The Heavenly Mysteries of August


dormitio2The months of July and August were renamed in the last century before Christ.  They had been called “fifth month” and “sixth month” (like September, October, November, December; the year used to begin in March) but they were renamed for Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian, who was called Augustus.  Augustus is related to augment; Octavian expanded the Roman Empire, so he received that name as his honorific.

(March, May, and June were named for the Roman gods Mars, Maia, and Juno; January means doorway, or beginning; February is from a word for purification, or Spring cleaning; and I can’t find why it’s called April.)

So August is a month named for Empire.  And in this month the Church celebrates a kind of third set of high holy days.  There is the season of the Nativity in winter, the season of the Paschal mystery in spring – and the heavenly mysteries of August.  August reveals the awesome Empire of God.

We talk about a kind of tension about how you define Christianity.  We can call it the religion of the Incarnation: God has become man so that man can become God – and everything follows from that.  Or we can call it the religion of the Cross and Resurrection: by the divine power we pass through death to life.  Each of these is an almost complete way of thinking about Christianity – and each needs some help from the other, to keep its balance.  

But we can also think of Christianity in terms of the heavenly mysteries of August – and indeed, a large part of the tradition does so.  We can think about Christ – but we can also think about the Empire he builds.


Earlier this month, we pondered the Transfiguration.  It is a kind of manifestation of the Incarnation.  But where divinity is hidden in weakness at Christmas, at the Transfiguration the divine light pours through Christ’s humanity.  The Incarnation is revealed.  The Transfiguration is a preparation for the Cross – a reminder that the one who goes to die is glorious in his divinity.  The Transfiguration is a kind of summary of the Christian faith, a promise of the greatness of Christ.

So too are the two Marian feasts that follow, the Assumption, which we celebrate today, and the Coronation, next week.

The Assumption reveals the true Empire of God.  I heard a fine homily today from a young priest about how the Assumption was “necessary.”  (Friends, Thomists will remind you that our piety gets a little ahead of itself when we talk about divine “necessities.”  God’s pretty powerful, and doesn’t have to do many things.  But it’s okay, amongst ourselves, with several grains of salt, to think about how there’s a kind of connection among the mysteries that makes things sort of seem “necessary.”)  The homilist said it was necessary that she whom God had preserved incorrupt through her life would be uncorrupted by death.  It was necessary that she who had shared so personally in the Crucifixion should share in the Resurrection.  It was necessary that she whose body was united to Christ should share bodily in his triumph.  This is nice.


But it’s worth turning around the other way (and taking away the “necessity”).  You could say that God “had to” bring her body to heaven if he had involved it in the Incarnation.  But it’s more true to say the opposite: God wanted to bring her body to heaven, and so he involved it in the Incarnation.  Etc.

The Assumption isn’t an afterthought.  It’s more like God’s main thought: he wants to bring Mary – and all of us – body and soul to heaven.  He wants his Empire to extend that far, to save us in our entirety.  And that’s why he did all those other things.  That’s why he did the Incarnation and the Cross – so that we could reach the heavenly mysteries of August.  We mustn’t forget those other mysteries – but we understand all of them better if we know that this is the final destination, and Mary is the firstfruits.  

The Transfiguration, the Assumption, and the Coronation are our Christian destiny.  They are what it’s all about.  They are the glory God has in mind when he enters into all those other mysteries of our faith.

We should ponder these heavenly mysteries of August, dig deeper into them.  Each of them has a surface layer: Jesus is shiny, Mary’s body went up in the air, she gets a crown.  But each of these surfaces reveals the depths of the faith: Jesus’s humanity is filled with divinity; Mary participates fully, in every aspect of her person, in the glorious joys of heaven; everything is at the service of this mystery, everything comes together in the fulfillment prefigured in Mary’s coronation.  

Let us renew our dedication to these heavenly mysteries of August – to the uttermost glory of the Empire of God.

How could you focus your mind better on the August mysteries?  What do we lose when we forget them?

The Two Hearts and the Rosary

sacredheartThis past Friday and Saturday we celebrated the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  These feasts go together: the fruit of the Heart of Jesus is the Heart of Mary, the source of Mary’s heart is Jesus’.

But before we speak of these two hearts, we should speak of Jesus’ own two hearts.  The Sacred Heart itself is a celebration of the union of God’s heart with man’s.  The Sacred Heart is God’s heart beating in man’s, or man’s heart beating in God’s.  

This is the mystery of grace: the love of God poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5).  St. Thomas makes a kind of analogy of grace.  He speaks of the Incarnation as “the grace of union,” distinct from but analogous with sanctifying grace.  Sanctifying grace enters our hearts to unite us to God.  The grace of union is the deepest reality of Jesus.  

They are different, as the difference of being Son of God by nature and son by adoption.  In the case of Jesus, it is inseparable from who he is; in our case, a change must come about, and it can be undone.  

But they are similar, for in each case it is the union of God and man.  What happens in the heart of Jesus is what Jesus desires for us.  What happens in the heart of Jesus is what happens in the heart of Mary: God’s love poured into our hearts, total union of God and man.


The rosary is a kind of meditation on this union of the two hearts.  It is a meditation, first, on the life of Jesus, of God’s love in the human life of Jesus — and most deeply, in his human heart.  But it is a meditation, second, on Mary’s participation in these mysteries.  What happens in the heart of Jesus is what happens in the heart of Mary.

In the Eastern Church, they constantly rediscover the icon of the face of Christ, even tracing its outline with their fingers.  In the rosary, we retrace the face of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, rediscovering over and over again his mystery, which is the mystery that he recreates in us.


The Hail Mary is a meditation on the mystery of the two hearts.  It has three acts, tracing three directions in the relation between these two hearts.

The first act commemorates the action of Jesus’s divine heart on Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  What does it mean to say Mary is full of grace?  It means that the Lord is with her.  Praying this prayer alongside the mysteries of the rosary, we see the heart of the Lord who is with her.  The Lord – the Lord whose heart is on the cross, or in agony in the garden, or rising to heaven, or making wine at Cana, etc. – that Lord, is with Mary.  

The fruit of his presence is that his heart is impressed on hers.  That is what “full of grace” means: he is with her, and acts on her.  And what he brings about is a re-creation of his heart in hers.


immaculateheartThe second act commemorates the similarity of the two hearts: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  His blessing is her blessing.  And she is truly blessed.  She has all the riches that humanity can receive, the riches that set her above all her kind.  And that is the blessing of the one who, as fruit of her womb, shares in her nature.  He too, her child, has all the riches of humanity.  The two hearts are alike.

(Again and again, as we trace the faces of Jesus and Mary, we turn to their hearts, their innermost depths: that is where they are truly similar.)


Finally, the third act commemorates Mary asking Jesus to share this favor with us:  “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the heart of our death.”  She prays for us, asks God’s blessing on us.  

But what blessings does she ask for?  Well, she is holy – conformed to Jesus.  Because her heart is like his, she asks for the blessings that he considers blessings, the blessings of the heart of Jesus.  

That is why we, who are sinners, so close to death, ask her to pray – because as sinners, we tend to ask for the wrong blessings, so forgetful of the hour of our death and focused on things that do not endure.  She who is holy asks for the blessings of the heart of Jesus.  

And as his mother, mother of God, she has, not power over him, but influence – the influence he chose to give her, in uniting his divine heart to a human heart, becoming her child.

In the mysteries of the rosary, we trace over and over the face of Jesus, the heart of Jesus – the heart he gives to Mary, giving her true likeness to his heart, so that she can beg the same blessing for us.

What do the two hearts mean to you?

What did de Montfort Mean By “True Devotion to Mary”?

de MontfortYesterday the Church celebrated St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), a French priest and author of the important treatise “True Devotion to Mary.” Mother Teresa thought this book was important enough that he should be named a Doctor of the Church. St. John Paul II chose his papal motto to refer to it: Totus tuus, “totally yours,” was one of de Montfort’s formulations of Marian devotion.

But what did de Montfort mean by “true devotion”?


The book is perhaps best known for its reference to “consecration” to Mary. Many Catholics, at some point in their lives, make a consecration, often with some reference to de Montfort. This is indeed something de Montfort recommends:

Those who desire to take up this special devotion, (which has not been erected into a confraternity, although this would be desirable [it now has]), should spend at least twelve days in emptying themselves of the spirit of the world, which is opposed to the spirit of Jesus, as I have recommended in the first part of this preparation for the reign of Jesus Christ. They should then spend three weeks imbuing themselves with the spirit of Jesus through the most Blessed Virgin. Here is a programme they might follow. . . .”

Based on the six paragraphs that follow, someone put together a series of meditations and many prayers to be said. Someone else recently came out with a book that shortens the time and tries to make it easier. Many Catholics go through this process, say the prayer at the end, and consider themselves “consecrated.”

But in the paragraph before he explains “preparation and consecration,” de Montfort says, “Although this devotion is essentially an interior one, this does not prevent it from having exterior practices which should not be neglected. ‘These must be done but those not omitted.’ If properly performed, exterior acts help to foster interior ones.

This section of the book suggests six other “exterior practices,” from wearing little chains to praying the rosary and the Magnificat, to “contempt of the world,” as exterior ways to nurture interior devotion. Consecration is parallel to these other devotions – and all of them are secondary to de Montfort’s real concern.


De Montfort is at pains to prevent us from “false devotion.” His section on false devotion is more than twice as long as his section on consecration.

False devotion is insufficient devotion – but there are different kinds of insufficient devotion. “Scrupulous devotion” is afraid that if we think about Mary too much, we will forget Jesus. Much of de Montfort’s book tries to explain why this is not true: true devotion to Mary always leads us closer to Jesus.

But other kinds of false devotion are, in an interesting way, different but similar to this insufficient devotion. “Presumptuous devotion,for example, thinks that just a few prayers (or, perhaps, a few external devotions, whether scapulars and chains or thoughtless rosaries and consecrations) absolves us of the need for a real spiritual life. “Presumptuous false devotion is different from scrupulous false devotion in the sense that one thinks devotion to Mary is too powerful, and the other thinks it’s too weak. But they are the same in that neither one is truly devoted.

“True devotion” doesn’t mean saying a couple prayers, or a consecration, and thinking you have your bases covered. True devotion, he says, is “interior, trustful, holy, constant, and disinterested.” True devotion is a “slavery of love” – slavery in the sense that we give our whole selves for love, instead of maintaining our “right” to think more of ourselves than of God. Presumptous devotion might think that consecrating ourselves to Mary is really valuable – but it fails by failing to be in love.

(The first part of being truly in love, he says, is that “Christ must be the ultimate end of all devotions.” If Marian devotion is an excuse for being lukewarm about Jesus, it isn’t real Marian devotion at all.)


At the end of the book, he says true devotion means living our whole life “through Mary, with Mary, in Mary, and for Mary.” Perhaps another time, we can dig into what these formulas mean.

For now, the point is that true devotion means transformation. It means taking Jesus as our all – de Montfort’s personal motto was “God Alone!” And it means taking Mary as a means of focusing our lives more totally on Jesus.

True devotion is not a consecration formula that we follow once and then forget. True devotion is a life transformed.

How could you make Jesus a bigger part of your day?

Religion of the Heart

our-lady-of-sorrows-05_0For whatever reason, the priest at the Mass I attended today left the feast out of the Liturgy of the Word.  He did the prayers for Our Lady of Sorrows, but for the Gospel, instead of either option listed in my Missal (either John 19, at the foot of the Cross, or Luke 2, the prophecy of Simeon), he just did the Gospel for Tuesday of this week, Luke 7:11-16.  He didn’t preach on it, but for me, it was a very happy coincidence.

The reading was the widow of Nain.  “When he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and many people of the city were with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, ‘Weep not.’ . . . And he said, ‘Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.’”

It is a splendid Gospel for Our Lady of Sorrows.


Jesus has compassion on the heart of the mother.  The Greek word here for compassion is one of my favorites.  It’s the word for how Jesus felt when he saw they were like sheep without a shepherd, and when he wanted to feed the hungry thousands.  It’s the word for the lord in the parable who forgave his servant’s debt.  And it’s the word for what motivates both the good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son.  Nice.

Even better, it’s the verb form of the word in the Canticle of Zechariah when he says, “through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

But to really understand this word, we need one ugly use of it.  When Peter is talking about replacing Judas at the beginning of Acts, he says, “Now this man obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”

The word is splagchna, a delightfully splattery word for “guts.”  The pleasant way to translate it might be “viscera,” which we use in English mostly as “visceral.”  Something is “visceral” when you have an emotional reaction in your splagchna, your guts.  It’s deeper down than your heart – more visceral.  The liturgy is a bit too tender when it says “tender compassion.”  The words are “the guts of his mercy,” the visceral gut-wrenching of his compassion.


Christ’s reaction to the widow of Nain – as his reaction to us, his wandering sheep – is gut-wrenching.  He has a compassion that makes him sick.  “I am sick with love,” says the Bride in the Song of Songs.  It’s “langueo” in Latin: I languish, I’m dying.

The remarkable thing in the story of the widow of Nain is that she too is languishing with love.  Christ has compassion on the gut-wrenching pain of the mother for her son.  His heart is poured out for hers – just as his heart is poured out for Mary at the death of her son.  Heart speaks to heart.


Now, as I hope becomes clear as we focus on the compassion of Christ, the mystery here is really more about love than sorrow.  In our Italian parish, there seems to be a desire to portray Our Lady of Sorrows – she seems to be a favorite Italian image (I don’t know, I’m sure not Italian) – as overwhelmed with tears.  As I’ve said before, I prefer the tradition that insists that Mary stands at the Cross: she is strong in her sorrow.

And she is strong for the same reason she is sorrowful: because of love.  So too, the love of Jesus makes his guts churn, yes – but in a way that leads him to action: like the Good Samaritan (Jesus is the Good Samaritan) or the father who runs out to meet his son.

The point isn’t that they collapse in tears.  The point is that they are overwhelmed with love.


The heart – understood in this visceral way – is the heart of our religion.  Catholicism is profoundly personal.  (We have ritual, in fact, to create the space for truly personal encounter with Christ.)  The hearts of Jesus and Mary are essential to understanding who they are, and who we are meant to be.

Christ became flesh so that he could pour his heart out for us.  We who are flesh receive the love of God in our hearts to make them fleshy hearts, so that we will pour out our hearts for him.  Heart speaks to heart, splagchna to splagchna.


The first reading for today, it just so happened, was from Paul’s instruction on bishops, deacons, and their wives.  The place of the women here is a little awkward: their behavior matters (especially at a time when many bishops and deacons, the text makes obviously, were married).  But they are not in charge.

Ah, but there’s the point.  Our religion has nothing to do with being in charge.  Jesus is moved with compassion for the widow of Nain not because she is in charge, but because she loves, and he loves.  That love is everything.

That is the true lesson of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.

Where do you experience the viscera of Jesus and Mary?  What moves your splagchna to mercy?


The Assumption: Our Feast

dormitio2Today’s feast, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is in a sense the biggest feast of the year.

Of course, Easter is the biggest feast of the year, and Christmas is close behind.  But whereas Easter and Christmas celebrate the actions of Christ, the feasts of the saints, and above all today’s feast, celebrate the consequences of Christ’s actions, the victory he has won.

It is like celebrating the painter and his paintings.  Of course there are no paintings without the painter; everything great about the paintings merely reflects the genius and technique – the wisdom and power – of the painter.  On the other hand, we know precious little about the painter without studying his paintings.  The paintings express his greatness, and they are the reason for his work.

Protestantism rightly underlines the centrality of Christ.  But all the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is on display in our celebration of the saints, and their failure to celebrate them.  The Protestant Jesus doesn’t accomplish much; he gets sinners to heaven, but he doesn’t make them holy.  The Catholic Jesus creates masterpieces.

Mary is nothing, nothing at all, without Jesus.  She receives everything from him – as a blank canvas does not paint itself.  But Mary is Jesus’s greatest masterpiece, the clearest splendor of his wisdom and power, and the promise of what Jesus offers to us.  In this sense, Mary, and especially her Assumption, is the Gospel.


We celebrate the saints on their death days – the day of their birth into heaven.  This is that day for Mary.  (We don’t know if Mary died before her Assumption; the Tradition tends to say she did, though modern devotion tends to assume she did not.)

Mary has many feasts, but this is the feast of her victory, her ultimate feast: the ultimate feast of the saints, the ultimate feast of Jesus’s work.  The other Marian feasts celebrate particular aspects of Mary – even January 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God, is a celebration of her maternity, her role in Christmas.  Today we celebrate her sanctity, her victory, Jesus’s ultimate gift to her.

It is a feast, first of all, of sanctity.  We can say she “earned” the Assumption through her sanctity – as long as we hear those words the way Catholic theoloy calls us to hear them.  First, sanctity itself cannot be earned, it is a gift.  It is Jesus’s work in her soul.  That’s the most important reason we celebrate the Immaculate Conception: to remember that Jesus worked in her before she even existed, intervened in her very coming to be.

Second, the Catholic theology of “merit” is about congruence, not earning.  It isn’t that Jesus “owed” her heaven.  It’s that he made her worthy of heaven.  Heaven means standing in the presence of God, worshipping him forever.  The Protestant theology of heaven without merit – if we understand merit appropriately – is a contradiction, as if we could enjoy God’s presence without loving him.  Mary “merited” heaven in the sense that her heart was truly converted to love of God; it made sense for her to be in heaven, whereas we, with our sin, wouldn’t fit: sin means that we don’t really want to be in God’s presence.

Today we celebrate that Jesus has made Mary fit for heaven.  We celebrate the joy of heaven, and we celebrate the Gospel promise that Jesus can do that “great thing” for us, as well.


Today we celebrate, alongside Mary’s soul ascending to heaven, Jesus bringing her body to heaven, too.

In this, we celebrate above all the humanity of heaven.  We celebrate, in fact, the image of God.  It’s tempting to think we would have to be something different to fit into heaven.  That’s Satan’s greatest lie, one he tells us over and over again: holiness is no fun, holiness means denying your nature, not really being you.

Jesus did not have to take Mary’s body into heaven.  But in doing so, he proclaims that our whole selves fit into heaven.  Our body is not the obstacle.  Sin is not about our bodies; holiness is not about being less bodily, or less human.  Jesus (the Word through whom all things were made) created us in the beginning in his image and likeness; he created us so that we, in the fullness of our humanity, can ascend to the presence of God.  We haven’t done that yet – but in the Assumption of Mary, Jesus shows us that our bodies are no obstacle to heaven.


Finally, like everything else about Mary, the Assumption proclaims Christocentrism.  It is only our proximity to Christ that can save us.  Again, Jesus didn’t have to do anything.  But he chose to make her “full of grace,” and to give her the unique privilege of the Assumption, as a way of proclaiming the Gospel.  By giving this special privilege to Mary, to rise before the General Resurrection, he reminds us that everything flows from our closeness to him.

How does devotion to the Assumption of Mary help you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Eph. 4:1)?

Jesus in the Hail Mary

mary-baby-jesus1We might know Jesus better, and pray the Hail Mary better, if we see how his portrait is painted in that prayer.  There are at least six images of Jesus there.


“Full of grace.”  The first word we hear, before we even hear mention of Jesus himself, is grace.  Grace that fills.  Grace that brings happy greetings, and blessings: Ave!

The Hail Mary – and the Angel Gabriel, who speaks these first words – makes a striking choice, putting Mary before Jesus.  Hail Mary!  Not yet Jesus.  Full of grace!  It is as if to say, the one who is coming is good news.  The one we are about to speak of impacts you, for the better.

Imagine turning it the other way: “The Lord is with you.  Full of grace.”  Lucky you.  Perhaps, maybe, we would say, yes, all that “full of grace” means is that the Lord is with you.  You’re lucky – for something outside of you.  But it has no real impact on your inside.

Instead, the Angel says to Mary, and the Hail Mary says to us, hey look, look at the joy that has burst into her heart.  That joy begins with Jesus – it is grace.  But it is a joy we can see in Mary already, before we even get to Jesus.  He really transforms her!  Fills her with his blessings.


“The Lord is with you.”  Now we get to the real portrait.  LORD, of course, is Biblical language for the God of Israel; it’s the way Jews (and Mary and Gabriel are Old Testament people) avoid saying the unspeakable divine name, YHWH.

Again, there’s rhetorical genius in putting this first.  We’re about to see a baby.  At the very least, we will see something present to human beings.  But the first word is: beware!  This is God!  This is infinitely more than you can imagine!  The one who is with you is . . . the LORD!  And everything else, everything about how grace works, and the Christian life, and Christian spirituality, and what it means to be Mary: it is all about our relation to the great I AM before whom Moses removes his sandals.


“The fruit of your womb.”  But the very next image of Jesus is the opposite: after speaking of his divinity, the Hail Mary speaks of his humanity.  Her womb: what heaven cannot contain, has been contained in a small space – the small space of her belly, and the small space, too, of an infant.

Fruit: as if to emphasize that this is not just something “in” her womb, it’s something that comes from her, something proportionate to her, really her child.  After seeing him as God, we now see that he is profoundly human, as well.  He is the great I AM who has become, truly, a poor woman’s child.


“Jesus.”  “You shall call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).  Jesus means savior.

And it is like a culmination of what has come before: anything less than God, the LORD, could not save us.  But the way he chooses to save us is by becoming one of us.  He blesses us (“blessed art thou among woman,” in your humanity) by himself sharing in our blessedness (“and blessed is the fruit of your womb”).

He shines his grace into us – truly into us, truly permeating our humanity – by radiating that grace from his own humanity.  He makes our hearts love by having himself a human heart that loves.  Fills our suffering with divine love by himself making suffering divine.

That is the salvation he brings – that is “Jesus”: man filled with God, the LORD becoming the fruit of Mary’s womb.


“God.”  Then the second half of the prayer asks Mary to pray to God for us.  From this image of Jesus we look heavenward, and ask the Divine to bless, transform, divinize our sinful humanity.

“God” is the only part of this prayer common to all religions.  We all look heavenward and ask for blessings.  But we who know Jesus – the Jesus of the first part of the Hail Mary – look to that God in a new way, beseech his blessings in a new way, beg, indeed, for new blessings, the blessings of Jesus, of God entering into the very heart of man.


“Mother of God.”  The final image of Jesus in the Hail Mary is relational.  Mother of God is a statement first of all about Jesus, not Mary.  It says, not that she is raised above God, but that he has subjected himself to his people.  She cannot make herself mother – only God can make her to be mother.

And yet he has.  “Mother of God” stands for all the fantastic-ness of God daring to put himself in our hands, to come that close to us, to make it so that we can beg to him not just as the divine, but as the one who has become ours.  As an old Marian hymn says, qui pro nobis natus, tulit esse tuus: who, born for us, suffered himself to be (truly) yours.

Let us pray!

A Thursday Meditation on the Wedding Feast at Cana and the Heart of Mary

280px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-24-_-_Marriage_at_CanaLet us enter into one of the luminous mysteries by considering the virtues and the beatitudes.

Consider Mary’s Faith.  Cana seems to be the very first miracle of Jesus (though even if we’ve seen miracles before, it’s hard to believe they can happen again).  She has absolute confidence that Jesus can do the impossible and that he loves us enough to do it, even in this thing, so insignificant and so concretely miraculous.  And her faith draws her to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Hope.  She believes in Jesus’s power over creation.  And she believes in his love for his creation, a love that does not destroy the couple, does not destroy his creation, but builds them up, in the happiest, most affirming way.  And her hope draws her to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Charity, her love for God and for man.  She loves God’s creation, loves marriage, loves the celebration, loves the wine that blesses it!  She loves the couple, thinks of the couple, frets over the couple.  Ah, but most of all, think of how she must have loved Jesus, the deep, joyful affection she must have felt when she saw his love for the couple.  And love unites her, profoundly, in an ever new way, to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Poverty.  She has nothing.  She has nothing to offer but her prayers.  She asks nothing for herself, but for their happiness.  Even what she asks is nothing that can be hoarded, only the pleasure of celebrating human and divine love.  And in her poverty she relies on nothing but Jesus, and loves nothing but Jesus, and the joys of his kingdom, celebrated in the marriage feast.

Consider Mary’s Sorrow.  Such a rich, real, human sorrow: “they have no wine!”  Not a selfish sorrow, not a whining sorrow, but a deep compassion for the needs of others, for the deeply human needs of a bride and bridegroom to celebrate their wedding.  And because this is what she sorrows for, she is consoled by the presence, the love, the concern of Jesus, only Jesus, who brings the most abundant consolation.

Consider Mary’s Meekness.  She does not fight, does not blame, does not strive – she only inherits.  Meekness does not grasp, but trusts in the Father to provide.  “Whatever he says”: we receive everything as total gift, trusting that he will not leave us orphans.  And he gives her the earth – not just pie in the sky, Jesus provides wine, here and now, for this celebration, of this marriage.  He cares for the meek on the earth – and her meekness binds her to him even more.

Consider her Hunger and Thirst for Justice.  Justice doesn’t mean punishment or vengeance.  It means things should be right.  The poor couple!  This isn’t right, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!  At Cana, Mary doesn’t only long for heaven, she longs for things to be right here on earth (and so glimpses the true heavenly city, where all is right).  She thirsts not for the wine, but for the blessing of their wedding, the celebration as it should be.  And Jesus always satisfies.  How that love of Justice makes her love him all the more.

Consider her Mercy.  Misericordia: it is a heart for misery, a feeling of others’ pain.  In Greek we say Eleison, connected to begging for alms, eleemosyne.  She feels for them; her heart is totally united to their disappointment when their wedding feast isn’t as it should be.  She begs for them.  And mercy is hers!  When she feels mercy for them, she feels even deeper the merciful heart of Jesus.

Consider her Purity of Heart.  There is nothing selfish here.  Nothing worldly, either.  What a wonderful mystery, the wedding feast at Cana: there is nothing impure about weddings, nothing impure about feasts, nothing impure about good wine.  It is all the gift of the Creator.  Our hearts are impure, and so we experience all these impurely, to be sure.  But the pure hearts, Jesus and Mary – in these goods things they see only God, the giver of good.  Purity of heart does not hate the world, it just loves God – and loves Jesus, the God who enters into the world, with blessings!

And consider how she Makes Peace.  Fascinating: there is no war here.  To the contrary, what is happening in a wedding, and in a feast, is a union of hearts.  The true peacemaker goes far beyond disarming combatants, or putting them in separate corners.  The true peacemaker makes a banquet, celebrates real fraternity, real, deep union.  Daughter of God, Mary witnesses God as the Father who makes union among his children.

And so she sees the real heart of Jesus, the adorable, wonderful, peacemaking Jesus, the Bridegroom who brings joy to every wedding and every feast, here and in eternity.

How could you contemplate the loving heart of Jesus today?

The Presentation and the Heart of Mary

van der weyden presentationAnother day late, I would like to offer a meditation on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The Presentation points us to the heart of Mary – most immediately, for two reasons.

First, it is here that we get the prophecy, “and your own soul a sword shall pierce”: Simeon points us forward, and tells us that Mary has her own kind of share in the suffering of Christ.

Second, the Presentation is of course the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and for many, I think, one of the most baffling. What are we supposed to learn from this mystery? It seems a shame to let this feast pass without taking a stab.

(I recently read a Catholic giving the advice that we need real, personal prayer – “not just the rosary,” he said. Well, if we pray the rosary badly, with our lips and not our hearts, then we certainly need more. If we pray it well, “with our minds in harmony with our voices,” as the Rule of St. Benedict tells us to pray the Psalms, we find in the rosary the great revelation of Jesus Christ – and, at the same time, the great revelation of the heart of Mary, which reveals the true depths of our own hearts. There is nothing more Christ-centered or more “personal” than a rosary well-prayed. So today, let us consider the riches of this obscure mystery.)


The first point about the Presentation is sacrifice: they came “to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.”

Luke is quoting Leviticus 12, which says, “two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” A holocaust is burned entirely, a sign of worship, an acknowledgement that all we have comes from God and is meant to lead us to God. The sin offering is not burned entirely – part is saved for the priest to eat – as a sign, on the one hand, that we are incapable of worshiping God properly without help, but on the other hand, that we are purified through worship.

But sacrifice is about the heart: it is not the doves God wants, it is Mary’s heart. Indeed, what Leviticus 12 first says is, “if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons.” The Old Testament always makes provision for the poor. The point is, it doesn’t matter to God whether it’s a lamb or a turtledove or whatever: what is important to him is the worship that is offered, in the hearts of his people, through these sacred signs.

In fact, whether lamb or dove, they are only symbols of offering the child himself. God doesn’t want us to kill our children – but he does want us to worship through them.


That leads to the meaning of this child, the Christ, “the consolation,” or “calling near,” “of Israel,” that Simeon awaits; the “salvation,” the “light for revelation,” the “glory” that Simeon proclaims; the “redemption of Jerusalem” that Anna proclaims.

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself [literally: your soul] a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Jesus is redemption. But here in the Temple, when he is first offered as sacrifice, he is “for the fall” as well as the “rise . . . a sign that will be contradicted.” Jesus, says our reading from Hebrews, will be “tested through what he suffered,” and so will we.

Like every sacrifice, Jesus reveals what is in our hearts. When we discover that God is beginning and end, the giver of every gift and the only true joy, are we bitter, or exultant? Are we cheerful givers, or do we resent God?

His suffering will pierce Mary’s heart with a sword. How will she respond? How does she respond at the Presentation, when she offers sacrifice? Is she glad to know God, or sorry?


And thus “the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The grammar is interesting: the contradiction of Jesus reveals the thoughts of hearts, their opposition to God’s glory or their rejoicing in it.

But so too does the piercing of Mary’s heart: will we stand with her, or against her? Will we join her in joyfully offering sacrifice? Or will we refuse, for “fear of death” (as the reading from Hebrews says), fear that God must be greater than all other goods, that we must offer our own lives, even our children, to him?

“Who will endure the day of his coming?” says the first reading, from Malachi. “For he is like the refiner’s fire”: the sacrifice, the obedience demanded, to prove whether we accept God as God, or whether we refuse to serve. Will we join Mary, and “offer due sacrifice to the LORD”?

Where is the refiner’s fire in your life today? Where does God call you to acknowledge him?

New Year’s: Pondering with Mary

swaddlingThe Jews circumcised their baby boys on the eighth day, as our Gospel reading points out: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision” – so for many centuries January 1 was called “The Circumcision of the Lord and Octave of the Nativity.”  But the reform after Vatican II took us more deeply to the point: having celebrated the birth of Christ, we now celebrate what his parents do with him, and call it “The Octave Day of Christmas Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”

What this works out to is a great way to frame the New Year.  Christmas is almost like a prelude.  The New Year is associated with Mary: who is, precisely, what Jesus means for us.  Let us make every new year a Marian year, joining Mary to live in light of the coming of Christ.


The reading for the circumcision takes us into two ways Mary relates to the word.  First, the circumcision is also the feast of the naming of Christ: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel.”

This is a big deal, both in the Bible and in the Liturgy.  In Matthew’s account of the Nativity, which focuses on Joseph, this is precisely his task: “Joseph, son of David,” says the angel, “fear not to take Mary as wife . . . .  She shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . .   And they shall call his name Emmanuel . . . .  She brought forth her firstborn son: and he [Joseph] called his name Jesus.”  Joseph must name Jesus.

Luke’s Gospel, focusing on Mary, also culminates in her giving him this name above all names.

The old Liturgy thus celebrated the feast of “The Most Holy Name of Jesus” on the Sunday after January 1, or January 2, depending on when Epiphany fell.  The liturgical reform briefly lost this feast, but St. John Paul restored it, to January 3.  (This is a nice example of how we can continue to rediscover tradition, not by rejecting the reforms, but by moving forward through them.)


But Mary relates to the word in another way.  Our Gospel reading, leading up to the circumcision, begins with the shepherds “find[ing] Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.”  This is appropriate for the feast of Mary Mother of God: when we find Jesus, we find Mary beside him.

But the rest of the reading gives a fabulous insight into who Mary is.  The shepherds “made known the message” – the Greek rhema focuses on the words that the angels spoke to them. And those who “heard it were amazed”: the sight of the child becomes amazing when we hear the words that explain who he is.  A baby is not amazing: but these words make him amazing.

And then Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”  Unfortunately, the translation is not very literal: in the Greek, she keeps the words, the rhemata.  That’s what she keeps in her heart.


In college we used to wonder at a statue of Mary holding a rosary.  “Did she pray, ‘Hail me, full of grace’?” we joked.

But the answer is, yes, Mary pondered the words.  First the words of the angel: it says, “she was stirred up by his word, and ‘worded’ what kind of salutation it might be,” then she asked him to explain about it, with words – in fact, despite all the un-Scriptural preaching about how the angel asked her permission, that isn’t in the Bible.  What does happen is that Mary “dialogues” with the angel, pondering his words, begging explanation to take her deeper.  And she concludes “be it done to me according to your word.”

Now she ponders the words of the shepherds.  Next she will wonder at the words of Simeon, and then after the Presentation, she will again “keep all these words in her heart.”

And she will “call his name Jesus,” the word above words.


One of the driving insights of this webpage is the great phrase from the Rule of St. Benedict’s nineteenth chapter, “On the Discipline of Psalming”: “let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”  In short, true prayer ponders the words: the divine words given to us.

With Mary, let us ponder the other readings tomorrow.  “The LORD let his face shine upon you”: those words should be pondered!  May he “give you his peace”: hold those words in your heart!

The Spirit comes to let us speak – the word in Galatians is for how a raven (or a parrot) croaks words it barely understands – “Abba, Father.”  We babble, we barely understand – but let us, with Mary, ponder all these words in our heart.

And above all, the name of Jesus, “savior.”  Mary pondered that name, that word, deep in her heart.

Could you make a New Year’s resolution about finding more space to ponder God’s word?


The Immaculate Conception and the Gospel

mary cushing serpentToday’s feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary – “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin” – provides an excellent opportunity to review the central points of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.


1. It is possible to be without sin.  Mary never sinned.  Her heart never wavered.

Here’s a corollary that might help us take this doctrine seriously.  Recently, popular piety has focused a lot on Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation.   Often this turns into drama about God wondering whether she would say no.

But the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness means – among others things – simply that there was no chance of Mary saying no.  That’s not who she was.  Mary was as likely to say no as – less likely than – say, Pope Benedict is to break into a Lady Gaga song.  That’s just not who she is.

And that’s our destiny: we too are called to be without sin.  Heaven, in fact, is the place where there will no longer be any chance of our saying no: not because we don’t have the chance, or don’t have the freedom, but because that won’t be the kind of people we are.

2. “Without sin” really means “close to Jesus.”  Why Mary?  Well, we believe this doctrine because Scripture tells us she was “full of grace.”  Not because we think it had to be so – God did not need to make Mary full of grace – but because God tells us that in fact he did it.

Nonetheless, why did he do it this way?  To show that sinlessness is not really emptiness of sin, but fullness of grace.  And fullness of grace is really fullness of love: love of Jesus.  God made Mary the preeminent saint because Mary shows us that it’s all about loving Jesus.

3. It is human to be without sin.  Jesus was “like us in all things but sin.”  Often in our self-understanding that means “not like us at all.”  But the importance of his sinlessness is to show that sin is not what makes us human.  In fact, sin makes us less human.

And the reason for Jesus’s coming is precisely to redeem our humanity, to let us be full of grace.  Mary’s sinlessness shows the true face of redeemed humanity.

4. God wants us to be without sin.  He wants us to be full of love, set free from the bondage of sin.  That’s the point.  That’s why Jesus came.  Any idea of Jesus or of the Gospel that isn’t laser-focused on liberation from sin simply misses the whole point.

Mary is central to the Gospel – in a way, Mary is the Gospel – because the whole point is that Jesus actually does something for us, and what he does is to fill us with grace, fill us with love, and thus completely drive out our sin.  To talk about the Gospel without talking about this liberation is not to talk about the Gospel at all.

5. Jesus is the way.  But again, why Mary?  The wonderful long prayer “the breastplate of St. Patrick” says, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me.”  Jesus is above all with Mary (“the Lord is with you”) and within her, both in her heart and in her womb.

But notice too: he is behind her and before her.  “Before her” (or, in front of her) in the sense that grace causes her to gaze on him and love him.  But “behind her” in the sense that it is he who gives her that grace.  It is Christ who causes us to love him, Christ’s grace, the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit, that is the cause of our love: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

6. Jesus is the beginning.   And that grace is the beginning.  God’s grace is given to us at Baptism – but God’s grace draws us to Baptism.  God’s grace is given to us when we profess faith – but God’s grace causes us to profess the faith in the first place.  Grace comes from touching Jesus – but it is grace that leads us to reach out to him in the first place.

We call this “prevenient” grace: the grace that “comes” (veniens) “before” (pre-) our choices.  Mary does not earn the grace of Christ.  She is given it at the first moment of our conception, before she does anything at all.

This is the Gospel.  Let us celebrate it with joy today!

Are you ever tempted to ways of thinking about your faith that are inconsistent with Mary’s Immaculate Conception?