In my early twenties I had the opportunity to visit the Benedictine abbey and shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, situated in the jagged mountains above Barcelona. I was not then a Christian, but was driven by curiosity to see this local holy place with its distinctive, black image of the Virgin and Child. I watched as an elderly man lifted a little boy, presumably his grandson, to kiss the wooden ball held in the tiny hand of the boy Jesus. I surrendered to a yearning felt in my body – to connect with the divine not just anywhere, but somewhere, in this physical place to which I had traveled many miles from home. Without needing to understand why, I too kissed that image of the earth held in the hands of a divine child, held in the lap of a human mother, on the top of a mountain in Spain.
For the feast of the Annunciation
It is a particular joy of mine to celebrate the various feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and especially today’s feast of the Annunciation. I grew up in a parish dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, and both parishes in which I served had small churches dedicated to her. The joy, however, is not about much loved buildings, as it is because of what we say, and believe about Mary, and her role in the mystery of the Incarnation. What we say, and believe about her, says a great deal about the mystery of God, and our vocation as Christians.
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest may say two prayers over the bread and wine immediately following their placement on the altar. In these prayers, the bread is called the fruit of the earth, the wine, the fruit of the vine; both are identified as having been received through the goodness of God, and both are called “the work of human hands.” This understanding, what I’ll call the “offertory posture,” positions us and our labors as intertwined with God’s own goodness and creativity. Our work, and the fruit of it, is also the fruit of God’s creation, and anything we create is to be viewed as coming ultimately from God, and offered back to God. This reciprocity of giving involves continuous interchange between God and his people.