There are times when we need to be still and simply rejoice in the wonder and beauty of God. Today is one of those times. As it is Saturday, and Christmas is little more than a fortnight away, I suspect many will greet that remark with hollow laughter, but it is still true. We can cudgel our brains to understand the theology of this feast — Mary’s sinlessness, which did not exempt her from the need to be redeemed, Augustine’s theology of original sin and all the logical and frankly illogical consequences of that — but ultimately we are left on our knees, marvelling at God’s grace and its perfect fulfilment in that young Jewish girl whom we dare to call Mother of God. May she pray for us all, but especially today for the overburdened and the tired.
Since 1953, when Pius XII first instituted this day under the title Pro Orantibus, Catholics have been encouraged to give thanks to God for ‘those who pray’ and give spiritual and material support to monks, nuns and hermits who live what is called the cloistered life, i.e. whose main work is prayer rather than other forms of service such as teaching or nursing. For Benedictines, however, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady has additional resonances. For example, in the English Benedictine Congregation it is celebrated as the Dies Memorabilis, the day when the pre-Reformation Congregation’s privileges were conferred on its post-Reformation successor. For me, personally, its is the anniversary of my Clothing, of my formal entrance into monastic life.
Having said that, I wonder what impact, if any, this day makes on the average church-goer? Some have registered the enormous shake-up for cloistered nuns that Cor Orans represents. Others will be at pains to show their love and support for the communities with which they have a personal connection. But for the vast majority, I suspect, the day will pass by without any special awareness or acknowledgement. Perhaps that is in itself a clue to the origins of the malaise that many have identified in the Church. Put very simply, and I hope non-polemically, if we do not pray, everything goes wrong. It is tempting to lay the blame for abuse and all the other wrongs we identify in the Church on this group or that, on individual or organisational failures and infidelity to the Church’s teaching, etc, etc. I am by no means suggesting that we spiritualize away responsibility, but I think there is something fundamental we ALL need to remember. We are called to holiness. No matter how wonderful our good works, no matter how virtuous our conduct, we can do nothing without God’s grace. It is being close to him that makes us holy, and we cannot be close if we do not pray.
So, today is not just a reminder to be thankful for the cloistered life. It is a day to be aware of the importance of prayer in the life of every one of us; and if we have become a little careless or perfunctory in our prayer, to resolve to do better — to become like Mary ‘full of grace’.
I’m not blogging today as I shall be mostly at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, D.V., but if you are looking for something on today’s feast, you may find these two ‘oldies’ of use:
May Our Lady intercede for us all. Amen.
Note on the Illustration
The Visitation: Elizabeth Greets Mary, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=42422 [retrieved May 30, 2018].
The Annunciation is very often accompanied by a second image of Christ’s conception: the Visitation. This can be depicted with Mary and Elizabeth embracing or with the two women speaking to each other, and Grabar has shown that the Visitation was the Christian equivalent of the parental embrace which was a standard image of conception in the pre-Christian royal biographical cycles. The Annunciation and Visitation were, then, originally ‘two parallel images of the same theme of conception, the second being added — in conformity with common iconographic tradition — to show the first witness to Christ’s conception.’ (Clayton, 144)
Today, for the first time, the Church celebrates the obligatory memoria of Mary, Mother of the Church. The reason given for instituting this new feast is stated in the decree of 11 February, 2018:
Having attentively considered how greatly the promotion of this devotion might encourage the growth of the maternal sense of the Church in the pastors, religious and faithful, as well as a growth of genuine Marian piety, Pope Francis has decreed that the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be inscribed in the Roman Calendar on the Monday after Pentecost and be now celebrated every year.
The title is not a new one. Indeed, when in 1964 Pope Paul VI formally declared Mary ‘Mother of the Church’ at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, he had a range of patristic usages to draw on, including, importantly, St Ambrose. But today’s feast does introduce a new element into the liturgy and therefore into the Church’s understanding of herself.
As yet, we have no definitively approved propers for use on this day (always the best clue as to how a feast is to be understood) so perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on what the decree says of it. The pope wishes to encourage ‘the growth of the maternal sense of the Church’. Some of us are old enough to remember when everyone spoke of the Church as ‘she’. The phrase ‘Mother Church’ tended to be used almost exclusively by those who wished to ‘correct’ another: it was rather a top-down kind of phrase, which may be why it has tended to fall into disuse. That leaves us pondering what is meant by ‘the maternal sense of the Church’ and how it fits the lives and experience of ordinary people. For some, alas, it will lead to hoots of derision: their experience of the Church is of an unnatural mother at best. For others, there will be the slightly uncomfortable feeling that all this talk is of idealised maternity and reflects a very masculine and priestly preoccupation with perfect womanhood. For the majority, however, I would hope that it offers a way of understanding the Church less as a source of endless regulations and restrictions and more as a source of warmth, nourishment and encouragement.
Our Lady’s presence with the other disciples at Pentecost, her strength in standing by the Cross, the long years of coping with all that family life in first-century Palestine demanded of her, these are not trifles and they grant us an insight into the nature of the Church that is indeed precious. We talk a little too glibly about authority in the service of others to realise that sometimes people have no choices, no ability to decide either for themselves or others. ‘Authority’ is not the only model for the Church and her structures. When Mary said her uncompromising fiat at the Annunciation, she was accepting God into her life in a way no other person has ever done; and that, surely, is the perfect model for the Church — to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ completely, utterly; to be filled with the Spirit; to spend oneself in the service of God and others. That is very far from the saccharine tradition of some Marian devotion and very far from some interpretations of what the Church is. May all of us learn from Mary what it means to be members of the Church!
Of all the images of the Holy Spirit, the one I like best is that of wind, breath, pneuma, ruach. We see its effects, we feel it, but we do not see the wind itself. With every breath we take, we draw it into ourselves; with every word we speak, we exhale it again. For those of us in the Western tradition, that connection between Word and Spirit is already a given, but how rarely do we take in its full implications! And fire, how often do we think about that? From the cosy crackling of logs in winter to the amazing spurts of flame and blazing lava-flows we see in Hawaii, fire and flame are still part of our world, still a challenge to our ideas of safety and control.
D. Werburg Welch’s chapter-house painting of the descent of the Holy Spirit has always fascinated me. Mary, the Mother of God, is wrapped in a flame-coloured garment and sits, as the hesychast sits, among the other disciples and is filled again with the indwelling Spirit. The rushing wind cannot be depicted, but we know it is there; and we know it will transform these anxious, frightened people. It will catapult Peter and the others out into the streets to proclaim the mirabilia Dei. It will transform the world. This morning may that same Spirit transform us, too.
Today’s feast is one that looks two ways: back to Christmastide and forward to the Passion. I think that must be why it was chosen as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, because monks, nuns, friars, Religious Brothers and Sisters and so on are all marked with the grace and glory of the Incarnation in baptism but must, by virtue of their vows, follow also the often dark path that leads to Christ’s Passion and Death. We share in the privilege and the pain, but the focus must always be on Christ. That is why the Presentation of the Lord is such an important celebration, and the candles we hold in our hands are a reminder of both what we are and what we hope to become.
Today’s feast is always one of great gladness and rejoicing because it marks the point at which Jesus is taken up into the Temple and begins his mission. I think we could also say it is a great feast of the Church qua Church. For we do not think only of the joy of Mary and Joseph as their infant son is offered to the Lord. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Compline we sing into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirm our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, drearest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.
Yesterday, we received a beautiful gift from a friend and oblate of the community. The circumstances surrounding the gift, and the giver himself, make it very special. Nicholas Mynheer’s depiction of the Presentation is quite small, 20 cm by 20 cm, but it glows with great intensity (the illustration does not do it justice). It lights up the room in which it hanges. This morning as I was praying before it, it struck me that this wonderful feast of light and joy is itself a great gift to the Church. It allows us a little glimpse of eternity, a warm and supremely accessible vision of what the Church is and the importance of every individual within her, young or old. Today, please pray for the donor of the painting, for the maker of it and for the whole Church, especially those who think themselves ‘small and of no account’. It is what we are in the Lord’s eyes that counts, and to him we are worth much.
Today is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the Octave Day of Christmas and the first day of the secular New Year. One year passes into another; the Incarnation marks the passage of the Creator into his creation, the intersection of eternity and time; and Mary stands as a hinge between the Old and New Covenants, making possible the fulfilment of the one and ushering in the promise of the other in the person of her Son, Jesus Christ. We look back, and we look forward, like the old pagan god Janus, after whom this month is named.
Inevitably, as we reflect on both past and future, there is often a strange disquiet, an underlying guilt about wasted opportunities in the past and a vague anxiety about what is to come in the future There is, however, no point in trying to live in the past or the future: all we have is now, which is why the present moment is so important. It is now that our salvation is being worked out; now that we meet God. Today is therefore a day of great hope, no matter how we feel or don’t feel. Its possibilities are, quite literally, infinite. The prayer of the community for our readers is one with that of the liturgy:
The problem with religious platitudes is that they are exactly that: flat (from the French, plat). They are usually true, or at least half-true, but they are uttered unthinkingly, or with a vague sense that they are appropriate in the circumstances, and have become thin with over-use. So, when somebody dies, there are well-intentioned mutterings about the deceased being ‘at peace now,’ or, rather presumptuously to Catholic ears, ‘with Jesus in heaven.’ Meanwhile, I am busy praying for the dead person’s soul and the forgiveness of their sins, not presuming but hoping, with firm faith and trust, that our merciful Lord will indeed forgive. The comfort offered by the platitude is no comfort at all if it obscures rather than illumines and prevents us responding as we might.
Today’s memoria of the Holy Rosary, instituted as a thanksgiving for the victory at Lepanto, reminded me that love of Our Lady has given rise to a large number of quite cringe-making platitudes concerning her. They do her an injustice even as they seek to honour her. Mary is indeed our mother, but she is first and foremost the Mother of God, a woman of such unique faith, courage and holiness that she inspires a loving awe, a reverent fear, as she directs our gaze towards her Son, Jesus Christ. The wonderful array of titles with which the Church has invested her are the measure of this, each of them worth pondering carefully. Her appearances in the New Testament are comparatively few, but each one is telling. Today, if you have a moment or two, read through the gospel for the feast, Luke 1.26-38, and ask yourself what it means to be the handmaid of the Lord (and if you happen to be male, ask yourself the same question because the whole Church is feminine before God). The answer may disconcert you.
For those of us who live our lives according to the liturgical calendar, there can be both felicitous co-incidences and awkward disjunctions. The latter are more thought-provoking because they call in question many of our unexamined assumptions. Take today’s feast. I have often waxed eloquent about its beauty, as shy and lovely as the Autumn Crocus called ‘Naked Lady’ from its association with this feast. At other times, notably in this post for 2015, I have been at pains to reflect on Mary as the archetypal mulier fortis, not at all the idealised milksop of much conventional piety. But I have not often drawn attention to the fact that we are sometimes confronted with a huge gap between what we are celebrating in choir and what everyone around us is experiencing. This morning that is especially marked. We sing of beauty but those devastated by the floods in South-East Asia or Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean know only the brutality of the disasters that have engulfed them. If we look further afield, we see more and more human suffering in the endless bloody conflicts and mass movements of people that characterize this century. How difficult it can be to go on affirming the promise of Micah 5. 1–4 or the confident assertion of Romans 8.28–30! Shall we really live secure, does God actually turn everything to our good?
I think the only honest answer to these questions is akin to that which Mary gave to the angel at the Annunciation. We do not know how, but we give our assent, we trust in the goodness of God. To those who have not tried it, that response will seem pathetically inadequate. It admits that we do not have any explanation (who could know the mind of God . . .); it acknowledges that there is no easy solution, no quick fix, no soothing balm (our wound is incurable . . . ). It simply says, God is God and as such he can be trusted; we cling to that knowledge with a wisdom wiser than we know, for it is faith and faith alone that can lead us. I love St Bernard’s image of Mary as the aqueduct that brings us the Water of Life. This morning, however, I think it is the image of Mary as a new-born child, unaware of her tremendous destiny, that both comforts and challenges me. It is not power or wealth that determines the outcome but love. There’s something in that for us all to ponder.
Having begun to emerge from my usual post-chemo yukkiness, I have been asking myself, what is normal? What is the normality to which most of us, consciously or otherwise, aspire? My ‘normal’ would probably be extremely boring to anyone half my age, especially as it is increasingly couched in negative terms: not to feel sick, not to feel tired, not to be struggling to breathe. But even as I tap out those words, I realise I am missing something. I cannot spend half my life thinking that ‘normality’ is something other than what I am experiencing. I could, of course, call it ‘the new normal’, but that is a bit of sophistry. The truth is, life embraces all sorts of experiences, good and bad, welcome and unwelcome. They make us what we are, and because we can only live in the present (we remember the past, we dream of the future, but we cannot live in them) they constitute the normality, the everyday reality, of our existence.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation or Comfort. It was a very popular devotion in the Spanish Netherlands of the seventeenth century, and it is one I have always liked. To console, to comfort, to give strength to another is the work of the Holy Spirit; but I wonder whether we often advert to the fact that it is also a work performed within us by that same Spirit. Our Lady’s life on earth was, in many ways, typical of a Palestinian Jewish woman of her time. Her ‘normal’ was just as unexciting as our own. The things we might think of as high points, the Annunciation, for example, must have been disconcerting, alarming even; but the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and gave her the strength to bear them.