Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ave Maria, Gratia Plena

On this glorious All Saints’ Day, my heart turns to you above all, O Mary, O blessed, beloved Mary. I can never forget the life-changing moment when I first fell in love with you. Years ago I was standing on a pier on a moonless night while ocean waves sighed beneath me in darkness. I gazed at the evening star, beaming with solitary, stunning beauty. Its pure silver light in a deep, deep blue-black starless sky inspired a spontaneous outburst of praise to you. I knew, of course, that it was the second planet, but in an instant of mystical insight I understood why one of your many ancient titles is “Star of Ocean”. Your ethereal loveliness ravished me and I was won to you for ever. I had known you before, but now I loved you from my heart.

Your loveliness is unsurpassed, for your beauty arises from being the one who is closest to Jesus. Surely, next to your Son, you are the greatest and most beloved human being of all time. All of us mortals, even the greatest of the Saints, fall behind you, made immaculate, and taken from the tomb and lifted body and soul to heaven.

When we see you, beloved lady, we see what redemption looks like. In praising you we know the amazing work of God our Savior. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, and you are the firstborn of the redeemed.

Only you of all mortals knew Jesus throughout his earthly existence, from his conception to his ascension. Only you are the mother of the Messiah. It was you who nursed him, who taught him to walk, who heard his first word. It was your hand that taught him to hold a spoon. It was your face that his infant eyes sought, your voice he wanted to hear. In the hidden years, only you and Joseph saw his infancy and childhood. As a young widow alone, you watched him grow into strong vigorous manhood.

When he manifested himself to Israel and then to the world, all humans were called to learn who he is and choose either to love or reject him. But when that manifestation began with his disciples, you had already come to the fullness of discipleship. At that beginning you taught others the essence of what it means to know your Son: “Whatever he tells you to do, do it.”

Less than three years later, when he had become loved by many thousands, you saw the perfect Man, your son, your only son, whom you love, die on the cross, cursed and outcast by leaders of his own people. Ah, dear mother...

There was a Christian man in a post office one Christmas not long ago who refused to purchase postage stamps that featured the likeness of yourself holding your infant Son, because, as he said, he “didn’t worship Mary”. When I heard that, my soul slumped within me and I felt such sadness for him. I thought, What a dreary love for your Son he must have.

O holy Mary, how can anyone think it possible to love Jesus and not love his mother? How can anyone think that one honors Jesus by ignoring his mother? I have loved you now for so long that I cannot understand very well those who don’t love you and yet claim salvation in the name of your Son. How could any son even of earth be pleased when someone closes eyes to his mother?

Yet I must not be too severe, for I can dimly remember the first time I spoke to you, and how my palms became clammy with nervousness. I was timid then, for I had been poorly taught, and somehow feared that by talking to you I might possibly diminish my love for your Son. I know now how foolish that was, and I flush with embarrassment! Who can possibly love you truly and not love your Son more than before? For your life, like ours, is hidden completely in him. Only in him does any love at all have merit.

O fair Virgin, when I addressed you on that pier, my heart was opened and I suddenly comprehended how vast and marvelous the world of our Faith is, and I was awed into adoration of our great God. I was drawn across the line from thinking just of “me and Jesus” and entered the vast eternal universe of wild and endless, immeasurable love. I discovered that far from being a sole voice, I belonged to an infinite orchestra of voices, a choir of uncountable millions bursting with the praise and joy of our Lord—a kingdom, as the Scriptures tell us, of “myriads upon myriads” of saints and angels! Of that kingdom, you, good lady, are the Queen, acknowledged in our hymnal as “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” who leads their praises.

From you alone, most blessed Virgin, your Son took his human nature. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he said. But since he is True Man as well as True God, surely whoever sees him sees also his mother—he has your skin, your eyes, your hair, your mouth, your gestures...

When you exulted with Elizabeth over your calling, you sang, “all generations shall call me blessed.” You sang in the rhapsody of your jubilation over the fulfillment of the holy promise of God to his people and all the world, that was being achieved in you. Your voice was the first on earth that proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. You are the first evangelist, and you have never ceased.

Always, always you point the way to Jesus. No one could possibly truly love you for yourself without growing into the fathomless depths of love for your Son. All love that is true simply cannot be divided nor enter into any kind of competition—rather it expands and flows to cover all, and cannot ever be diminished.

My favorite of the ancient titles for you, my beloved mother, is Rosa Mystica—Mystic Rose. The rose is the world’s favorite flower, for its inestimable variety and limitless enchanting beauty. In every rose, I see you. My rosary is made of pressed rose petals that exude their fragrance whenever I hold it in the warmth of my hands. For more than a quarter of a century I have used this rosary every day. O holy Mary, my eyes are tearing up even now as I write, for love of you.

Loving you, my lady, has not only vastly deepened my love of Jesus. My love for you has enriched and enlivened my devotion to all women—little girls, children, teenagers and college students, virgins, new brides, mothers, the middle aged, the elderly, and widows. All of them can find themselves in you, for you were like all of them. So to me, their eyes look upon the world with your eyes, the eyes that saw Jesus, and in all of them I see you. With every hug and kiss I give them, I am praising and adoring you in gratitude that you consented to be the Mother.

You are the Echo of God himself, who created all things with the words, “Let it be,” and it was so. In the fullness of time you also said, “Let it be [to me according to your word].” Our merciful and humble Lord waited upon your consent before he began the new creation, the re-creation of all that had been spoiled. “Behold, I make all things new,” said your exalted and perfect Son in his triumph. Your words with his show the indissoluble romance of humanity with God, where love is beyond measure, an infinite and eternal ocean of joy. Oh, Mary! If only I could love God as you do!

This title was given you from the fourth century, to assure the faithful that your Son was God from his conception, a title designed to proclaim boldly who Jesus is. And from that title, devotion to you arises naturally. I especially love the four seasonal anthems that sing your praises throughout the year. For centuries the faithful have lauded you with these anthems. They are all exquisite, but I love best singing the Salve Regina, “hail, holy queen”, with its haunting, passionate, and intimate entreaty that ends, “O gentle, O tender, O gracious, Virgin Mary.” Oh! Whenever we sing that at Evensong, I want the song never to end. The extended notes cause the love they express to linger in the adoring heart, and such mine is.

From the cross your divine Son confided you into the care of your foster-son John. He, with whom you spent your last years, wrote the Gospel in which you are adored with such reverence that he could not even write your name. He only calls you “the mother of Jesus”. I believe that, next to your Son, he of all human beings knew you best, and put the mystical splendor of your own holy life into his Gospel. O Mary. Each time I open his Gospel, I can sense his devotion to you. You always point to Jesus, and, like you, John always points to Jesus: “These things are written that you might believe.”

You are the possessor of something that I can never have, even in heaven: femininity. As the firstborn of the redeemed, you are the archetype of the universe’s salvivic romance with God. Though I am a man, I am a member of the Bride of Christ, the Holy Church. Yet how can I, or any man, be bridal? Only by making you my mother and queen, the leader of those who pray, the first among the redeemed among whom I am numbered.

Only in the Church, of which you are the Mother, can I, or any man, participate in the nuptials of the Kingdom. Though I can never plumb the depths of what it means to be female, you have shown me its meaning. I explored that mystery in the retreat addresses I called, “God, Love, and Gender”. The women who heard that retreat were astonished that I understood femininity so well. But it was easy for me, beloved lady, because of you.

Our first mother came to be called “the mother of all living”, even after she fell into sin and disgrace, and brought all our race that followed into a place of hopeless grief. But in that dismal place you became our second mother when you said to the angel of the Annunciation, “behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” As your Son is the second Adam who bore our nature into the realm of death and then lifted it to the right hand of the Father, so your obedience reversed the disobedience of our first mother. Like her, you are “the mother of all living”. You are even her mother.

In the face of all our race’s failures, rebelliousness, and atrocities, if humanity has any reason to boast to the universe, surely that boast would be you. You are the first, greatest, and deepest lover of God. The medieval Anglican ascription is mine also—you are “my life’s light, my beloved ladye.”

Subjects being considered for future blogposts:
+ What it is like for an orthodox Anglican priest to have good friends who are atheists
+ Finding places of quiet in a busy world, and the necessity of doing so
+ Reconciling being a priest and a person—how can a priest enjoy personal relationships with his parishioners without compromising his ministry?
+ What it means to be an “evangelical Catholic”
+ Growing up in the “better world” of the 1950s


Mrs. Speckperson said...

This post is beautiful and amazing. It has opened my eyes to a world previously unknown. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Fr. David, this post inspired me. You shed light on a lot of things I have wondered about most of my life. I was raised, pretty much, to give Mary little attention and importance, almost less than everyone else in the Bible. I don't like feeling fear of honoring Mary, but I am still hesitant. Yet I have often wondered how I am supposed to be Christ-like as a woman, since Jesus is a man and God is always referred to in the masculine form, as far as I know. It may seem obvious to some, but now I think maybe Mary is someone I can look to for a true example of femininity, motherhood, and profound love for God. I never understood it this way. It gives me a lot of hope. Thank you for sharing these precious thoughts.