Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent 4: A midwife for the holy

Leonardo da Vinci's study for St. Anne,
Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist
A homily on Sunday got me thinking about the voices we don't hear in the Scriptures, and Mary's mother, traditionally Anna, is certainly one of those voices of strength.  What does it take to let your daughter, on the verge of delivering her first child at a time when one in a hundred women died in childbirth, and one in ten babies did not live out their first month?   Mary's strength is perhaps a gift from her mother...

And I'm still thinking about St. John of The Cross, darkness and light, in particular the opening liens to Daniel Ladinsky’s luminous poem If You Want:

you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say…

“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
My time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

A version of this reflection appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 22 December 2015.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, a to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:1-5

“What time do you need to leave?” I asked my oldest son, Mike.  He came home last night, and leaves this afternoon for Tennessee to spend Christmas with his girlfriend and her family. At 2:35, they tucked their bags in the back of my car and I drove them to Philadelphia’s airport, wishing them safe travels, watching as they walked off.

As I drove home, I thought of Anna, the mother of Mary.  What had she thought as she watched her very pregnant daughter walk out of Nazareth, headed for Bethlehem — 80 miles and a mountain pass away?  What advice did she give Mary, what might she have tucked in her bags, “just in case”?

There would be no phone call for her, letting her know they were safe in Bethlehem. No email with a photograph of her newborn grandson.  She must simply trust that all in the end would be well, letting go of her daughter and the hope she bears within her.  Parting with what she treasures, to let God’s will be done.

My reflections pushed me to pull German theologian Johannes Baptist Metz’s small book, Poverty of Spirit, off the shelf to read in these last days of Advent.  This poverty, he suggests, is where “the meeting point of heaven and earth…the point where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.”  It is how we encounter God, with empty hands.

Jesus’ life was characterized by the poverty of the commonplace from the moment of his birth — laid in an makeshift, last minute bed in a stable —  to the moment he was laid in a borrowed tomb. Living out in his daily life a radical dependence on God, a grace of openness to which we all have access in our own lives.

I suspect that Mary learned this fundamental way of being from her mother, Anna, who waved her off on her journey, committing herself again to the uncertainties, depending on the grace of God to watch over her daughter.  I look to Anna in these last days of waiting to learn again how to let go of what has been entrusted to me when the time comes. In ways that are concrete, in the moments that are commonplace, in the places that are hidden, where I might not otherwise look.

Advent is helping my heart to empty out, not simply in preparation for this great feast celebrating a long-awaited birth, but emptied to allow me to become a midwife to the Christ.  That I might let him enter my soul, and willingly offer him to the world through my hands. Emptied that I might become a simple cradle for the holy one of Israel.


  1. I just happened on your blog and found these thoughts about Mary's mother very touching. My mother's sister and my mother often speculated out loud about two aspects of Mary's life before the birth of Jesus. They wondered about Anne and how she had raised such a holy child and they loved the story of the Visitation when Mary learns from Gabriel that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant and goes off to help her . These ideas are women's way to think about the goodness of Mary and to ask for some of her strength and charity

  2. Michelle, the priest I work with at Ascension introduced me to this piece that I had never seen before. I imagine it is not new to you, but this year has been especially poignant and beautiful to me. Your writing reminds me of it. Feliz Navidad, amiga del alma...

    We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us. Meister Eckhart