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How Do We Solve a Problem Like Maria?

December 15, 2014
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]
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