There is one person in the church's canopy of saints who continues to baffle me. This is not because this person is strange or odd, in the usual meaning of these words. Rather, it has more to do with wonder, invitation, and even personal challenge. The person, as you probably already guessed from the picture, is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
As we get closer to Christmas, not only do we celebrate significant Marian feasts (Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.), but we are inundated with images of Mary and Jesus as a child or baby; cards received in the mail, stamps on letters, programs on television, book covers, etc. The image of Mary is probably the second most prevalent one during this season, after Santa and the reindeer, and her story is just as murky and yet fascinating. The major difference is that one is a man who is the artificial, seasonal personification of goodness and grace (gift), and the other is a woman who is the real thing, the actual person whose goodness and grace opened the door for God's indwelling mystery.
Following up on my last blog entry about the "point" being the acquisition of the Spirit of God, Mary popped into my mind when I read a quotation related to that "point" from Meister Eckhart shortly thereafter, near the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: " If someone were to ask me: why do we pray, why do we fast, why do we perform our devotions and good works, why are we baptized, why did God, the All-Highest, take on our flesh? Then I would reply: in order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God. That is why the whole of Scripture was written and why God created the whole world and all the orders of angels: so that God could be born in the soul and the soul in God."
That dynamic, of the soul being born in God and God in the soul, gives a hint as to what "The Immaculate Conception" might truly mean. The very popular misconception that the term refers to the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not through natural means is regrettable. It's got nothing to do with Jesus, yet. It has everything to do with Mary. God's "vessel" - and not just physically, or even primarily - would be suffused with God's presence, with the Holy Spirit. In order for God's life to be made real in our strange, often confusing, and certainly mysterious world, God's presence is first manifest in a woman's willingness to BE "the handmaid of the Lord." Hence the critical piece of the annunciation.
Fred Buechner in his book The Faces of Jesus really says it best for me:
The angel says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” He tells her not to be afraid because the floor has failed her and the sheltering wall no longer gives her shelter; not to be afraid because most of what is familiar to her has faded and flaked away like a painting. Heaven has flooded in. And heaven kneels before her now with outstretched wings. But she is not to be afraid. She is not to be afraid of all that lies beyond her: a lonely birth on a winter’s night, a child she was never to understand and who never had time to give her much understanding, the death she was to witness more lonely and more terrible than the birth. “Behold,” the angel says, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Behold. He is asking her to open her eyes. . . . Mary pondered these things in her heart, and countless generations have pondered them with her. Mary’s head is bowed, and she looks up at the angel through her lashes. There is possibly the faintest trace of a frown on her brow. “How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man?” she asks, and the angel, the whole Creation, even God himself, all hold their breath as they wait for what she will say next. “Be it unto me according to thy word,” she says, and jewels blossom like morning glories in the arch above them. Everything has turned to gold. A golden angel. A golden girl. They are caught up together in a stately, golden dance. Their faces are grave. From a golden cloud between them and above, the Leader of the dance looks on. The announcement has been made and heard. The world is with child.
Wonder, invitation, and personal challenge. All these are part of what I imagine Mary dealt with in her dance with God - her vocation, if you will. Fred's words highlight the fact that it was through her response that new life came to be, that God freely became human. I imagine that it is also through our responses, in normal daily circumstances, that God comes to dwell in our midst and that of others. The same dynamics of wonder, invitation, and personal challenge are at play.
Do I really understand it? No.
Do I need to fully need to understand it? No.
Does it invite me to wonder and personal challenge? Yes.
That's enough for now. I don't think I'm ready for anything else.