of hell tear us from his keeping ever, alleluia.

Jesus lives: to Him the throne over all the world is given.
May we go where He is gone, rest and reign with Him in heaven, alleluia.

The reality of the Resurrection has a profound impact on the way life is to be lived in the Christian faith. The Resurrection is ever before us as the promise of our hope in Christ: that beyond dark night of suffering, beyond the Cross and the grave, lies the dawn of the Resurrection. This song—the song of Resurrection, of new life in Christ—is what we are called to sing not just during the fifty days of the Easter season, but throughout our entire lives. This is the song that sounds like a clarion call from across the waters when we seem to be lost on seas of turmoil and sorrow. It is the song that should be constantly stuck in our heads—the victory anthem that rousts us from bed each morning and the lullaby that sends us off to a peaceful sleep each night.  This is the song of a life lived in Christ; its quiet confidence and unabashed simplicity implant within us the courage necessary to go out to all the world and proclaim its message to all we encounter. Jesus lives. Alleluia.

Practical Mercy: Blessed are the Grouchy

Dorothy Therese

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“Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” —Eucharistic Prayer III

“Blessed are the grouchy, entitled, unappreciative, frustrating poor… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The other day as I was driving to my job at a local homeless shelter I decided to start rewriting the Beatitudes—as you can see, I didn’t get very far.  I do feel pretty confident that God doesn’t endorse grouchiness, or a lack of gratitude for the gifts we are given, or the ability to frustrate middle class people who ‘just want to help.’  Jesus Teaches the BeatitudesBut he does say, quite directly, in the person of Jesus standing on a mountain: “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20).  He didn’t say “Blessed are those who are rich, and worked hard for their money, and always say thanks, and never annoy other people.  For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  No, Jesus, who knew full well that we can all be unappreciative and annoying, chose them himself:  Blessed are the poor.

It’s easy to forget, in the midst of our familiar daily lives, that Jesus was a poor man who didn’t initially stand out in a crowd—until, of course, he started performing miracles, preaching, and raising people from the dead.  Jesus hung out with the poor; he invited them to dinner; he walked with them, taught them; he called them his friends.  He was born into a family of the working poor and his entire life—as well as his Death and Resurrection—was spent among people in poverty.  He said it himself: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Mt 25:40).  But why?

Six months ago, after finishing a degree in lay minstry, I chose a job that would allow me to spend my days in relationship with Christ in the poor.  It seemed to make sense to me—I had been volunteering and interning for years at various homeless service agencies, and it has only been the Blessed Sacrament itself that has rivaled my experience of looking into the eyes of a poor mother or child, or a crowd of men eating breakfast, and seeing God.

Soup KitchenAt some point during my years in graduate school, I was sitting in a field education class and let it slip that I believe I was born to serve the poor.  This startled me—was I making a commitment?  What about all my other passions?  But it had just become so clear to me that if I’m going to bask in the glorious experience of God’s love every day, which I do, then I also need to return this love where I know God exists so profoundly: “the least of these.”

I work with homeless mothers who live with their children at our shelter.  I’m in charge of each of the moms, helping them work toward their self-sufficiency, while somehow keeping order in the dorm at the same time.  I have never been in a position of such authority: I spend a lot of time disciplining and even kicking people out.  My desire to encounter Christ in the poor was quickly startled by my daily experience at work—a job that reminds me every day that love is not always warm and fuzzy.

But when I think about the moms—the way they mistreat me, yell at me, curse at me, interrupt me, treat me like a machine meant to give them what they want, and how none of that changes how much I love them—this shows me a bit of how God probably looks at me.  I’m a sinner; I’m broken; I make mistakes, I act entitled, I don’t appreciate everything that I’ve been given—and yet God loves me.

One of my favorite stories from my work so far has been with one of my more feisty moms.  She knocked on my office door one evening, and when I opened it, she stood there yelling and screaming at me, with all her five kids around her.  Her toddlers were hanging on both my hands trying to play, while her older kids ran up and down the halls and stared blankly at their mother as she screamed at me.  While trying to be affectionate with the kids, I stood there still nodding and responding to her, and finally told her we would talk about it later when she could be more calm. I walked back into my wonderfully quiet office, but within a minute—KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK—she had returned.  I took a deep breath, opened the door, and she yelled some more until we resolved the problem.  Some time passes, I’m back in my office, enjoying silence, and KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.  Again, I open the door, and all this young, tired, beaten, frustrated woman did was look me right in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.”

The irony is that the source of her screaming was the fact that I was mandating her attendance in anger management!

Christ in the BreadlinesThe point of this story for me was that love isn’t made of warm and fuzzies—and neither is the Sermon on the Mount.  Dostoyevsky said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams” (The Brothers Karamazov). We don’t always feel it, and sometimes it is acutely clear to us that, as Aquinas writes, “love is an act of the will.”

So what does it mean to say we love God in the least among us, poor and otherwise?  I don’t think it is enough to respond, “I love God, I’m a pretty good person, so I think I’m on my way to heaven.”  God’s love for us is RADICAL, and thus we are called to radically love others, even when it is really hard.  Once we really, really believe we are loved by someone, we WANT to radically love them in return, even when it’s uncomfortable.

In oblation, we pour ourselves out completely before God: “Here I am, Lord.  Take me as I am.”  We experience the miracle of the Eucharistic celebration and we proclaim our thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice.

After a long day at work, when I’m thinking about how many people are hurting, how much I can’t control and yet how much there is left to do, I remember: It is God who saves us through deep, radical, sacrificial love.  All he asks is that we pour ourselves out to others in return.  He gives us this model as He hangs on the cross, and he reminds us that this cross is really only the beginning.

I am no expert on pouring myself out, but I can try every day, in the face of God in the poor—even when she seems pretty grouchy.