|The Annuciation - Missal of John of Streda, 1364|
Chapter Library, Prague
There follows the second part of Fr Stephen Morrison's Meditation. It is a great tribute to Father Morrison's delivery, as well as to the content of his address, that although it was given straight after a quite festal lunch, nobody was seen to nod off! The day ended with Sung Vespers and Benediction.
Welcome back! In the first talk we examined the human impossibility of comprehending fully even large numbers, let alone the Infinite. With God, who is, in the words of St John Damascene, “Infinite and Incomprehensible,” it is precisely the knowledge of this (ie. the fact that we know we cannot know Him) which is, according to St Thomas Aquinas, the very point: “To realise that God is far beyond anything we think, that is the mind’s achievement.” Our only response, then, can be the wonder and awe which His infinity inspires in us, and an act of adoration of the same, perhaps using these words of Cardinal Newman: “I adore Thee, O Lord my God, because thou art so mysterious, so incomprehensible. Unless thou wert incomprehensible, thou wouldst not be God. For how can the Infinite be other than incomprehensible to me?” I ended by saying that Our Lady is the finite vessel for the Infinite God, the blessed womb in which the eternal Son of God deigned to be conceived and to grow. On this, the feast of her Annunciation and His Incarnation, let us continue to marvel at the grace of God at work in the young Virgin Mary who says “yes” to God’s magnificent gamble of a question: would she become the mother of the Saviour? Her “fiat” to the will of God effects a miracle within her, one beyond our imagining.
The mere notion of containing God has always been a baffling one! Solomon wanted to build a temple, didn’t he? He said: “The house which I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to burn incense before him?” (2 Chron 2:5-6) This house, this temple, this permanent ‘tent’ was just an image of the Tabernacle before us now. It was also an image of Mary, the Temple of the Lord who merited to contain the uncontainable one. Imagine if Solomon could have known! Once he had built his Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon prayed with words which now speak to us of the hope to be fulfilled in Mary. He prayed: “But will God dwell indeed with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of thy servant and to his supplication, O Lord, my God; […] Yea, hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest, forgive.” [2 Chron 6:18]
The Matins hymn for Our Lady, Quem terra, pontus, aethera, penned by Venantius Fortunatus, has a wonderful verse about the mystery we are examining: “How blest the mother, in whose shrine / The great Artificer Divine, / Whose hand contains the earth and sky, / Vouchsafed, as in His ark, to lie!” Or, in a modern but just as striking translation: “He whom nothing can contain, No one can compel, Bound his timeless Godhead here, In our time to dwell.”
Mary is that ark, that container of the uncontainable. She is the first tabernacle; the first one to hold within her flesh the Son of God. St Jerome would say: “in her womb He dwelt, the Infinite enclosed within her finiteness.”
John Donne, in his circle of sonnets known as the Corona, has this praise for the Virgin in her Annunciation: “yea, thou art now / Thy Maker's maker, and thy Father's mother, / Thou hast light in dark, and shutt'st in little room / Immensity, cloister'd in thy dear womb.”
The fifteenth century English carol “There is no rose of such virtue / As is the rose that bore Jesu” also has a beautiful metaphor in it: “For in this rose contained was / Heaven and earth in little space; / Res Miranda.” Miranda, to be admired indeed. As within the bud lies all the beauty of the flower, so Mary “flourishes” to push the metaphor, as she gives birth to the Origin of all.
This event is so dramatic as to invite a huge amount of poetic paradox and beautiful imagery. Throughout the ages, the Church has marvelled at the humble condescension of God and the graceful acceptance of His Will by the Virgin Mary. I rather like the verses written by Fr Caswall that we sing at Christmas: “Sacred Infant, all divine, / What a tender love was Thine, / Thus to come from highest bliss / Down to such a world as this.” Why indeed did he come down?
You may know that I am a chaplain to our parish primary school – it is a job that I enjoy very much indeed, mainly because the answers that the children give are often so magnificent as to reduce a preacher to silence. Two Christmases ago, I was preaching to a class of five year-olds just before they broke up for the Christmas holiday. They had just performed their Nativity Play, with great enthusiasm. So I asked them to tell me the story of Christmas in their own words. Out came the familiar elements of the story: the Angel, Mary, Joseph, No Room at the Inn, the Stable, the Shepherds, the Star, the Wise Men, and so on. I felt that this reminder – which had taken us several minutes already – was probably enough for such young children, so I finished my little sermon with a question. “Put your thinking caps on, children,” I said. “I’ve got a difficult question for you.” Thirty excited faces looked back at me in anticipation. “Why? Why did God become a Baby at Christmas? Why?” The children thought for a moment. The first answer was accurate without being correct: “He was the Son of God,” one boy said. “Yes, I said, Jesus was the Son of God. But why? Why did God send His Son to earth as a baby? Why did it happen?” They thought for a moment more, and a little girl put up her hand. She said, “He came to forgive us.”
A little child had just summarized in five words what it took St Anselm five volumes of “Cur Deus Homo” to say… He came to forgive us. So much is contained within this innocent and very correct answer. If forgive, then because we had sinned. And all of us – so Original Sin, right back to our first parents. And, his whole purpose in coming was to effect a covenant of forgiveness between God the Father and us his children. Why did He come down to ‘such a world as this’? To forgive us. The prayer of Solomon is answered: God did come to dwell with men, he hearkened, and he forgave.
This leads us to a very Lenten thought: the passibility of God-made-Flesh. God is impassible, that is, he cannot suffer. But God-made-Man takes on the frailty of human flesh, and mortality. He allows Himself to become a man, in order to suffer and to die in our flesh. Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” but he deigned to take on our humanity which, for 33 years, was passible, vulnerable – literally, “woundable”, “sufferable.” St Leo the Great put it admirably: “When the time came, dearly beloved, which had been fore-ordained for man's redemption, the Son of God enters these lower parts of the world, descending from His heavenly throne and yet not quitting His Father's glory […] Being invisible in His own nature He became visible in ours, and He whom nothing could contain, was content to be contained: abiding before all time He began to be in time: the Lord of all things, He obscured His immeasurable majesty and took on Him the form of a servant: being God, that cannot suffer, He did not disdain to be man that can, and immortal as He is, to subject Himself to the laws of death.”
Surely, this is meant to teach us the antidote to the original sin of pride: namely, humility. Fr Caswall’s carol See Amid the Winter’s Snow continues: “Teach, O teach us, Holy Child, / By Thy face so meek and mild, / Teach us to resemble Thee, / In Thy sweet humility.” To resemble God means to foster virtue, and try to reach his perfection. His infinite perfections may appear totally out of reach, and yet Christ did not come and say, “do your best!” – Rather, He said: “Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, the bar is set high; we have to reach for virtue in order to become like God. For, in the wondrous words of St Athanasius: “God became man, so that man might become God.” We are called to share in divinity – to be sharers in Infinity. Not for us an eternity of oblivion: we are called, through death, to eternal life, and that means entering into the presence of God to share in His reign: ‘and His Kingdom will have no end.’ No end! Infinite!
She who shares his reign already, who was conceived perfect, is Our Lady. It is she who responds to His humility with her own. But we, ever-conscious this Lent of our wretchedness and stiff-necks, how it costs us to bow before God and humble our pride! Blessed John Henry pointed this out, saying: “Oh, wayward man! Discontented first that thy God is far from thee, discontented again when He has drawn near, complaining first that he is high, complaining next that he is low; unhumbled being, when wilt thou cease to make thyself thine own center, and learn that God is infinite in all he does, infinite when he reigns in heaven, infinite when he serves on earth, exacting our homage in the midst of his angels, and winning homage from us in the midst of sinners?” [Discourses to Mixed Congregations]
This feast within the holy season of Lent allows us to glimpse the perfect ideal of what we are all striving for: it is a refreshment for us, to see the humility of the Virgin Mary, and an encouragement to be freed from the slavery to sin which makes us forever downtrodden and bowed down with guilt and shame. Sin is a subtraction, down to negative numbers, a devaluation of ourselves… grace multiplies us up to infinite value! Once reconciled, we can stand up and lift up our heads, not in pride this time, but in confidence. Why? Because God has performed the ultimate calculation. Sin was an infinite offence against an infinite God; it needed the infinite merits of his Son’s passion to cancel it out. And the Precious Blood of Jesus was a price that God was willing to pay. He looked at you and me, and every other human being that had ever – or will ever – live, and thought that the humiliation and suffering of the Incarnation and Passion was a price worth paying, so that we could rise with Christ to eternal life with him. Mathematicians nowadays like to speculate about one infinity being greater than another! Well, if the universe itself is expanding into the infinite, and the ultimate infinite reality, God, is holding it in the palm of his hand like a speck of dust, then God’s infinity just got bigger after the Incarnation. His essence is love: charity. And his love just pours out more and more; it increases, with every soul touched by grace. His charity is an infinite source: it does not shrink, but “endureth forever” as the psalms tell us. Our Lady is a special gift of the Love of God to mankind, both as a vehicle for Salvation, and as a new Eve – a newly created woman who is conceived immaculate, sinless – full of grace. Her plenitude comes from the overflowing of God’s love, the same overflowing which created the world in the first place, and “needed” man to be the object of that love, and return it. Adam, when first created, returned love to his Creator just as he received love – a perfect sacrificial response, one to another. God made Eve so that Adam could love someone more like him – body and soul. Almighty God takes on a body too, in Mary, so that we might love him more, since he has become “like us – in all things except sin.” Mary, filled with grace, returns the Creator’s love too. And what does she do: she magnifies the Lord. She makes him bigger! Our Lady proves God’s love to be even more immense. This is love, “to infinity and beyond!” As she gives place to Christ within her, Fr Faber sings to Our Lady that “for the Heaven he left he found Heaven in thee – and he shone in thy shining, sweet Star of the Sea!” So, God’s mercies are increasing, like the exponential growth on the chessboard, except that the exponent would have to be infinite too – because this love of God is not measurable! The psalms once again show us this dialogue of love between God and Our Lady; these words could have been sung by Mary – indeed, probably were sung by Our Lady in her prayers: “Thou hast multiplied, O Lord my God, thy wondrous deeds and thy thoughts toward us; none can compare with thee! Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be numbered. […] I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart.” [Ps.40(39):5,8]
We too must be like Mary: “perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.” We can be bearers of the infinite. Those of us who went to Communion today bore within our finite bodies the Body and Blood of the Lord, just as Mary did within her womb. He did not disturb her virginal integrity by his gracious entry nor in his birth; likewise, he does not force himself into us, but stands at the door and knocks; will we let him in? Will we be bearers of the uncontainable God this Lent? Will we allow ourselves to be a House built for God? We began with that prayer, Jesu vivens in Maria: Jesus living in Mary… do we let Our Blessed Lord live in us? In the strength of his power, and with full dominion over us? If we do, through the Sacraments and through remaining, please God, in a state of grace, then it is so that WE might bring the Word to Flesh in our own lives. We must, spiritually, conceive the Word of God within us, and then bring him forth in our thoughts, words and deeds. If we do, then that sign at the Basilica at Nazareth should hang over our souls as it should hang over every Catholic Altar: “Here, the Word was made Flesh! – Hic Verbum Caro factum est.” If we do, then we are doing our bit to magnify the Lord – proclaim him bigger and greater, and praise him for the multiplication of so many graces upon us. Imagine if every member of our Order did that! How many countless souls more could we reach and allow the Lord to touch and heal them? How more effective defenders of the faith and servants of Our Lords the Sick could we be, if we were icons of the Incarnation even as Mary was? Make the calculation, work out your salvation, and show your workings. The Lord will provide blessings ad infinitum.
When our turn comes to reach the shore of the infinite, and ask for Mary’s prayers at the hour of our death, may she bring us to that eternal realm of endless light in which she is Queen and mistress of the Angels, and present us to the Father as her children; that the Father of Infinite Majesty [Pater immensae majestatis] may see you and me, and be reminded of the flesh and blood of His Only-Begotten Son; and, seeing us fully conformed to Christ, and crucified with him, allow us to rise to eternal life. That was why he came in the flesh; that is why he gave us Our Lady; that is why he paid the price of our redemption, a cost that we cannot fathom by human counting and numbering… Why? Because he wants us to be co-heirs to eternal life. So, while we may yet be bewildered by such generous bounty and let us thank him for so great a gift:
“Deus, cujus misericordiae non est numerus, et bonitatis infinitus est thesaurus…” O God, whose mercies are numberless, and the treasury of whose bounty is infinite, we render thanks to thy most gracious majesty for the gifts thou hast bestowed upon us, evermore imploring thy clemency that as thou grantest the petitions of them that beseech thee, thou mayest never forsake them, but may prepare them for the rewards to come. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.