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The Nazareth Experience

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The priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem entitled “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe.”

In reality, his words are about Christ-bearing. His words may also be taken as a prayer, especially during Advent.

Of her flesh he took flesh,

He does take fresh and fresh,

Though much the mystery how,

Not flesh but spirit now

And makes, O marvelous!

New Nazareth’s in us

Where she shall yet conceive

Him, morning, noon and eve;

New Bethlehem’s, and be born

There; evening, noon and morn...

Our focus, in this reflection, will be Nazareth where the beginnings of our redemption are to be found. But there is more, much more--as will be seen. For the sake of clarity, we will highlight a few phrases which might help us focus our attention.

“And the virgin’s name was Mary.” How often have we heard this verse or read it without pausing to prayerfully consider its implications for our own lives.

For many writers in the early Church the fact of Mary’s physical virginity was given a powerful symbolic interpretation. They emphasized that on the symbolic level the fact of virginity highlighted the virtue of integrity--the right relationship which one should have with God. There are so many characteristics of this virtue that we can only highlight a few.

Certainly, true integrity recognizes that God is our Creator and Redeemer. We are His handiwork. And the corollary to this truth is emphasized in the Catholic spiritual tradition when it highlights the truth that everything is gift. Thus our prayer-life must center about thanksgiving and gratitude. In this context we understand Meister Eckhardt’s observation: “If the only prayer we say is ‘Thank You,’ that is enough.”

Mary’s prayer and attitude was one of hope--looking forward to that which may yet be. For the disciple, hope must be an integral part of our being. Truly the one who radiates hope is a gift to the Christian community and to the world..

Mary did not need anyone to tell her to reach out to her cousin Elizabeth. The Love within her compelled her to reach out in love to another. And this, too, is a part of integrity.

Sometimes it may happen that circumstances prevent us from performing concrete acts of love for others. On this point, St. Augustine (Ex. on Psalm) has some helpful words:

Love is a powerful thing, my brothers and sisters. Do you wish to see how powerful love is? Whenever, through some necessity, you cannot accomplish what God commands, let him love the one who accomplishes it and thus he accomplishes it in that other.

“Behold the handmaid.” Obedience is a “virtue” which in our day seems to have fallen on hard times. And maybe it is because our training concentrated too much on individual acts. At any rate, I believe Mary’s words convey an attitude--an attitude which must be ours. Someone once said it best: obedience means being ready for all--whatever God wishes.

“Going to school at Nazareth.” When Pope Paul VI visited Nazareth, he pointed out the many lessons to be learned: the value of simplicity, etc. As I reflect upon Nazareth, I am led to concentrate on what we might call the values of the ordinary. And we might so idealize their home life that we forget that Mary and Joseph’s lives were circumscribed by the ordinary. Mary would have been busy about the womanly tasks of her time: fetching water, cleaning, washing, cooking, etc. And Joseph was busy making a living. His would have been a marginal existence as a carpenter--sawing, nailing, etc.

In other words, theirs would have been perceived as an ordinary existence. Yet they are venerated in our spiritual tradition. And through their ordinary existence, they remind us that it is not so much what we accomplish which contributes to redemptive greatness. Rather it is who we are and who we may become--lovers of God who give their hearts to Him.

Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.

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