God’s will is our delight
(for the Solemnity of the Assumption)
The Solemnity of the Annunciation is normally celebrated on March 25; it was transferred this year because Holy Week. But the date is still significant. In the early centuries of Christianity, before our own holy days got fixed, the 25th of March was celebrated as the spring equinox, and Christians, who loved to take over these “pagan” holidays, came to celebrate it instead sometimes as the first day of creation, at times as the day of Jesus’ birth and/or conception, even as the day of his death. When Christmas finally became fixed at December 25th, someone did the math and March 25th, nine months to the day before Christmas, came to be celebrated as the day Gabriel announced to Mary, and she accepted, and the Word became flesh in the fertile garden of her depths. Since then the Church has had a hard time deciding if this is a feast of Our Lady or a feast of the Lord. I like to think of it as the day when we celebrate that Mary said yes to the Angel, Christ the Word said yes to the Father, and the Father said yes to humanity!
But what this feast really makes me reflect on is the will, human will. Instead of focusing on the historical details of Virgin-birth and the Nativity, for this feast the Church asks us to focus on the fact that the Word took flesh because God’s will became Mary’s will, a so she became a perfect dwelling for the Word; and even more that Jesus’ whole life was about God’s will being done through and in him. We hear three times in the official liturgy today––the proper entrance antiphon, the responsorial psalm, Ps. 40, and quoted in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Behold I have come to do your will, O God.’ I sometimes think of this as the Christian mantra, the only prayer really worth saying, like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or in the middle of the prayer he taught us––‘Thy will be done.’ And so it’s about Jesus and Mary turning their wills over, offering the interior sacrifice of abandonment. (How often we run into saints and mystics who have left us their prayer of self-offering, their prayer of abandonment.) ‘Behold I have come to do your will, O God.’ And underneath it all this celebration is also about God’s will: God who has chosen to get messy and be involved in our history, and be, as we heard in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, Emmanu-el––God-with-us. And, the author of Hebrews says, it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified. It is God’s will to do this, to draw us in in this way.
I’m torn between two approaches to the human will. On the one hand, there is, as a friend of mine used to say, “the stout stubborn will that is up and doing,” a kind of a stiff upper lip. And there is free will and will power, which makes us human. And there is the love that is an act of the will when it doesn’t feel good anymore. On the other hand at some point we have to reach the crisis of realizing the limitation of our willpower. Paul speaks it of it in Romans 7: For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want. It’s a dire mistake to think that we can achieve salvation or enlightenment based on our own willpower; Paul says it just can’t be done. We have to discover this to achieve any kind of real maturity in the spiritual life––the gap between our will and our concrete reality. As Fr. Bruno once explained to me, it’s like a ladder that goes to the moon. We climb to the top of the ladder by the power of our will, but when get to the top we find out that we’re still a long way from the moon, 238,900 miles, to be exact. The rest of the way is grace. We don’t really learn to ask for mercy until we experience this poverty. A confessor once told me that God comes to Mary, as she says in her great hymn, the Magnificat, in her lowliness not in her holiness.
This leads me to think that perhaps our own will is not the problem at all. Our will certainly isn’t something evil: it’s just not enough. That’s the problem! Paul says (still in Romans 7) that our innermost being desires the good. The psalmist too says, Lord, I delight in your law in the depths of my heart. (Perhaps a better translation might be, “I carry your law in the depths of my bowels.”) My deepest self delights in your law; God’s law is written in our hearts, embedded in our DNA. That’s my real will, because that’s my real self. It’s just not enough––my own will on its own, just as Ps. 40 says it’s not enough to offer sacrifices. We need, perhaps, to be emptied even of the ability to offer sacrifices. Ps. 51 instead lets us know that Love cannot resist a broken humbled heart.
The problem with this is that we are tempted to believe that God’s will somehow means our annihilation, that following God’s will means our annihilation. I was talking to someone recently who told me that she didn’t know what to do with her life; she had, she said, spent so many years doing her own will, now she wanted to do God’s will. And it suddenly struck me that maybe they weren’t two different things, God’s will and her will. I remember again that scene from the movie “Chariots of Fire” when the runner who is a young, pious and very devoted Presbyterian minister he says to his fiancé, defending his running, “But you don’t understand. When I run I can feel his pleasure.” That’s God’s will. As Frederich Buechner wrote, concerning vocation, “The place God calls you is where your deep gladness meets the world deep hunger.” There is an important truth there: God’s joy is our delight; God’s will is our pleasure. Or as Merton says in his wonderful meditation on Prometheus, “Our own joy is heaven’s mirth.” That’s why we don’t have to steal the fire from heaven like Prometheus: God gives us the fire. Grace builds on nature, grace is the source of our nature, grace builds on our will––it’s not the annihilation of our will. That simply doesn’t work for the Christian. As Leo the Great said about the Incarnation (the reading we heard at Vigils this morning): Just as God does not change by condescension, just as the Word does not lose equality with the Father’s glory, so humanity is not swallowed up by being exalted. Just as Jesus wasn’t annihilated, even at death. He died, yes, but the whole point of the resurrection (and wonderful for us to celebrate this feast during Eastertide) is that even death is not an annihilation! He was raised body and soul to the right hand of glory. Not a nameless, faceless nothing, not a drop of water re-emerging into the ocean––his very person exists!
The opening prayer today echoes the “secret” prayer that the priest says when pouring the water into the wine: “… grant that we, who confess our Redeemer to be both divine and human, may become partakers even in his divine nature.” That’s God will for us, to participate in the divine nature.
When we are emptied of everything vestigial we will find that our innermost self, our deepest and truest self delights in the law of God, because our truest self is a reflection of the glory of God, an image of God. When I am really me, I am a reflection of the beautiful image of the Divine, an icon of the icon. So, perhaps it’s not that our own will needs to be demolished, but these other things that have a will of their own, and are taking up space rent free inside of us. They need to be demolished or at least vanquished: the tyranny of the false self, the tyranny of sin and addiction, the tyranny of disordered emotions, and the memories and regrets that are not our real self but lead us to compulsively bury ourselves under layers and layers of noise or isolation, or hide behind masks and defenses, and in doing so hide not only from the rest of humanity, but from ourselves and ultimately from God’s will which is written on our hearts, buried under all that junk. Meister Eckhart said that he never asked God to give himself to him: “I beg him to purify me, empty me,” he wrote. “If I am empty, God of his very nature is obliged to give himself to me.” When the Spirit allows us clean hands and a pure heart, and tranquil minds, we will be nothing but the glory of God, the Word taking flesh in the fertile garden of our depths. And then, as Mary says, “My whole being rejoices.” We will not just praise––we will be praise, we will be the praise of God.
Of course, this is what we long for every time we approach the Eucharistic table. We pray that by the Holy Spirit, instead of the blood of bulls and goats, we may become a living sacrifice of praise, the body of Christ; that we may become, like Jesus, the image of the unseen God.
cyprian, 9 april 18