What if this story is all about Mary’s brain?
The beats of today’s Gospel reading are familiar to most of us. Here at the Monastery, we recount them in the Angelus, which we pray before Morning and Evening Prayer. “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary . . .” pause, “and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
So much happens in that pause. And what if it’s all about Mary’s brain?
Of all the young women God could have chosen, God chose Mary. And what is the first thing we find out about her? That she hears the angel’s news, is perplexed, ponders over his words, and questions him. The first thing we find out about Mary is that she responds to God by using her own God-given faculties of reason and intelligence.
Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites provides a cognitive description of this episode: “The word comes to the hearing of the Virgin, and enters through it to the brain; the intelligence which is seated in the brain at once lays hold upon what comes to it, recognizes it by its perception, and then communicates to the heart itself what it had understood.” This then leads Mary to question the angel to determine the truth of the angel’s words. Only after she verifies the truth does Mary gives her yes to the angel, and to God.
Most preachers, when they reflect on their preaching, will find that they have a few themes that they come back to again and again. For me, one of those themes is the question of what it means to believe. I return to this theme repeatedly because I want to challenge the popular understanding that believing means holding a certain set of statements or claims to be true – statements, for example, about God or Jesus or the Bible or salvation. When we speak of believing in this way, Christianity becomes a matter of the head rather than of the heart.
We know that faith does not spare us from the pain of human existence. Believing does not guarantee that we will never have cancer, or suffer the loss of a loved one, or lose a job, or watch a business fail. Believing does not solve all our problems or make us rich or popular or successful. It does not exempt us from the experience of pain and suffering. It does not make everything right.
Feast of the Transfiguration
One Christmas, rather than giving individual presents to members of my family, my aunt gave my family several posters to hang in our basement room. That fall we had built a very 1960’s “rec room” where my siblings and I could invite our friends and not have to worry about either noise or mess and my parents could then reclaim the living room as their space. So, my aunt decided to help us decorate the space, and hence the posters that Christmas as her gift to all of us.
There were several posters, but the one I remember best was of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. I remember it, not because even then I was a budding theologian, but because I found it so curious. Created in the early years of the Sixteenth Century, Michelangelo’s Moses was regarded by the artist himself as his most lifelike creation. Once finished he is reputed to have struck the statue on the knee with his hammer and exclaimed Now, speak! To this day you can see a chip in the marble on Moses’ knee where Michelangelo’s hammer is said to have hit.
But that’s not what I found so curious about this image. It wasn’t the chip in the marble. It wasn’t the power and force of the figure. It wasn’t the lifelike quality of the statue. No, none of these drew my attention. What drew my attention, and what I found so curious, and what I did not understand until many years later, and you may know this, but what drew my attention is that Moses had grown horns! Yes, there are two stubby horns emerging out of Moses’ head like horns emerging out of the head of a maturing goat!
As the days have been getting longer, I’ve been taking advantage by going for late evening walks in the woods surrounding Emery House. Day gives way to night, and the woods are transformed. Although I’ve walked these paths dozens of times now, I feel that I encounter something new each time—grazing deer, the shape of a tree, the color of the sky. I try to walk without the aid of a flashlight, not only trusting my own experience of the trails but also being open to their illumination by a different light.
The First Nations Version (FNV), an Indigenous translation of the New Testament, renders the familiar “kingdom of God” as “Creator’s good road.” This is particularly striking in the teaching on wealth leading up to this evening’s Gospel passage, where Jesus notes that “finding and walking the good road is a hard thing for the ones who have many possessions,” and “the ones who trust in their many possessions will have a hard time finding their way onto the good road” (Mk 10:23, 25, FNV).
We all have moments when our hearts our troubled, the kind that makes our guts churn, saps our resolve, and makes us turn inward.
We mess up. We fail. Like Peter, in the passage before today’s Gospel, we make lofty promises—“Lord, I will lay down my life for you”—only to fall short.
Or we look at what is going on around us—in our community, in our country, in the world—and we despair. We despair at our helplessness and powerlessness, at all that we know to be wrong but that is beyond us to rectify.
The apostle Thomas is often branded as the stooge of the apostles – “Doubting Thomas” – but that is both unfair and inaccurate. In actuality, the opposite is true. There are two encounters in the Gospel, prior to what we’ve just heard, that shed light on the apostle Thomas. One scene was in Galilee, when Jesus first said to the disciples that he would return to Judea because his friend Lazarus had died. Very risky for Jesus. The disciples knew full well about the death threats against Jesus (and probably against them, too). Many of the disciples protested Jesus’ plan to return to Judea. But it was Thomas who really understood Jesus. Thomas pleaded with his fellow disciples not to desert Jesus but to stay with him. Thomas said, “Let us go that we may die with Him!”[i] Perhaps more than any other disciple, Thomas was prepared to abide with Jesus to the end. Thomas had been following a Messiah whom Thomas knew would suffer and die. Not true, it seems, for the other disciples.
The other scene was in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before Jesus was seized. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. No idea. It seems only Thomas had the courage to admit that the disciples were clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We do not have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?”[ii]
When was the last time you walked into the ocean? Or sat on the sand with the surf washing up over you? Do you remember the force of the tide, the effort needed to maintain your footing or seat, to counter the push and pull of the current against your body so that you could remain planted in the sand, firm, upright? Do you remember saying to yourself, “Okay, now, I’ve got it,” just before a wave hit you and knocked you over?
Jesus’s listeners in today’s Gospel are trying to find their footing, to find a place to stand upright. “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jn 8:24). His listeners are desperate, pressing Jesus for details – so desperate that, even though they don’t understand what he is saying to them, nevertheless, “many believed in him” (Jn 8:30). But the current of Jesus’s truth will be too strong for them; by the end of this chapter, these same people who believed will try to stone Jesus (Jn 8:59). Their belief is without a firm foundation, unable to brace them against the next wave.
Learned people were already impressed by the knowledge of this precocious Jesus by the time he was age 12, maybe earlier.[i] Now there is something more. He is age 30 or so, and now people are asking, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”[ii] In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[iii] He is called the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iv] Wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is about one’s breadth of information; wisdom is about one’s depth of understanding. Jesus had become wise.
The English words “wisdom” and “vision” come from the same etymological root. Wisdom is a kind of deep seeing, an “in-sight,” what Saint Paul calls “the enlightening of the eyes of the heart.”[v] Wisdom is not a skill, nor is wisdom learned from a book. Wisdom is a gift from God, a seedling implanted in our soul at birth that needs to be cultivated. Here are two practices that cultivate the gift of wisdom.
Fabian of Rome
Fabian, whose feast we keep today, is probably not someone many of us spend time thinking about. Somewhat obscure, at least to our mind, he’s none the less a fascinating character, who intrigues me.
Born about the year 200, probably outside Rome, he became Bishop of Rome in the year 236 as a result of a series of accidents. Eusebius of Caesarea gives an account of his election.
Fabian, we are told, was visiting Rome the day the Roman Church was gathered to elect a new bishop. Curious, Fabian joined the crowd. Eusebius goes on to say: a large number of eminent and distinguished men were in the thoughts of many, Fabian, who was present, came to no one’s mind. But suddenly, it is said, a dove fluttered down from above and settled upon his head, plainly following the example of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Saviour in the form of a dove. At this, as if moved by one divine inspiration, with the utmost enthusiasm all the people with one soul cried out “he is worthy”, and then and there they took him and set him upon the bishop’s throne.
Jesus says: Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Endurance is intimately associated in the New Testament with the posture of active waiting for the “day of the Lord.” In today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus draws our attention to the urgency, the sense of responsibility, and the vigilance that the day of the Lord awakens in those who are waiting for it in faith. This is a theme we’ll hear a lot more about in a few weeks, during the season of Advent.
But after introducing this theme in today’s reading, Jesus places the “day of the Lord” in the background, and directs our gaze to the foreground of Christian persecution. Jesus prophesies about the challenges Christians will suffer at the hands of both public authorities and those people closest to them in their web of human relations. This is a shift from “out there” in space and time to “right here,” to up-close and personal events involving everyday encounters, that must take place first.