mary: familiar, concrete and real

 

The celebration of the Presentation of Mary (November 21st) is a pious tradition, based on the proto-Gospel of James, that Mary was presented in and educated near the Temple in Jerusalem, just like Jesus was. What it lacks in historical verifiability it makes up for in devotion, and in real faith––faith that God wanted this to happen, faith that God really wanted to take flesh in Mary and be God-With-Us.

I’ve been reading a book about Teilhard de Chardin recently, by the late theologian (and future cardinal) Henri Du Lubac. It just so happened that as I was preparing for my homily I ran into some of Teilhard’s writings on Mary. As would be typical of any Catholic, especially a religious, a priest, in his time, Teilhard had a devotion to Mary. He referred to Mary as the one who “God chose to set above the World and the Church as a never fading nimbus.” In her heart, he wrote, we “relive the mysteries––so that the whole of dogma becomes familiar, concrete and real in Mary.”[1]

In Mary dogma becomes familiar, concrete and real; concrete and real not only because it is incarnate and human in the Word made flesh in Mary, but also because the event of her life and Jesus’ life become blatantly historical. So Paul says in the Letter to the Galatians that when the fullness of time came, God sent his son born of a woman.[2] It’s so important to acknowledge and not lose sight of the historicity of Christ, the divinity of the historical Jesus, because if we do, Teilhard says, “all the mystical energy [that has] accumulated during the last two thousand years in the Christian phylum” instantly evaporates. Our mysticism is tied to that historicity, that reality of those real human beings. “[Jesus] born of the Virgin, and the risen Christ: these two form an indissoluble whole.’”[3]

If you’ll excuse such a pedestrian example, feasts such as this one, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, in some way are like the prequels that we see in films, such as “The Godfather II,” where we’re offered the backstory of how Vito Corleone (now in the person of Robert De Niro instead of Marlon Brando) became the padrone of the family. Or maybe even better, how the Star Wars franchise opens up the back history to let us know how Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker get their start. So memorials like this, or celebrating Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne (about whom we have no idea, not even their names!) are trying to show us Mary more and more as a real historical human being––not a fallen angel or a descended incarnate goddess.

This sense of history is something we inherit from our Jewish parentage. Just as we hear this story of the Maccabees in these days, which is so important for the Jewish people as well as for us; just as we are hear in the narrative of the people coming back from the Babylonian captivity in the Ezra/Nehemiah cycle at Vigils these days––these are all stories of God using history, directing history, of history itself being a road to the reign of God. This is a major theme for us, for the revealed, prophetic traditions in general. As the Benedictine liturgist Aidan Kavanaugh taught, for us with our sacramental spirituality, time is not an accident; it’s not something to be escaped. For us time is a sacrament, history is an unfolding of salvation, the future is a road to the kingdom.

More from Teilhard: “When the time had come when God resolved to realize his incarnation before our eyes, he … created the Virgin Mary, that is to say he called forth on earth a purity so great that, within this transparency, he could concentrate himself to the point of appearing as a child.”[4] All of dogma becomes familiar, concrete and real in Mary.

One other thing, concerning that purity for which we know Mary so well, that I thought tied in well with the story of Zacchaeus, which we heard today:[5] The Church says of Mary, using the words from the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed are you who believed that the promise of the Lord would be fulfilled.” And Teilhard says, “It is in faith that purity finds the fulfillment of its fruitfulness.”[6] In some way it’s not enough even to be pure, or what we think of as “pure.” A confessor reminded me once that Mary doesn’t say to God, “You have come to me in my holiness” but “in my lowliness.” Even purity needs faith to bring it to its fulfillment, as it did in Mary. “Faith” in this moment means surrender to grace, recognizing a power greater than oneself. We heard in yesterday’s reading about the blind man on the road to Jericho[7] Jesus say ‘Your faith has saved you’––not your purity, not your merit, not your works––your faith. And so for Zacchaeus: he is certainly not pure, but salvation comes to him and to his house. The leap of faith inspired by his momentary encounter with Jesus brings salvation to his house.

Let’s pray for a lively sense of God in our own personal history as well as our communal history; and let’s pray for the faith that will bring everything that we strive to accomplish on our own to its fulfillment; and pray that the teachings of the Gospel might become familiar, concrete and real in our own lives as they became in Mary’s life, that the Word might become flesh again in us and be fruitful in giving birth to Christ anew in the world.

cyprian, 21 nov 17

[1] From letters, quoted in Du Lubac, The Religion of Teilhard, 61

[2] Gal 4:4.

[3] From Introduction, quoted in Du Lubac, 61.

[4] Divine Milieu, 114.

[5] Lk 19:1-10.

[6] Ibid, Du Lubac, 222.

[7] Lk 18:35-43.

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