A Tale of Two Birth Announcements

Look over Luke 1:5-25; 57-66.

cappella_tornabuoni2c_102c_annuncio_dell27angelo_a_zaccaria
Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence) Public Domain

We all know the story, don’t we? Zacharias (an “official” “ordained-type” priest) goes in his proper time to offer incense within the Temple. The Angel Gabriel appears to him there, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, along with his role as forerunner and preparer of the way of the Lord.

Zacharias responds, objecting, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” [v. 18] Gabriel then identifies himself by name, and declares that Zacharias will be mute until his words were fulfilled.

Time passes and so things come about. Zacharias regains his voice finally upon naming his son “John” at his circumcision, in response to community objections because this is not family name of their line.

We all know the story.

Now, please look over Luke 1:26-56.

pinturicchio2c_cappella_baglioni_02
The Annunciation by Pinturicchio (1501, fresco in the Cappella Baglioni, Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello) Public Domain

We all know this story, too, don’t we? We see this played out in Christmas pageants almost annually, no? The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, declares her favored, calms her confusion, and announces that she will conceive the Son of the Most High and name Him Jesus.

Mary seems to respond much as did Zacharias, pointing out a physical incongruity as she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [v. 34]

But far from punishing her, as it could seem Gabriel did to Zacharias, the angel answers graciously with not only the answer to her question (that the power of the Most High would overshadow her), but he gives her an additional sign declaring that Elizabeth (her kinswoman) is six months along expecting the birth of John. Their exchange ends with “’nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her” [vv. 37-38]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, like, am I the only one who ever wondered, “what’s the difference here?”

Zacharias clearly ticked Gabriel off, while Mary didn’t. It’s one thing to point to the “rank order” difference between them. There’s certainly a difference of “graciousness” between them. Lots of flavorful differences, but I always sensed there was more here than that.

And… why should we care? What difference does, or should, it make to us… to you and me… here and now… why these two encounters went the way they did?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I think the answer to both questions is the same one… “Faith”.

The difference between the two encounters is “Faith”. And the reason we should care, is also “Faith”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It never dawned on me, until very recently, that Zacharias… even faced as he was with the terrifying countenance of an Angel of God Almighty… doubted the truth of his words. Even INSIDE the Temple, standing next to the Altar of Incense as he offered up incense to God!

Seriously?

All of Gabriel’s words spoke to FUTURE events, not present events. Zacharias was going to have to go from that place, be with his wife in the proper time, conceive John, and watch nature take its course for the next nine months.

But that wasn’t good enough for Zacharias.  He says, “how will I know this for certain?” (We know italicized words are inserted by editors.) So he wants to know, right here, right now, why he should believe Gabriel. Waiting apparently isn’t good enough. (We know for certain that the issue is doubt, because Gabriel tells us that.) Zacharias is rendered mute until all was fulfilled “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” [v. 20]

Zacharias needed to know these things were true before he was willing to do his part. Clearly, his part in this miracle would be of crucial importance. It was he and Elizabeth who needed to conceive this child. But before he would go to that trouble, before he would dare go communicate this to Elizabeth, before he would risk Elizabeth’s heartbreak, disappointment, or disgrace… he had to have a sign. He had to KNOW this was true, before he could obey.

Gabriel gives him an unmistakable sign of his authority and power, using his words alone to stop all words for Zacharias until the truth was borne out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what is different about Mary? She, too, asks a “how” question.

The difference is that her question is one of “means”, not “verification”. She was perplexed at the appearance of Gabriel, not terrified. Gabriel declares the upcoming conception, birth, and kingship of Jesus, and Mary does not express doubt at the announcement. Rather, she asks how this is to come about, what is she to do? She knows she is virgin. Is that to change for this miracle? How should she obey the will of God?

Gabriel responds to the “how” of the question… that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” [v. 34-35] (By the way, that word “overshadow” only appears 5 times in the New Testament. Once here; then three times referring to the Cloud around Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the time of the Transfiguration that came upon (and terrified) Peter, James and John, from which came the Voice saying “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”[Luke 9:34-35]; and third when Peter’s shadow heals the sick [Acts 5:15].)

Unsolicited, Gabriel offers Mary the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary yields unconditionally to God’s will and embraces Gabriel’s words, the hurries off to aid Elizabeth in her first pregnancy. Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth had only “come out”, publicly acknowledging her pregnancy in the month before Mary’s arrival? No way was Elizabeth going to endure the risk of disappointment had she miscarried, or been merely deluded into thinking she was pregnant. She would not face either the jibes or the condescending looks of other village women as her face began to round and her figure became more full. She was an elder of her town, disgraced by the curse of barrenness perhaps, but nonetheless righteous and dignified of demeanor. She would not be mocked.

But by the time Mary arrives, Elizabeth KNOWS. She knows for sure that she carries life within her. The baby has quickened, and for the first time she has the glorious sensation of life moving inside her as he responds to her motions or sounds around them. No words describe the joy of hugging new life with your very self, as a woman can in this time.

Mary comes, calls out in greeting, and the Holy Spirit already filling John [v. 15] now fills Elizabeth as well, and her joyful encounter with Mary as they attend to one another’s needs for the next three months (Elizabeth’s third trimester, Mary’s first), offers blessing to them both. Even as I type those words, I can only pause and wonder in awe at what those months must have been like. What would evenings have been like in such a home? Zacharias silent (no choice there), Elizabeth growing ever more excited even as getting around gets more difficult and stilted, and Mary finding her appetite less predictable, perhaps napping now and again, and sensing the changes in her body as the Christ waxes in form…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What does all this mean to us, Gentle Reader?

Well, God does the impossible all the time. For those who are ready and seek Him, miracles are all around.

When they come, sometimes they are hard to believe in. That’s just the truth. But! When one is willing to yield to them, God grants. When one is willing if and only if there is a sign attesting to the truth… well, God accommodates and a sign will be given. We see this over and over again throughout the Scriptures (Gideon, etc.) However, as we see from this text, while faith that may be, it is a flawed sort of faith. (I, for one, have engaged in such flawed faith countless times, so no judgment here!)

But there’s another kind of faith. There’s a faith that takes a truth on the authority of the speaker, and simply says “Yes!” before it asks “How?”

There, I think is both the difference between the two Gabriel missions, and the significance to us today.

Zacharias wanted proof before he would act. Mary was willing to act before any proof was offered.

Both were engaged in astonishing blessing and miracle. Zacharias just had to go about it with a bit more inconvenience. That and, frankly, their lingering doubts certainly would have robbed him and Elizabeth of months of joy and consolation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Holy Spirit, the overshadowing Power of the Lord Most High, certainly wins out in every miracle. Let us simply say “Yes!” first, ask “How?” afterwards, and watch events unfold!

Grace to you, Gentle Reader!

What is Sin… Really?

accountability pageYou see this article on “Accountability”, and read this Inventory List for Conscience. It helps you know how and when you’ve “sinned” so you can get forgiveness for it. And your heart responds that there’s value to this, it isn’t “bad”… but somehow you feel it hasn’t quite hit the mark.

USCCB You do more research, you find a Catholic treatment for the Examination of Conscience, and you look it over. Again, not that it’s “bad”, but it just doesn’t seem to scratch the itch in your spirit as you ponder the questions of living in righteousness, versus committing sin. Somehow, virtue and sin don’t seem so cumbersome, so convoluted.

You decide to teach on this topic, and so you begin…

Sin… righteousness… love… peace… one day you are sitting and pondering, studying, working on a lesson or a sermon, and you find yourself grieving, praying, seeking how effectively to communicate something you see in your heart as so simple… You lean back, your brow furrows, your eyes close for a moment…

And suddenly, you no longer seem to be at your desk… You realize that God has heard your heart and your prayers, and He is going to teach you something, show you something, to help you understand and teach…

You find yourself standing out in a large empty space, dim but not utterly dark, neutral neither warm nor cold, with just a sense of vastness, not fearful or threatening. There in the distance you see light on the horizon and you choose to walk towards it. Startled with surprise, you find that each step moves you very far, as if your will moves you forward by thought, not physics.

As you approach closer to the light that a moment before was on the horizon, you realize that you are about to look upon the Father… God… the Almighty over All. Somehow, you know you are at the very Beginning, the Before the Beginning. This, is the Void, the Formless Void, and God (in whatever form and manner you perceive Him/Her) is smiling in welcome at your arrival. Amazingly, when He smiles, He smiles all over… His eyes, His hands, His heart… all welcomes you, and you stand just steps away from Him, unsure of whether to look up or down, to bow or to stand.

He takes your hand, raises your chin, smiles, and simply says, “Behold…”

He turns towards the Void around Him, extends His arms, and the radiance from His heart moves outwards reaching to touch all around Him. You realize, you are watching Creation. As you stand there, awestruck, you know that matter and energy have come into Being.

With another sweeping gesture, His arms raise again, and with a pulsing motion forms take shape all around you, near and far. You see planets, stars, sand, rocks, the forms of grass, trees, even animals. But all seems still.

“Now watch…” He says with a smile, as He turns to you, then back to His work.

You see a richer glow begin at His heart, as it flows upwards and outwards through His arms and fingers. You know, without knowing how you know, that He has just brought forth Life… and you see all these living things now begin to move.

Then, in a way you cannot describe, you see Him touching all of this… Everything… all at the same moment, and you realize that He is loving, He is feeding, He is upholding… All that is. All that He has created. That all of this is from Him, part of Him, has come from Him and is yet Him and His.

He turns to you again, and says… “Here is the best part…”

Again He faces His creation and the glow from His heart moves out through both His hands and His lips as He sings forth music unspeakable. Now there appear… “children”… is the word that goes through your mind. You hear Him sing, “My Children”. And you see that He is singing forth everyone, everywhere, everywhen. The beauty of it all leaves you breathless.

He turns to you again, reaches forth, and puts His hand on your chest.

You are filled with warmth, as a glow lights you up and flows outwards from your heart through every part of your being. You can feel and see that this warmth, this glow, are extending themselves from your heart outwards to your hands, and upwards to your tongue and lips.

You feel moved, without knowing why, and you embrace Him… God… the Father… the Lord of All. Fear doesn’t even enter your mind, though you’d never have imagined doing such a thing before. And He returns the embrace, kisses you on the top of the head, and you are filled with a fullness of love, safety, and nurturance such as you have never known before. You realize, for the first time all the way through you, that He is truly, utterly, and only Good… and you never need doubt, never need ever but to trust Him completely forevermore.

He directs your gaze to the world we know. And He bids you observe His children, their hearts, hands, and lips.

As you look at the world, you see people. Myriads of people… good, bad, young… old… confident, frightened, hurting, healing… You see all kinds of people, doing all the kinds of things people do.

You see some people with dim hearts, laying hands on other people who glow a bit, and where they touch their hands glow as the object of their touch grows dimmer. The heart of the takers has a reddish dim glow, while children start with brilliant white and gold.

Here and there you see clusters of brilliance, often among whom are hearts that reach out with pulsing connection with this heart of God alongside you. You see that God continues to touch, to nurture, to maintain all His children, all these people. But there are vast differences among individuals how they respond to His touch.

Some people welcome, embrace, and reach towards it. Others simply receive it without response or seeming to notice Him. While still others, those with the dimmest glow, seek to avoid His touch and His love and life (for you realize these all are one in Him).

But as you watch longer, you see that everyone, even the most golden or brilliant, have moments when their hearts flash red, and they touch others with a dimming effect. And much touching seems not to have impact. And some touching, brings light to others and eases their way.

“What am I seeing, Father? (or Lord?)” you ask.

“You are seeing the answer to your questions, My child. Righteousness, sin, virtue, love, life… all of it. It is as simple as ‘relationship’… with Me, with others, with yourself. I, and Only I, give life through love. That is all I do, always. And life only comes through love. But children of free will as you are, you may choose at any given moment to GIVE life through loving another and giving from Me through your heart, your hands, your words… to love another and so give them life. Or, you may choose to TAKE life from another, deprive, neglect, injure, or wound another… diminishing their life, feeding upon them, to love yourself.

“It is quite simple, but very difficult to put in words. Nothing living stands still. Life requires consumption. I Alone am the source of life. I alone can feed you with love, life, and being. When you feed from Me, (I once expressed this as ‘eat My body’), I can fill you utterly and beyond. Water that you never thirst again, bread that you never die. To let Me fill you, and then to pass along such love, such life, such abundance to those around you through your heart… this is love, this is righteousness, this is virtue.

“But to choose instead to feed on others, to love the self at the expense of others, is to deprive them of life. This is to consume others for the sake of the self. Whether materially, or emotionally… to feed the ego by belittling others and making them smaller, is no less a taking of their life as to wound them physically. This is predation. This is vampirism. This… is sin.

“Not only is it wrong, for it takes life from another. It is also ineffective. You cannot truly live on ‘second hand life’. Only I Alone can give full life through love. To steal the life of another will never fill or sustain a person. It can barely maintain them. Eventually, such predation leaves only the empty shell of a life.

“Sin leaves you empty and hungry, no matter how much you grasp or take. Like ’empty calories’, there is no real life to it. The hunger gnaws, and will continue to do so until real life, real love, real Light is found.

“So there you are, Blessed child. To give life to others through love of them and Me, is righteousness. To take life from others for love of yourself, without Me, is sin. Any questions?”

You shake your head, a bit bewildered. This really is quite simple. He hugs you again, kisses you atop the head, and your eyes open…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

You are again seated at your desk wondering how in the world you can ever find the words to explain this.

Then you remember, Jesus said,Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” [Matthew 15:17-20]

And you get it… everything is sacred. It is ALL held together in His hands, His heart, His love. To treat anything, especially ANYONE… as less than sacred… to fail to love anything or anyone that He died to redeem in the greatness of His love… Yeah, that’s just not OK. You get it now. Righteousness is treating sacred things that He loves as precious. Not to do so… well, yeah, that’s sin. And we do it, because sometimes we choose to… but still He breathes us, He touches us, He loves us… and thus, He lives us.

“Ain’t that somethin’?”  you ponder, silently…

Not Just the Hands and Feet — It’s the Eyes!

earth beautifulHere we are in Lent. That’s a different thing for everyone. “Seasons”, Liturgical Seasons, are wondrous times, opportunities for the Holy Spirit to focus our interior eyes on a particular aspect of grace and our relationship with God. Such seasons as Lent, or Easter, or Advent, or Christmas, or the Pentecost… all allow us to concentrate our gaze on some facet of this “Crystal Rose” in our Garden of Prayer, the King of Kings. Generally speaking, the Lenten Season is somber, reserved, reflective, looking forward through the great trials and sufferings of Christ approaching the Crucifixion, as He draws to His climax in Jerusalem and the Cross.

What should Lent be like? Well, if the rhythm of this season resonates, the experience should be whatever the Holy Spirit calls for it to be for you in your own unique journey with Christ. For some, it is a time of recollection of our own need for grace; reminder of our frailty and fallenness, sense of responsibility for our wrong decisions, and awesome wonder at all the pain heaped upon our dear Lord in our place, in payment for our own regrettable actions and decisions. For others, it may be an intense awareness of Jesus’ passion, of His strength, courage, determination to do the will of the Father no matter the personal cost. Lent may generate the intense response of admiration and worship for so noble a Lord who struggled and overcame so much to honor the will of God.

There is no “right” way to experience Lent, and no “wrong” way, as long as the Holy Spirit is given free rein to prepare straight paths for the renewal of the Truth of the Resurrection, and the glory of Jesus’ triumph over Death itself on Easter. Traditions, customs, denominations, cultures, and eras are incredibly diverse in their observation of the Lenten Season. Across my own life, the experience has been tremendously different from one year to the next, one decade to the next.

So let me invite you, let me encourage you, to make way for the Holy Spirit to use this season to bless you. Let me invite you to enter into the Scriptural experience of these days approaching Easter, making straight paths for the Holy Spirit to show you whatever nurtures your relationship and awareness of the immediate and intimate presence of Christ in your life and spirit. Your experience doesn’t have to “look like” that of anyone else, as long as the focus is on Jesus the Christ, and the scriptural elements that so richly fill these days and these pages.

This one thing I would note in addition.

That there is no meaning to Lent, no meaning to the suffering, no meaning to even the “forgiveness of sin”, or the “payment for sin”, or the “satisfaction of God’s justice”, or even the “extension of grace and mercy to man”… if those are seen as merely “functions”. If those are seen as “things God did” or “things God does”… When we see these things as simple “extensions of God’s methodology”, we miss the point entirely.

All these things… ALL that we see of grace, of God’s workings…. is direct expression of His Infinite Love and nothing less.

Embrace the awareness, the sorrow, the contrition of knowing He took our own just punishment for our own willful and willing sin… yes. Don’t reject or resist that, if that is what the Spirit leads. Embrace the awareness of His suffering, His pain, His humility and obedience, His submissiveness to His destiny and the Father’s will, in the blood and the nails… yes. Don’t reject or resist that movement of your heart into His on the Cross, if that is what the Spirit leads. But in all of that, just don’t get so fixated on the blood, the scourge, the thorns, and the nails… that we neglect to look at His face, His eyes. They radiate with the reason for it all… His Infinite Love, Our Father’s Infinite Love, the Spirit’s Infinite love… for you, personally, individually… and every other child He has fashioned as well.

Let us not gaze upon the mysteries of Lent, these incredible 40 days, or Passion Week with its horrors, spectating like onlookers at the scene of a great train wreck. If we fixate, fascinated on the scourge, the thorns, the nails, and the blood, and we miss the wondrous theme playing just below that surface… we simply witness a deep drama of horror and cruelty.

Even in grief, we want to remember that undergirding all this… is unspeakable Infinite Love. That’s what all of this is about. This is the act, prepared before the foundations of the cosmos, that embraces all of creation in the arms of Infinite Love… by the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amazing, isn’t it? Amen.

How Big is Your Elephant?

This is posted because Paulfg made me think of it this morning, even though it was originally posted in The Postmodern Mystic on New Year’s Eve… 2012! Lol. Enjoy, Paul… and all others!

ELEPHANT AND THE BLIND MEN

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had no idea what an elephant was. They said, “What’s an elephant?” and decided, “Even though we will not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated.
A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree on what an elephant is.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched only part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said, but is yet much more.”
“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
.
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13]
My little perspective and experience of my Infinite Elephant is far too small and limited to argue with anyone else’s. How’s yours?
Grace to you, Gentle Reader.
Little Monk

A Moment of Worship

This song came across my worship time this morning, and captured me. I looked it up, and have been captivated by it. I’ve repeated it many times, as it has aided my prayer.

Thought I’d share it for your joy… Don’t even watch the video… just close your eyes and let the music do what music does.  It may not affect others as it has me, but grace to you nonetheless…

The Lyric? “By your cross and passion, you free us O Lord. Lord…”

All our love must be for God

good-sam-glassFrom the treatise On Spiritual Perfection by Diadochus of Photice, bishop
All our love must be for God

No one who is in love with himself is capable of loving God. The man who loves God is the one who mortifies his self-love for the sake of the immeasurable blessings of divine love. Such a man never seeks his own glory but only the glory of God. If a person loves himself he seeks his own glory, but the man who loves God loves the glory of his Creator. Anyone alive to the love of God can be recognized from the way he constantly strives to glorify him by fulfilling all his commandments and by delighting in his own abasement. Because of his great majesty it is fitting that God should receive glory, but if he hopes to win God’s favor it becomes man to be humble. If we possess this love for God, we too will rejoice in his glory as Saint John the Baptist did, and we shall never stop repeating: His fame must increase, but mine must diminish.

I know a man who, though lamenting his failure to love God as much as he desires, yet loves him so much that his soul burns with ceaseless longing for God to be glorified, and for his own complete effacement. This man has no feeling of self importance even when he receives praise. So deep is his desire to humble himself that he never even thinks of his own dignity. He fulfills his priestly duty by celebrating the Liturgy, but his intense love for God is an abyss that swallows up all consciousness of his high office. His humility makes him oblivious of any honor it might bring him, so that in his own estimation he is never anything but a useless servant. Because of his desire for self abasement, he regards himself as though degraded from his office. His example is one that we ourselves should follow by fleeing from all honor and glory for the sake of the immeasurable blessings of God’s love, for he has loved us so much!

Anyone who loves God in the depths of his heart has already been loved by God. In fact, the measure of a man’s love for God depends upon how deeply aware he is of God’s love for him. When this awareness is keen it makes whoever possesses it long to be enlightened by the divine light, and this longing is so intense that it seems to penetrate his very bones. He loses all consciousness of himself and is entirely transformed by the love of God.

Such a man lives in this life and at the same time does not live in it, for although he still inhabits his body, he is constantly leaving it in spirit because of the love that draws him toward God. Once the love of God has released him from self-love, the flame of divine love never ceases to burn in his heart and he remains united to God by an irresistible longing. As the Apostle says: If we are taken out of ourselves it is for the love of God; if we are brought back to our senses it is for your sake.