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?”
There 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. When 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.”
We 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.
How 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.
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.
Perhaps 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.” (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.
 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.
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
Give her eternal peace–
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
Formerly commemorated on July 2, the liturgical calendar revision authorized by Bl. Pope Paul VI places the feast of the Visitation on May 31—after the Annunciation (March 25) and before the Birthday of St. John the Baptist (June 24). This year, the feast coincides with the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity and therefore will not be celebrated liturgically; nevertheless, it is well worthwhile to contemplate the mystery of the Visitation, and to ponder how it might be connected to the Trinitarian mystery.
In his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI noted that “the liturgy (of the Visitation) recalls the Blessed Virgin carrying her Son within her and visiting Elizabeth to offer charitable assistance and to proclaim the mercy of God” (§7). Hence, this encounter of two pregnant relatives recorded in Luke’s Gospel is not just a friendly family reunion. The Visitation is a salvific event occurring at the intersection of the old and new covenant. Elizabeth, a type of the Old Testament’s promise, meets in Mary the New Testament’s fulfillment of her own destiny. Both find themselves in an extraordinary situation: an unwed teenager and a married woman who is beyond the age of child bearing. We can only imagine the sentiments with which each greets the other. Was there pure joy? Or was there also room for fear and unsettledness?
Scripture tells us that “Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea” (Lk 1:39). She travels the strenuous way of approximately 90 miles in intimate union with the Savior growing within her, confident that God accompanies her into the unknown future. The betrothed youth, still overwhelmed by what the angel had told her, needs this time away from Nazareth in order to ponder the incredible message that changed the course of her life and that of all generations to come. Who would believe her? She could hardly fathom this mystery herself! How will Joseph, her betrothed, react? Will he still marry her and assume the duties of parenthood of his foster son, or will he accuse her of disloyalty?
The narration of the Visitation offers an insight into Mary’s encounter with a human being after the Annunciation who not only made public Mary’s secret but who also shared in the mystery. How consoling it must have been for Mary to be welcomed by her relative whose embrace shelters, affirms, and encourages the “Mother of the Lord.”
St. John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Mater: “When Elizabeth’s greeting bears witness to that culminating moment [i.e. the Annunciation], Mary’s faith acquires a new consciousness and a new expression” (§36).
The simultaneous invisible encounter of their unborn children is even more significant. Luke notes that John leaps in his mother’s womb, as a result of “seeing Jesus.” Tradition maintains that at this moment Elizabeth’s baby was sanctified in his mother’s womb (cf. Lk 1:15) in anticipation of his mission as the precursor of his cousin, the Messiah.
Like all mothers, Mary and Elizabeth knew that their “Yes” to their children was not a one-time decision. Many new affirmations were needed as new paths and challenges open up. Did these two holy women also experience the dilemma between a ready Yes to God’s will and a trembling, hesitating Yes in view of the consequences? Were there long sleepless nights during which they tried to grasp the scope of God’s will for them? In such situations it is good to be in a net of relationships through which this Yes is mutually supported and protected. The narrative of the Visitation is one of the most beautiful stories of family bonds recorded in Sacred Scripture. Mary feels at home with her relatives and gives expression to her “joy of spirit” in the Magnificat.
Mary remained three months with her relatives, devoting her time and assistance to the elderly couple. Above all, she brings the Christ Child to this house, providing the most fitting ambience for their baby to be born. Overwhelmed by this bliss, Zechariah eventually regains his ability to speak and is able to profess: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them” (Lk 1:68).
What does the encounter at the house of Elizabeth and Zachariah teach us? The Visitation highlights that the first journey of the Son of God after having been conceived in His mother’s womb was to a couple in crisis. This finds resonance with the challenges faced by married couples and families throughout the world today. Pope Francis is presently devoting his Wednesday audiences to the dignity and challenge of matrimony and family life. Two synods on the family as well as the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia are proof of the Church’s endeavor to fortify couples in their calling.
Where is the family without problems and worries, where everything runs perfectly and all are of one heart and mind? Aren’t we all in need of a visitation? Why not invite Mary to bring her Son into our homes? Then “salvation and joy” will also visit our family, helping all to love one another more faithfully, to become not just a group of people living under the same roof, but a communion of persons—a more faithful reflection of the divine love shared by the Persons of the Trinity. And it is here that we perhaps find a fitting connection between the mystery of the Visitation and the Solemnity being celebrated this Sunday, May 31.
Anastasia Wright University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015 Pacific Alliance for Catholic Education
As I sit in this upper room, I gaze upon the bread and think of my son. Forty days ago, my son hung on the cross. Forty days ago, I sat at the foot of that cross. Forty days ago, I saw my son suffer. Now, as his friends lift the bread and wine, I must confess, I have trouble seeing my son. Is it so soon that the memory begins to fade? I can’t remember the lines of his face, and the shape of the bread is certainly no reminder. Though it’s apparently supposed to be Him, this does not resemble my son.
These men, my son’s disciples, who now celebrate their Lord in this strange way, the way that he showed them just before he died, they don’t see Jesus as I do. They have never felt Him stir within their bodies. They haven’t held him as an infant, so very small and warm. They did not take him to the temple to be presented, have not known the fear of losing your twelve-year-old son.
As a mother, you see parts of your children that the rest of the world will never know. On the afternoon Joseph and I left without Jesus, that we turned around, heading back to the city to search for our son, I must admit that it was not purely love within my heart—frustration was creeping in at a son who let his parents worry. Though I have never found him to sin, my son did cause me heaps of worry. And, this time, I was exasperated. Oh yes, I’m sure that these men with whom I now celebrate have also felt frustrated with their teacher and friend, but they just have not felt the worry of a mother who’s lost her son.
And now, now the loss seems permanent. Though my Son has risen, that is true, I saw him suffer and die. He knew that he was leaving when he taught his disciples how to celebrate him in the way they do now, with the bread and wine. So when he leaves for the final time, what will be left? This bread? This wine? I am skeptical. But, at the commandment of my son, I will partake. I will have faith in what he said—that He is here, that He is present in this food. Perhaps this is the most beautiful part of my son’s command—in the effort to see Him in this bread and wine, I must remember him.
By faith that he is present, I am drawn back to everything I can recall, and I see His works, his face, his love in this food and drink. I see his tiny hand holding mine. I see a boy working in the carpentry shop. I see a young man who just wanted to make sure the party didn’t die. I see sweat dripping from the brow of a man who spent a hot afternoon preaching. I see wounds spread across the back of a man who has suffered too much already. And I see the brilliance of a love that couldn’t die. By looking at this bread and trying to see my son, I have to remember these things. No, the bread certainly doesn’t look like Him, but in the effort to find the resemblance, I necessarily recall the most lovely, most holy, most beautiful thing to ever happen to the world. And now, in this upper room, I do see my Son.
She was allowed to hold her dead son in her lap one last time; she attended his burial and then endured the night after this fateful Friday. In her grief she pondered all that had happened. Life had ended so cruelly for Jesus. Not even a week ago, the crowds were hailing him as their king, spreading their cloaks and leafy branches on the road, and shouting their Hosannas! And then things changed so abruptly. On Monday, Mary of Bethany used costly perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus, which irritated Judas the Iscariot. Jesus calmly reprimanded his disciple, prophesying his burial. The drama reached a highpoint at the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his twelve closest friends. He had chosen each one; they had dropped everything to follow him. Yet, Jesus knew that among them there was one who would betray him and one who would deny him three times. He knew that Peter, James, and John would not be able to stay awake and pray with him during the night of his agony—and still: He washed the feet of all of them. He offered to each one his own Body and Blood. And then he faced the trial; he humbly and lovingly accepted the Cross, and carried it all the way up the hill to Golgotha.
By then, all but one of his apostles had disappeared. This did not weaken his love for them as he willingly let himself be crucified. In his final torment, he was consoled by the few who loyally had followed him. Among his last words and legacy was the entrustment of the beloved disciple to his mother, and of his mother to the beloved disciple. Thereupon everything was fulfilled.
On the following day, while she profoundly felt the wound of her own pierced heart, she could still thank her Son for his ultimate sacrifice. Yet along with her own sadness, she was deeply concerned about Jesus’ disciples. She sensed that the experiences of the previous days affected them to the core, and possibly also destabilized their belief in Jesus’ message. Moreover, their relationship to one another now lacked its uniting center. She was the only one whose faith was unbroken; she trusted his words: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again” (Lk 24:7). Just as at the Annunciation, she did not know how this would happen; but she held silent vigil and believed.
And then she heard the Good News: “We have seen the Lord! He is alive! Be happy, Mary, all is well again!” How much she rejoiced as she listened to the stories of the women and of the disciples: the removed rock, the empty tomb, the encounter in Emmaus! And again she treasured everything in her heart: the angel’s greeting to the women echoed her encounter with the messenger at the Annunciation: do not be afraid! Is anything impossible for God?
Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia. The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia. Has risen, as He said, alleluia. Pray for us to God, alleluia. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia. For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.
During the Easter season, this prayer—the Regina Coeli—takes the place of the Angelus, and it is also the Marian antiphon at the conclusion of the Church’s evening prayer. What an emotional roller coaster: in an instant, the Mother of Sorrows is transformed through the victory won by the risen Lord! Suffering and death do not have the last word; at the end of the dark tunnel rises the sun of a glorious Easter morning! “Death where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” (Lk 1:46) Mary’s Magnificat takes on a fuller meaning now that she has witnessed “the great things” he has done for her and for all of us! This is the message Mary wants to teach us: all our mourning and sorrow will turn into joy and dancing!
Fittingly, Easter is celebrated amidst the blossoming of spring. The budding growth of nature resembles the new life we receive through baptism in Jesus Christ. In the power of the paschal mystery, we can rise above mediocrity and live in the freedom of the children of God. Like Mary, and through her intercession, we can endure the night of darkness, of broken relationships, and of mourning for—like her—we trust that there will be a new morning with new hope, a surprising encounter, and new life!
My son loves his mother. The depths of this love, this total trust of his mother, is often revealed in those moments in which he encounters a source of pain or discomfort. At these times, he looks upon my wife with pure hope, aware that it is only her tender embrace that could rescue him from the terrible pain or fear that is undertaking him. Of course, as he grows up, he will learn that his mother is not always able to save him from such terror-stricken moments. And his mother, in the midst of such moments, will be equally terror stricken, her heart pierced with the recognition of her own powerlessness in shaping her son’s entire future.
Something of this maternal and filial relationship is captured in the intimate encounter shared by Christ with his mother upon the cross in the Gospel of John:
…standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag’dalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (Jn. 19:25-27).
The God-man gazes with love upon his mother, who is herself looking with total pathos upon the suffering of her son.
Mary, who held her infant son that night in Bethlehem, when there was nothing but a cave for shelter.
Mary who went with her son into Egypt, encountering the terror of a world in which violence reigns.
Mary who lost and found her beloved son, her only son, the son she loved, while on pilgrimage back from the Temple.
Mary, who held her dying husband, Joseph, soothed by the presence of her child, Jesus.
Mary, who let go of her son as he was manifested to the world not merely as the son of Mary but the beloved Son of the Father.
Mary, who must have known the threats faced by her son, by the Son, as he loved the world unto the end, a world not used to such love.
What must Mary have been thinking as she gazed upon the cross, seeing the lonely suffering of her son, the rest of the disciples absent (except for the beloved disciple). Romanos the Melodist, thinking through this moment of encounter, writes:
‘You are on your way, my child, to unjust slaughter,
and no one suffers with you. Peter is not going with you, he who said,
‘I will never deny you, even though I die.’
Thomas has left you, he who cried out, ‘Let us all die with him!’
The rest too, your own and your companions
who are to judge the tribes of Israel; where are they now?
Not one of all of them, but you alone, my child,
one on behalf of all, are dying. Instead of them you have saved all.
Instead of them you have made satisfaction for all, my Son and my God (“Lament of the Mother of God,” 3).
How much the mother of God wanted to interrupt her Son’s suffering, to take it upon herself just as thousands upon thousands of times she soothed the infant and toddler Jesus, who ran into her arms for protection. And now, his arms are nailed to the cross, unable to run to his mother for protection.
Yet now, it is the Son who offers his mother a healing balm. She will not be alone but will be the mother of the beloved disciple. That beloved disciple, who is not simply another character in the Gospel, but is all of us who are “lying close to the breast of Jesus” (13:24). Upon the cross, Mary becomes not simply the mother of Jesus but the suffering and tender mother of all of us.
Charles Peguy in his Portal of the Mystery of Hope takes up this theme. Describing a father, who gives his three children in sickness over to the Blessed Virgin, writes:
And yet She, who had taken them, she was never short on children.
She had had others before these three, she will have others, she had others afterwards.
She had had others, she will have others through centuries of centuries.
And She, who had taken them, he knew for sure that she would take them.
She wouldn’t have had the heart to leave them orphans…
She couldn’t have just left them by the gate…
She had been forced to take them,
She who had taken them (28-29).
Because she is the mother, who knows the suffering of her son, she gazes with the same pathos upon all of humanity, who are destined to belong to her Son’s Body, the Church. All of us are part of her brood.
And we contemplate (this week above all), with our dearest mother Mary, the suffering of our brother, Jesus:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine (Stabat Mater);
We contemplate the suffering of the Son with Mary, our mother, not simply upon the cross but as we gaze at a humanity still undergoing the torment of sin and death. We see his face in the child aborted, in the immigrant spat upon, in those who seem to have no one to love them at all. And together with Mary, our hearts are filled with the pathos of love, desiring that the mercy of her Son might be experienced by all.
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away (Stabat Mater)…
In the midst of the palpable drama of the Gospel for the feast of the Annunciation, it is easy to forget the mundaneness of God’s plan of salvation for the human condition. The arrival of the angel Gabriel, Mary’s questioning, the angel’s response, and Mary’s gift of self: all of this drama has been captured brilliantly by Bernard of Clairvaux in his four homilies on the Blessed Virgin.
In your brief reply we shall be restored and so brought back to life. Doleful Adam and his unhappy offspring, exiled from Paradise, implore you, kind Virgin, to give this answer; David asks it, Abraham asks it; all the other holy patriarchs, your very own fathers beg it of you, as do those now dwelling in the region of the shadow of death. For it the whole world is waiting, bowed down at your feet..Give your answer quickly, my Virgin, My lady, say this word which earth and hell and heaven itself are waiting for (Homily IV.8).
At its root, the feast of the Annunciation declares that God has decided to save humanity through becoming one of us. What does it mean to be one of us? Well, it means that we have to be born. It means that for nine months (and in reality for the next eighteen to twenty-five years) that our very existence is dependent on the life of our mothers. We rely upon the nourishment that our mothers consume. We are influenced by the very woman whom we receive flesh from. Our bodies receive their form, their very life, the fullness of vitality, from another human being.
Indeed, though we are to right to marvel at the wonder of pregnancy, we would also be correct to acknowledge the mundaneness of this way of salvation. The Word did not announce that the fullness of salvation had begun through a parade, a proclamation offered from a government building, or some cosmic event like an earthquake or major storm. The Word became flesh. The Word chose to maturate in his mother’s womb. The Word was born like you or me.
The feast of the Annunciation is therefore not simply the drama of Mary. It is not simply about the answer of this one woman, full of grace, who responds with obedience to the divine Word. Rather, the feast becomes for us an interruption of our expectation that salvation must be grand. That salvation must somehow transcend the human condition, leaving the natural behind and taking us up into some supernatural state in which we have but a memory of what it means to be human. Salvation is domestic. It is local. It begins in the confinement of a womb, in a space, here and now. God’s pedagogy of divine love operates through taking up the human condition, even to the point of emptying himself into the mundaneness of domesticity. As the Te Deum states: When you became man to set us free/you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
It strikes me that there is a felicity to the feast of the Annunciation occurring in the midst of the half-way point of Lent. The danger of Lenten practice is that we imagine our fasting, our almsgiving, and our prayer as occasions of supernatural effort that save us. That we are striving to ascend above the human condition, to experience divine life through force of effort. In reality, salvation occurs not through the deepest movement of our affections, not through the (however worthy) grandeur of our religious practice. Salvation takes place at the local, it unfolds when we offer our wills over to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit in time and space. It occurs, like the very first moment of the Incarnation, through the mundaneness of the domestic.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Salvation for us occurs by entering ever more fully into the redeemed human condition. Divine love is not an abstract idea, an ideal expressed best through the poetic or the aesthetic alone. Rather, the gift of divine love that the feast of the Annunciation ruminates upon is the flesh itself. It is the mother and father who rise in the middle of the night, giving fully of oneself to a child who refuses to sleep. It is a teacher, who cares not simply for the intellectual development of the student but the flourishing of every aspect of the student’s being. It is the Christian who enters into the life of the neglected, the poor, caring for the bodily needs of those whose flesh has been de-valued. It is love in time and space.
The transformation of the mundane is at the heart of John Donne’s poetic meditation upon this feast. The poet muses:
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.
Of course, we must prepare to perceive the mundane unfolding of this immense gift of salvation. The season of Lent is an occasion for us to practice seeing anew the enfleshment of the Word. We pray not as a Lenten obligation but because the psalms form us to discern God’s presence unfolding in human history. We give alms so that we might learn to give of our very self. We fast (from food or social media) so that the entirety of our attention might be directed to the art of self-giving love. Every aspect of Lent is re-creating the heart so that it is more human (and thus more divine), more capable of perceiving God acting even now.
The feast of the Annunciation requires us to contemplate the mundaneness of the unfolding event of salvation. The drama of the account peaks our interest but the attentive reader knows that the drama still unfolds. It is no longer only through the voice of the angel that the plan of salvation is announced. Rather, this plan is proclaimed from parish to parish. The plan of salvation, the Gospel, is announced in the voice of every person who asks us for cup of cold water. In every occasion in which we can offer our will in love to the Father, in which we can resume that authentic posture of childhood that the Son came to reveal. The moments for such self-gift are as infinite as the Word itself.
And we like Mary are invited to offer our fiat. Let the plan of salvation be done for me here and now. Let me recognize the scandal of the Word made flesh, the occasion to give myself away in foolish love to all those whom I encounter. Let my ears hear the divine word proclaimed in the memory of your church, and let this memory take flesh again in the lives of your lives. Let me be a disciple, one whose whole life has been re-oriented toward divine love made flesh.
We contemplate Mary precisely because she offers to us a vision of the joy of the Gospel, a way of being human that has been entirely taken up into this mystery of divine love. Into the mystery of her son, Jesus Christ. A mystery that began with the pronouncement of an angel but unfolded through the hidden years of Nazareth. Through the mundaneness of domesticity. And even now continues to unfold in the historical life of the Church, in the mundaneness of those who gather this day at the sacrificial banquet and participate in that Eucharistic self offering, which is the salvation of the world. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
What do you get when a high school theology teacher marries theology grad student?
A ton of religious art.
Get it? If not, a quick look around my apartment would show you that this isn’t just a bad joke, it’s the reality of what your friends think to buy when you major in theology. Outside of the dishware and bed sets that you register for at the domestic wonderland that is Bed, Bath and Beyond, unwrapping wedding presents can be a fun indicator of what your guests really think of you (I’m pretty rotten at giving original gifts and as such truly appreciate someone who possesses the skill). My wife Rylee and I soon discovered just how lucky we were in the company we keep. The general theme of gifts seemed to be religious art and wine and, lest our apartment resemble a bachelor pad, Rylee has insisted our décor emphasize the former rather than the latter. As such the holy statues, icons, nativity sets, and crosses that our friends and family sent our way have filled our little apartment with an intentionally Catholic décor, provided us with the opportunity to grow spiritually as we settle in domestically, and has made what were at first blank white walls radiate the comfort of home and Christ.
Throughout this time one image has begun to stand out above the rest. A particularly common theme, very appropriate as a wedding present for a young married couple, were images depicting the Holy Family. I have long had a love for Our Lady and Talladega Nights taught me the theological magnitude of the Baby Jesus. But as I’ve sat reading or writing on our couch, something else, or rather someone else, has increasingly drawn my attention from the icon hung on our wall. A figure generally relegated to the background has increasingly pressed forward and become the focal point of the image in my mind. More and more I have found myself drifting off in thought, eyes transfixed on the tall bearded figure of St. Joseph, lovingly embracing his wife and adopted son.
I can’t really claim to be unacquainted with St. Joseph. Having attended St. Joseph Grade School and St. Joseph High School, both of which are located in St. Joseph County and situated on the St. Joseph River, its safe to say I’ve heard of him once or twice. Even one of my favorite saints (evidence of 9 years of Holy Cross education), St. André Bessette, C.S.C., was known for his remarkable devotion to St. Joseph. And yet despite my best efforts and the cards being stacked completely in his favor, I’ve never really been able to connect with the world’s most famous carpenter.
This all began to change following our relocation to Massachusetts this August. The day after we were married, Rylee and I loaded everything we owned into a U-Haul truck. Romantic, I know. Then the next morning at 5 AM we rolled out of South Bend and headed for Boston. Before we had been married a month we had moved 1,000 miles across the country, settled in a new apartment, Rylee had started a new job, and I was knee deep in Karl Rahner, at work on my master’s degree. Talk about a whirlwind.
To say the process was at times disorienting would be a dramatic understatement. Trying to find any semblance of stability seemed impossible because everything about our new life together had to be handled in the short term, as temporary. Rylee and I were living in Boston, for now. I was working toward my MTS, for now. We were just starting out as a family of two, for now. But in what felt like less than a week the conversations among friends shifted from why we came to BC to where we wanted to do PhDs. I was just beginning the marathon that is grad school and had no real answer to the question, “What are you doing after this?” We had no idea where we would be in two years, let alone what I’d be doing at that point. But whatever the future held, it seemed impossible to see the MTS as anything but transitory, a waiting room for the real world that lay beyond.
On top of all this was the reality that I wasn’t just a student and this wasn’t just a continuation of my 4 years of college. I was a family man now and had as much of a responsibility to another person as I did to myself. This was one of the hardest places for me to find firm ground precisely because we were trying to figure out just what it meant to be a family when there are only two of us. I had so many wonderful examples in my life of what it meant to be a great father, but what I had failed to prepare for was how to be a great husband.
And so I sat, eyes locked on the image of Joseph. I didn’t seek him out, I didn’t know why my prayers turned to him. All I knew was that one night long after my wife went to bed exhausted from a day of teaching high schoolers, I sat up willing myself to read, increasingly aware that not only did academic success determine my livelihood, but also that of my family. My attention drifted upward, past the pages of the book in my hands to the far wall, and came to rest on Joseph, holding his wife with a strong, stable, and determined love that I knew was never overcome and never defeated by any adversity that came his way.
I finished my reading and went to bed. After I turned out my light, a lone image stood silhouetted against the white walls of our bedroom. Another image of the Holy Family, this one a beautiful wood carving, it sits atop our dresser and is the last thing I see every night before I shut my eyes. Carved from a single piece of wood, Joseph isn’t just the background; he is the canvas on which his family is grounded. Mary is carved from his side and the two are united as one. I paused for a moment as I looked at the statue, turned and put my arms around my wife. She is my stability. “This one at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Together with her, I will build my family. My vows to her, made before God, are the commitment of a lifetime and the focal point of my life’s work.
Today is the feast of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. He was such an extraordinary husband that the Church proclaimed an annual feast to celebrate it. We don’t just remember him because he married an immaculate woman. We remember him because he lived out his vocation so completely that it brought him to God. He does not just blend in as the third person of the Holy Family. He shines out to husbands everywhere, holding up the example of how to fully commit oneself to the vocation and sacrament that is marriage.
In a time when nothing about where I am, what I am doing, or where my life is headed seems certain or stable, Joseph reminds me to look at the walls of this apartment, and most especially to the woman who made them a home, and remember that this is my vocation. Despite the fluidity the next few years may contain in terms of location and occupation, regardless of whether our family expands in 1 year or in 10, my commitment and my role is modeled for me perfectly in the life of St. Joseph.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life