Religious Platitudes

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.

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014

Here in the monastery the Fourth Sunday of Advent is celebrated quietly and plainly: no decorations, no carols, nothing that anticipates Christmas save that Preface II of Advent clearly looks forward to the coming feast:

. . . all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

I’m not sure that ‘John the Baptist sang of his coming’ really makes the same point as ‘John the Baptist was his herald’, but we’ll let that pass. I am more interested in the gospel, Luke 1. 26–38, the same as we had yesterday, but how differently it reads in this context. Yesterday it was all about signs, Ahaz testing God by his refusal to ask for a sign, our looking to the future. Today it is about the fulfilment of God’s promises and our response, what Paul calls the ‘mystery kept secret for endless ages, but now so clear that it must be broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of faith’ (Romans 16. 26). At the heart of today’s liturgy is that moment of unequalled obedient faith, when Mary said ‘yes’ to what God asked, without qualification or reserve.

We can stop there, pondering Mary’s speaking the word that would enable the Word to take flesh among us, but for most of us it is more helpful to reflect on how the gospel ends. ‘And the angel left her.’ That rings true, doesn’t it? We come down from the mountain-top and find the world apparently unchanged; and what is more, we no longer have the ‘buzz’, the excitement or exhilaration that accompanied our unstinted gift of self. We find, as generations have before us, that the ‘yes’ said neat in prayer must be worked out amidst the ordinariness of everyday life. It was exactly the same for Mary. After her meeting with the angel she had to face all the difficulties of her situation seemingly alone. Even Joseph, whom we see now as her great support, hesitated to believe her.

Perhaps what we can take away from the liturgy today is the realisation that we become more, not less, human when we encounter God. Nothing changes, yet everything is transformed. We do not become supermen or superwomen, any more than Mary did; but we do become holier, in our case just a little more like God. But that little increase in likeness is all it takes to live the Good News, which is what we are called to do. Let us ask Our Lady to pray for us.

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