Saturday, January 1, 2022

Mother of God

It was the custom in the ancient world, long before engraved announcements or telephones or iphones or email, that when a baby was born to a respectable family, messengers would be sent out to announce the birth to the “right sort of people,” friends of the family’s social class in the best neighborhoods of the city. And so the scene is set in today’s Gospel, as heavenly messengers announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds. Notice who gets invited to visit the baby. The very poor, these “lowest-esteemed laborers,” receive the birth announcement of God’s own Son. They are the “right sort of people” for our God, people of God’s own social standing. One scholar remarks that this open “traffic” between heaven and earth is the great sign of the awesomeness of the event of the Nativity. The heavens are opened, angels are everywhere. There is now easy interchange for God’s dream of intimacy with his creation has come true i
n Mary’s womb. Through Mary Heaven has been irrevocably wedded to Earth in Christ Jesus. And the right sort of people must be informed. Could it be that they are people like us?

Luke tells us that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” It must be a heart of some amplitude and capacity. She notices the poor shepherds with messages from angels. She is well aware that she, a poor, young virgin from an undistinguished family has received an angel’s message and become pregnant with God. And she may be wondering (After all we are more than 2000 years later.) why, if God has so favored her, would he allow this fulfillment of his plan to take place in a cattle stall, where she must place the Son of the Most High to sleep in an animal’s feeding trough. It makes no sense. In her heart, she puts together all these incongruities. She holds them all together and wonders and reflects.  The word in Greek is sumballousa; it means literally to throw things together. We get the English word symbol from this same Greek expression. And I suppose it’s what we spend our lives doing as persons of faith, trying to notice God’s ways, trying to put it all together, catch the meaning, and get a glimpse of the transcendent behind/within the physical reality and the sometime absurdity. And very often like Mary, we believe, but we don’t really understand. We don’t have to.

Mother of God, Mother of Divine Love, Mother of God’s poverty and incongruity, Mary gives her whole body unreservedly to God’s desire, God’s desire to come near, to be small and insignificant. For the truth of who God is for us requires a body, a heart under which he can rest, a supple heart that will throw things together and let them be. Her response to the angel’s declaration nine months earlier was, “Be it to me, let it be done in me. May God grow there under my heart; I will be God’s own serving girl.” Mary is generously open to the seemingly mismatched ways of God, with an attentive curiosity. “How will this be? Why me, a poor, unmarried girl from a backwater? Why a census at the worst time possible. Why after all our careful preparations a stable, the hay, the trough, the barnyard smell, and strange shepherds with angelic reports instead of family and friends, familiar faces with best wishes and small gifts. Why?” The Mother of God shows us how to read the why and translate it into a why not. Why not me? Why not now? Why not God with me, with us, here and now, here of all places?

Because of what Mary does, how she receives the Word and responds, the body of our earthly existence is now laden with God’s presence and transcendence. Now with faith in her Son, following her lead, we can discover that the emptiness, ambiguity, and incongruities in our lives may be pregnant with presence and possibility even divinity. The Mother of God shows us how to throw it all together, trusting in the God, who does not deceive but has come to be on our side, to be with us and protect us; with him, all things will be possible. If we dare trust and abandon ourselves like Mary, it is just possible that something of unsurpassed goodness and beauty will be born, not obviously but really. If like Mary we put and faith and love where we do not find it at first, we may find God in our flesh, in our reality.

You may remember the story of the monk who dies and goes before the judgment seat in heaven. Angels solemnly carry out the tapestry of his life. He looks in horror at the faded, threadbare tapestry. There for all to see is the tattered reality of his sinfulness- the broken silences, harsh words spoken, petty jealousies, regrettable secret sins all right there. He lowers his head in remorse and embarrassment and calls out for Our Lady’s help, “O Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, our Hope.” Mary comes to the monk’s rescue. She steps forward and whispers instructions to the angels. They reverse the worn-out tapestry and turn it upside down. Then with her finger, Mary traces the outlines of her Son’s wounded face in the tatters.

You know at this beginning of a new year The New York Times and other magazines publish the year in pictures. Each of us has our own scrapbook, our own interior year in pictures- first of all, successes, graced choices; then failures, embarrassments (Why couldn’t I just have kept my mouth shut!) and there’s another great big section of stuff that just happened when we simply had no choice. (That’s what it means to be poor after all - to have no choice.) The Mother of God shows us how to find the face of Jesus even there.

Countless generations have called her blessed and tender, have depended on her mercy; have placed themselves in her keeping. Perhaps in great part, because she helps us accept, even receive with joy, what we don’t understand; she can help us to give ourselves over in faith and faithfulness, to trust when things seem like they absolutely do not fit together, how to do sumballousa, how to throw things together.

Mary throws it all together, like a really good cook with lots of confidence and experience but only leftovers on hand and a big crowd on the way. “Let it be to me; let be done in me.” Like my mother, perhaps yours, when I would get infuriated, impatient with my father. ”Why does he say that? Do that?” My mother would say, “C’mon now. You know how he is. That’s just your father. You know he loves you.” Perhaps the Mother of God wants to say the same to us, “You know how your Father is; the way he does things. Let him have his way.” Perhaps what she can even show us, is how to “forgive” God, to let him be with us as he wants in all the incongruities and ambiguities of our lives.

Now typically and best of all, he chooses very small gifts, bread and wine, to come near to us; and he depends on us to throw it all together.

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, Gerard van Honthorst, oil on canvas, 164 × 190 cm, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne. Meditation by one of our monks.