Introduction to Lectio Divina

Contemplating the Word

Contemplating the Word

Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading)

“…I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime. As a strong point of biblical ministry, Lectio divina should therefore be increasingly encouraged…” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address on the 40th Anniversary of Dei Verbum)

Lectio divina is an ancient practice of praying with Sacred Scripture. It has been especially preserved and practiced by monks throughout the ages, but in recent decades has been promoted for the whole Church by Pope St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It is not difficult to practice, it does not require large amounts of time nor special knowledge or education. It is simply a way of allowing God to speak to us personally through His Holy Word, as written in the Bible.

That brings us to the first important point: God really wants to speak to us, each one of us, and no one is excluded. It does not matter what we have done. Furthermore, God wants to reveal His love for us, each one of us, and no one is excluded. It does not matter what we have done. Before we even existed, God loved us. He created us out of love, He redeemed us out of love and by His love, He continues to call us back to Himself. Like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), no matter how far we have wandered, there is a celebration and warm welcome awaiting us in the Father’s house, our true home. That is the “tone of voice” we can expect from God when we pray with Sacred Scripture through lectio divina. We can always ask the question, “How is God revealing His love to me through this passage of Scripture?”

Step 1: Reading

When practicing lectio divina, we start by opening our Bible to a page of Scripture and reading (the first step of lectio divina). There are many ways to choose what Scripture we begin with. I generally recommend the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, because it is easiest to encounter God through the Gospels. For those who are aware of the daily cycle of Gospel readings selected for Mass, I find that to be an easy starting place. We do not need to read a large amount of Scripture. The purpose of lectio is different than a bible study. With lectio, we are not trying to become Scripture scholars, we are simply trying to draw close to God and hear His voice speaking to us personally. So, a paragraph of Scripture from the Gospels is more than enough to start with.

After we have selected a passage of Scripture, we begin to read slowly. Let me emphasize: slowly. For prayer, it is very important to slow ourselves down, to quiet our minds and hearts, and to become more gentle in our approach to God. We know that God is almighty, but when He speaks, He does not try to dominate us or overwhelm us. This is because He really respects and reverences our freedom. He wants to be sure that we really really want to hear what He has to say. By becoming very quiet and very gentle inside ourselves, we show Him that we are really interested in listening to Him. It is as if He were a shy child and He clams up if we are loud and rough. One of the ways we can transition from the noisy harshness of the world to the gentle quiet needed for listening to God is by taking a phrase of Scripture and gently repeating it. As we read through the passage, we look for a phrase of Scripture that seems to stand out to us, that catches our attention. It is not magical and really any phrase will do, but if there is one that seems particularly attractive, we should take that one and begin to repeat it gently inside ourselves.

Step 2: Meditation

As we begin to repeat the phrase of Scripture, we have begun our meditation (the second step of lectio divina). At first it is just a gentle repetition. This repetition helps to slow down our interior and to make us more sensitive to God’s Presence. It is like a pebble that has been tossed into a rapidly moving river–the pebble heads down towards the riverbed, but then it gets tossed up by a current, moved about by the flow, but each time the phrase is repeated, it is like applying gravity to the pebble and it takes it closer and closer to the bottom where it can rest. That is how our interior becomes more settled and calm and open to the Presence of God. Though we might get distracted and have various unrelated thoughts, by just returning to the phrase we can refocus ourselves and become more settled and calm and open up again to the Lord’s Presence.

At the same time, as we are gently repeating the phrase, we are reflecting on its meaning. To take an example, perhaps as we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are struck by the phrase in Luke 15:20, “So he got up and went back to his father.” As we reflect on the meaning of this phrase, we might notice the courage of the son to get up and go back. We might feel his fear of rejection. We might begin to think about our own sins and remember an experience of being rejected by our own father. We might feel despair and wonder what the point of returning is. But we repeat, “So he got up and went back to his father.” We know that the son was not rejected, that he was received with love and rejoicing. We might ask ourselves, “What is keeping me from getting up and returning to God, my Father? Am I afraid? Am I despairing?” We can reflect on the loving way that our Father receives us, on the open arms He extends to us. And again we repeat the phrase, “So he got back up and went back to his father.”

Step 3: Prayer

At this point, we enter into the third movement of lectio divina which is prayer. In our meditation we asked ourselves, “What is God saying to me in this passage?” In prayer, we respond to God. We might begin to pray with something such as, “Thank you Father for always receiving me when I get up and return to you. Please forgive me for wandering away from you. Please help me never to wander from you again. Why do I continually fall back into sin? Please help me to be faithful. Please help me always to get up and return to you when I fall. Please help all those who fall into sin to get up and return to you.”  The important thing in prayer is that we speak from our hearts.  God loves to listen to us and He wants to hear what is in our hearts–our feelings, our fears, our hopes, all the people we love and care for, whatever is in our hearts.

Step 4: Contemplation

Through our meditation and prayer, our hearts are slowed down, quieted and gradually separated from the world. As we become aware of the loving Presence of God we can let go and rest in the fourth movement of lectio, which is contemplation. Contemplation is a loving awareness of God’s Presence. When we feel that God is close to us, words become pointless and we do better just to rest and enjoy His Presence, speaking and listening to Him in a simple, silent way, beyond words. This may last for a few moments or for a few minutes. Gradually, we move back to the Scripture and take up our phrase again, or perhaps we move on to another phrase.

Pope Francis on Lectio Divina

Let us conclude by reflecting on Pope Francis’s teaching on this form of prayer:

“There is one particular way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the Spirit. It is what we call lectio divina. It consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us. …

“In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: ‘Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?’ When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel #153-154)

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The Resurrection of the Body – more than the raising of Lazarus

[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out… (John 11:43b-44a)

What was Lazarus's experience? Why do we not hear a report about it? We are fascinated with “near-death” experiences (e.g. the recent book “Heaven is for Real” remained on the best seller list for over three years) and we have this feeling that if someone could scout ahead beyond the veil of death and come back to tell us about it, we would more easily believe (and more readily behave!). It is reminiscent of Israel's explorations of the land beyond the Jordan river, the Promised Land–we would like to send a Caleb or Joshua ahead of us to reconnoiter the land and come back to tell us what it is like. But Jesus assures us, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31b)

Perhaps this is why Scripture tells us practically nothing about Lazarus's experience of rising from the dead. It leaves us wondering, “What was it like?” It would be so interesting to know what his experience was…or would it? Perhaps we do not get more about Lazarus's experience of waking up and emerging from the tomb because it is simply a distraction. As Jesus reported in the parable of Lazarus (a different Lazarus) and the rich man, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” (Luke 16:29) Indeed, the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles bring us closer to understanding the meaning of life (and eternal life) than someone who comes back from the dead (like Lazarus). How can this be?

Resurrection is more than a resuscitated corpse

Pope John Paul II explained this in the following way, “Eternal life should be understood in an eschatalogical sense, that is, as the full and perfect experience of the grace (charis) of God…” (TOB 67:5). Pope John Paul II clarified (in the same audience) that we already get a taste of this through faith, that this is an experience, “in which man can share through faith during his earthly life…” At the same time, we do not experience it fully, it will “only be revealed to those who will participate in the 'other world' in all its penetrating depth, [and] will also be experienced in its beatifying reality.” (TOB 67:5)

In order to participate “in all its penetrating depth” and experience this grace “in its beatifying reality,” we must be transformed in a way that is not only “by degree” but in a way that is “essential.” At the same time, we must be quick to clarify that this transformation does not involve any “disincarnation” or “dehumanization.” (TOB 67:2) Rather, there is a certain continuum between the human experience of this life, particularly the way that we are permeated by truth and love, and the divinized experience of the “other world.” (TOB 67:4) At the same time, our divinization in the “other world” is “incomparably superior to what can be reached in earthly life” (TOB 67:3).

The greatest mutation

Pope Benedict XVI tied all this together in an Easter Vigil homily when he called the resurrection “the greatest mutation”:

But somehow the Resurrection is situated so far beyond our horizon, so far outside all our experience that, returning to ourselves, we find ourselves continuing the argument of the disciples: Of what exactly does this 'rising' consist? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and the whole of history? A German theologian once said ironically that the miracle of a corpse returning to life – if it really happened, which he did not actually believe – would be ultimately irrelevant precisely because it would not concern us. In fact, if it were simply that somebody was once brought back to life, and no more than that, in what way should this concern us? But the point is that Christ’s Resurrection is something more, something different. If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest 'mutation', absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history. (April 15, 2006)

A glorified body

Pope John Paul II gave a thorough treatment of the resurrection of the body in his Theology of the Body discourses (TOB 64-72), but we will just give a hint of what he says about this experience. I will leave it to the reader to contrast this description of resurrection as a radically new step in life with Lazarus's experience of merely resuming this earthly life still headed towards his second death. Pope John Paul II described our resurrected life as being perfectly integrated, and “the powers of the spirit will permeate the energies of the body” (TOB 67:2). The “powers of the spirit” refer to things like the intellect and the will and the memory. That these powers will permeate the body means that we will have absolute control over our bodies to the most refined degree–having intelligent fingers, for example or eyes that can make their own choices. Furthermore, because our whole person will be taken up in receiving “God's most personal self-communication” (TOB 67:5) all of these powers will be oriented towards love. Our bodies will be a perfectly harmonized integration totally open and oriented to receiving God's love and through Him open to everyone else.

Whatever Lazarus's experience of life after death was, we can be sure it was not like that. From the experience of the resurrection of the body, there will be no turning back. In the Resurrection of Christ, we have a future that is unimaginably beautiful and therefore a hope that helps us to say with St Paul, “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8,10-11) And “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” (Romans 8:18)

 

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Good Friday – A story of weakness

The story of mankind is a story about weakness. In the beginning man was weak. Satan tried to help man hide his weakness. First he convinced man he didn't have to be weak, “You can fix your weakness–just eat the fruit.” That didn't work! Now man was twice as weak, also feeling ashamed. “That's alright,” Satan continues to tempt, “just hide yourself. If no one sees your weakness there's nothing to be ashamed of and the shame will go away.” That still didn't work as God kept calling out, “Adam, where are you?” Soon after, man tried a third tactic–destroy the weakness. Cain killed Abel. That seemed more effective, except that feeling wouldn't go away and that voice kept following us saying, “Where is your brother?”

Satan wants us to hide our weakness–by fixing it, running away, or destroying it.

Ever since then we have been trying to hide our weakness. The Passion narrative we just heard repeats the old story about the many ways that we hide our weakness.

What are some of the ways?
Peter used boasting, “I will never leave you !”
And pride, “you won't wash my feet.”
Peter used a sword but everyone knows a bully is really just insecure, weak.
Then Peter resorted to lies, “I do not know the man.”

What do you use to cover up your weakness?

Some of them ran away. Some slept. We can become perfectionists and control freaks about things that don't matter–just to stay away from our weakness in things that do matter. Do you point out other people's weaknesses to take the attention off your own (like I'm doing right now!)? Do you create a big hysteria about nothing so people won't see what you feel is really wrong–that you are weak? Judas tried to make more money–you can cover up everything if you have enough money. Sometimes we are willing to admit we are weak…just as long as we have a chance to earn forgiveness first and distract people with our strength (so that we don't appear to be so we weak).

What's wrong with covering up my weakness? What else would I do with my weakness? Trust? But then that serpentine voice returns, saying “Be careful! You can't trust people too much. They let you down. You can't trust in obedience–you have to be realistic you know?? You can't trust your parents or your superiors or your brothers or sisters. They've already proven they will let you down. If you trust you just get hurt. Take the offensive instead. The best defense is a good offense. And you certainly can't trust God–He is Almighty. He doesn't understand weakness. He will reject your weakness.”

God responds to weakness with love

But Jesus pleads “I thirst!” He is so weak.

The Passion of Christ is God's response to our weakness. He embraces it by loving it, sharing it, supporting it–all the way to the end.

Weakness is not the ugly, horrible thing that needs to be hidden. Rather, the ugly horrible thing is the lack of trust that prevents our weakness from being loved. That's the ugly thing. Judas was not ugly so much for his betrayal but for his suicide. He chose to destroy his weakness rather than to let Jesus love it.

Trust means “to let Jesus love our weakness.”
Faith means “we believe He always will.”

Sometimes we think that everything depends on how well we love Him. But we fail to love Him so often. We fail to carry out our duty, we fail to love our neighbor. And when we try to love Him and we fail we just want it to go away. Sometimes we even just want God to go away so that we don't have to face our failure, our weakness.

Maybe there is a little feeling of relief after the Passion. We think, “Finally He's dead! That voice will finally stop calling out, “Where are you? Where is your brother?” Now I can just forget it. I can just cover up my shame with the latest trendiest animal skins and walk out of Paradise and forget the whole thing. I'll just make my way on my own. It was all a bit too idealistic anyway.”

And Jesus lets us walk away.

But as long as we eventually stop running, He will come to find us, showing up behind our locked doors and showing us He doesn't hate our weakness. He never did. “Peace be with you!” And He shows His wounds. He knows what it's like to be weak. He loves our weakness. He just wanted us to trust Him. To say to Him, “I'm sorry. I'm weak. I need your help.”

The path of Peter can become our path as well. Peter covered his weakness with lies when he was next to a charcoal fire. That charcoal fire appears again on the shore of Tiberius and Peter again has the opportunity to cover his weakness. But instead he chooses to be honest–not boasting, not proud, not lying. When Jesus asks, “Do you love me with a divine love (agape), Peter?” Peter responds humbly, “Lord you know everything. You know I love you with only a human (weak, imperfect) love.” Jesus accepts this and tells Peter, “'Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, 'Follow me.'” In other words, “You will become weaker and weaker, but you will let me be your strength. That will glorify me and it will perfect your love.”

God doesn't despise our weakness. He loves us and He loves our weakness. We don't need to cover it up. We just need to trust. To take the hand He reaches out to us and let Him pick us up again. He won't let us down. We can trust Him.
There is no weakness that He will not share.
There is no weakness that His strength will not support.
There is no weakness that He will not mercifully embrace.

Will we take the risk of trusting Him again? With all our hearts? Trusting Him enough
to expose our weakness, not hide it,
to give it to Him, not destroy it,
to let Him heal us, not just try to fix ourselves?

Jesus held on to our weakness all the way to the end. “It is finished.” He shows us that He identifies with our ultimate weakness, death, and He breathes His last. But it's not the end. If we choose to trust Him and let Him hold us, our weaknesses will be shining with glory.

Homily given at St Emma Benedictine monastery Good Friday 2014

 

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For you? For some? For many? For all? Is Catholicism for everyone?

In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, we profess our belief each Sunday in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The word “catholic” in Greek means “universal”. Our initial impression, then, would be that the “Catholicism” is for everyone. There are some modern factors that cloud that impression, however. One confusing factor is the relativism that is so prevalent in our culture. One who ascribes to relativism believes there is no absolute and thus no universal (i.e. catholic) truth or morality and thus no universal religion. This might be expressed as, “Whatever you think is good and true–that is good and true for you. Whatever I think is good and true–that is good and true for me.” Another confusing factor has recently appeared in the heart of Catholic worship, in the Eucharist. For forty years the words of consecration, the very heart of the Eucharistic prayer, were translated into English as, “this is the cup of my Blood, which will be shed for you and for all…”. Now at Mass we hear, “this is the chalice of my Blood, which will be poured out for you and for many…”. Should we take from this change in the Eucharistic Prayer that the relativists are right, that Catholicism is not truly universal, but only good and true for some?

Pope Benedict's teaching on “pro multis”

Fortunately, Pope Benedict teaches us beautifully on this point. We will consider his explanation given in a letter to German-speaking bishops on April 14, 2012. The entire letter is beautiful, clear and worth reading. I would like to draw out a few points here that can help us in our understanding and living the Catholic faith.

Revelation always requires an interpeter

The first point is that the literal translation of the Latin pro multis is “for many”. Why then was it translated for so many years as “for all”? Pope Benedict explains that a style of translation was embraced after the Second Vatican Council that catered to a concern for the common person's understanding. The text, in Latin, had been remote from people's understanding, but if only presented in a direct translation, the implementors of the new liturgy feared the text would remain remote. Thus, to aid in the understanding of the liturgical prayer in modern languages, the translators incorporated interpretation into the translation. So, as an example, while it was not a problem that the words of consecration were pronounced in Latin as pro multis, there was a fear that if the words were translated directly into English as “for many” there would be a misunderstanding about the Church's theology. Instead of entrusting the task of interpretation to the Church's ministers (bishops, priests, catechists, parents), the decision was made to incorporate the interpretation into the translation.

This is the first key point Pope Benedict helps us understand: the need for interpretation is always a part of revelation. That is why God ordained teachers (Peter and the Apostles and now their successors, the Pope and bishops) and guaranteed that they would provide an authentic interpretation (not even the gates of hell will prevail against the rock of Peter). Pope Benedict expresses it in this way,

Not even the most sensitive translation can take away the need for explanation: it is part of the structure of revelation that the word of God is read within the exegetical community of the Church – faithfulness and drawing out the contemporary relevance go together. The word must be presented as it is, with its own shape, however strange it may appear to us; the interpretation must be measured by the criterion of faithfulness to the word itself, while at the same time rendering it accessible to today's listeners.

A corollary to this point is that we must keep growing in faith. This shows the need for ongoing formation. When there are things we do not understand, it is our responsibility to seek an authentic interpretation by looking to the Church's teaching. We can start with the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. We can ask our parish priests who can explain things for us in terms of the teaching of the Magisterium (the Pope and the bishops). We can look for explanations in the writings of the Popes which can easily be found on the Vatican website. It is the Church's responsibility to provide an interpretation and the individual Christian's responsibility to seek it out and make the effort to understand it. This is part of the structure of revelation.

“For many” still means “for all”

Pope Benedict goes on in his letter to the German bishops to help us understand whether the change to “for many” indicates that Jesus did not die for all. He writes,

Did the Lord not die for all? The fact that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the man for all men, the new Adam, is one of the fundamental convictions of our faith. Let me recall just three Scriptural texts on the subject: God 'did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all', as Paul says in the Letter to the Romans (8:32). 'One has died for all,' as he says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians concerning Jesus' death (5:14). Jesus 'gave himself as a ransom for all,' as we read in the First Letter to Timothy (2:6).

Certainly Jesus Christ died for all. Cardinal Francis Arinze gives a further explanation on this point in his letter dated October 17, 2006, sent to the US Bishops,

The expression 'for many,' while remaining open to the inclusion of each human person, is reflective also of the fact that this salvation is not brought about in some mechanistic way, without one’s own willing or participation; rather, the believer is invited to accept in faith the gift that is being offered and to receive the supernatural life that is given to those who participate in this mystery, living it out in their lives as well so as to be numbered among the 'many' to whom the text refers.

Here Cardinal Arinze makes it clear that Jesus died for all, but it is up to us to accept the gift of salvation.

For you!

Pope Benedict teaches us more of the beautiful meaning behind the phrase of Jesus, “for many”. It should be noted, first, that the account of Jesus's words at the Last Supper are different in Matthew and Mark's accounts in contrast with Luke and Paul. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “for many” while in Luke and Paul He says, “for you.” The Roman Mass combined these words into “for you and for many.” When we read “for you” we do not understand that the Precious Blood of Jesus is shed only for the Apostles who were present at the Last Supper. Rather we see the personal way Jesus applies His Precious Blood to them. Likewise, the saving power of His Precious Blood is still applied to each one present at the Eucharistic Liturgy, who can hear those words personally addressed them. We can each stand at the foot of the Cross and rightly hear Jesus tell us that He is pouring out His Blood for me.

Pope Benedict then turns the love of Jesus spoken to each one personally at the Mass into a challenge. Jesus says, “I pour out my Blood for you and for many but it is your responsibility to ensure that it reaches all.” Pope Benedict expresses the challenge in this way,

How the Lord in his own way reaches the others – 'all' – ultimately remains his mystery. But without doubt it is a responsibility to be directly called to his table, so that I hear the words 'for you' – he suffered for me. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the lamp on the lamp-stand, a city on the hilltop, yeast for all. This is a vocation that affects each one of us individually, quite personally. The many, that is to say, we ourselves, must be conscious of our mission of responsibility towards the whole.

We are not few but many!

Finally Pope Benedict uses the “for many” to encourage us. Sometimes we do not feel like “many” we only feel like “some” or “few”. Especially as our church communities dwindle in size, we must take up the responsibility to extend Jesus's life-giving death to others, but we must also remember that we are part of “many.” Indeed, St John reports in the book of Revelation that he saw, “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb…” (Rev 7:9) We must remember that even when only a few are present at Mass, we are always in the presence of many, even a multitude of saints who have gone before and are united with us in the Church.

Indeed, Catholicism is not merely for a few, for some or for many–it is for all, a universal religion that has the power to transform and elevate all that is authentically human and unite it with the divine.

 

“Blessed Be Saint Joseph, Her Most Chaste Spouse”

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

As the Divine Praises remind us, St. Joseph is Mary’s most chaste spouse. He is a master of purity and a master of modesty, even if he needs a little convincing on this point. A master of purity is able to see, to read, in the language of the body, the mystery of God’s presence hidden in the intimate center of another. A master of modesty does not exploit this mystery, nor expose this mystery, nor run away from this mystery, but rather veils the mystery with his love. In the end, St. Joseph both sees and veils the mystery of God’s spousal love for mankind expressed in the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it took an angel to help him understand this and have the courage to accept the task.

Purity and modesty

We turn to the Catechism to understand more clearly the two virtues of purity of heart and modesty. The Catechism teaches us: “[purity of heart] enables us to see according to God…; it lets us perceive the human body–ours and our neighbor’s–as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty” (CCC, 2519). Purity of heart allows us to behold the mystery, the beauty hidden in the heart of another, but seen through the body. In regard to modesty, the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2521 reads, “Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden…”and in paragraph 2522 we read, “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love… it keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”

St Joseph’s drama – purity sees the mystery, humility backs away

Let us turn now to the Scriptures to see how the drama of St. Joseph’s life unfolds. Throughout the ages, the “Masters of Suspicion,” as St. John Paul II names them, read the Annunciation to St. Joseph with the suspicion that no one, even St. Joseph, could have sufficient purity of heart to see the mystery of God’s love in the unexpected pregnancy of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This presumption colors the interpretations of key biblical passages, supposing that St. Joseph saw Mary as an adulteress. Modern Scripture scholarship and the Doctors of the Church help us to reread these passages in the light of truth. The passage in question comes from St. Matthew’s Gospel and we hear it each year in the Mass on Christmas Eve and on the Solemnity of St. Joseph: “Joseph, her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” (Mt 1:19)

First, we need help with two Greek words–the verb deigmatizo, translated here as “expose to shame” and apoluo translated here as “divorce.” While we cannot go into all the details, a valid re-translation of this passage is proposed by the Jesuit scripture scholar Fr. Ignace de la Potterie, “But Joseph, her spouse, who was a just man, and who did not wish to unveil (her mystery), resolved to secretly separate (himself) from her.” (Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, p. 39)

From this we get a better understanding of the insight of St. Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, “Why did he wish to leave her?… He saw, with sacred astonishment, that she bore a special quality of the divine presence, and while not being able to understand this mystery, he wished to leave her.” (Hom. “Super Missus Est”) St. Thomas Aquinas reiterates this insight in his Summa Theologica, “Joseph wanted to give the Virgin her liberty, not because he suspected her of adultery, but out of respect for her sanctity he feared to live together with her.” (Supplementum III, q. 62, art. 3)

Then the angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream and helps him (and us) to understand the following truth expressed by St. John Paul II in his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount in the Theology of the Body, “[Christ] assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man.” And “he assigns also the dignity of every man to every woman” (TOB 100:6). Upholding this dignity “is assigned as ethos to every man, male and female: it is assigned to his ‘heart,’ to his conscience, to his looks, and to his behavior” (TOB 100:7). St. Joseph is assigned the “task” of Mary’s dignity. This task requires two virtues: purity, to see, and modesty, to protect.

Scripture scholarship and the Doctors of the Church reinforce our faith that St. Joseph’s purity of heart allowed him to behold a great mystery in the body of Mary. In the purity of his heart, St. Joseph beheld in his virginal bride not the sin of an adulteress but the awesome mystery of God’s presence. The body of Mary caused the sacred astonishment of St. Joseph as he beheld the great mystery of divine, spousal love in the language of Mary’s virginal pregnancy.

At the same time, St. Joseph recognized the virtue necessary to protect such a profound mystery. He feared that in his human weakness, he might defile the mystery by remaining close. Like St. Peter and the centurion who both said, “I am not worthy,” St. Joseph did not consider himself virtuous enough to veil this mystery by his presence; rather he thought he could do so better by his absence. Because of this, reasoned St Bernard, St Joseph decided to separate himself (apoluo) from Mary.

Obedience veils the mystery

Fortunately, in God’s gentle Providence, He sent an angel to St. Joseph to reassure him that he should protect her mystery by remaining her husband, by taking her mystery with him under his roof. Scripture affirms that St Joseph obeyed the angel. We can even read the exactitude of his obedience by the exact correspondence in scripture. The angel said, “Take Mary your wife into your home” (Mt 1:20) and Scripture affirms, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” (Mt 1:24)

One of the Church Fathers claimed the success of Joseph’s obedience in indicating that it is precisely the marriage that he maintained with Mary that protected her from the devil. Referring to something written by St Ignatius of Antioch, Origen asserted that the devil did not find Mary because he was looking for a Virgin rather than a married woman.

I found an elegant statement in the writing of a martyr–I mean Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch after Peter. During a persecution, he fought against wild animals at Rome. He stated: “Mary’s virginity escaped notice of the ruler of this age.” It escaped his notice because of Joseph, and because of their wedding, and because Mary was thought to have a husband. If she had not been betrothed or had (as people thought) a husband, her virginity could never have been concealed from the “ruler of this age”. (Trans. By Joseph Lienhard, Origen: Homilies on Luke, Fragments on Luke, FC 94 [Washington, 1996, 24-25], quoted in St. Joseph in Early Christianity, pp. 36-37)

St Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command served as a veil to protect Mary and her Child from the ruler of this age. This pattern was repeated twice more as St Joseph protected the Child and His Mother from Herod’s wrath (Mt 2:13) and the menace of Archelaus (Mt. 2:22) through his humble obedience to the angel’s command (Mt 2:14,22).

Let us ask St. Joseph to teach us true chastity in purity of heart, in modesty and in obedience. We ask him first to teach us to have sensitive hearts that can recognize the beauty of the mystery of God’s presence in us and in others. Then may he teach to protect that mystery through the obedience of faith. In this way, like St Joseph we will enter into deeper communion with Mary and the Mystery of God’s love revealed in the Word made flesh in her womb.

Originally written for the Theology of the Body Institute e-newsletter and expanded March 19, 2016

 

St Joseph’s “Doubt”

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Here is a homily I gave to our monks in 2015 summarizing the interpretations of St. Joseph’s “doubt” in chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel. There are three main approaches to St Joseph’s struggle by saints, doctors, theologians and Popes throughout the ages. All three approaches can help us to see the greatness of this man chosen by God to be the spouse of Mary and the human, virginal father (legally, socially, but not biologically) of Jesus, the Son of God.

St Joseph, son of David, pray for us!

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St. Joseph, Master of Virginal Begetting

Msgr. Jean-Jacques Olier, who founded the great seminary Sainte-Sulpice (and later the Sulpicians) as a response to the Council of Trent's call for a reform of the approach to training priests in seminaries, entrusted the seminarians of Sainte-Sulpice to the patronage of St. Joseph. The reason, he explained, was that St. Joseph, like priests, was involved in the “virginal begetting of Christ.” To understand this, one must recognize that the marriage between Joseph and Mary was necessary for the Annunciation to take place. In this sense St Joseph plays a real and important, although not biological, role in the begetting of Christ. St John Paul II wrote that “while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary's marriage to Joseph” (Redemptoris Custos #7).

Msgr Olier's concern that priests master the art of the virginal begetting is shared by Pope Francis who tied together unhappiness in a celibate vocation with a lack of spiritual fatherhood, “please: … never any priests with faces like 'chilis pickled in vinegar' — never! … But what is at the heart of this lack of joy? … when a priest is not a father to his community … he becomes sad. … the root of sadness in pastoral life is precisely in the absence of fatherhood…. It is impossible to imagine a priest … who [is] not fertile: this is not Catholic!… Joy, no sadness, pastoral fecundity.” (Pope Francis, Address to novices and seminarians, July 6, 2013)

Essentially, Pope Francis is emphasizing that the joy of the priesthood comes from fulfilling the spousal meaning of the body in making a sincere gift of oneself. This self-gift becomes mystically, virginally fruitful, begetting Christ in souls, and thus engenders a spiritual fatherhood in the priest. What can we learn from St. Joseph about how to live out this essential element of priesthood more fruitfully?

St Joseph models a culture of encounter and tenderness

The first point is the importance of cultivating encounters with certain qualities–encounters that are personal, tender, and open to human suffering. Pope Francis has taught us persistently about this as he has encouraged us to build a culture of encounter. When we have the courage to draw close to others, it forms a people, a family. “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG) #270)

St Joseph was tempted to distance himself from Mary, from her human suffering, but his openness to the Word of God and his courage to reverse his decision and draw close to Mary is an inspiration for priests who might likewise seek to distance themselves. His return to Mary with tenderness, rather than stoning, is likewise an example. And there is no doubt that his decision made his life “wonderfully complicated” and helped to form a people, truly to form the People of God.

Complementarity, the Holy Spirit and virginal fruitfulness

A second quality that is important for spiritual fecundity can be seen in the complementarity of Joseph and Mary and the role of the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary could only enter into a marriage because they were male and female. Furthermore, the virginal begetting could only take place because Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. St Joseph clearly did not understand all that was taking place and yet he was willing to draw close to the mystery and discover God in a new way in his virgin bride. The priest opens himself to the same spiritual fruitfulness when he draws close to the mystery of the bridal Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. He does this when he preaches the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without this the seeds of faith cannot be planted in hearts, “and how can they believe…without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14) When the priest goes out of himself to plant the seeds of faith in the hearts of his people, watering them with baptism and nourishing them with the tenderness of personal encounter, the Church becomes pregnant with new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Without the bridal Church and without the Holy Spirit there can be no virginal begetting. Pope Francis drew out this analogy in a Wednesday Audience on the Church, “First of all a mother generates life, she carries her child in her womb for 9 months and then delivers him to life, giving birth to him. The Church is like this: she bears us in the faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit who makes her fertile, like the Virgin Mary.” (Sept. 09, 2013) Pope Francis also described the fruitfulness that comes when we are willing to let ourselves be fascinated by the difference, by the complementarity of the other, “When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.” (EG #271)

The mysterious nature of virginal fruitfulness

A final point that must be raised is that the pastoral fecundity is not always obvious; virginal begetting is also mysterious. Just as St. Joseph lived for many years in the hiddenness of Nazareth, the priest must often live in the uncertainty of the importance and fruitfulness of all his efforts. He can teach us what Pope Francis has called “a sense of mystery”. “'A sense of mystery' … involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others.” (EG #279)

St. Joseph is the best teacher for us in understanding the mystery of virginal begetting which he inaugurated in his willingness to encounter our Lady with tenderness, in embracing her difference with the power of the Holy Spirit and in rejoicing at the mysterious fruitfulness that burst forth in their lives.

Originally published in the Theology of the Body Institute email newsletter

 

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The Merciful Chair of St. Peter

The Second Vatican Council taught clearly about the authority of the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter. It is easy to misinterpret this power, given to one man, in purely secular terms, and to fear the damage he could do. With the help of Sacred Scripture and the reflections of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) , G.K. Chesterton, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Pope Francis, however, we will see that papal primacy and the celebration of this mystery on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, are truly mysteries of God's boundless mercy.

Petrine primacy

In the Second Vatican Council's great teaching on the Church, with the Latin title Lumen Gentium, we get a clear presentation of the power entrusted to the Pope:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. … But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. (Lumen Gentium #22)

Scriptural witnesses

The language of the Church in the Second Vatican Council including “primacy” and “full, supreme and universal power” developed its precision over time as it was elaborated throughout the history of the Church, but it finds its origin in the words spoken by Jesus to Peter in Sacred Scripture, “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” (John 21:15,16,17) and “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) We can look also to the affirmations of St. Paul who went specifically to Peter (Cephas) to confer with him on disputed points in the faith (Gal 1:18) and testifies that he did it specifically so that he “might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (Gal 2:2) It is also Peter who is identified by St. Paul as the first witness of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7) and in lists which vary in many details, Peter is named first in every listing of the twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13). Finally, the most well known passage, which is also the Gospel for the Mass for the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, states persuasively, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

Peter's weakness

In reflecting on all these texts, however, we cannot take a triumphalist approach to Petrine primacy, because another point emerges more strongly–the mercy of God. Each scriptural affirmation of Jesus's choice of St. Peter to lead the Apostles and the Church is accompanied by an acknowledgement of Peter's weakness and failure. The commission from John 21 is interspersed with a threefold recognition of Peter's threefold betrayal. The call that Jesus gives to Peter in Luke 22 will take effect after Peter's recovery from his denial. When St. Paul affirms the role of Peter as a criterion for the authenticity of the Gospel in Galatians 1, he also recognizes the personal failure of Peter in Galatians 2:14. Finally, in the context of the power entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16, we find Peter chastised by Jesus immediately afterwards for being a stumbling block and failing to think as God does (Matthew 18:23).

Observations of Ratzinger, Chesterton, Sheen and Pope Francis

In light of these Scriptures, which Cardinal Ratzinger interpreted more carefully and thoroughly in the book Called to Communion, he concluded that Petrine primacy is really a doctrine of mercy. The choice of Peter, in the face of his profound weakness, shows that the Church is built on the rock of mercy and forgiveness:

This seems to me to be a cardinal point. At the inmost core of the new commission which robs the forces of the destruction of their power is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded on forgiveness. Peter himself is a personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon. The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality: she [the Church] is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness. Behind the talk of authority, God's power appears as mercy and thus as the foundation stone of the Church; in the background we hear the word of the Lord: “It is not the healthy who have need of the physician, but those who are ill; I have not come to all the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) (Called to Communion, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger)

Saint Paul expresses this principle clearly, sharing it from his own experience and relating the words of Jesus to him, “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) He firmly embraces the same mystery that is manifested in Peter, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” As Cardinal Ratzinger identified, the “Church is founded on forgiveness…she is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness.”

G.K. Chesterton expressed the same truth in his own unique way, touched with humor, pointing out that by founding the Church on the weakness of Peter, Jesus subverted the wisdom of the world and according to the mystery of divine wisdom thus prevented the Church from suffering the ultimate collapse that worldly wisdom is subject to:

The thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man—the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link. —G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

The great televangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen expressed it similarly, but in his own characteristic, poetic simplicity, “No chain is stronger than its weakest link, and the weakest link of the chain of Popes was the first. But that weak link was held in the hands of Christ. That is why the papacy will never fail.” (Quoted in Through the Year with Fulton Sheen)

Pope Francis reiterated this theme on the Feast of the Chair of St Peter in 2016 as he celebrated the Jubilee for the Roman Curia. He reminded those who support him in exercising St Peter's merciful power, that that power was originally and is still entrusted to weak and fallen men who are, therefore, in an even better position to seek out the lost, heal the sick and raise up their brothers from their sins:

Pastors, above all, are required to have as their model God Himself, who cares for His flock. The Prophet Ezekiel described God’s way of acting: He goes out in search of the lost sheep; He leads back the lost to the fold; He bandages the wounded and cares for the sick (34:16). A behavior that is a sign of a love that knows no bounds. It is a faithful, constant, unconditional dedication, that His mercy might reach all those who are weakest. And nevertheless, we must not forget that the prophecy of Ezekiel starts from the observation of the failures of the shepherds of Israel. (Pope Francis, homily, Chair of St Peter, translation by WAOB®)

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

From this vantage point we can revisit the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and see how the weakest man is placed in the center so that he can be a point of unity for all. “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” (Lumen Gentium #24) After all, one thing that we all share is weakness and sin. Few are strong and none are sinless, so it makes divine sense that the principle of unity and cornerstone of the Church should be one who is deeply aware of his need for mercy so that the mercy of God can shine brightly through him. “Power is made perfect in weakness.”

 

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Fasting is Romantic

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” These are among the words of Matthew’s Gospel that welcome us into Lent on Ash Wednesday. We are told to fast and not look gloomy, but why not? After all, don’t we feel gloomy? Hungry, a little weak, maybe a headache coming on and we have a lot of work to do and we are not sure if we are going to hold out the rest of the day without any food. We are not sure if this might be ruining our health and we don’t like it when our stomach is growling. Looking gloomy would seem to be simply honest. What is the point of fasting anyway?

In his 6th century Rule, St. Benedict teaches us that there is a connection between fasting and chastity. In his lengthy 4th chapter on the Tools for Good Works, St. Benedict instructs the monk “to love” only two of the tools: “to love chastity” and “to love fasting.” This follows the already centuries-old tradition of monastic wisdom regarding the interrelation of sense-desires, the desires that St. Thomas calls (and Blessed John Paul II refers to in ToB audience #54) the concupiscible appetites. Based on this connection we can draw some insight on fasting from St. John Paul II’s teaching in the Theology of the Body about chastity.

In Audience #54, St. John Paul II notes that chastity has a negative aspect: to master and overcome the “lustful passions.” This is an exercise of the virtue of temperance and is part of the path to purity. At the same time, St. John Paul II explains the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, noting that, “[t]he task of purity emphasized by the author of the letter is not only (and not so much) abstaining from ‘unchastity’ and from what leads to it, that is, abstaining from ‘lustful passions,’ but, at the same time, keeping one’s body, and indirectly that of the other, in ‘holiness and reverence.'” In short, St. John Paul II couples the negative “abstinence” with the positive “reverence” for the body. He couples the exterior negative self-denial with the interior positive attitude of reverence for the body that leads to purity of heart.

In fasting, also, we have a negative, self-denial of a sense-desire, a concupiscible appetite. At the same time (if we do not want to look gloomy) there must be a positive affirmation, a positive interior movement towards reverence for the body, holiness, and love. The key for this is given in Luke 5:35 where Jesus tells us, “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Jesus connects the practice of fasting with love for the bridegroom. The desire for food becomes a desire for union with Christ–an attitude the Church has maintained from the earliest days. Indeed, the only current daily fast in the Roman Catholic Church is the fast before Holy Communion. We learn to relate the hunger pangs of empty stomachs with a preparation for Communion with Jesus Christ, the Divine Bridegroom. Fasting, like chastity, becomes a reverence for the Body. In short, given the motivation Jesus provides, in which fasting (like chastity) is an expression of longing and a preparation of the body for the Body of the Bridegroom, we might even say, “fasting is romantic.” In this light, we can better see how St. Benedict can encourage his monks “to love fasting” (and “to love chastity”) and we can see how Jesus can tell us not to look gloomy. Our growling stomachs are calling to us, “The Bridegroom is near! Let us go out to meet Him!”

This article was originally written for the Theology of the Body Institute e-newsletter.

Here is a homily I preached for the Franciscan TOR Sisters that expands on this topic:

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The Importance of Mary’s Body in Our Faith

One week before the beginning of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to the shrine of our Lady, her Holy House in Loreto, Italy. He did this to entrust the Year of Faith to her intercession. This physical gesture of pilgrimage and prayer (he even lit a candle!) incarnated his words at the end of his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the indiction of the Year of Faith, “Let us entrust this time of grace to the Mother of God, proclaimed ‘blessed because she believed’ (Lk 1:45).” But, stepping back, we might ask, “Why Mary? Why Loreto?” Before answering those questions, first we should ask, “What is the goal of the Year of Faith?”

Pope Benedict writes in Porta Fidei, “The Year of Faith…is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world.” A “renewed conversion to the Lord” means turning away from lies and turning towards the Truth. The lies entice us to reduce ourselves, our future, our hope to something much less than God has made us to be. So, if I might paraphrase, during this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict wants us to rediscover who God is and, in light of that, to rediscover the greatness of who we are made to be, the greatness of our destiny, and then, in faith, to take a step in that direction.

With this in mind, we can understand the importance of Mary for the Year of Faith. In her, we come to a clearer vision of God, a clearer vision of God’s love for us, and a discovery of the true greatness of our human nature, a discovery of what we are called to, a discovery of our destiny. Furthermore, we can learn from Mary how to take a step away from the reduced vision of the human person offered to us by the world and a step towards embracing the greatness of the human person revealed by God in Jesus Christ.

Let us see how Pope Benedict explains this in his homily from Mass celebrated a week before the Year of Faith at the Holy House in Loreto. Please allow me to quote at length before reflecting on the Holy Father’s words:

Mary offered her very body; she placed her entire being at the disposal of God’s will, becoming the “place” of his presence, a “place” of dwelling for the Son of God. We are reminded here of the words of the Psalm with which, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ began his earthly life, saying to the Father, “Sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but you have prepared a body for me… Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (10:5,7). To the Angel who reveals God’s plan for her, Mary replies in similar words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). The will of Mary coincides with the will of the Son in the Father’s unique project of love and, in her, heaven and earth are united, God the Creator is united to his creature. God becomes man, and Mary becomes a “living house” for the Lord, a temple where the Most High dwells. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012

Pope Benedict explains to us that Mary’s very body became the meeting place of heaven and earth, the place where the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, a “living house” for the Lord. What we discover in Mary, then, is the great dignity of the human being. No other creature, not even the angels, can be a dwelling place of God—only human beings, only the human body can be a living house for the Lord. We can have heaven within us.

What a different vision of the human person this is in comparison to what the world offers. We are not just a cog in the wheel of production. We are not merely consumers, who can be manipulated by advertising and enslaved by our appetites. We are not the servants of science on a path to world domination. We cannot be reduced to the sum of our failures, nor to the sum of our successes. Our life is not valuable only in so far as we have possessions, power, and pleasure in this world. Our life is valuable because we are made to be the living house of God. From the unborn child to the terminally ill, from the severely mentally challenged to the most brilliant genius, from the quadriplegic to the Olympic athlete, every human being is made, like our Lady, to be the meeting place of heaven and earth. That is what defines us.

Unfortunately, this destiny cannot be realized unless we are willing to be open to the Lord. God is willing—that is the source of our dignity—but are we willing? What is holding us back? The problem is that we are blinded by a lie, corrupted by a poison that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. We always knew that we were made for heaven, made to be filled with God, made to be like God, but, at the serpent’s urging, we go about it in the wrong way. Hearkening back to the passage of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, Pope Benedict summarizes, “What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.” Homily from December 8, 2005

When we allow this poison to take hold in our hearts and we see God as a rival, then His commandments become a threat, a plot to steal our freedom, a plot to take away the fun in life. Suspicious of God, we carve out a part of our life and keep it away from Him. This attitude, in the modern day, leads to the cry to keep God out of the bedroom or to keep God out of politics. In whatever area of life that we try to keep God away from, it is because we do not trust Him to bless that part of our life, to fill it with heaven. We think that only when we are in control, when we are free to do whatever we want, that our life will be filled with heaven.

What we discover, however, is that when we keep God out by insisting on control, we also keep love out. Love does not exist in an environment of control, but in an environment of openness and trust. Pope Benedict says, “it is precisely God who liberates our liberty, he frees it from being closed in on itself, from the thirst for power, possessions, and domination; he opens it up to the dimension which completely fulfils it: the gift of self, of love, which in turn becomes service and sharing.” Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012 Being closed in on ourselves, being in control through power, possessions and domination is not heaven. To the contrary, it is a radical isolation, being locked up entirely in ourselves. It is hell! Only God draws us out of ourselves to become the gift of love we were made to be.

In this light we see the wisdom of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, “man… cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (#24) We are filled with heaven when we make a gift of ourselves. In this, and so many other teachings of the Second Vatican Council, we see that Blessed John XXIII’s prayer to the Virgin of Loreto was answered: “Here at Loreto fifty years ago, Blessed John XXIII issued an invitation to contemplate this mystery, to ‘reflect on that union of heaven and earth, which is the purpose of the Incarnation and Redemption,’ and he went on to affirm that the aim of the Council itself was to spread ever wider the beneficent impact of the Incarnation and Redemption on all spheres of life.” Pope Benedict XVI’s Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012

At the heart of the Year of Faith is this rediscovery of who we are, in light of the Incarnation and Redemption. Our bodies are made to be the meeting place of heaven and earth, living houses of God. Our task for the Year of Faith is first to believe this and then to let this truth reach into every corner of our lives until we experience a total conversion to the Lord. We look to Mary for this, as Pope Benedict said in Loreto, “As we contemplate Mary, we must ask if we too wish to be open to the Lord, if we wish to offer our life as his dwelling place; or if we are afraid that the presence of God may somehow place limits on our freedom, if we wish to set aside a part of our life in such a way that it belongs only to us.”

Concretely, in this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict is asking us to look back to those seminal teachings in Vatican II where we can learn who God is and who we are. He directs us also to the Catechism which is, as he says, one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, as a daily practice we are encouraged to take up the Creed as part of our daily prayer. We can remember that the interpretive key for all that teaching is the fundamental truth that God has made us to be His dwelling place and He wants to fill us with heaven.

In this article, we have allowed the mystery of the Annunciation to shine light on the Year of Faith. It would take another article to see how Mary guides us in the other dimension of the Year of Faith—in light of the mystery of the Visitation. Having been filled with God in the Annunciation, it is in the Visitation that Mary brought Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth, and by extension, to all who are in need. This follows the impulse of the New Evangelization, noted by Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei: “Caritas Christi urget nos.” (2 Cor 5:14) The Love of Christ impels us to share this gift of faith with others, to counteract the lie that self-sufficiency is heaven, and to open the heart of each person to be, like the womb of the Virgin Mary, filled with heaven.

To return to the question stated above, then, we can see now how important our Lady is. Heaven and earth come together in her and she teaches us how to be her little children, little Mary’s, such that heaven and earth can also come together in our bodies. With her faith in our hearts, heaven and earth come together in us. Let us conclude with Pope Benedict’s own prayer from the end of his homily in Loreto, “Mother of the ‘yes’, you who heard Jesus, speak to us of him; tell us of your journey, that we may follow him on the path of faith; help us to proclaim him, that each person may welcome him and become the dwelling place of God. Amen!”

(Published originally in the Theology of the Body Institute online newsletter October 25, 2012)