Tag Archives: Theotokos

Let It Be

Annunciation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In the name of the living God: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          She was just a little Jewish girl, not from a particularly important family. Not especially well-educated, almost certainly not wealthy in any sense to which anyone would pay attention. And she didn’t live in an important place, or hang around with the “important” people. She was just a teenage girl, living on the corner of a dead end street, in an occupied country at the outer edge of the Roman empire. She came from Nowheresville, and she was a nobody.

          In this final week of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on something miraculous: a virgin being pregnant, God becoming human, the infinite becoming finite. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, this is the sort of thing that God’s been doing all along: creating life where there was nothing: women too old to give birth (like Sarah and Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), life springing up where there where it was barren, where it was dead.

          The angel tells Mary that she is favored by God, that she is full of grace. This nobody, this teenage girl on the edge of nowhere, mattered to God. And the angel Gabriel called her “full of grace.”  You see, Mary found a place where all of her, and all of God, could dwell. A place deep within her life where her life and God’s life would be joined together in a bond that neither time nor trouble could ever break. Love was coming to dwell in her: to make a home there, to abide there. And I wonder if we can hear Gabriel saying that to us, telling us that we are also favored. God chose a very ordinary girl, in a very ordinary place, because God sees the grace in ordinary people and ordinary places. For all of us, that’s got to be good news.

          And there’s something remarkable about God coming to dwell among us, making an appearance, not on a fiery chariot or with bolts of lightning descending in some really cool special effects, but coming to us as a baby. Babies offer the bright, shining hope of something new, something full of promise, something noisy. And most importantly, something vulnerable. And Mary, in that moment, was remarkably vulnerable. Because you see, in first century Palestine, being an unwed mother wasn’t just something a little embarrassing, a little shameful. That was the kind of thing that could get you killed. So, Mary, took a risk. The risk of embarrassment and shame, humiliation and scandal. Well, that would mark her Son’s life, too. And that day, just like this morning, God took a risk, too.

          A lot depended on her response to God. For thousands of years, we had been mired in sin, separated from God, wallowing in our disobedience. A great chasm had opened up, long ago, in that garden, and we couldn’t get back across to the other side. Something had to change. We needed a miracle.

         Back in the 12th century, an important Saint of the church, a French Cistercian monk named Bernard, gave a really important sermon on the Annunciation and Mary’s response. And he wrote that for that brief instant, while waiting on Mary’s reply, time itself stood still.

          For that brief moment, all creation waited on her answer. In heaven, the angels and seraphim and cherubim stopped their singing. And in hell, for a moment, the screeching stopped. The principalities and the powers came to a halt. And even God leaned over the banister, waiting to hear Mary’s reply. You could’ve heard a pin drop, and then she said, ” “Fiat mihi secúndum verbum tuum.” Let it be with me according to your word. And a great music arose and the angels and all the host of heaven broke into shouts of joy, and in hell all the demonic forces cried in anguish because Lucifer’s plans for this world had been overthrown and God’s creation would be restored. But in a very real sense, Mary’s “yes” to God was simply an echo of God’s “yes” to humankind, the God who said “yes” to us time and time again, and is still saying that to you and me today.

          And in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, asked a very important question. He noted, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. But what good is it to us if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within us? And, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace if we are not also full of grace? What good is it to us for the Creator to give birth to his Son if we do not also give birth to him in our time and our culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

          So, I think we have to confront the question, are we willing to carry the Christ child, and bring Him into the world? Are we willing to risk God coming alive in us, here and today? Are we willing to answer yes to God, and share in God’s dreams for the world? You see, Mary’s story teaches us that very ordinary people (people like us), can do extraordinary, miraculous things when they are vulnerable to God’s choices in the world.

          This life is not always easy, but during this Holy Season of Advent, we might reflect on the words of St. John of Liverpool, who said:

 When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

          Let us cut a path through the noise and chaos and pain of this world. Let us make straight the way of the Lord, let it be.

          Let us build a temple in our hearts and make room for the Christ child in a world that still says there’s no room for God’s children. Let it be.

          In a world that is obsessed be power and wealth and stuff, let us turn to a woman who risked everything and a God who risked everything for the life of the world. Let it be.

          Let the lame walk, let the blind see, let us feed the hungry, and let the captives go free. Let the whole world look through that beautiful window and let them see nothing less than the kingdom of God in our hearts.

         Let us set aside for the moment our commitment to human justice, and live lives full of mercy. And from the springs of that mercy, let God’s justice rain down like a mighty river. Let it be.

          Let us turn away from racism, from our disrespect for God’s people and his world, and from treating some lives as more important than others. Let it be.

          Let it be that we beat our swords, our aircraft carriers and our drones, into ploughshares, turning away from violence and struggle and war. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Let it be.

          Let it be that those who are hopeless, living in fear and those tormented by illness and darkness find the Light of the World, and come to know compassion in a world that’s simply tired of caring. Let it be.

         Let us turn in love to those who are forgotten, those who are broken, those who are down on their luck, and share the good news of God’s love with a world that’s forgotten what love looks like. Let us set aside our own ambitions and share in God’s dreams. Let it be.

Let it be with you, let it be with me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of the Holy Mother

*Welcome, Mary, sister in faith;
the Lord has surely chosen you.
The life leaps within me
to herald the fruit of your womb
which is Jesus!
Who am I
that the mother of my Lord
should come to me?
Pray with me now,
and always.
Amen.

*Weep, Mary, a mother’s tears.
Your son must die,
thrust high in agony.
Alone in suffering
separated from His Father’s smile
by sin we laid upon Him.
Blessed in He
who comes in the name of the Lord.
Now, Mary, be mother to John
and all who will lean, like him,
close to the heart of Christ,
and watch with Him in the hour of death.
Amen.

*You, Mary, who knew His grace,
now you’re with the Lord.
Blessed is any who walks with God,
then is not here, but taken–to Jesus!
Hold us, Mary, at peace with God;
join with the prayers of the penitent,
now and at the gate to life.
Amen.

I found this prayer, this little liturgy, in the Celtic Book of Daily Prayer.  It seemed appropriate, because today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of Our Lord. Mary has always held a special place for members of the Dominican Order, dating back to very early in the Order’s history. So, I thought I’d make a few observations about Mary.

First, Mary seems to offer a special place of devotion for those who’ve had their hearts broken.  One can’t look at the Pieta without immediately recognizing Mary’s special understanding of heartache and sorrow. The Holy Mother also  speaks gently to those who understand the risk of faith.

When Mary answered “Yes” to God’s call, she laid aside her plans for her life and undertook the risk of an unwed pregnancy.  In first century Palestine, that kind of thing could get you in trouble; it could get you killed. Mary (who would have been known as Miriam) thus teaches us about allowing God to interrupt your plans, and willingly accepting the cost of becoming God’s instrument. She showed us how to trust God and how to live without fear.

For many of us, Mary serves as the gateway to, and the icon of, the Incarnation.  If God’s decision to walk among us as a man was indeed the pivotal point of human history, it was Mary who cleared that path.  She offers us the key to Jesus’ full humanity.  Her tears on Golgotha demonstrate that this was no metaphor and no mere spiritual apparition.  Hanging on that Cross was Mary’s little boy whom she had raised from His birth in a stable.

The Holy Mother also teaches us a good deal about the faithful response to mystery.  When Gabriel told her of God’s plans, she didn’t ask a lot of questions.  She didn’t need to understand what happened at Cana; she simply witnessed it.  I’m fairly confident Mary didn’t understand the need for the crucifixion or how the Resurrection changed the world. I doubt she had a firm grasp of the Pentecost.  And yet, there she stood: a witness (martyr in the Greek) staring across the precipice of the greatest mysteries of our faith.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to Mary as the Theotokos (the God-bearer).  Mary teaches us all about the importance of bringing Christ into the world, of being pregnant with the message of the Kingdom.  I pray we all can bring God into a world which needs Him now as much as it ever has. I know she will join in that prayer.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Nothing Will Be Impossible

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

So, we pretty much all know this story.  In fact, most of us have heard the Annunciation story so often that it’s lost some of its impact.  If we’re not careful, we can forget just how remarkable and surprising this story is.

In the first place, let’s look at the context.  After centuries of war, occupation and exile, the Jewish people were mired in hopelessness.  Mary, or Miriam as she would have been called, lived on a dead-end street in a long-forgotten town at the far corner of the Roman empire.  More importantly, she was a woman. In that culture at that time, being a woman means nothing much that’s important would happen to her.  So, the angel Gabriel’s announcement that “The Lord is with you” would have startled Luke’s audience. 

This passage clearly echoes Gabriel’s earlier announcement to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  So, St. Luke reminds us that God is up to something astonishing here, involving both Mary and Elizabeth.  God’s action in this regard actually begins much earlier, in the creation story.  In the birth narratives of both John the Baptist and Jesus we find God engaged in the same sort of thing we encountered in Genesis:  creation ex nihilo (from nothing).  The angel even tells Mary that God is doing precisely that with her cousin Elizabeth.  The notion of the virgin birth therefore raises the idea of the Lord resuming the work begun in creation:  re-creating the world.

But let’s return our focus to Miriam, the Theotokos.  Gabriel announces that she will bear a son and name him Jesus. (The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.  Thus, his very name involves the notion of God keeping his promises, fulfilling the covenant.) As was the case with the John, God seems terribly interested in Jesus’ name, as though the words themselves would act as icons of God’s power working in the world. 

Now, while the coming of the Messiah might have constituted very good news for the people of Israel, it might not have sounded like such good news for Miriam.  An unwed mother, at best, would provide the people of Nazareth with a fine scandal.  It’s the sort of thing that could get a girl killed.  I think the Holy Mother understood perfectly well the cost that she might have to pay for bringing God into the world. 

Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit will resonate later in the story of his baptism in the Jordan, as a dove descends and the voice of God announces that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  So, these two birth narratives (Jesus and John) will reconnect years later as Jesus begins his public ministry and God claims him as his own son.  All these things happen through Mary’s “fiat”:  “Let it be done with me according to your word.”  Mary thus serves as the real gateway of the Incarnation.

I wonder how many of us are able to hear God’s message in our own lives:  “The Lord is with you.”  Can we come to think of ourselves as  “favored ones”?  Can we bear the Christ child, and are we willing to bring him into the world?  Are we willing to respond, “Let it be with me”?   I ask these things because those same questions that the Holy Mother faced, well, I think the Gospel asks them of you and of me.  While it’s certainly true that God intended to draw Mary into his plan to re-create and redeem the world, I  believe He has exactly the same intent for us.

The Advent message centers on hope and promise, and setting aside our despair and our terror.  The season of Advent recognizes, as it’s so desperately difficult for us to see sometimes, that nothing will be impossible for God.   And while Gabriel says that as a matter of fact, I think for most of us it’s a kind of a prayer: a prayer we might say more often.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P. 

© 2011 James R. Dennis

St. John of the Cross On the Incarnation

Because today is the feast day of St. John of Cross, and we’ve been meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation, I thought we might look at what he had to say on the subject.  In the Eighth Ballad, he wrote:

Then he summoned an archangel;
Saint Gabriel came,
And He sent him to a maiden,
Mary was her name,

Whose consent and acquiescence
Gave the mystery its birth;
It was the Trinity that clothed
With flesh the Living Word.

Though the three had worked the wonder
It was wrought in but this one,
And the incarnated Word
Was left in Mary’s womb.

And He who had a father only
Now possessed a mother,
Though not of man was He conceived
But unlike any other.

And deep within her body
His life of flesh began:
For this reason He is called
The Son of God and Man.

The poem properly focusses on the figure of Mary, by whose acquiescence the mystery of the Incarnation begins.  In many ways, Mary operates as the lynchpin of the season of Advent.  Our Orthodox brothers and sisters call her the Theotokos, or God-Bearer. 

During this season of Advent, we might properly reflect on what it means to be pregnant with God.  I suggest that we consider that, not only as it pertains to the Holy Mother, but also as it pertains to each one of us.  What does it mean for you and I to bring God into the world, a world which is sometimes hostile and often indifferent to Christ?  And while we’re doing so, as with any expectant parent, we might properly wonder just what this event will cost.  How do we carry Jesus into the places where, as with Bethlehem so long ago, there’s just no room for Him?

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation, part of the wonder of belonging to the Body of Christ we call the Church, lies in the recognition that Christ must live within us.  Somehow, through the enigma of God coming to live among us, our very DNA has changed.  St. Paul recognized this, writing:  “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal.  2:20.   Paul reminds us that following Christ does not so much hinge on an intellectual assent to a certain doctrine  as it does on surrendering to Christ’s indwelling within us and allowing Jesus to re-make us.

Our Advent hope lies in recognizing that God’s entry into the world is not an event that took place a couple of thousand years ago, and which made things a bit more bearable.  Rather, the very fabric of time and space have changed.  God has and will re-create all things (including you and me) through this Son of God and Man.

Have a good and holy Advent,

James R. Dennis, O.P. 

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Don’t You Think It’s Time?

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  John 2: 1-5.

I absolutely love the story of the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of St. John.  Among other things, I love the apparent reluctance of Jesus to begin his public ministry with this first miracle.  It’s as though Christ hesitated to begin the process of revealing his true nature to the world.  He tells Mary, “My hour has not yet come.”  And within the subtext of the story, we can almost see the Holy Mother nudging Jesus and whispering in his ear, “Don’t you think it’s time?”

I love this story, in part, because I had a mother like that.  Anne Dell Dennis died seven years ago tomorrow, on October 31, 2004.  At her funeral service, the priest remarked  that she died on the Eve of All Saints Day, and her funeral mass was said on All Souls Day.  Anyone who thinks that was a coincidence did not understand my mother’s life very well.

My mother came from a very long line of Irish Catholic women who attended Daily Mass because . . . well, because that’s just what they did.  She and my father did not always see eye to eye (a trait I happened to share with my father).  My mother was a force of nature:  faithful,  obstinate, charitable, and immovable.

At her gravesite, my brother Sean Michael observed that she and my father were like two tectonic plates.  Their collision, while not always fun to watch, generally produced some pretty spectacular results.

One of the most important lessons my mother taught me was that our generosity with God’s children bears directly on our relationship with the Almighty. The authentic Christian life must be lived charitably.  She also taught me that  our faith, our relationship with God, is a terribly important matter.  During my fairly lengthy periods of indifference toward the Church, my mother regularly suggested, “Don’t you think it’s time?”

So, for every mother who has nudged, prodded, cajoled, and even nagged her children into taking their spiritual life a bit more seriously:   Well done, and thanks.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis