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Receiving the Gift

Giving Birth to Christ

Receiving the Gift
Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Why, from the earliest centuries, have Christian people been so excited about Mary? What’s happening in the depths of our soul when we hear her story? Surely it must be about more than the miracle of the virgin birth. As Benedictine oblate, author, and poet Kathleen Norris shares, Mary’s “virginity” has less to do with biology than with her stance towards God and life itself.

It’s in the monastic world that I find a broader and also more relevant grasp of what it could mean to be virgin. Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, describes the true identity that he seeks in contemplative prayer as a “point vierge” [virgin point] at the center of his being, “a point untouched [by sin and] by illusion, a point of pure truth . . . which belongs entirely to God. . . .” [1]

It is only when we stop idolizing the illusion of our control over the events of life and recognize our poverty that we become virgin in the sense that Merton means. . . . We all need to be told that God loves us, and the mystery of the Annunciation reveals an aspect of that love. But it also suggests that our response to this love is critical. A few verses before the angel appears to Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, another annunciation occurs; an angel announces to an old man, Zechariah, that his equally aged wife is to bear a son who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The couple are to name him John; he is known to us as John the Baptist [Luke 1:11–18]. Zechariah says to the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” which is a radically different response from the one Mary makes. She says, “How can this be?”

I interpret this to mean that while Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom. . . . Mary’s “How can this be?” is a simpler response than Zechariah’s, and also more profound. She does not lose her voice but finds it. Like any of the prophets, she asserts herself before God, saying, “Here am I.” . . . Mary proceeds—as we must do in life—making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? . . . Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever? [2]

If Jesus is the representative of the total givenness of God to creation, then perhaps Mary is the representative of humanity, showing us how the gift is received. And I believe that is why we love Mary. She’s a stand in for all of us. When we can say, like her, “Let it be,” then we’re truly ready for Christmas.

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books: 1968), 158.

[2] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Riverhead Books: 1999), 74, 75, 76–77.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Mary is Our ‘Let It Be!’,” homily (December 21,2014).

Image Credit: Abiding Love (detail of triptych), Janet McKenzie, copyright ©2019.www.janetmckenzie.com
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Mary could trustingly carry Jesus, because she knew how to receive spiritual gifts, in fact the spiritual gift. She offers a profound image of how generativity and fruitfulness break into this world. We have much to learn from her. —Richard Rohr
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