I lay no claim to being a visionary. Still, we sometimes experience incidents that bring us up short, cause us to breathe deeply, leave a lasting trace of wonderment, and of joy.
In August 1965, a fellow seminarian and I were in Israel. Determined to avoid being only spiritual tourists, we spent a part of our time there working in a kibbutz. Ours, founded by French Jews, was located in the far North of the country, not distant from the Lebanese border. When we prayed Vespers, Mount Hermon could be seen, shimmering in the glow of sunset.
Our assignment was to work in the banana grove that provided a good bit of the settlement’s income. We would rise every morning at 4:30, eat a hearty breakfast (including the best yogurt I’ve ever tasted), and be driven down to the grove in a truck. We would spend about six hours weeding and tending the plants, until the sun proved too hot, and we would return, as we came, in the back of an open pickup.
One early afternoon, indistinguishable from all the others, as the truck labored up the steep hill on which the settlement was perched, we came across a Palestinian family trudging along the road. The Israeli driver stopped and gruffly beckoned them to climb into the back, joining my friend and me.
The family was a father, a mother, a boy of about ten, and a daughter of perhaps fifteen. The daughter was barefoot, with a tan complexion, limpid brown eyes, and long hair under a plain kerchief. We exchanged a perfunctory “Shalom,” as they took their places across from us. We were together barely fifteen minutes until we reached a crossroads where the family disembarked with a circumspect “Todah,” and we continued our ascent.
My friend and I exchanged a smile, wordless yet full of meaning. Uncannily, each of us had experienced a like revelation: we had seen Mary. Not a Botticelli Madonna in Renaissance finery, nor a sturdy Mary by Caravaggio, certainly not a bejeweled Queen of Heaven.
All this would come later as the impact of her “fiat” inspired poets and painters, saints and scholars. Cathedrals would rise in Mary’s honor and churches and shrines without number, as people of every race and nation, of all generations, would call her “blessed among women!” But it all began with a young woman of tender age, who in the routine of an ordinary life heard the extra-ordinary call of an angel.
Denise Levertov, in her poem, Annunciation, catches something of what we glimpsed in the face of the teenaged young woman that hot August afternoon in Galilee:
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
You may understandably object that I project too much into a scant fifteen-minute encounter passed almost entirely in silence. I concede the complaint. Yet the Spirit radiates where he wills. And the new Eve leads a multitude of daughters (and sons) to compassionate being, which manifests itself in courteous demeanor and directness of gaze. Mary continues both to enchant and to challenge.
Indeed, let me insist: bodily demeanor and gaze. For in an incarnational spirituality the body assumes a dignity and importance that is unique. It is no rarefied “spiritual” assent that we celebrate on Mary’s feast: but a fully embodied “yes” to God’s call.
A crucial insight lies hidden in plain view in the readings of today’s liturgy. The letter to the Hebrews daringly places in the mouth of Christ a quote from Psalm 40 (the responsorial psalm of today’s Feast). In his appropriation of the psalm, however, Christ transforms the text. Whereas the Psalmist says: “ears open to obedience you gave me,” Christ exults: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. . . .‘As it is written of me in the scroll, behold I come to do your will, O God’.”
A body you prepared for me. Christ’s obedience is total, wholehearted, whole-bodied. And from whom, in human terms, did Jesus learn both complete surrender to God’s will and utter compassion for humanity’s plight, if not from Mary? An obedience and compassion that are both virginal and visceral.
A creative and salutary imagination inspired the Medieval tradition that held March 25th to be the day God created the universe. It thus linked the beginning of Creation and the beginning of the New Creation. It intuited that individual and community, the personal and the cosmic are inextricably linked. Our decisions (and omissions) have consequences that extend far beyond what we can envision. Our bodily persons are relational to the core.
It is, ultimately, a question of holiness. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” we implore. Mary’s “fiat” creates a space, a place, for God’s transforming action. Mary’s fiat voices her surrender to God’s plan for Creation’s redemption through her Son: a redemption that aims not only at humanity’s transformation, but the transfiguration of the cosmos itself.
But it entailed for Mary, as for each of us, a willingness to transcend the confines of ego; to be liberated into that new self that is re-born in Christ. Mary re-born in the one to whom she gives birth. Sublime paradox that Dante hymned so splendidly: Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo Figlio, “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son.”
Levertov, speaking of that “fiat,” marvels:
opened her utterly.
Embodied courage that makes Incarnation real. Rare courage costing not less than everything.
Saint Basil, with the discerning wisdom of a spiritual father, avowed: “Annunciations are frequent; incarnations are rare.” What seems sadly lacking to many of us, upon hearing the call, seeing the angel, is that courage to say “yes.”
*Image: Annunciazione by William Congdon, 1960 [©The William G. Congdon Foundation, Buccinasco, Italy]
You may also enjoy:
Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s A Transition Worthy of Man
Regis Martin’s The Annunciation of the Son Who Has Come