Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? / or who may stand in God’s holy place? / The one whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, / who desires not what is vain.
As Advent draws toward its conclusion, the figure of Mary becomes more and more focal. She is first introduced to us in Luke’s gospel as “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.” The virginity of Mary, a basic doctrine of Catholic faith, is not unique in religious mythology. There are countless stories of virgin births in ancient mythical and religious stories. Today’s liturgy, however, reminds us of the deeper spiritual context of Mary’s virginity. Psalm 24 reminds us that it is the person “whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain” who can ascend the Lord’s mountain and stand in God’s holy place. Mary is most of all a virgin in terms of where she sets her desires, not in what is vain but rather in doing what God asks of her, in living in the truth.
When I was a child and would be acting with a good measure of pride or vanity, my parents would often accuse me of “being full of myself.” It is interesting in this light that the word vanity comes from the Latin word meaning empty or void. To be full of ourselves is really to be empty of anything that is true or meaningful. If our hearts are seeking to build up or fill ourselves, we are only becoming more and more empty. This accounts for the insatiability of greed in us and the nature of addiction. There is no ascending the mountain of the Lord when we reduce our life of desire to pleasing ourselves.
The most famous and familiar scriptural use of the term vanity comes from Ecclesiastes, which begins, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” Yet, vanity does not really capture the imagery of the original Hebrew word “hevel.” In his 2010 translation of the Wisdom literature, the poet Robert Alter translates “hevel” not as vanity but as “merest breath.” So, much of what we feel that we need and so seek in life is but “merest breath.” It rises and falls; it appears and disappears.
So, as we read of the Annunciation of the angel to Mary and as we pray Psalm 24, we are drawn to the the existential questions, “Is there more to our lives than evanescence, than “merest breath”? At the physical level, everything we desire comes and goes. Is there an object of desire that does not? Is there for us “eternal life,” a life is more than “merest breath”?
The virginity of Mary is as much or more a description of her state of soul as of her state of body. Her waiting on the Lord is an availability to God born of her continual efforts to desire not what is vain. Through keeping her heart clean and her hands sinless she is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “a vacancy for God.” In truth, we cannot be vain, or “full of ourselves,” and also be available to receive that which is the goal of our deepest longing.
God never ceases coming to us. It is the limits of our receptivity and availability that limit the birth of the Word in our souls. Despite even my sincere efforts, there is always a measure of vanity in me. Sometimes it takes the form of subtle appeals and manipulation to be liked or to get my way. Sometimes it takes the form of withholding and selfishness due to a self-depreciative pride. Sometimes it takes the form of lying and boasting in order to aggrandize my own significance. Today we hear that whatever space in us is given over to our more self-centered desires, the more we are seeking that which comes and goes, which can never finally fulfill that for which we most deeply long.
Recent years in the United States, seemingly culminating this year, have given rise, for political and cultural reasons, to a fabricated so-called “war on Christmas.” The great paradox, however, is that for those who are most strongly perpetrating this fabrication, the “Christmas” which they are defending is the principally commercialized and secular one. It is largely the Christmas which the Puritans disdained, because they saw it as “an unholy pagan ritual.” Aside from the politically expedient fabrications, Christmas is a time when our torn and conflicted desires are manifest. We experience our longing, often in the form of nostalgia, for celebration and closeness that always seem at least a bit unrealizable. As any doctor, mental health provider, or spiritual director can attest, the Christmas season is the most emotionally difficult for many people. The fact that it so seldom “measures up” to our expectations attests to the depth of our longing for more than we can ever seem to attain. The inevitable disappointments and disenchantments of our actual Christmas experience may well be not so much a matter of pathology as of the truth that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
In Mary, and in the wisdom of the Psalms, we hear that the end of our longing lies not in what we can attain but in what we can receive when we are empty enough. When we accept that all our efforts and strivings are “merest breath,” then we can begin to hand ourselves over as servants of the Lord.” When we cease to be full of ourselves, we become a vacancy for God, and we give birth in our souls to the Word of which we become a unique expression. Perhaps the inevitable disappointments of Christmas can become for us an opportunity to learn how to desire a bit less what is vain and to desire every more strongly the love and life of the One who is always coming to us.
When a soul sets out upon this path, He does not reveal Himself to it, lest it should feel dismayed at seeing that its littleness can contain such greatness; but gradually He enlarges it to the extent requisite for what He has to set within it. It is for this reason that I say He has perfect freedom, since He has power to make the whole of this palace great. The important point is that we should be absolutely resolved to give it to Him for His own and should empty it so that He may take out and put in just what He likes, as He would with something of His own. His Majesty is right in demanding this; let us not deny it to Him. And, as He refuses to force our will, He takes what we give Him but does not give Himself wholly until He sees that we are giving ourselves wholly to Him. This is certain, and, as it is of such importance, I often remind you of it. Nor does He work within the soul as He does when it is wholly His and keeps nothing back. I do not see how He can do so, since He likes everything to be done in order. If we fill the palace with vulgar people and all kinds of junk, how can the Lord and His Court occupy it? When such a crowd is there it would be a great thing if He were to remain for even a short time.
Saint Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection, p. 85