Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Rosary, and Consecration

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7To continue our October meditations on the rosary, let us consider what we can learn about it from a devotion that arose around the same time, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

At least in our part of the world (northeastern New Jersey), there are a lot of churches dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, including my family’s parish. The simplest reason for that is historical. Emigrants from Italy typically boarded ship at Naples (the biggest city in the southwest of Italy). There is a Carmelite monastery and church right on the bay in Naples, with a couple popular images and a tower that can easily be seen as emigrants left the old country behind. With the fear of the journey, many vows were made to this last image of home.

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But devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel goes deeper. It reaches, first, to St. Simon Stock, elected general of the Carmelites (1247-65) at their first chapter, in England. Simon Stock is said to have seen a vision of Our Lady, in which she offered him the scapular, the long outer garment of the monastic habit, worn like a long apron over their full-length tunic. (Mary is also said to have appeared to the Dominicans and probably other orders to give them their habits, especially their scapulars.)

In the same thirteenth century (“greatest of centuries”!) a kind of third order arose by which lay people associated themselves with the total consecration of life exemplified by the religious orders. Part of this association was to wear some version of the order’s habits; the small scapular seems to have been one of the thirteenth century approaches.

Our_Lady_of_Mt_CarmelSo Our Lady of Mount Carmel also stands for that scapular, given to the religious orders, and then taken on by the laity. Just as many images of Mary have her handing the rosary to the people, so too does the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel show her handing the small brown scapular to the people.

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But to understand this parallel, we need to go a step further back into the history of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel is a range of mountains, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea sort of east-southeast towards Nazareth, in Galilee in the north of Israel. It is a few miles south of Acre, one of the main fortresses and mostly the capital of the Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

At their best (and they were often not at their best), the Crusades were about pilgrimage. Along the road, pilgrimage is a kind of penitence or repentance, putting one foot in front of the other to signal a turning of one’s whole life toward the Lord. The destination of a pilgrimage signals some connection to Christ’s coming into the world; true penitence turns us toward Christ. That was, of course, most powerfully evident in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

And so some of the soldiers and pilgrims settled down to live a life of conversion and union with the Incarnate Lord. Mount Carmel became a central location for this. It was the place of the holy hermit Elijah, and of a great tradition after him. It was relatively safe, because close to Acre. But it was also in the land of Jesus’s home, close to Nazareth.

The Carmelite order began, then, as hermits gathered on Mount Carmel, around a central cave-chapel dedicated, as appropriate for something so close to Nazareth, to the Mother of God: they were the hermits of the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Their habit was a sign of their consecration; their outer garment, their apron or scapular, was a sign of preserving their habit, and their consecration, spotless.

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In the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she wears the habit of Carmel. The connection points both ways. She enters into the consecration of the Carmelites, and they enter into hers. Her habit shows that the true meaning of their consecration is to live in perfect devotion to the mystery of Christ Incarnate. She holds the small scapular out to us as an invitation to join in our consecration.

So too she holds out to the rosary as an invitation to join in her consecration. Like the habit of Carmel, it is meant not just as an external, not an occasional practice, but a total conversion of life, by entering into the intense spirituality and union that is Our Lady’s consecration to Jesus.

How could you better enter into Mary’s consecration to Jesus?

The Rosary and the Virtues

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7There are many ways to pray the Hail Mary well, but notice that it is particularly useful in meditating on the virtues.

Hail Mary: the greeting means health, happiness, good news. We can approach it as an immediate entry into the transformation God has worked in her. Hello, oh virtuous one! How fortunate you are to be good!

Full of grace: in Catholic theology, grace is the effect of God’s work on us. In one direction, this greeting reminds us, immediately, that Mary’s virtues are a gift from Christ. In the other direction, they remind us that Christ really does give her gifts, really does fill her with his graces, to make her good.

The Lord is with thee: this says almost the same thing, but in reverse. Her virtue comes from her nearness to Christ. But it also exists for his presence: he makes her good so that she can meet him, so that she can fully embrace his presence.

Blessed art thou among women: in her own vocation, as a woman, in her own humanity, how fortunate she is – to be good, filled with Christ’s grace, so that she can encounter Christ in all the mysteries of the rosary.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus: oh, and how good he is! How her virtues mirror his, and his virtues mirror hers – he who comes to share in her nature, to be so close to her that he can have human virtues, and she can have divine ones.

Holy Mary: the truest definition of her virtue is holiness. What a prayer these two words are in themselves: just to ponder the holiness of Mary. And again, holiness is defined as a gift from God, really changing her, so that she returns to God.

Mother of God: the second half of the prayer makes a turn, from simply meditating on Mary’s virtues, to begging her to pray for us. And so we invoke her power, the strange relationship that allows her, with the audacity of Cana, to beg Jesus to act. But it is the audacity of cheek-to-cheek: she is not God’s boss, but rather the one he has chosen to let hold him in her arms.

Pray for us sinners: we ask her to pray precisely in relation to our non-holiness, our lack of virtue. You have it, Mary – pray for us who don’t!

Now and at the hour of our death: in all of our needs. Looking forward to our death, we realize how deeply we need to be transformed, to be like Mary, so that we can cling to Jesus even in the hardest times.

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Each mystery of the rosary gives us an encounter between Mary and Jesus. They are not all really meditations on Jesus himself: in the first two and the last two, at least, he is kind of hard to see.

But neither are they mysteries of Mary alone. She is not even present for many of the luminous and sorrowful mysteries, and Mary’s whole life is defined by relation to Jesus. If we separate her from him, we lose everything.

At the end of the Paradise, Dante sees the Trinity in the eyes of Mary. In the rosary we see Jesus in the eyes of Mary. We see the gaze, the union, the connection: him living for her, and her living for him.

This comes especially alive if we meditate on the virtues. Each mystery makes tremendous demands of Mary. Each mystery, in fact, demands all the virtues: that she figure out how to live (prudence), leave behind pleasure (temperance), fulfill her human obligations (justice), believe the unthinkable truths of God (faith), trust in his strength (hope), and love. Each mystery gives us an opportunity to see what every virtue looks like in its fullest development: in the encounter with Christ.

But so too each mystery lets us see those virtues radiate out from Christ himself. At the Cross Christ demands the ultimate fortitude from his mother – and from his Sacred Heart it radiates to her, so that she stands with his strength. These encounters with Christ that are the mysteries of the rosary show us what it means for Christ to give us the strength to meet him.

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There are traditional lists of virtues, one for each mystery. But we can bring whatever list we want, meditate on whatever virtue we are looking for. We can do one virtue per rosary, one per mystery, or even one for each Hail Mary. I like to count to ten with Faith, Hope, Charity, and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the Seven Beatitudes. (This is easier if you just pray one mystery at a time.)

What virtues do you find in the mysteries of the rosary?

The Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so October is a month specially devoted to the rosary. We will take some time this month to consider some practical strategies, rooted in the medieval spirituality from which the rosary was born, in order to pray the rosary better.

This week, let us consider the Liturgy of the Hours.

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The Liturgy of the Hours, you probably know, consecrates the day as a whole to prayer by giving special prayers to the main moments of the day.

Psalm 119 says, “In the middle of the night I will rise to give you thanks” (v. 62) and “Seven times a day I praise you” (v. 164). The Tradition fulfilled the first line with Matins: the name means “early in the morning,” but it was before Lauds, or morning prayer. And so as not to double-count Matins, they added to the natural six-fold division of the day (rising, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, evening, bedtime) another hour, “prime” (literally “one hour into the day”), somewhere between lauds and mid-morning.

But notice, with regard to Matins, that the interpretation of the line is not as strict as it first appears. St. Benedict (c. 8), for example, says that during winter, “they should rise at the eighth hour of night, so that they may stop for prayer a little after the middle of the night.” They get to the Psalm’s “mid-night” by sleeping specifically “eight hours.” In the summer, “let the hour for the prayers of ‘waking’ be set so as to allow sufficient time for the brothers to attend to the necessities of nature before the prayers at the rising sun.” Here, midnight is frankly abandoned, replaced with early morning. He even says these prayers should be shortened “on account of the shortness of the night” (c. 10).

In short, the principle was not a rigid adherence to a divinely commanded schedule, but exactly the opposite: the principle was to scatter prayer throughout the day, at the most convenient times.

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But note, with regard to Prime, the pure joy in fulfilling the Scriptural text. The Psalm says “seven times a day,” and they said, yes, let’s do it, let’s go all the way. Seven is in Scripture a number of completeness, and they embraced the Psalm’s encouragement not to stop short of praying at all the moments of the day, even bordering into the inconvenient.

And they did it precisely through the Psalms. They only are interested in fulfilling this particular line because they love the Psalms as a whole. The Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies all those hours of the day precisely by plunging into the divinely inspired prayers of Scripture.

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What does all of this have to do with the rosary? Three things:

1. The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its original spirit is not to be segregated into one part of the day, but to season the whole day with prayer.

2. The deeper insight of the Liturgy of the Hours was not only that each hour should have its prayer, but that prayer is done better when spread into shorter, more intense moments. Modern devotion seems simply to disagree: to prefer the Holy Hour (which is also good!) to this spirit of sprinkling prayer throughout the day, and to pray the rosary all at once. But the medievals insisted that we can pray more deeply when, rather than watching the minutes tick by till our hour is complete, we pray as hard as we can, even for just five minutes, and then return to do it again a few more times in the day.

3. The Liturgy of the Hours was Biblical – and so too is the Hail Mary. The words are not to be missed. It’s hard to pay attention to fifty Hail Mary’s. But if we pray just ten at a time, perhaps we could pray them really well, and discover the richness of the Biblical words.

What I am proposing, then, is that one way to get the most out of the rosary is to make it into a Liturgy of the Hours (and even a supplement to the “real” Liturgy, if we pray that too). The Creed and the first three Hail Mary’s are a fabulous way to begin the day with a profession of faith. Then scatter five mysteries through five separate times of day, if you can, so that your whole day is seasoned with the rosary, and so that you can pray each decade intensely. And end the day, as the monks long have, with the Hail Holy Queen—and with the conclusion of the rosary.

Are there ways you could pray more intensely, and more frequently?

Grace Does Not “Build On” Nature

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin

This Monday is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Mary’s Birthday). It is a nice time to reflect on the adage, “grace perfects nature.”

The phrase is often incorrectly paraphrased, “grace builds on nature,” and understood to mean something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” Someone might say, God will “perfect” your virtue, but “grace builds on nature,” so you need to take the first steps.

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This understanding of “grace builds on nature” is a heresy, called semi-Pelagianism.

Pelagius was a British (or perhaps Irish) monk in the early 400s. He went to Rome, where he was known for his saintly life and theological writings. But sometimes a saintly life goes with bad ideas – because one’s saintliness is not as great as it appears, or because one’s practices are better than one’s description of them.

On the practical level, Pelagius argued that holiness was ours for the taking. God has done his part. You just need to “try harder!”

On the theological level, he argued that original sin is not really an infection, but more like a bad example. The Gospel, then, heals us only by teaching us how to try harder. We need a better example, but we don’t need our souls to be healed.

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St. Augustine and others responded with concern – based on both better self-knowledge and better knowledge of Scripture.

We need more than good example. We need grace. Pelagianism became understood as the heresy of denying the need for grace.

But the controversy went on for several years, allowing the argument to become clearer, and giving the Church the chance to think through more carefully what Scripture and the Tradition really taught about grace.

“Semi-Pelagianism” refers to various attempts to modify the Pelagian account so that grace plays some role. But these attempts are called “semi-Pelagian” because they don’t take grace seriously enough to account for the Christian faith.

So the Pelagians said, “nature is grace!” Our ability to just try harder is grace – and then it’s up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Scripture is grace!” God gives us the gift of his teaching – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that.

“Plus, faith is grace!” Knowing that Scripture is the example we should follow is a gift – and the rest is up to us. To which the Church says: no, grace means more than that. This is all still “semi-Pelagianism.”

Grace does not “build on” nature. Grace is not something that God gives us to get us started, nor is grace something God gives us after we get ourselves started. Grace goes all the way through.

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Grace does not “build on” nature, it perfects nature. To understand this, think of the birth of Mary. What are we celebrating here?

We are celebrating promise. This little child has the possibility of union with Christ. She has the potential for Christ to be conceived in her womb. – human nature is such that Christ can be united in it.

And she has the potential to be Queen of Heaven. Grace will not do away with this person, will not replace her with something else. It will perfect her. In this child we see the possibilities of human nature.

Here the “nature” in “grace perfects nature” is not Mary’s natural effort. It’s her self. To say that grace perfects nature is to say that it is she herself who will be fulfilled by grace: her human desires and potentialities.

To celebrate the baby Mary is to think that this creature, who has not yet done anything, is the kind of thing that can become Queen of Heaven. It is to see the promise built into human nature.

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Celebrating the birth of Mary also points us backwards nine months, to the Immaculate Conception. We see that before she has made any effort at all, already God is at work in her, healing the wounds of original sin and leading her to the life of heaven.

Thus the birth of Mary points both backward, to the work of grace that precedes her natural effort, and forward, to the artwork that grace will bring about in her.

But it also points to the present: to Mary herself, as the human being in whom grace operates. The “nature” in “grace perfects nature” points to that reality: her, herself.

It is here that human effort comes in: not that our effort adds anything to God’s grace, but that it is precisely in our personal transformation, in our nature, that grace happens.

How could you better meditate on the awesome work of God’s grace?

St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, Preacher

de MontfortWe welcomed this Marian month of August with the feast of the Preacher St. Dominic. Let us end it thinking about the Third Order Dominican missionary preacher St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), best known as the greatest of all apostles of Marian devotion, and author of the classic True Devotion to Mary.

Today we will focus on St. Louis as preacher. He was first educated by the Jesuits, and then at the original Sulpician seminary in Paris, heart of the new “French School” of spirituality, established by great spiritual heroes including Cardinal Bérulle (1575-1629), St. John Eudes (1601-1680), St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), and especially Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657) particularly to renew the heart of the priesthood. But de Montfort finally decided to become a Third Order Dominican.

The Dominicans share with these other groups a great love for Mary. But they are distinct in their emphasis on preaching, and it is to the mission of preaching that de Montfort devoted his life.

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De Montfort’s True Devotion is a challenging book, for at least two main reasons.

The first is the radical drama of redemption that he spells out. On the one hand, of course, is his very high devotion to Mary. An uncareful reader could think de Montfort places Mary in the center, though he is insistent that she is not.

The book begins, “It was through the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus came into the world, and it is also through her that he must reign in the world.” He insists throughout that Mary is essential entirely in order to keep our focus clearly on Jesus.

He aims “to show that Mary has been unknown up till now, and that that is one of the reasons why Jesus Christ is not known as he should be. If then, as is certain, the knowledge and the kingdom of Jesus Christ must come into the world, it can only be as a necessary consequence of the knowledge and reign of Mary.”

“With the whole Church I acknowledge that Mary, being a mere creature fashioned by the hands of God is, compared to his infinite majesty, less than an atom, or rather is simply nothing, since he alone can say, “I am he who is”.

Mary is placed very high to help us keep Jesus at the top.

On the other hand, he so emphasizes sin that an incautious reader could confuse him with the absolute negativity of the Jansenists. “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.”

In truth, these two teachings, the horror of sin and our absolute dependence on Jesus, go together. In short, de Montfort emphasizes the great drama of Redemption.

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A second thing that is hard about de Montfort’s True Devotion is that he is short on practical details.

He condemns “false devotions to Mary”: the Scrupulous, the Superficial, the Presumptuous, the Inconstant, the Hypocritical, and the Self-interested.

He recommends various devotions: the Magnificat, the Hail Mary, the Rosary, the Feast of the Annunciation, as well as some lesser-known ones like “the Little Crown” of twelve Hail Mary’s, and the wearing of symbolic “little chains.”

And he offers a four-week plan for consecration to Mary, perhaps the best known part of his teaching. But there is nothing to prevent one making this consecration and still remaining superficial, presumptuous, inconstant, hypocritical, and self-interested.

He says true devotion is interior, trustful, holy, constant, and disinterested. And he says the truest practice of devotion is through “contempt for the world.”

But how does that work? What do we do? He doesn’t tell us. In the end, True Devotion according de Montfort is an attitude, a worldview, not a technique. There isn’t any particular thing to do. True Devotion is about how we look at the world.

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And that is where the two difficulties of True Devotion – the overwhelming drama of Redemption and the lack of practical details – come together in the mission of de Montfort as a preacher. Finally, True Devotion – to Mary, to Christ, to the Christian faith – is not about concrete practices. It is about how we see the world.

That means preaching. And it also means study. Not study of the Summa, and not study just for professors – to the contrary, de Montfort insistently focused on preaching the Gospel to the poor and simple. But we must “study” our faith through thoughtful meditation on the rosary, on the Hail Mary, on the Our Father (which he calls “the most beautiful of prayers”) and other Scriptural prayers, and on the whole of the truth of our Catholic and Biblical faith.

Let us consecrate ourselves to a deeper awareness of the truth of faith.

Are there ways that we get to busy “doing” to be properly aware of the drama of sin and redemption?

The Queenship of Mary

coronationTomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Queenship of Mary.  The feast comes on the octave of (that is, one week after) the feast of her Assumption.  The Assumption celebrates Mary passing from this world to the next, and is the bigger feast.  But as a conclusion of that feast, the Church gives us a meditation on what heaven is like for Mary.  Mary is Queen.

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Now, the first thing to see here is that this privilege is not unique to Mary.  St. Peter says we are a “royal” or “kingly priesthood” (I Pet 2:9).  Paul says, “If we be dead with him, we shall also live with him.  If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12).

And in John’s great book about heaven, Revelation, he says, “God made them a kingdom and priests, and they reign on earth” (Rev 5:10).  “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast, nor his image, nor had received his mark upon their foreheads,or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev 20:4).  “They shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years” (20:6).  “There shall be no night there; and they need no candle, nor light from the sun; for the Lord God gives them light.  And they shall reign for ever and ever” (22:5).

As in all things with Mary, she shows only the perfection of union with Christ, the highest perfection to which all are called.

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Mary, and Mary’s Queenship, simply shows us perfect conformity with God – reigning with Christ, by entering into Christ’s reign.

The greatest theologians say it is unclear how exactly Mary reigns with Christ – or, in what sense Mary is “Mediatrix of All Graces,” as Catholic piety sometimes wants to say.

Does Mary herself distribute God’s grace?  Or does she merely ask God, and he does whatever she asks?  Garrigou-Lagrange, for example, says we don’t know.

What’s interesting is that it amounts to the same: what Mary asks for, happens – because Mary asks for exactly what Christ wants her to ask for.  She reigns because she has perfect conformity to Christ’s plan.  To be perfectly part of his kingdom is to share in his reign.

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The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are always useful for thinking through what grace really means, and who Mary is – but they are especially helpful here.

In heaven, Mary has perfect wisdom.  She sees God, and in seeing God she sees all things perfectly, and the place all things have in God’s perfect plan.  Her reign is founded first on seeing as God sees.

From this flows also perfect understanding.  In the Beatific Vision, Mary understands all of Scripture, all of Christ’s words, all the ways he intends things to be.  A perfect Queen is so at one with the King that both would order the same thing.  That is Mary.

Next comes the gift of counsel, which merely means that in the difficult cases, the Holy Spirit illumines her eyes to see the relevant detail, and so to know exactly what is necessary to make the perfect choice.  We call Mary “Our Lady of Good Counsel” because she sees as God sees.

From counsel flows the gift of fortitude.  Completely caught up into conformity with Christ through the driving force of the Holy Spirit, and so with her eyes completely on the Father, Mary never fails to follow through, never gives up before the time.  We could say Heaven is less like being stuck in a place then like having the strength to cling tenaciously to the clouds.  Mary never fails.

Then comes the gift of knowledge, which is merely the created side of the gift of wisdom: Mary sees and appreciates creation exactly as God wants it.

The center of creation is the children of God.  The gift of piety means Mary loves God’s children, the citizens of his city, the way they deserve to be loved – and so participates perfectly in his providence for them.

And finally, the gift of fear, like the gift of fortitude, means she shudders ever to fall away, would never take her eyes from God’s goodness and his perfect plan.

It is the gifts of the Holy Spirit that make for a perfect sharing in the Kingship of Christ.  We look to Mary to see the possibility of our reigning with him, and to see the gentleness and the goodness of his reign.

How could we meditate on Mary so as to help us focus more on the reign of the Holy Spirit in us?

The Assumption of Mary

dormitio2

Readings for the Vigil Mass: 1 CHR 15:3-4, 15-16; 16:1-2; PS 132:6-7, 9-10, 13-14; 1 COR 15:54B-57; LK 11:27-28.

Readings for the Mass During the Day:  RV 11:19A; 12:1-6A, 10AB; PS 45:10, 11, 12, 16; 1 COR 15:20-27; LK 1:39-56

Mary is the perfect proclamation of the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and salvation.  Tomorrow we celebrate the Assumption, not only of Mary’s body – though that is essential – but of Mary herself.  This is the Gospel: that God draws us, our very selves, into heavenly union with him, through Christ our Lord.

The readings for our feast are exquisitely beautiful.  So rich are they for this grandest of feasts that the liturgy gives us two distinct sets of readings, one for the vigil, one for the day.  There is too much for just one liturgy.

But we will try to contain ourselves, and touch on them all in less than 800 words.

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The Vigil’s reading from Luke warns us against misunderstanding.

“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”  “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  The Gospel is not about our bodies.  The Assumption is not about the body of Mary.  It is about clinging to God’s word.  (The Greek is more personal than “obey”: it’s about guarding and keeping.)

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Yet there is a relation between our heart, where we cling to God’s word, and our body.  Our body is where we live it out – but the relation goes even deeper.

The Vigil and the Daytime liturgies both read from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul discusses the resurrection.  The Vigil gives us the ending: “the sting of death is sin . . . .  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Daytime reading tells us more.  Death is “the last enemy.”  It is the ultimate enemy, the destruction of our very selves.  Pagan mythology sometimes came up with consolations for death, by claiming it was a liberation.  But those consolations were necessary because it is so obviously the ultimate destruction.

Maybe we can glimpse some of the awfulness of death through the words of St. Thérèse.  Amid all her sweetness and joy, as she lay dying, she also said things like, “I was lost in darkness, and from out of it came an accursed voice: ‘Are you certain God loves you?’”  “Oh! how necessary it is to pray for the agonizing! If one only knew!”  “Dear Mother, the chalice is full to overflowing! I could never have believed that it was possible to suffer so intensely.”

Death is horrible, because it is the destruction of our very selves.

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But death begins with the sin of Adam: “death came through a man . . . all die in Adam.”

And on the other hand, Christ rules over all: “he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,” “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

Sin brings death because sin is the destruction of our selves.  Christ destroys death because he brings life to our souls, and so brings everything, even our bodies, into the kingdom of our Father.

The Resurrection, and the Assumption, is just part of bringing everything to the Father.

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The Daytime Mass also gives us Revelation 12, the battle between the woman, the mother of him “who is to rule over all nations,” and the dragon.

We hear the same story, told a different way.  The dragon brings destruction, even of the physical world: “His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven.”  He hates God’s creation; sin is hatred of God’s creation.

But God brings protection, even of the physical world: “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God,” and there is even a mysterious invocation of God’s care for time: “for one thousand two hundred sixty days.”

At the center is the Incarnation: “the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. . . . But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne.”

Christ, who is to rule over all, brings all things, even the body, into the Father’s kingdom.  The victory, though, is not the body’s.  The victory is Christ’s.

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At the Vigil Mass, Jesus says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”  But at the Daytime Mass, in the same Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth says of Mary, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary – not her body, not her disembodied soul, but Mary herself – is the one who hears the word of God and guards it, in her heart, in her womb, in her footsteps to the house of Elizabeth.  That’s why her voice, her bodily presence, brings joy to Elizabeth’s womb.

And that’s why Mary, Mary herself, body and soul, is taken up to heaven.

Are there parts of us that we that we find irredeemable?  What would it mean to let Christ rule even there?

The Easter Joy of Our Lady 

Christ appears to his Mother, Rogier van der  Weyden

Christ appears to his Mother, Rogier van der Weyden

Queen of Heaven rejoice: alleluia!
For he whom you merited to bear: alleluia!
Has risen as he said: alleluia!
Pray for us to God: alleluia!
Rejoice and be glad, Virgin Mary: alleluia!
For the Lord is truly risen: alleluia!

During the Easter Season, the Church turns us to the joy of Mary.

It is said that St. John XXIII’s favorite part of being Patriarch of Venice, before he was elected Pope, was an Easter morning tradition.  At daybreak, an old Monsignor would enter the Archbishop’s apartment and announce, “Christ is risen, our Lady rejoices!  Let us go to Mary to share in her joy!”  Then they would go to the altar of Our Lady in the Cathedral of St. Mark and pray to enter into Mary’s joy.

On one level, this is just a pious meditation.  It’s a way of thinking more seriously about the resurrection.  The resurrection is no abstraction.  Christ was a real human being, something nowhere more evident to us than in thinking about his mother, who was naturally most deeply attached to that humanity.

His dying was real sadness, and so we join Our Lady of Sorrows in thinking about that sadness.  But his rising was real joy, and it’s hard to think of a better imaginative way to enter into that joy than to think of how his mother’s heart would have pounded when she saw him alive again.  These are things that happened in his humanity, and it is right to experience the human emotions of sorrow and joy by meditating on his human mother’s responses.

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But of course this goes deeper than just a pious imagination, because it points to the reality of the Incarnation, to hard doctrinal truths.  In 431, the Council of Ephesus, the third great ecumenical Council, proclaimed that you cannot embrace the truth of who and what Christ really is without actively embracing the truth that Mary is Mother of God.

These pious meditations help us enter into the reality of his humanity.  This is no illusion, no vague idea.  It is a real man, with a real mother, who died and rose again.  “If Christ has not been raised,” says Paul, really, truly raised, in the flesh, the real humanity born of Mary, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14) – because if his flesh cannot be raised, neither can ours.  Death would still be the end for us.

Pious meditations on Mary’s Easter joy help us think seriously about the reality of the incarnation and the resurrection.

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But in fact it is even more important to come to grips with Mary’s joy.  Without joy, life without end is no good news.  The truth of the Gospel is not just that we will rise from the dead.  The heart of the Gospel is joy itself.

Always there are these two poles: the truth about Jesus, and the truth about what Jesus does for us.  The deeper resurrection is not the resurrection of the body.  The deeper resurrection is the resurrection of the soul: the restoration of friendship, of love of God and neighbor.  In heaven we will have bodies, yes, but this is the least of heaven’s joys.  In heaven we will also have risen from the death of sin, and of all that impedes love and joy.

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The Hail Mary takes us into the roots of this joy.  “Hail,” remember, means rejoice.  It is good, especially in this Easter season, to dig into that word, to spend a few seconds now and then lingering on Mary’s joy: “Rejoice, Mary!”

And then to let those opening words lead us through the rest of the prayer.  Hail, rejoice!  Because you are full of God’s grace: because he has healed you, and lifted you up, and made you all beautiful.  Because he has filled you with his presence: the Lord is with you, and you are with him!  Rejoice!

You are blessed, blessed as an ordinary woman, but also lifted up by his grace, above the ordinary.  You are blessed as he is blessed.  And how blessed is he, the fruit of your womb!  How blessed is that life that has been united to yours!

Holy Mary, so close to God, pray for us, that we too may enter in that joy.

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This is the joy that carries Mary – and us – even through the Cross.  But it is good to linger in it in this season of Easter joy.

 

 

Feast of the Presentation: Jesus the True Priest

van der weyden presentationMAL 3:1-4; PS 24: 7, 8, 9, 10; HEB 2:14-18; LK 2:22-40 

This Sunday falls on February 2, so we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and one of the more obscure ones. This feast teaches us two things: first, Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament; and second, it is precisely in that way that he comes very close to us.

“Suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek.” The scene is the temple in Jerusalem. The faithful of Israel – never more than a remnant: not all of Israel, but the faithful are true Israelites – await the Lord, they long for “the messenger of the covenant,” the fulfiller of the Old Testament. (Covenant and testament translate the same word.)

Simeon “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel.” The “prophetess” Anna is one of the most obscure characters in the Bible – why is she in the story? But we know she is “of the tribe of Asher,” a true Israelite, and “she never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” True Israelites, joyfully seeking God in his temple.

Mary and Joseph are true Israelites, too. “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord.” They did everything “in according with the dictate in the law of the Lord”; at the end of the story, they returned to Nazareth “when they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord.” Faithful Israelites, fulfilling the law of the Temple.

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These are poor people. The law in question says, “if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lev. 12:8). Mary, of course, brings the true lamb, the richest sacrifice of all – but in material things, she is very poor. Notice the gentleness of the Law. It is not burdensome.

We sometimes have an image of this horrible law of the Old Testament. But the Jews who lived it did not find it horrible. They prayed, “The law of the LORD is perfect . . . . The jugments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19). Sometime flip open the endless Psalm 119: every single verse (there are 176 verses) extols the goodness, the sweetness of God’s law.

The “purification” itself is a mercy. My wife and I appreciate this more every time we have a baby. After the birth of a baby, the woman was “unclean.” People assume this is a condemnation, a put down: women are yucky. But that isn’t what it says. “Unclean” simply means “she shall not come into the sanctuary” (Lev. 12:4). It means she should stay home from church, so to speak.

But that is the same thing our midwives tell us: not because they hate women, but because they love them, and respect them, and want to care for them. What we are talking about is an automatic dispensation for new mothers: stay home! Recover!

Once she is recovered, she and her husband make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her reappearance is celebrated. She doesn’t just show up at synagogue one day. She is given a special ceremony.

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And here is the most important thing. The new father and mother are given something to do. Far from unclean, they have a priestly task. Think of how powerful it would be, to bring your new baby, not just to your home parish (though that’s pretty exciting, too), but to the great temple in Jerusalem, to offer up a true sacrifice.

This is the point. The Law and the Temple provided for a very human religion, a religion that blesses the key moments of human life, a religion that binds together a people (so that these serendipitous meetings, like that of Mary and Joseph with Anna and Simeon are the norm), and makes allowance for human weakness while still allowing you real access to true worship. How beautiful is the Law of the Lord!

Jesus comes into that Law. He expands it to all people. In Simeon’s words, “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” is “the glory of his people Israel.” He does not destroy that very human religion, but invites us all into it. A truly merciful, inclusive high priest.

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What human parts of our religion most excite you?

Through Mary

mary-baby-jesus1We now come to St. Louis de Montfort’s third way of describing the Christian life: life “through” or “by” Mary – the French is par.

We look to Mary as the source of all life. The main point of doing this, and the way it shapes our life, is that we recognize our need for grace. On the one hand, simply to recognize that we are not self-sufficient is to make great strides in the spiritual life. The Desert Fathers said the heart of the spiritual life is simply to pray constantly the Psalm verse, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” To live in light of salvation.

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This frees us, on the one hand, to recognize our sin. On first read, de Montfort’s take on this can be off-putting. In an infamous passage, he tells us, “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.” I know I am not the only one who put this book away the first time I read things like that!

But de Montfort’s point is not about our sin, but our salvation. When we recognize that God sends his grace to heal us, we no longer have to hide our sin. We can acknowledge our stupidity precisely because we know it is not the last word. Pope Francis speaks of “the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin”: the point is not to wallow in sin, but to feel that caress, and know that our sin is the occasion for God to send his healing mercy. I don’t have to defend myself; Jesus handles that.

Second, to recognize our constant need for grace is to recognize that, beyond our sin, God also calls us beyond the limits of even sinless nature. What the heart of man has never imagined, God has prepared for us (1 Cor 2:9). To live always by God’s power is to realize he calls us not to what our limited power can reach, but “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): the very life of the Trinity.

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But why through Mary. Why not just say through Jesus, or with the Desert Fathers, “God come to my assistance”? In fact, de Montfort’s own motto was “God alone!” Why then through Mary?

First, ironically, because Mary emphasizes Jesus. It is so very easy for Jesus to become an abstraction: either a super man, or just sort of a face of God. The Incarnation itself – what happened in the womb of Mary – really does surpass our capacity for understanding. To focus on Mary is precisely to focus on Jesus. To say “all through Mary” is to say “all through the mystery of the Incarnation”: no grace comes to us except through that amazing union of God and man. That is the source of our healing – not some vague God in the sky, but the one in Mary’s womb.

Second, Mary helps emphasize for us the human effect. Grace is God’s work – but it is in the heart of man. To think of Mary as Queen of Heaven is important precisely because it reminds us that a human person can become Queen of Heaven, that we really can enter into the heart of God. That purity from sin is a possibility: an impossibility by our own efforts, but possible by God’s grace. And perfect, divine, Trinitarian love: that can actually happen in a human heart. Mary abides in the heights of heaven, in the heart of the Trinity! Gosh, that is so hard to believe that we need to think about it. To live “all through Mary” is to live in constant union with the truth of what God has done in her, and calls us to let happen in our own hearts.

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Third, to think of Mary is to think of the mystery of election, and predilection. Mary is lucky, the luckiest one of all. She did not earn God’s love. Nor do we. We shoud realize how lucky we are: to know the truth of the Gospel, and even more, to have the fire of the Spirit in our hearts. We should not put too human a face on God – it is easy to replace God with something far less. But it is important to remember the tenderness of grace, the personal relationship, the personal choice – not first ours of God, but God’s choice of us. Mary helps to give us that personal touch, without washing out the mystery of God.

All through Mary!

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How does Mary help you understand God, and Jesus?