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.
Is anything too wonderful for God? It’s a worthy question. How are you disposed to answer? Is anything too wonderful for God?
It’s hard for me to give an unqualified response. Is anything too wonderful for God? No, but…
There are ways that I am inclined to protect my hopes and expectations from disappointment. Ways that I may choose to limit God’s ability so that God conform to the pattern I have ostensibly observed. Perhaps I’m like Sarah in that regard. Laughing in the face of an irrational proposition. After a long life had taken its natural course, Sarah was aware of the typical pattern of women ceasing to bear children after a certain point. She had not been able to conceive while she was in child-bearing years, let alone now that the time had passed. We might excuse her laughter but her mysterious interlocutor didn’t. With a childlike simplicity he challenges her settled assumptions. Is anything too wonderful for God?
The centurion in our gospel passage today also had a life of experience that had inclined him in a particular direction toward the wonderful acts of God. But his posture of faith and trust was such that it amazed even Jesus. After so frequently being doubted, challenged and question for a sign, for proof of his power and authority, Jesus seems to be refreshingly shocked that some pagan Roman occupier was willing to approach with open expectations and trust. “You mean, you’re willing to just believe?” And more than that, the Centurion doesn’t even want to micro-manage Jesus into doing it his way, dragging him to his servant’s bedside, making sure that Jesus uses the right gestures, the perfect phrases, maybe a dramatic shout to ensure that the servant is healed. Rather, he simply trusts that Jesus has the authority to accomplish his request.
No one can serve two masters.
I cannot quite remember when it started, but for some time now during Chapter Office (when we brothers gather daily to hear a chapter of our Rule) I have been following along in a German translation. While this practice has certainly helped my facility with the German language, it has also (rather unexpectedly) offered me intriguing new points of entry into the spirit of our Rule that I would not have noticed otherwise. A peculiar word choice on the translator’s part or even the simple encounter of a thought ordered to a different grammar, will invite a curiosity for my praying imagination.
Recently I noticed that, while our English original makes great use of the English’s expansive word “worship,” (from the old English worth-ship) the German text uses a word much more limited in its meaning: Dienen, or “to serve.” As I sat these last few days with the readings we just heard, I found myself put in mind of this linguistic oddity as I tried to hear Matthew’s Jesus with fresh ears. No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Aside from a handful of exceptions, every translation of this passage I consulted uses the same words, “to serve” as a gloss for Matthew’s doulein. This feels especially significant to me on a day of Marian devotion, like today. For the verb Matthew uses here grows from the same root as a noun used by Luke in the first chapter of his gospel in a phrase often translated “behold, the handmaid (doulē) of the Lord.”
No one can serve two masters.
I believe we can miss a deeper lesson behind these words if we simply hear them within the more limited frame of a concept like Dienen. The dynamic described by Jesus here—of split motivations, of devotion and spite—attests to his deep knowledge our humanity in all its frailty and weakness—and, equally, of its innate inclination for worship.
What is really at stake for Matthew’s Jesus here is worship—worth-ship, that is, where we put our ultimate worth. You cannot worship God and wealth, says Jesus. Likewise, we may hear him continue, you cannot worship God and your ego; you cannot worship God and pleasure; you cannot worship God and… any good thing. For I do not hear Jesus saying wealth is itself bad. Wealth is a good, as is of course pleasure or any other gift of creation. But it cannot be served—worshipped—alongside God. Worship is, then, about much more than what we do together in church.
This service, this worship is embodied for us in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her obedience to God’s call, as she bore Christ to the world, she gave us all an example of true worship—of a life in its wholeness, grounded in the worth given not by created things, but by the Creator of all things. In her companionship, she shares this very worship with us as she prays for her children, the Body of Christ. In her example, she discloses a life lived in a humble awareness of one’s limitations, finitude, and dependence. A life that listens eagerly for the voice of God. A life in service of but one master.
Saturday in Proper 7B | The Blessed Virgin Mar
 Matthew 6:24
 Luke 1:38
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.