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How Do We Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Annunciation cropped

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 21, 2014

“The Sound of Music” stage play and I are the same age — both from that vintage year of 1959 — and the film version was the first “motion picture” I saw as child in the mid 1960’s with my family. God alone knows how many times I have seen it since on stage, at the theater and on television!

The famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” has been delighting audiences around the world for decades, making theatres across the globe “alive” with the sound of music. This magnificent production first opened in England under the direction of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and arguably contains the best-loved songs of all time.

Solving the problem of Maria von Trapp

One of the memorable songs of the play is “Maria,” sometimes known as “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” It is sung brilliantly by Sister Berthe, Sister Sophia, Sister Margaretta and the Mother Abbess at the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria. The nuns are exasperated with Maria for being too frivolous, flighty and frolicsome for the decorous and austere life at the abbey. It is said that when Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics for this song, he was taken by the detail of her wearing curlers in her hair under her wimple!

When older Austrians in Salzburg speak of Maria, it is the “Gottesmutter,” the Mother of the Lord! When the foreigners, especially North Americans, arrive in Salzburg and speak about Maria, it is usually the other one: Maria Augusta Kutschera, later Maria Augusta von Trapp, who was a teacher in the abbey school after World War I and whose life was the basis for the film “The Sound of Music.”

Because of this Maria, the abbey acquired international fame, to the consternation of some of the sisters! Having visited Nonnberg Abbey on several occasions while I was studying German in nearby Bavaria, I spoke with a few of the elderly sisters about the impact of “The Sound of Music” on their life. The prioress told me that they have no plaques up about Maria von Trapp and her escapades at the abbey nor in Salzburg! One elderly sister said to me, with a smile, “Das ist nur Hollywood!” (That is only Hollywood!)

Solving the problem of Maria von Nazareth

The Gospel story of the Annunciation presents another Maria, the great heroine of the Christmas stories — Mary of Nazareth — the willing link between humanity and God. She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. She received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). At Calvary she experienced the full responsibility of her “yes.” We have discovered in the few Scripture passages relating to her that she was a woman of deep faith, compassion, and she was very attentive to the needs of others.

Maria von Trapp followed the captain and his little musical family through the Alpine mountain passes of Austria, fleeing a neo-pagan, evil regime that tried to deny the existence of God and God’s chosen people. Some would say that they lived happily ever after in Vermont in the United States, and that their musical reputation lives on through the stage production enchanting Toronto audiences at present. The hills are still alive with their music!

The “problem” of Maria of Nazareth began when she entertained a strange, heavenly visitor named Gabriel. The young woman of Nazareth was greatly troubled as she discovered that she would bear a son who would be Savior and Son of the Most High.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” The angel left her and then the music began: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” It would become a refrain filling the world with the sound of its powerful music down through the ages.

The message Mary received catapulted her on a trajectory far beyond tiny, sleepy Nazareth and that little strip of land called Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. Mary’s “yes” would impact the entire world, and change human history.

Problem solved

Mary of Nazareth accepted her “problem” and resolved it through her obedience, fidelity, trust, hope and quiet joy. At that first moment in Nazareth, she could not foresee the brutal ending of the story of this child within her. Only on a hillside in Calvary, years later, would she experience the full responsibility of her “yes” that forever changed the history of humanity.

If there are no plaques commemorating Maria von Trapp’s encounter with destiny at Nonnberg Abbey, there is one small plaque commemorating Mary of Nazareth’s life-changing meeting in her hometown. Standing in the middle of the present day city of Nazareth in Galilee is the mammoth basilica of the Annunciation, built around what is believed to be the cave and dwelling of Mary. A small inscription is found on the altar in this grotto-like room that commemorates the place where Mary received the message from the angel Gabriel that she would “conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). The Latin inscription reads “Verbum caro hic factum est” (Here the word became flesh).

I can still remember the sensation I had when I knelt before that altar for the first time in 1988. That inscription in the grotto of the Annunciation is profound, otherworldly, earth shaking, life changing, dizzying and awesome. The words “Verbum caro hic factum est” are not found on an ex-voto plaque in the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, nor engraved on the outer walls of the Temple ruins or on governmental tourist offices in Jerusalem. They are affixed to an altar deep within the imposing structure of Nazareth’s centerpiece of the Annunciation. “This is where the word became flesh.” This is where history was changed because Mary said “yes.”

Could such words be applied to our own lives, to our families, communities, and churches — “Here the word becomes flesh”? Do we know how to listen to God’s Word, meditate upon it and live it each day? Do we put that word into action in our daily lives? Are we faithful, hopeful, loving, and inviting in our discourse and living? What powerful words to be said about Christians — that their words become flesh!

However beautiful and catchy are the tunes of Maria of Salzburg, the music of the other Maria, the one from Nazareth, surpasses anything I have ever heard.

[The readings for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38]

Cardinal Reveals Newly Discovered Funds at the Vatican – Perspectives Daily

Today on Perspectives, Cardinal George Pell reveals that hundreds of millions of euros have been found at the Vatican and CNS looks at an art exhibit on Mary in Washington, DC.

Biblical Foundations of Marian Piety and Devotion

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Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

A very significant turning point in Marian piety and devotion occurred with the Second Vatican Council’s renewal and reform of the liturgy. A decade later, Pope Paul VI issued a remarkable encyclical letter on Marian devotions ‘Marialis cultus’ in 1974. In this landmark document, Pope Paul VI provided guidelines that are as relevant today as they were when first proposed more than 40 years ago. Among the important points in that papal document, we find the following:

  1. Every element of the church’s prayer life, including Marian devotions, should have a biblical imprint. The texts of prayers and songs should draw their inspiration from the Bible and be ‘imbued with the great themes of the Christian message.’ This means that they should be free of pious sentimentality and of the temptation to view Mary as more compassionate than even her Son, who is our one and only Redeemer.
  2. Marian devotions should always harmonize with the liturgy. Novenas and similar devotional practices, including again the rosary, are not to be inserted, hybrid-style, into the very celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharistic celebration is not simply a backdrop for private prayer.
  3. Marian devotions should always be ecumenically sensitive. ‘Every care should be taken to avoid any exaggeration which could mislead other Christian brethren about the true doctrine of the Catholic Church.’ There should never be a doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus Christ is our sole Mediator with God.
  4. ‘Devotion to the Blessed Virgin must also pay close attention to certain findings of the human sciences.’ This means that the picture of the Blessed Virgin that is presented in devotional literature and other expressions of piety must be consistent with today’s understanding of the role of women in the church and in society.

We must see Mary once again for who she is: not only the Mother of God, her most exalted role in the mystery of Redemption, but also as her Son’s disciple par excellence. When she heard the Word of God, she acted upon it. As the encyclical noted, she was ‘far from being a timidly submissive woman.’ On the contrary, ‘she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions.

Only when Marian piety is liberated from what Pope Paul VI called a ‘sterile and ephemeral sentimentality’ can there be any real hope for a renewal of authentic Marian piety in our time. For many people who do not have the luxury, privilege, money, time or perhaps desire to delve into serious Scripture studies, their only encounter with the Word of God might be through the liturgy or popular piety and devotion.

Let’s consider three important moments of Mary’s life not easily understood and try to discover new meaning and relevance for us. While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful. Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ. In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favour, was without sin from the moment she was conceived. The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin. Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin. And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death.

When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. No other human being collaborated in the work of redemption as Mary did. The Early Church wanted to explain in a plausible manner how God’s Son could be ‘completely human, yet without sin.’ Their answer was that the mother of God must have been without sin.

What happens to Mary happens to Christians. We are called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus. When we honour the Mother of God under the title ‘Immaculate Conception,’ we recognize in her a model of purity, innocence, trust, childlike curiosity, reverence, and respect, living peacefully alongside a mature awareness that life isn’t simple. It’s rare to find both reverence and sophistication, idealism and realism, purity, innocence and passion, inside the same person as we find in Mary.

The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, humility, openness, welcome, as well as a respect and dignity for all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.

The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted ‘gently but decisively’ to save his people from their sins.

The virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its saviour must come from outside.

The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption promulgated by Pius XII in 1954. As with her beginnings, so too, with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.

Mary’s life can be summed up with four words that are found in the Gospels: ‘Fiat,’ in her response to the angel Gabriel; ‘Magnificat,’ as her response to God’s grace at work in her life; ‘Conservabat,’ as she cherished all these memories and events in her heart; and ‘Stabat,’ as she stood faithfully at the foot of the cross, watched her Son die for humanity, and awaited the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus‚ mission.

God calls each one of us through scripture in complete love and grace, and the response of the obedient mind is ‘fiat: let it be to me according to your word.’ We, too, celebrate, with our strength, the relevance of the word to new personal and especially political situations: ‘magnificat.’

We ponder in the heart what we have seen and heard: ‘conservabat.’ But Scripture tells us that Mary, too, had to learn hard things: she wanted to control her son, but could not. Her soul is pierced with the sword, as she stands ‘stabat’ at the foot of the cross. We too must wait patiently, letting the written Word tell us things that may be unexpected or even unwelcome, but which are yet salvific. We read humbly, trusting God and waiting to see his purpose unfold.

(CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida Nueva)

Recap of Pope Francis’ Visit to European Parliament

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The man who designed the European Union flag, Arsène Heitz, was inspired by scripture and the image of Mary on the Miraculous Medal. While he never hid the fact that the flag he designed is “Our Lady’s flag”, the European Union itself has offered different explanations for the evocative design. The flag, and the EU explanation of it, highlights modern Europe’s relationship with its Christian roots. During his day long visit to the European Parliament and Council of Europe, Pope Francis focused heavily on the Christian values upon which the European community found common ground and founded a union meant to ensure peace on the continent.

Join us Wednesday, November 26 at 1:30 pm ET in English and 5:00 pm ET in French for a recap of Pope Francis’ visit to Strasbourg and his address to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Watch online.

The Presentation of Our Lady: An Example to Parents

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Trisha Villarante

Trisha Villarante

A Doubly Beautiful Feast

On this feast we, as Catholics, commemorate when our Lady dedicated herself to God entirely. One of the best quotes that illustrate the beauty of the presentation of Mary can be found on americancatholic.org. It says,

  “Even though the feast has no basis in history, it stresses an important truth about Mary, that from the beginning of her life, she was dedicated to God. She herself became a greater temple than any made by hands.”

Mary was literally the first tabernacle. Having been chosen by God to carry Jesus in her womb she had to be formed for such a vocation. On this feast we can contemplate the first step our Lady embarked towards becoming the mother of our Saviour. However, she couldn’t have made this step on her own.

I like to think of this feast as doubly beautiful because on one hand, it’s a feast of our Lady and all her feasts are precious, but on the other hand, we can’t forget that Mary was raised by parents, just like us. Her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne played a crucial role in Mary’s life. You could say they were the ones who introduced her to God, especially on the day of her presentation, that’s why this feast is an excellent example to Parents too.

Parents as the First Educators

We know that Mary was born without original sin, but she still needed an environment conducive to her nature. She needed an upbringing that would nurture her and form her. She needed her parents.

Mary’s first educators were Saints Joachim and Anne. God entrusted them with Mary that Mary might fulfill her purpose. Similarly, parents are responsible for forming their children and each of them have a purpose to fulfill.

During Mary’s time, according to the law of Moses, presenting a child in the temple was a means of purification. Today we have baptism. In baptizing our children we are making the first step in introducing them to God, freeing them from sin and rebirthing them as sons and daughters of Christ. Yet this is only the first step in a life long commitment to forming true Christians.

This simple fact that parents are the first educators of their families is not a new concept in the church. In fact, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church number 2223, you can find this gem of a quote:

Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.”31 Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them.”

The consequences of raising children in Christian households go far beyond the walls of our homes. It is a duty to society, and more importantly it is a duty as a Christian. After all, the family is the cell of society and each parent has been entrusted by God with the children they have.

Ask Mary for Help
Mary was prepared in order to raise Jesus, and Mary prepared Jesus in order to fulfill God’s will that we be sons and daughters of His. Each one of the little souls under our care need formation with love and attention. But we can’t give them anything we don’t have ourselves. So, we should learn from the example of our Lady and her parents during this feast of the presentation and ask for help to fulfill our responsibility to the souls God has entrusted to us.

Prayer to Our Lady of Sorrows

A Prayer to Our Lady of Sorrows on her feast day, September 15:

OurLadyofSorrows

O most holy Virgin, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ: by the overwhelming grief you experienced when you witnessed the martyrdom, the crucifixion, and death of your divine Son, look upon me with eyes of compassion, and awaken in my heart a tender commiseration for those sufferings, as well as a sincere detestation of my sins, in order that being disengaged from all undue affection for the passing joys of this earth, I may sigh after the eternal Jerusalem, and that henceforward all my thoughts and all my actions may be directed towards this one most desirable object. Honor, glory, and love to our divine Lord Jesus, and to the holy and immaculate Mother of God. Amen.

Feast of Mary, Queen of Heaven

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August 22: Feast of Mary, Queen of Heaven
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.

One week after the Solemn Feast of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, the church celebrates the Mother of God as Queen of Heaven.  In the fourth century St. Ephrem called Mary “Lady” and “Queen.” Later Church fathers and doctors continued to use the title. Hymns of the 11th to 13th centuries address Mary as queen: “Hail, Holy Queen,” “Hail, Queen of Heaven,” “Queen of Heaven.” The Dominican rosary and the Franciscan crown as well as numerous invocations in Mary’s litany celebrate her queenship.

It was Pope Pius XII who established this feast in 1954. But Mary’s queenship has roots in Scripture. At the Annunciation, Gabriel announced that Mary’s Son would receive the throne of David and rule forever. At the Visitation, Elizabeth calls Mary “mother of my Lord.” As in all the mysteries of Mary’s life, Mary is closely associated with Jesus: Her queenship is a share in Jesus’ kingship. We can also recall that in the Old Testament the mother of the king has great influence in court.

In his 1954 encyclical To the Queen of Heaven, Pope Pius XII points out that Mary deserves the title because she is Mother of God, because she is closely associated as the New Eve with Jesus’ redemptive work, because of her preeminent perfection and because of her intercessory power.

Taken up into heaven, Mary shows us the way to God, the way to heaven, the way to life. She shows it to her children baptized in Christ and to all people of good will. She opens this way especially to the little ones and to the poor, those who are dear to divine mercy. The Queen of the world reveals to individuals and to nations the power of the love of God whose plan upsets that of the proud, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away (cf. Lk 1:51-53).

Mary’s earthly life is a journey of faith, hope and love, an exemplary way of holiness which began with the enthusiasm of her “fiat”, the exultation of the “Magnificat”, contemplative reflection in everyday life, perseverance in the dark night of the Passion until she could share in the joy of her divine Son in the radiant dawn of the Resurrection.  She is an outstanding model for each of us, and her Assumption into heaven reminds us that there is hope for you and me… what happens to the Virgin daughter of Nazareth at the end of her earthly pilgrimage will happen to each of us if we are faithful and obedient as she was.

We believe that because of the obedience and fidelity of the Blessed Virgin MaryQueenship of Mary 2jpeg, at the end of her earthly life, she was assumed both body and soul into heavenly glory.  The glory of the Mother of the Savior is a cause of immense joy to all her children, a joy that knows the far-reaching resonance of the sentiment that is typical of popular piety, even though it cannot be reduced to it. It is, so to speak, a theological joy, firmly rooted in the paschal mystery. In this sense, the Virgin is “causa nostrae laetitiae — the cause of our joy”.

Catholics believe that after her Assumption into heaven Mary was crowned as Queen of heaven and earth.  What kind of queen is she?  How does she manifest the kingdom of God in her reign?  As we remember Mary, Queen of heaven, we also think of earthly kings and queens.  So often we are caught up in and confused by their power, seeming successes and riches.  Today we will consider how we view power and success.  If God chooses the lowly to fulfill His plan, how then should we think of those who are far from the corridors of earthly power?  Let us pray for the grace to value humility and obedience above fame and authority, and seek to imitate Mary’s lowliness of heart.  Let us look for opportunities to serve those less fortunate than we are.  Let us meditate on the virtues of Mary, our Queen.  She was not proud or grand; she humbly and patiently received God’s word and surrendered her life to His plan, not her own.  Let us ask God to grant us those same heavenly virtues that will allow Him to guide and direct our path in life.

“She who was lowest in her own eyes says without tremor that she was highest in God’s eyes. She was glad because he was glad of it and for no other reason.” Thomas Merton

Holy Mary, Queen of heaven, pray for us.

Latin Text of the Salve Regina

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiae,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevae,
ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos
misericordes oculos ad nos converte;
et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.

V. Ora pro nobis sancta Dei Genetrix.
R. Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.

Traditional English Translation

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

V. Pray for us O holy Mother of God,
R. that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Evangelizing our Elizabeths, Propelled to the Peripheries

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“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” (Lk. 1:39-45)

The story of the Visitation, celebrated each year on May 31st, presents us with awesome insight into the life and mission of the Christian. Mary, having received in her womb the mystery of the Word made flesh, does not contain this incredible mystery, she does not withdraw for nine months of quiet solitude and private contemplation — rather she sets off “with haste,” propelled by the Holy Spirit to radiate the reality of Jesus present in our midst! Her encounter with God leads her to encounter with others, so that everyone may experience the joy of knowing God in Jesus Christ. The Visitation springs forth as Mary’s response to receiving Jesus in the Incarnation: it is a response that calls her outwards, to the outskirts, to the hill country, to bear “good news” and go out in joyful love and service.

Mary and ElizabethThis is the essence of evangelization: being transformed so that God can use us to transform others. It means sharing the Gospel — “good news” — with those around us, and especially those most in need. Like Mary, our experience of Jesus cannot be lived in isolation, it must overflow and be contagious! Our relationship with God is meant to be lived joyfully in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives and everyday encounters.

In the days prior to the conclave in which he was elected pope, Pope Francis — then Cardinal Bergoglio — spoke the following words about the nature of evangelization:

“Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

This desire is not just for the “Church” in some vague or general sense, but for all of us! We are called to have this desire to come out of ourselves, go to the peripheries and follow the spectacular example Pope Francis has given us since speaking these powerful words. As we celebrate the Visitation, let us ask ourselves: What are the peripheries and hill countries in our own lives? Who are our Elizabeths and what are we doing to bring them the joy of Jesus and his Good News? Our family, relatives, and friends certainly; but also the strangers sit beside on the subway, the panhandler asking for change on the street, the annoying neighbour, the difficult coworker. All of these are the Elizabeths of our day, what are we doing to bring them the joy we have encountered in Christ?

As the Church marks this great moment in the lives of Jesus, Mary, and Elizabeth, may our fears, reticence, and desire for convenience depart, and may we instead embark on a mission of living our Christian joy contagiously. We know that it is the Lord who inspires us to this mission, who accompanies us always, and who will lead us where we are to go. And so today may we too “set out and go with haste” to the hill countries, to bring Christ, to bring the Good News of the Gospel, to live it with joy. In short, may we evangelize.

(Texts courtesy of Oremus Bible Browser and Vatican Radio; Photos courtesy of life.remixed and capfrans.blogspot)

Sharing the new life within us: A reflection on the Feast of the Visitation

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Feast of the Visitation – Saturday, May 31, 2014

Today’s feast of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth invites us into a deeply personal moment of the Scriptures (Luke 1:39-56). The Precursor and the Lord are both hidden from each other. Yet even before the two women embrace, John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, having recognized the presence of the Lord and Messiah in the womb of Mary. Both births are hailed by two beautiful canticles: the Benedictus sung by Zechariah, father of the Baptist at his son’s birth (1:68-79) and the Nunc Dimittis prayed by Simeon, the “righteous and devout” man in the Jerusalem temple, as he takes the infant Jesus in his arms (2:22-35).

There are two aspects of the Visitation scene to consider. The first is that any element of personal agenda of Mary and Elizabeth is put aside. Both had good reason to be very preoccupied with their pregnancies and all that new life brings. Both women had a right to focus on themselves for a while as they made new and radical adjustments to their daily lives. Mary reaches out to her kinswoman to help her and also to be helped by her. These two great biblical women consoled each another, shared their stories, and gave each other the gift of themselves in the midst of the new life that they must have experienced: Elizabeth after her long years of barrenness and now sudden pregnancy, and Mary, after her meeting with the heavenly messenger, and her “irregular” marriage situation and pregnancy.

Visitation IconThe second point of this moving story is Mary’s haste. Luke tells us that she undertook in haste the long and perilous trek from Nazareth to a village in the hill country of Judea. She knew clearly what she wanted and did not allow anyone or anything to stop her.

In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, St. Ambrose of Milan describes this haste with an almost untranslatable Latin phrase, “nescit tarda molimina Spiritus Sancti gratia” which could mean: “the grace of the Holy Spirit does not know delayed efforts’ or ‘delayed efforts are foreign to the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Mary’s free choice to move forward and outward is reflective of a decision taken deep within her heart followed by immediate action.

How many things exist in our lives that we dreamed of doing, should have done, and never did? Letters that should have been written, dreams that should have been realized, gratitude that was not expressed, affection never shown, words that should have been said, etc.? Postponements and delays weigh heavily upon us, wear us down and discourage us. They gnaw away at us. How true St. Ambrose described Mary’s haste: the Spirit completely possessed the Virgin Daughter of Nazareth and compelled her to act. Such possession by God’s Spirit is the only possession worthwhile, life-giving, hopeful and joyful.

The story of the Visitation teaches us an important lesson: when Christ is growing inside of us, we will be led to people, places and situations that we never dreamed of. We will bear words of consolation and hope that are not our own. In the very act of consoling others, we will be consoled. We will be at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life and issues seem to be, from them Christ is forming himself. The women of today’s Gospel show us that it is possible to move beyond our own little personal agendas and engage in authentic ministry.

Ministry is not simply doing things for others, loving difficult people, serving the poor, teaching others. Authentic ministers allow themselves to serve and be served, taught, cared for, consoled and loved. Such moments liberate us and enable us to sing Magnificat along the journey, and celebrate the great things that God does for us and our people.

Consider the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) on this feast:

In the mystery of the Annunciation and the Visitation, Mary is the very model of the life we should lead. First of all, she welcomed Jesus in her existence; then, she shared what she had received. Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus the Word becomes flesh in our life – gift of God who is at one and the same time beautiful, kind, unique. Thus, the first Eucharist was such: Mary’s offering of her Son in her, in whom he had set up the first altar. Mary, the only one who could affirm with absolute confidence, “this is my body”, from that first moment offered her own body, her strength, all her being, to form the Body of Christ.

(Images: Visitation by Ghirlandaio; Icon of the Visitation)

“I will open your graves and have you rise from them”

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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A – Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ezekiel’s dramatic vision and our

The historical background of today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37:12-14 is the great vision of the valley of the dry bones, one of the most spectacular panoramas in the whole of biblical literature. It dates back to the early sixth century B.C. when the hand of God came upon Ezekiel while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. For about 150 years the political fortunes of the Jewish people had been in decline. The turning point came in 587 B.C. with the final catastrophic defeat and the beginning of the great exile for the Jewish people who were in deep despair, powerless over the situation which befell them. It is against this bleak background that Ezekiel’s dramatic vision unfolds- where the dead withered into whitened skeletons as the birds of prey had long finished destroying their flesh. What an incredible battlefield of unburied corpses! What a stench of death and decay!

The reluctant prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God to prophesy to these bones, to revive them. With the help of a massive earthquake, the bones rushed together with an eerie clamor. Sinews knitted them together, flesh and then skin clothed the corpses. The breath, “ruah”, Spirit of God came from the four extremities of the earth, as the limp bodies came “to life again and stood up on their feet, a great and immense army”. Where we now understand this incident as a pre-figuration of the resurrection of the dead, the Jews of Ezekiel’s time did not believe in such a conception of the afterlife. For them the immense resurrected army represented all the Jewish people, those from the northern kingdom who had previously fled to Assyria; those at home and those in exile in Babylon. They were to be reconstituted as a people in their own land and they would know that the one true God alone had done this.

Through the centuries, Christians have proclaimed this text during the liturgy of Easter night as we welcome new members into the Church. Ezekiel’s powerful words offer a stirring image of the God of Israel’s regenerative, restorative, renewing power for this life and for all eternity. Through the centuries, believers in the God and father of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus have taken heart in Ezekiel’s vision, because we believe it to be our story as well. We believe in the power of God’s forgiveness, the capacity of Christ and the Catholic tradition to revive us and bring us to life even when all around us seems to announce, night, darkness, death, dissolution and despair.

Christian life is a constant challenge

In writing to the community in Rome, St. Paul (8:8-11), we learn that through the cross of Jesus Christ, God broke the power of sin and pronounced sentence on it (3). Christians still retain the flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit Christians are able to fulfill the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (Romans 8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (11) Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through life of the spirit (13).

Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death

Today’s pathos-filled Gospel story, the raising of Lazarus, the longest continuous narrative in John’s Gospel (11:1-44) outside of the passion account, is the climax of the signs of Jesus. The story is situated shortly before Jesus is captured, tried and crucified. It is the event that most directly results in his condemnation by those seeking to kill him. Johannine irony is found in the fact that Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death. Jesus was aware of the illness of his friend Lazarus and yet did not go to work a healing. In fact, he delayed for several days after Lazarus’ death, meanwhile giving his disciples lessons along the way about the light – lessons incomprehensible in the face of grave illness and death but understandable in the light shed by Lazarus’ and Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus declared to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, he will live; whoever lives and believes in me, will never die (25).” And he adds: “Do you believe this (26)?” The Lord urges us to respond just as Martha did, “Yes, Lord! We too believe, despite our doubts and our darkness; we believe in you, because you have the words of eternal life; we want to believe in you, who gives us a trustworthy hope of life beyond life, of authentic and full life in your kingdom of light and peace.”

Lord, if only you had been here…

How often have we, like Martha and Mary, blurted out those same words of pain and despair: “Lord, if only you had been here (32), my brother… or sister or mother or father or friend would not have died.” And yet today’s pathos-filled story from John’s Gospel tells us what kind of God we have… a God who “groaned in spirit and was troubled. The Greek word used to describe Jesus’ gut sentiment in v.33 tells us that he became perturbed. It is a startling Greek phrase that literally means: “He snorted in spirit,” perhaps in anger at the presence of evil (death). We witness the Lord weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus; a Savior deeply moved at the commotion and grief of so many friends of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The shortest line in the whole bible is found in this Gospel story: “Jesus wept” (35).

Jesus reveals to us God who is one with us in suffering, grief and death… a God who weeps with us. God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical god. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embracing fully our human condition.

Death of the heart and spirit

The story of the raising of Lazarus also speaks to us about another kind of death. We can be dead, even before we die, while we are still in this life. This is not only the death of the soul caused by sin but also rather a death that manifests itself through the absence of energy, hope, a desire to fight and to continue to life. We often refer to this reality as death of the heart or spiritual death. There are many people who are enchained in this kind of death every day because of the sad and tragic circumstances of their lives. Who can possibly reverse this situation and revive us, stir us back to life, free us from the tombs that enchain us? Who can perform the spiritual cardio-pulmonary resuscitation that will reverse such desperate situations?

For certain afflictions, there exists no human remedy. Words of encouragement often fail to effect any change. Many times people in these situations are not able to do anything, not even pray. They are like Lazarus in the tomb. They need others to do something for them. Jesus once spoke these words to his disciples: “Heal the sick, raise the dead” (Matthew 10:8). Among the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; sheltering the homeless; visiting the sick; visiting prisoners, the last one is burying the dead. Today’s Gospel tells us that in addition to this corporal work of mercy, we must also “raise the dead.”

Only the One who has entered death’s realm and engaged death itself in battle can give life to those who have died. John recounts the raising of Lazarus as a sign that transforms the tragedy into hope. Lazarus’ illness and death are the occasion for the manifestation of God’s glory. As Christians we do not expect to escape death; but we approach it with faith in the resurrection.

Implications of faith in the resurrection

Referring to the Lazarus story in his 2011 Lenten Message, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:

“On the fifth Sunday, when the resurrection of Lazarus is proclaimed, we are faced with the ultimate mystery of our existence: “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?” (25-26). For the Christian community, it is the moment to place with sincerity – together with Martha – all of our hopes in Jesus of Nazareth: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world” (27).

Communion with Christ in this life prepares us to overcome the barrier of death, so that we may live eternally with him. Faith in the resurrection of the dead and hope in eternal life open our eyes to the ultimate meaning of our existence: God created men and women for resurrection and life, and this truth gives an authentic and definitive meaning to human history, to the personal and social lives of men and women, to culture, politics and the economy. Without the light of faith, the entire universe finishes shut within a tomb devoid of any future, any hope.”

Living Lent this week

1. View the video “Lord, If Only You Had Been Here”.

2. Immediately before his own death and resurrection Jesus proclaims the words that form the very heart of today’s Gospel story: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The fourth century Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (328-389) spoke about the miracle in Bethany that prefigured Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Meditate on these moving words of St. Gregory.

“He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he puts an end to tears.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was a human being;
and he raises Lazarus, for He is God.
As a sheep he is led to the slaughter 
but he is the Shepherd of Israel and now of the whole world.
He is bruised and wounded,
but he heals every disease and every infirmity.
He is lifted up and nailed to the tree,
but by the tree of life he restores us…
He lays down his life,
but he has the power to take it again;
and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of heaven are opened;
the rocks are cleft, the dead rise.
He dies, but he gives life, and his death destroys death.
He is buried, but he rises again.”

3. Look around you and discover one or two people who are in the throes of death, especially the death of the heart and spirit, people who have lost the will and desire to live because of what has befallen them. Reach out to them, and with your words, revive their spirit, quicken their souls, unbind them and set them free. 

[The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Ezekiel 37.12-14; Romans 8.8-11; and John 11.1-45.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.