Friday, March 15, 2013

Lenten Talk: St. Stephens, Sherman 

LENTEN TALK: ST. STEPHENS, SHERMAN: 2013: The Passion of the Lord through the eyes of His Blessed Mother

I have to confess to you that I have always viewed Lenten addresses with an assigned topic as a nuisance. It is something I have always refrained from doing myself, when inviting priests to speak at St. Francis on the grounds that priests are already busy enough in Lent without having to follow the whims of another parish priest. However, I understand the problem: the result of leaving the topic to a visiting priest is at best mixed. I remember one priest who decided to do a show and tell of his collection of Anglican vestments in colonial America. Not exactly on topic for Lent. Or the young priest who spoke about all the occasions when Jesus had shed His blood.  We knew we were in trouble after 45 minutes had past and he had only finished with the Circumcision.

But I can hardly complain about Fr. Yoost asking me to speak on “the Passion of the Lord through the eyes of his Blessed Mother.” What other set of eyes would we want to use? Surely not the eyes of His enemies, the High Priest, Pilate, the Roman Soldiers and the mocking crowd. His cowardly apostles with the exception of St. John hardly qualify as eye witnesses. Simon of Cyrene, a tourist forced into service, and Veronica, an attractive but ephemeral character in the drama, are not of that much help either. The mother of Jesus alone is the interested party to the whole affair and for that very reason interesting to us.

Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. The Lord says through the prophet Isaiah Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. It may be that all mothers have a good memory. We might even sometimes think too good a memory, when they tell stories about us, which we would just as soon not hear, never mind have heard by someone else. In any case the Mother of Jesus must have had a good memory and really the key to understanding her thoughts on the way to the Cross is probably to reflect on the Joyful Mysteries as much as the Sorrowful Mysteries or to see the Sorrowful through the Joyful.

What was it that brought Mother and Son to this terrible moment: Pilate’s verdict, torture, mocking, jeering crowds, the brutal soldiers, the unbearable weight of the Cross, abandonment, and the rest?  Long before Jesus said “not my will, but thine be done,” Mary herself had set the whole series of events in motion with her fiat: “be it unto me according to thy word.” Faith was the prerequisite of the Annunciation and even more profoundly so the prerequisite of walking the way of the Cross. Faith at the beginning is hard but it is not Faith, if it does not endure to the end. Mary was not disillusioned but in fact her faith had deepened. But those are the choices for Mary and you and me, before us all on the way with Jesus: despair or faith especially when the angel is no longing speaking to us, reassuring us, strengthening us. In a real sense Mary’s faith had set in motion the way that led to Golgatha.

When Mary visits Elizabeth, the joy of the Annunciation, the recognition of Mary as the Mother of the Lord, and the speechless sermon of John the Baptist in the womb bursts forth in Mary’s song, the Magnificat. The amazing thing about the Magnificat is the way in which Mary treats events, which have not yet happened as if they have happened.

He hath showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

But Mary has learned by carrying these things in her heart that Joy will only become Glory, when it has passed through Sorrow. She had heard and treasured in her heart His words:

I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself . . .

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit . . .

The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified . . .

Or those words of Jesus, perhaps the most disturbing of any,

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

Mary on the way of the Cross is not only a Mother but also a disciple.

The exaltation of the humble and meek was the lifting up of Jesus on the Cross of glory The food of the hungry would be the wheat of Jesus himself fallen into the earth and dead? The strength of his arm would fail him three times as he fell to the ground.   The hour of his glory, which Jesus told her was ‘not yet’ at the Wedding in Cana, would come
outside the walls of the city on the hill of Calvary.

How we rejoice in the mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas and how little do we understand what it means. But the clues are all there.  The political reality of Caesar, which decrees a census can also decree a death sentence. The swaddling clothes and the winding cloth of the tomb. The gifts of the Magi including myrrh, useless for a new baby but what is required for the dead. The blood of the Circumcision showing that this child is vulnerable not only to the Rabbi’s knife but also the whip, the thorns, the nails, the spear. And it is this context that St. Luke tells us:

Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart

Mothers do not forget and especially they do not forget the details.

None of this should suggest that Our Lady was immune to the sheer human grief and sorrow of her Son’s death. Not only had Simeon prophesied that Jesus would a sign of contradiction, “a sign spoken against,” but he had also told his Mother “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” That suffering is redemptive, that it is necessary, that it is not meaningless, does not mean that it does not hurt. Jesus does not tell us that if we take up our cross and follow him, it will not hurt, he does not tell us that it will make us immune from pain, like some Oriental guru might. Simeon’s prophecy concerning Jesus and Mary is not just a poetic metaphor but the simple truth about hearts pierced at once by the love of the Father and the stupid cruelty of human beings.

But this is not the first time Mary has lost her Son. The lost boy Jesus looks backwards and forwards at the same time. Back to Abraham, with whom she identifies herself in Magnificat. Like Abraham, everything about Mary is overshadowed and consumed by her faith.  So much so that there is not room for anything but faith. Like Abraham with Issac,  she must sacrifice her child, her joy, that which causes her spirit to rejoice in God. Unlike Abraham but like God the Father, she must see this sacrifice through to the end. There is no Deus ex machine, no ram in the thicket to replace the Son demanded. The Resurrection is not that. The Resurrection presupposing the full and complete death of Jesus, his placement in the tomb, the stone rolled closed, the descent into Hell. Mary’s faith is ultimate faith, faith which has no quick confirmation or relief.  Did Our Lady despair? Did she give up like the rest of them? Scripture is silent. But this we can say, she was full of grace, grace full and overflowing and if she did not despair, there is the cause, the grace of the Father, who led Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land. Can he not raise the dead?

All of this because

She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart

So must we.

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