Let everything, mundane things and those above, join in festive celebration. Today this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.
from a discourse of Saint Andrew of Crete, Office of Readings, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
But you, (Bethlehem) Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule Israel . . .
Micah 5: 1
The birth of Mary celebrates in very immediate and enfleshed form the mystery and uniqueness of Christian faith. The God who has created all and transcends all is also so immanent in our creaturely life and experience that God takes form and emanates Divine life and light not only from “above” but also from deeply within the life, including the human life, of the world. As St. Augustine wrote: God is “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self”) (Confessions III, 6, 11).
Each of us has life because our mother received, accepted and shared her entire life with us and nourished our development within her. We were truly one life and one flesh with her. And after our birth, we continued to flourish and thrive, or not, largely dependent on the quality of our mother’s presence to us. So, too with Jesus. As Rowan Williams points out, God was incarnate in the world for nine months in the secrecy of Mary’s womb. It is the union of Father and Son that is the cause of our salvation, of the restoration of union between God and human creation, and for the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy that union was realized in total silence and secrecy within Mary.
When we attain even a bit of distance from the sturm und drang of most of our political and, for that matter, ecclesial lives, we may find ourselves pondering the question: “Where today is Jesus praying secretly to God?” The world is held together by the unceasing prayer of Jesus for us and through us to the Father. In “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow” of our lives today, where is it that this prayer of Jesus, where is that “one thing necessary” for our world occurring? Today’s feast is a reminder that, in all likelihood, it is occurring in secret where we might well least expect it. The ways and workings of God among us are mysterious and often carried out in secret.
As a child and young man, I tended to despise the “ordinariness” of my parents’ lives. The satisfactions and dissatisfactions, the intimacies and the conflicts, the modest successes and failures of their lives seemed to me to be trivial and insignificant. I wanted to get out of that “small town” environment and to give my life to God with something of a dramatic flourish. Life has since taught me that there is little that is high-flown and dramatic about my life and, further, that the quite mundane difficulties of my parents which I so despised were really their human and spiritual struggle for fidelity and love, over all the personal and social obstacles which were their lot in life. The pain and conflict, as well as the moments of peace and joy, of their lives was their prayer of Jesus to God for reconciliation and redemption, for them, for me, and for all. When my father, dying of cancer and preparing to be brought to the hospital for the last time, struggled on his last morning at home to make coffee for my mother, it was he who was holding the world together — not just his or our world but in Jesus’ name the whole world. As he had so often in so many little ways, he was sacrificing himself for those he loved.
When Pope Francis installs showers at the Vatican for the homeless people there, he is, of course, practicing the charity and love of neighbor to which Jesus enjoins us. Yet, he is also signaling something else: perhaps Jesus’ prayer to the Father for the salvation of the world is more powerfully being uttered in the lives of those homeless people than in the high liturgy of the Basilica.
For many years a man by the name of Pat Griffin was a general handyman first at our Juniorate in Peabody, Massachusetts and then at St. John’s Prep in Danvers. Pat was the most unassuming and silent of men. He worked all day on the grounds and in the buildings and at night he would sit in his simple and sparse little room over the garage and read or write letters. As I would walk the grounds of the school in the evenings, I would see Pat at his desk writing, and I would realize that it was he was living our call to be poor and live contemplatively. To experience Pat’s daily fidelity to his simple, hardworking and unknown life and call was to know beyond doubt that Jesus was praying to God for us all in him.
As without, so within. We tend to think that the Lord is most manifest to us in our virtue and competencies. Perhaps, however, this is not the case. Perhaps the prayer of Jesus is most uttered within us in those places that are most broken, frightened, weak, and vulnerable. Perhaps it is in our struggle to overcome that in us which refuses to yield to our demands for perfection that the spirit of Jesus prays “with groans too deep for words” (Romans 8: 26). Perhaps it is the one within ourselves and whom we despise that is really the secret hiding place of Jesus in us.
The historical mystery and miracle that we celebrate today is an eternal one. it is so often our cultural and historical formation that tells us what and who is significant in the world. Yet, the Savior is born “out of the least of the clans of Judah.” Both around and within us, the life of Jesus continues to draw us and our world into the very life of the God who creates us. Today we are reminded not to trust our social, cultural or religious biases and to awaken to the Presence in those unlikely and hidden places where it is truly alive and active.
The icon of the Virgin of the Sign in fact depicts something a good deal more than just the Church as the bride of Christ. Here is Christ praying in Mary; Mary becomes, as the Church becomes, s “sign” in virtue of the action of Christ within her. We are pointed towards one of the most mysterious bits of our belief in God’s coming in flesh among us: for nine months, God was incarnate on earth, God was human, in a completely hidden way, as a foetus growing in Mary’s womb. . . . For that period, the presence of God incarnate in the world was not in visible action or speech, but wholly in secrecy.
The strength of the Church will certainly be drawn from those areas of its life where the praying agency of Christ is most active; but we are not all that likely to be able to identify where those areas are to be found. When, occasionally, we have a glimpse, we may be very surprised indeed. What if the life that fuels the Church through prayer is not the routine prayer of the worshipping community, not even the prayer of the religious orders, but moments of exposure and insight, or of desperately needy openness to God on the part of very irregular Christians? Isn’t this actually what Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector might suggest? What if the Church really lives from the prayer and experience of those it least values in its public talk?
Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things: Praying With Icons of the Virgin, pp. 44-45, 48