Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thoughts on Our Lady of Lourdes

                While a priest may choose special readings for certain memorials and feasts, the readings that fall on today’s Feast are so Marian as to provide substance for reflection upon the meaning of this day.
                The first reading relates Solomon’s prayer after building the Temple.  Once they had completed the dedication, the Lord filled the Temple with the Cloud of His Presence, the “Shekinah”, the sign of God amidst His people.  Solomon cries out, ““Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?
If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!”  Solomon knew God was greater and beyond the confines of the heavens and the earth, and knew his efforts at providing a house for God was merely symbolic.  And yet he is struck with awe that God still makes His presence known here on earth. 
What Solomon could not even begin to grasp was the idea that God would indeed build His own house on earth, and that that house, that Temple, would be the body of the Virgin Mary.  Catholic Marian spirituality and theology has often used the Hebrew writings about the glory and stature of the Temple as references to the Virgin Mary.  What man could not establish or build in any permanent or fitting way as a place for God to live among us, even with God’s instruction and command, He Himself would do when He fashioned the body and soul of the Virgin Mary, Immaculate from the first moment of her conception.  This is the title that she gave herself when she finally told Saint Bernadette who she was.  Until this revelation, she only let Bernadette surmise who she was. 
Mysteriously, she did not say, “I was conceived Immaculate”; she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception”.  St. Maximillian Kolbe wrote extensively on this title found in the apparition. He notes that she calls herself this as a proper name.  Conception is usually considered a moment in time, the exact moment when a human being comes to be through the instrumentality of father and mother.  But Our Lady refers to herself as The Immaculate Conception, a continuing existence as it were of stainlessness and being.  Her being is derived, of course, from God the source of Being, yet she is a living being of holiness not just in one moment, but ongoing.  
And the psalm response today at Mass was also most fitting: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Mighty God.” (Ps. 84:2)  As appropriate this is for the Temple of Solomon, how much more does it apply to the Virgin Mother of God.  The psalmist yearns to dwell in the House of the Lord; how much more should we hope to dwell in the love and protection of Virgin Mother of God.  Being with her for one day, one moment is worth more than all time spent in the tents of the wicked. 
Finally, in today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their legalism, He notes that they keep mere human traditions instead of fulfilling the Law of God. The one precept He notes is the fourth commandment, “Honor your father and mother.”  The Pharisees would allow someone who had dedicated their goods to God not to have to care for their parents.  Here it is noteworthy to state that the fourth commandment is not primarily for little kids, but for adults, and the respect and honor they should have for their parents who were older.  Does one think for a moment that Jesus would violate the one commandment that He uses to show true obedience to God? He prepared a place for His mother before all others. He honored her in the best way possible by granting her the greatest status in His Kingdom.
And this brings us to the Church, for what can be said about the Blessed Mother individually is also true of the Church universally.  The Virgin Mary is certainly the Mother of the Church, since she gave birth to the Church’s Head; but she is also, as Vatican 2 notes, a member of the Church, a pre-eminent member, but still a member.  It is a mysterious relationship that defies ordinary human categories, yet still expresses profound truths accessible to our minds by faith. 
The Church was conceived immaculately for she came to be via the perfect and holy sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  She maintains that status, which is renewed constantly especially in the sacraments and the Mass most of all.  And where does the Mass take place? Within the church buildings constructed to symbolize the Universal Church, the Body of Christ.

As a final note, it is well known that Lourdes is a place of healing, with millions going there over the past 150 plus years seeking health both physical and spiritual.  Most think that the waters of the spring are where most cures take place.  In fact, most cures happen when the daily Eucharistic procession occurs.  Mary is the Immaculate Conception for sure; she, as always, points the way to her Son, Who is the source of all that is Holy and the Fount of Mercy for the afflicted. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

A few late thoughts on The Presentation...

Many years ago (over 20?), I had issues with the 4th Joyful mystery.  I couldn't quite figure out what there was to garner from this encounter of the baby Jesus in the Temple. It was one of the mysteries that didn't resonate with me.  So, I decided the best course of action would be to ask God to show me what was so special about this mystery, and why I should meditate on it. Among all the prayers that one sends up to God, those that ask for a deeper understanding of His life and truth are the most readily answered.  It's ironic that a few years before I made this prayer, I had made my consecration to the Blessed Virgin following the format of St. Louis Marie de Montfort? 

So, what have I learned from this mystery?  Much. . .

First of all, there is the obedience of Mary and Joseph to the law of Moses.  Forty days after the birth of a male child, the parents were to bring the child before the Lord and offer a lamb as a sacrifice of purification. This was a reminder of the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians, as every first born male child was a reminder of the seminal event in the life of Israel as a nation: the Passover.  But Joseph and Mary did not offer a lamb; they offered "a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons". What?  Well, this was the concession granted to the poor, who probably could not afford a lamb, so they were allowed to purchase and offer the less costly birds as their offering.  This means that Joseph and Mary were poor. 

But what about the "purification" that was required of a new mother after the birth of her child? Blood, you see, was considered sacred and purifying, yet a person also needed some kind of purification if he or she touched blood. This is the language of sacrifice, not hygiene.  It was not because blood was "gross", but because it was "holy", and thus touching it was considered to bring one into the Holy realm.  There was need of some substitution so that one could return to the "profane" realm.  "Profane", though not a Hebrew term (Greek) means "before/outside the temple" or, not sacred.  Not that there's anything wrong with that. . .  Thus, the sacrifice of the lamb (or two turtle doves) was an offering of the blood of the animal as a substitution on behalf of the mother who had bled in giving birth to her first child.  Yet, the Virgin Mary was not stained by this ritual uncleanliness, since she remained a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus.  So, she brought obedience to a new level, much as her Son was obedient to the law of Moses though its Author.  She submitted to the ritual purification even though she was morally and spiritually pure in a way not grasped by the former Law.

Now, as to Simeon. . .   Here we have a faithful son of Israel who sums up in himself the justice and fidelity of Israel, and its longing for the Redeemer. I think of him, schooled in the law and prophets, as always hopeful of a definitive answer to that longing of Israel for God's ultimate entrance into the world to fulfill His promises.  His life was most likely one of tension, for he continued to await the fulfillment of God's promises, yet most likely experienced a level of persecution from those who did not share in his hope.  There are always those who live in the present, without thought of the meaning of the past, or the hope of the future.

And here we must not forget the working of the Holy Spirit in this event.  St. Luke mentions the Holy Spirit more than the other evangelists.  He does not disappoint in this event.  Simeon had an openness to the Holy Spirit that enabled him to see the coming of the Messiah.  Are we as open to the Holy Spirit?  Are we willing to wait for the moment when the Holy Spirit will indeed show Himself? 

And what about that prophecy Simeon made?  Such a beautiful prayer:  "Now, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel."  Simeon encapsulates the hope of Israel, and the promise of God that He will not only fulfill the desires of Israel, but will extend that promise to the nations.  This was a promise that came into Israel's consciousness during and after their exile in Babylon.  After the Temple had been destroyed, and the people of Judah exiled to Babylon, Israel learned that their place in the world was not just for a particular nation or tribe, but was destined to be extended to all nations.  Though this is clear in the writings of the prophets, it had been lost in memory as Israel suffered under the several persecutions following their return from exile, and the occupation by Roman legions. Yet Simeon kept this faith alive, and saw in that tiny baby a concrete sign of God's fidelity.

And what shall we make of the terrifying words of Simeon to Mary? The Cross is announced, or rather, per-announced. How strange to speak of rejection and contradiction while looking at an innocent, 40 day old baby. Or is it so strange, given the reaction of modern culture to the birth, or potential birth, of a baby? Yet, this tiny baby is said to be a sign of contradiction, a sign to be rejected.  Not much "joy" in that statement. 

And how crude of Simeon to speak a prophecy of Mary's sufferings.  I doubt a priest of today would be well received if he were to speak about a newly baptized baby as one destined to suffer and be rejected.  But what do we learn from this prophecy? We know that Mary was to share in the sufferings of her son.  Her heart would be pierced by sorrow and suffering in union with her Son.  I do not agree with modern translations that put parentheses around these words to Mary. They make it seem as if this is a parenthetical comment, whereas I think that the piercing of her heart is part and parcel of this "revelation of hearts". Mary suffers along with Jesus.  I see in these words the reality of baptized people who reject Mary (piercing her heart by ignorance and sin) and thus reveal themselves as witting or even unwitting enemies of Jesus.  To reject Mary is to reject the full reality of Jesus. 

And let us not forget Anna. I've met dozens of women like "Anna" in my life. They are either real widows, or like them. Holy women who have endured the sufferings of life, and yet have maintained their faith.  They see more than the learned of the schools and universities.  They are everywhere, and they maintain the faith of the people of God. They pass on by word, witness and penance the fundamental nature of Biblical faith: God is in charge, and will fulfill His pledge of love and salvation. 

Finally, Mary and Joseph return to a normal life in Nazareth, while Mary holds all these things in her heart. We probably know of these infancy events because Mary remembered them, and kept them in her heart.  She reflected upon these events often, and passed them on to Luke, or whoever passed them on to Luke.  This means she made these events an integral part of her own prayer life.  If she found them so fruitful, shouldn't we do the same?