Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Here are my mother and brothers!"

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

A Dominican friend of mine once explained the fascination with the Virgin Mary to me this way, which made sense even to a Protestant who grew up with sola scriptura on her tongue:

“What is it that makes a saint, Em? What makes a person truly holy?”

I pondered for a minute, knowing to avoid an answer that had anything to do with holy actions, as if the fruit of a holy life were the cause of the holiness. Faith could have been a viable answer, but it seemed a bit vague and would cry for further description, and I knew that I Corinthians 13 had declared another virtue superior even to faith.

“Love,” I finally concluded. “Love of Christ is what makes us holy.”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “And assuming that some of us grow further in love for Christ than others, who do you think loved Christ the most?”

When he put it that way, the answer was obvious. I love my nephews something fierce, but I know my sister-in-law’s love for them trumps mine from the beginning; I love my mother something fierce, but I know her love for me trumps that as well. And it was with that love, the intimate love of a mother that finds its object within her, that Mary loved Christ.

The rest of us are learning to love, some more quickly than others, some more purely than others. My own growth in love is often severely neglected, taking a back seat to other more pressing demands of teaching and research and homeownership and social demands, and now Advent has come and gone almost unnoticed in the bustle of my superficially significant pursuits.

Yet like the baby in Mary’s womb, Christ has been present all along, present within me and bursting out into the world around me. Maybe what is so fascinating about Mary is not what is unique to her—that she carried the physical body of Christ growing within her own body—but the mysterious sense in which she is an archetype of what is happening to all of us (though in our case, in a much less obtrusive, more ignorable way). Mary could not ignore him like I have over the past few months, yet even in my case he is present, spiritually and (sacramental theology would insist) physically.

There is grace to me in that reminder, grace to remember that, whether or not I have been aware of it, Christ has come within me and without me. My own journey of holiness will be a process of learning how to love the Christ who is already there.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Unless the Lord builds the house

Today we read the great twist in the story of Advent, the great wrinkle as we have been preparing the way for the Lord. David wants to build God a house of cedar, and God comes back to him and says:

“Who are you to build me a house? I built you a house. Look around you at your palace, David: I built this for you when you had been living in the fields with your sheep.”

It is God who builds houses, it is God who chooses the place of his dwelling, not David. David thinks he can make a place for God’s dwelling, but all along God had been building one for David.

Moreover, God does not stop at building David’s palace that can be destroyed a couple generations later when the nation is divided, or a dozen generations later when the Babylonians destroy the city. God responds to David’s well-intended desire to build him a house by saying:

“Furthermore, not only have I already placed you in the very house in which you are living, but I will build you a house that will not fall. From your body, not your cedar, I will build your house, my house, that will never be destroyed.”

From David’s home in the fields, God built him a palace. From David’s loins, God built Solomon. From David’s son Solomon, God built a temple. From David’s children, God built a dynasty. From David’s daughter Mary, God built his Son.

And as we begin the fourth week of Advent, having spent three weeks responding (such as we have) to the call to prepare the way for the Lord, we realize that it is God who has been preparing places. God prepared the way for himself, not in a house of cedar, not even in a tent, but in a womb. God prepared the house for his dwelling within his people, within a woman, within me.

I take comfort in that, as I know my preparations for his coming this year have been no better than that of the people of Bethlehem, as I know I have no palace nor even a tent to give him, as I know my own sleep-deprived, mal-fed body has been too absorbed in exams to prepare a place for him to enter, as I know my own soul is not even a tent but a dirty stable: God has prepared a place for himself despite me and my weariness, without me and my ambitions, within me and my dirtiness.

Advent calls us to prepare, yet we are preparing for the one who has already built his home as he had already built David’s palace, as he has already entered Mary’s body, as he has already entered our own in the Eucharist.

And now, humbled by so subtle a builder, we can only wait.