Mary Is Brave: In Honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe

the-annunciation-1490blog

“The Annunciation,” Domenico Ghirlandaio

Tonight, I am speaking to some of our students as they celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is a copy of what I will read.

Advent has just begun. This is a period of time that marks the beginning of the Catholic year, and it marks a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Adventus in Latin means “coming” or in better English we might say, “arriving.” God is arriving among us in Christ. We are preparing.

Catholics have a strange understanding of time. Strange is good: here it means that, for Catholics, every year is a time when the Incarnation – the Word (God) becoming flesh; that is, Jesus’ whole life – happens all over again. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it happens again. Year after year, we celebrate what happened and it lives in us again. This is why we prepare for Christmas again and again: it is happening in our hearts.

I bring up Advent for us right now because Our Lady is fundamental to it. She is the first person that Jesus comes to, arriving to her as her very own child, carried in the secret darkness of her own body. Mary knows what it means for God to arrive, and she still knows. She teaches us how to know. Among many other things, her life teaches us this: God asks us to be fiercely brave. Incredibly brave.

When I think about Our Lady, the first thing I remember about her is her fiat, her “let it be,” her Yes. I imagine her in the dark of her room – I always picture this event in the dead of night even though Luke never says what time of day it was, but I think of the dark because the mystics of the Church say that God is a brilliant darkness – and I imagine Mary whispering her agreement to the angel Gabriel. I think she said it softly. Softly because many of the most wonderful and daring things in the world are soft. And what a world-shifting moment this is! Such simple words, and they are enough to change everything. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a whole prayer to Mary about this moment. He begs her to say Yes, trembling in that breath between when she listened and when she spoke: “Answer, then, quickly to the angel yes.” Her words are simple, simple action, but they require a tenacity that sometimes frightens me. I do not know if I can be that fierce.

Think about it: how much she gave in that moment! Not only did Mary give her very body to the task, but she also offered much more. Her faith, her life. Her reputation probably collapsed. Everyone in her small town probably figured that she’d had some kind of affair. This is what Joseph thought before his dream (Mt 1:18-25).

Mary’s life was transfigured in that moment, in her Yes in the brilliant dark, and it reveals the presence of God in a fearsome light. Surrendering deep and human things for God seems so hard, and even if she wasn’t thinking of all that at the time, Mary still agreed. This is why God loves her so much: when she acted, she threw everything she had into the action, even her own flesh. The early Fathers of the Church loved to talk about this, about how important her very flesh was. She gave of her own flesh! This is what she gives to her Son! I don’t imagine that she really understood what she was doing – what teenager would? – but that makes her more daring.

Did she even try to defend herself? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar takes her silence in the Gospels to be a real silence: she left it up to God to defend her. She did not explain what had happened. This might seem like an offensive idea, like a timid response. For Balthasar, though, Mary chooses silence, and she does so because she is brave enough to trust God. Mary does the one thing that is so hard for everyone in the Old Testament to do, so hard for us now: she trusts. She is willing to be vulnerable, willing to open herself to the possibility of being hurt – very much hurt – knowing that she will be protected under God’s wings. Here is a woman who knows when to speak, and when not to speak. When to act, and when not to act. “Where words are many,” says Proverbs, “sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well” (10:19). This understanding of how to act and when to act is an important theme in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially Proverbs. Much later in history, around 1200 A.D., Mary came to be associated with wisdom. She is called the “Seat of Wisdom” because she held Christ, because she agreed to God’s wisdom, and because she understood the mystery of acting and of letting be.

Mary goes to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. She goes to be with someone who needs help, which is always where God goes too. In fact, she brings God with her to Elizabeth. That is, she brings Jesus with her. I always imagine that Mary went alone, though this probably isn’t true. I imagine her alone because I am trying to find some way to understand her solitude: it is lonely when you do something people don’t understand. So I imagine Mary walking fearless and alone on an open road under a starry sky.

Mary is powerful because she isn’t powerful. This is a Christian mystery. All she has is her Yes, and even that is given to her. But she offers everything and she moves quickly to where God needs to be, and in her everything she offers God. God has made this possible to her because she made room for God’s infinite possibility. Saint Irenaeus says, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary.” Mary trusted that God can do anything and everything.

Mary’s song, the one she sings after Elizabeth greets her, emphasizes her powerful trust. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). She even talks about how God throws rulers from their thrones, scatters the arrogant, and keeps his promises (v. 51-55). Mary in some way grasps that God’s entrance into the world always upsets world order, always challenges. God’s entrance into her life upset every expectation, after all, and challenged her profoundly. But here in the Gospel of Luke, she’s singing and she’s happy because she knows that God never does anything without making it new and wonderful again. I do not know how a vulnerable teenaged girl can stand torn from regular society and be able to see that, but she does. I cannot imagine the strength that takes.

In the East, Mary is called “All Holy,” and I am fond of this title because it stresses her active holiness. Holiness is not just a lack of sin: it is something positive, something good. Something to sing about; something to topple kingdoms. Mary angers the dragon in the Book of Revelation, threatening the dark order of things, and she continues to do so when upsets expectations in the Americas. She appears to a simple peasant, Juan Diego, someone like her, and blesses a persecuted people. Our Lady is the patron of the Americas because she chose to appear here, because she wanted to lift up the native people rather than the powerful.

Mary is, for us, a blend of powerful symbols and youthful simplicity. I try to remember both when I remember her, though I think her poverty and youth are often forgotten. But without these, you see, her courage is forgotten too. The incredible power Mary has is found in her willing vulnerability. In her very smallness. In how she didn’t know everything that was happening, but trusted God anyway. I try to remember this, especially during Advent, as everything happens all over again. Think of what it is like to lift our empty hands and open our empty mouths to God when we receive the Eucharist. Here is a moment where our smallness and fragility are made obvious: we have so little. But if we say “Amen” – which means Yes – and give everything to God, he will give everything to us. He is everything. He gives himself.

So let us prepare.

Let us be brave.

Thank you.

“Assumpta Maria” by Francis Thompson

“Coroação da Virgem,” Domingos António de Sequeira

Thou needst not sing new songs, but say the old.’—Cowley.

Mortals, that behold a Woman,
Rising ’twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.

Multitudinous ascend I,
Dreadful as a battle arrayed,
For I bear you whither tend I;
Ye are I: be undismayed!
I, the Ark that for the graven
Tables of the Law was made;
Man’s own heart was one, one Heaven,
Both within my womb were laid.
For there Anteros with Eros
Heaven with man conjoinèd was,—
Twin-stone of the Law, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos.

I, the flesh-girt Paradises
Gardenered by the Adam new,
Daintied o’er with sweet devices
Which He loveth, for He grew.
I, the boundless strict savannah
Which God’s leaping feet go through;
I, the heaven whence the Manna,
Weary Israel, slid on you!
He the Anteros and Eros,
I the body, He the Cross;
He upbeareth me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

I am Daniel’s mystic Mountain,
Whence the mighty stone was rolled;
I am the four Rivers’ fountain,
Watering Paradise of old;
Cloud down-raining the Just One am,
Danae of the Shower of Gold;
I the Hostel of the Sun am;
He the Lamb, and I the Fold.
He the Anteros and Eros,
I the body, He the Cross;
He is fast to me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

I the presence-hall where Angels
Do enwheel their placèd King—
Even my thoughts which, without change else,
Cyclic burn and cyclic sing.
To the hollow of Heaven transplanted,
I a breathing Eden spring,
Where with venom all outpanted
Lies the slimed Curse shrivelling.
For the brazen Serpent clear on
That old fangèd knowledge shone;
I to Wisdom rise, Ischyron,
Agion Athanaton!

See in highest heaven pavilioned
Now the maiden Heaven rest,
The many-breasted sky out-millioned
By the splendours of her vest.
Lo, the Ark this holy tide is
The un-handmade Temple’s guest,
And the dark Egyptian bride is
Whitely to the Spouse-Heart prest!
He the Anteros and Eros,
Nail me to Thee, sweetest Cross!
He is fast to me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

‘Tell me, tell me, O Belovèd,
Where Thou dost in mid-day feed!
For my wanderings are reprovèd,
And my heart is salt with need.’
‘Thine own self not spellest God in,
Nor the lisping papyrus reed?
Follow where the flocks have trodden,
Follow where the shepherds lead.’
He, the Anteros and Eros,
Mounts me in Ægyptic car,
Twin-yoked; leading me, Ischyros,
Trembling to the untempted Far.

‘Make me chainlets, silvern, golden,
I that sow shall surely reap;
While as yet my Spouse is holden
Like a Lion in mountained sleep.’
‘Make her chainlets, silvern, golden,
She hath sown and she shall reap;
Look up to the mountains olden,
Whence help comes with lioned leap.’
By what gushed the bitter Spear on,
Pain, which sundered, maketh one;
Crucified to Him, Ischyron,
Agion Athanaton!

Then commanded and spake to me
He who framed all things that be;
And my Maker entered through me,
In my tent His rest took He.
Lo! He standeth, Spouse and Brother;
I to Him, and He to me,
Who upraised me where my mother
Fell, beneath the apple-tree.
Risen ’twixt Anteros and Eros,
Blood and Water, Moon and Sun,
He upbears me, He Ischyros,
I bear Him, the Athanaton!

Where is laid the Lord arisen?
In the light we walk in gloom;
Though the sun has burst his prison,
We know not his biding-room.
Tell us where the Lord sojourneth,
For we find an empty tomb.
‘Whence He sprung, there He returneth,
Mystic Sun,—the Virgin’s Womb.’
Hidden Sun, His beams so near us,
Cloud enpillared as He was
From of old, there He, Ischyros,
Waits our search, Athanatos.

Who will give Him me for brother,
Counted of my family,
Sucking the sweet breasts of my Mother?—
I His flesh, and mine is He;
To my Bread myself the bread is,
And my Wine doth drink me: see,
His left hand beneath my head is,
His right hand embraceth me!
Sweetest Anteros and Eros,
Lo, her arms He leans across;
Dead that we die not, stooped to rear us,
Thanatos Athanatos.

Who is She, in candid vesture,
Rushing up from out the brine?
Treading with resilient gesture
Air, and with that Cup divine?
She in us and we in her are,
Beating Godward: all that pine,
Lo, a wonder and a terror!
The Sun hath blushed the Sea to Wine!
He the Anteros and Eros,
She the Bride and Spirit; for
Now the days of promise near us,
And the Sea shall be no more.

Open wide thy gates, O Virgin,
That the King may enter thee!
At all gates the clangours gurge in,
God’s paludament lightens, see!
Camp of Angels!  Well we even
Of this thing may doubtful be,—
If thou art assumed to Heaven,
Or is Heaven assumed to thee!
Consummatum.  Christ the promised,
Thy maiden realm is won, O Strong!
Since to such sweet Kingdom comest,
Remember me, poor Thief of Song!

Cadent fails the stars along:—
Mortals, that behold a woman
Rising ’twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.

—-

Francis Thomspon

Posted on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 15, 2015

“Stabat Mater” (poem)

la pieta

Did you mourn him, mother?
Did you cry?
When they took him down,
or after – borne away
by half a dozen hands.
Were your hands one of them?
Or could you not bear to touch?

Did you cling, or
did you stand apart –
silent, or
directing their touch –
hold his head that hangs
and hold his arms
and lift his feet that drag
and place a cloth over his cool face,
place a cloth: he used to like that
when he was small.

Did they have to wrest him from you,
gently,
wrest him from your arms
as they laid him down?
Or did you watch the silent descent,
gentle,
silent descent down to the cool stone,
wrapped white in the figure of a man
who was once your son.

And no longer.
The outline of a face
marked here and there with blood.
Once a face now covered over,
limp and seeping crimson
against white.
You saw a lamb like that once,
mauled by a wolf in the wild.

Did the apostle carry you home,
or did you carry him?
A dozen ashen faces staring
at you in the dusk.
Minus one.

Did they touch you,
perhaps for comfort – or their own?
Hands and fingers at your cloak:
what now, mother?
Now that your son is gone?

And you alone in your silent room:
Did you cry then, or was it too much?
A sob half-caught in your throat,
a howl seeping into darkness with a moan.
Did you fall to your knees, or
topple a chair –
rage the friend of ragged despair.
Head in your hands, and
tears flattened against palms,
shaking, or
absolutely still. Were you?
Absolutely wordless and absolutely
still?

What words anyway,
and what prayers?
A single phrase building
in your chest like burning sand,
choking away the sound:
prayer of the barren desert,
prayer hot and stretched to endless borders,
prayer of Rachel, who refuses to be comforted,
because her children are dead.

Did you mourn him, mother?
In the dark with a single candle,
soft orange tinting edges gold,
a devastated sanctuary
with unguarded doors.

Did you stand in the night, mother,
strained face guilded at shifting angles,
motionless yet taut?
Keeping watch.
Like long ago with the angel –
mother, what were you waiting for?

Anne M. Carpenter

N.B. – Originally posted June 17, 2014

She held him so gently, and he was so soft.

“Madonna della Scala,” Correggio

I remember visiting a friend of mine when she was a brand new mom. Her husband welcomed me inside and whispered for me to be extra supportive. “She was cutting our baby’s nails, and cut her finger a little. She’s devastated.”

I walked over to the living room, and found my friend holding her little baby in her arms. She didn’t seem to notice my entrance. She just cradled her newborn against her chest, long hair shielding them both as she tilted her head down and rocked gently where she stood. It was, for me, so beautiful I could not speak. I had no idea what to say anyway.

My friend looked up at me, dark eyes wide and wet and vulnerable: “I hurt my baby.”

And there it was, all the messy hurt of a tender mother and a tender child. There was something true in it that I have not forgotten, and that continues to surpass me now.

I remember listening quietly as my friend mourned that first tiny wound with me. I remember how very soft her baby’s skin felt as I held her. I remember gently brushing a thumb over her forehead, amazed. And I was amazed at my friends, whose baby this was.

All babies are surprisingly soft. Their skin is delicate and new, and just the warmth of it is enough to astound. Before widening to consider a baby’s dignity, or future, or anything so grand – I am amazed at how soft a baby is, how vulnerable.

And I am heartbroken to imagine that first wellspring of blood and hurt. However small. There is something in it that surpasses me.

As we prepare for Christmas, I cannot help but think of these things. As words spin across the Internet, weaving every golden thread of meaning possible. It feels so bright. It feels so loud. Perhaps because I am so fragile myself: it is so, so loud.

The world is very loud, very violent. So much blood and hurt.

Even in the Christian outrage against the CIA torture efforts – justifiable outrage – I feel myself overwhelmed and lost. Perplexed at the various arguments that seek to show how insane torture is, how wrong. Not that I disagree. Only that my ears hurt at the volume, and I wonder at its purpose.

Perhaps to mask our heartbreak.

Yes, Jesus was hurt. And Mary wept. And it is wrong, so wrong, to physically and psychologically destroy anyone, anyone at all.

I struggle to understand it. This response. Struggle to understand how it would reach anyone, anyone at all, who hurts. Jesus hurt, and Mary wept, and it was wrong – what happened to you, and you, and you. How many millions of times must we say it? How many hundreds of millions of times until the coldness of such words echoes back to us?

This Christmas, I keep thinking of the softness of that baby Mary held. How vulnerable they both were. How she cradled him in her arms, so gently. How aware of hardness of the world she must have been, and how aware of his softness. Dreading that first little wellspring of blood and hurt.

I do not know what to think, except to say to my Mother that I am soft too. That we all are so very fragile. That I want so much to be held when I hurt so badly it feels impossible. Just impossible. The hurt. And I don’t want to be forgotten.

I wonder if we threaten to forget the tortured, the broken, as we decry the wrong done to them. It’s easier to decry it, sometimes. Easier than holding them, holding that shattered human being, and whispering softly: “Oh child, you are so hurt.”