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In one of the early hymns of the Church (“Odes of Solomon”), we read:
A Virgin pure she comes,
And admonishing she cries...
...come ye here to me!
For I will be your guide
In all the ways of truth...
At the time, there was a certain type of interpenetration between the Church and Mary. In our case, however, we will simply concentrate upon Mary and try to discover how she continues to be our guide. In a way, the Annunciation scene in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1: 28-38) initiates us into many of the truths which are foundational for our spiritual growth.
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin...” (Lk 1: 26-27) Everything in the spiritual life is gift -- gifts for which we must pray and for which we must be thankful. Moreover, it reminds us that God’s grace is always personalized. It is the personal nature of the divine romance with us that should lead to true contentment and inner peace. His Holiness Benedict XVI reminds us that;
...each one of us
is the product of a thought of God;
each one of us is willed by God;
each one of us is loved by God;
and each one of us is important.
Luke’s introduction highlights the truth that Mary was a virgin. Many of the early writers of the Church saw in her virginity not only a reality but also a symbol. In their interpretation, it was pointed out that Mary as Virgin stood as a woman of integrity, embodying in herself the right relation we should be cultivating vis-à-vis the divine. The key for ourselves for becoming a people of integrity is to follow Mary’s example. The dynamic remains constant. Like Mary we are called to hear the word of God and believe it. Like Mary we are called to nurture the Word within us, especially through the Eucharist. Finally, we are called to bring forth Christ into our world by acts of care and compassion.
In retrospect, I believe there is another reason to highlight Mary’s virginity. She provided an example which evolved into an integral part of the Church’s spiritual heritage -- a heritage often casually accepted but seldom reflected upon, namely that of consecrated virginity. I believe that this has been a grace for the Church throughout the ages. Such women in our midst remind us to what should be our response to the total self-giving of Christ to each one of us. His love is not to be simply accepted.
It demands our personal response in love. And the presence of women who publicly profess virginity as well as the gift of celibacy in the priesthood are living icons of this truth.
The place of the Annunciation is often overlooked. There is a remarkable sermon of Martin Luther King which offers a vivid description of Nazareth and its environment: “Among the downtrodden people (Mary) was one of the lowliest, not a maid of high station in the capital city, but a daughter of a plain man in a small town. And yet this is the one whom God chose -- God preferred a lonely maid from a mere town.”
Many thoughts come to mind. God’s love for the poor--which continues to this day and which must be seen through our individual and collective (i.e. the Church’s) efforts and outreach.
Secondly, since Mary’s life will be circumscribed by such an environment, we slowly begin to comprehend what was mentioned above: each one of us is important no matter what our circumstances. Moreover, we learn that the most important thing in life is not what we achieve, but who we are. Like Mary we are to become lovers of God.
There is so much more contained in this scene, i.e. “Do not be afraid.” So often in redemptive history these same words appear whether it be to Moses, Abraham, Jeremiah, etc. The true antidote to fear which often arises in our life is to be found in God’s promise: I will be with you.”
Realizing that a picture is worth a thousand words, I would end this reflection by focusing on the word-picture bequeathed to us by Thomas Merton:
Fifteen years old --
The flowers printed on her dress
Cease moving in the middle of her prayer
When God Who sends the messenger
Meets His messenger in her Heart.
Her answer between breath and breath,
Wrings from her innocence our Sacrament!
In her white body God becomes our Bread.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.