The Drama of Our Lady’s Yes


Archangel Gabriel came from heaven to greet our Lady and to make a declaration. ‘You will give birth to the divine king. Name Him Jesus.’ [SPANISH.]

Then Mary asked a reasonable question, touching on the birds and the bees. The archangel gave her an answer, mentioning the Holy Spirit.

There was a brief silence. Let the sexual harassers of the world take note: nothing would happen without Mary’s consent. The Archangel Gabriel waited for an answer. Our Lady had the power to decide whether or not she would become the Mother of God.

Let’s listen to St. Bernard, as he narrated the drama of that moment in one of his sermons:

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him.

St. Bernard goes on. He speaks to our Lady on behalf of the human race:

We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

We all find ourselves involved in that moment, the moment of the Annunciation, as the archangel awaited our Lady’s consent. In a sense, we were all there, waiting. Yes, each of us has our own unique course of life to run. But none of us escapes the common fate of all the children of Adam. We need a Savior. We need the Messiah Who can liberate us from our own weaknesses, Who can atone for all our mistakes, and Who can give us a life that death cannot destroy.

St. Bernard continues, describing how everything will unfold if the Virgin says Yes:

Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

…”O blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith.” St. Bernard has profound insight into Our Lady’s soul. Her consent to the Archangel required a great act of Christian faith. She had  to believe–to believe that God loved the world so much that He would give His only-begotten Son. She had to believe that the Holy Spirit could make her the Virgin Mother of the eternal Word. And she had to trust that God in His providence would see her through all the excruciating difficulties that she knew she would face.

In other words, Mary conceived a son in her womb by believing precisely what we believe. That God is one God in three divine Persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that the Son willed to unite Himself to our race, so as to become our Savior. In one all-important moment, Christ’s human life began, and Christianity began, with a young girl believing in the magnificent providence of God.

As we just heard, St. Bernard concludes his narration with dramatic fervor, coaching the Virgin, exhorting her, fathering her. ‘Believe, young lady! God is that good.”

Did Mary believe? She did. How do we know? She said:“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.”


The Magnificat, Love, and Colds



The last few days before Christmas, at Holy Mass we read familiar passages from the beginning of St. Luke’s gospel. Not only the familiar account of the Annunciation. We also read our Lady’s familiar hymn of Thanksgiving for it, namely the Magnificat.

Familiar because it was the responsorial psalm this past Sunday. And we read it at Mass every year on May 31, the Feast of the… Visitation. And we pray the Magnificat every day at… Evening Prayer (aka Vespers).

Did the Blessed Mother experience morning sickness or other complications during the first trimester, or at any other point during her pregnancy? Probably not, since she hastened to the Judean hill country. On the other hand, we know from long-standing Catholic tradition that St. Joseph insisted on Mary riding on an animal on their trip to Bethlehem. So our Lady didn’t have some kind of Super-Woman pregnancy, either. She had to endure all the usual discomfort and fatigue.

Yet she sang her Magnificat, glorifying the Lord for making her a mother. The Mother of God, and the Mother of Sorrows. She glorified the God of Abraham for making her the mother of the Redeemer who would suffer for all–thereby giving her a share in the same dark night of faith that Abraham had to endure. She praised God for giving her a life not of “freedom” or ease or comfort, but of pure daily obedience to Him.

lippi abraham knife strozzi chapel

Amazing faithfulness. Of course! She’s the immaculate one. Can we even begin to relate?

Yes, in fact. I think we can. Mothers can. And fathers can, too. And spiritual fathers.

“Independence” is not what it’s cracked-up to be. The idea that preserving my autonomy and my personal space and my liberty to do whatever I want—the idea that such “freedom” will make me happy? No. Same thing goes for ease and comfort. Ease and comfort get boring.

Nothing really makes life full and happy, except having duties of love to fulfill. We social animals were made to take on duties of love, and to fulfill them.

Now, the people we have the duty to love selflessly—our flesh and blood; spouse; brothers and sisters in church; neighbors—these people we have the duty to love selflessly: they can be pains in the butt. They keep us up at night. They give us colds. (You don’t think we celibate priests wind up getting all your colds? We’re the last ones to drink from the chalices at every Mass, when we rinse them and consume all the remaining drops and fragments.)

Pains in the butt, these people we have a duty to love. But we praise God. We proclaim the greatness of the Lord. For giving us people we love as our own, who give us colds. He made a promise of mercy to Abraham, to give him a son to worry about. And Abraham rejoiced with inexpressible joy. Our Lady rejoiced with inexpressible joy to have a son, Whom she would have to follow to the cross. And we rejoice, too, that God has given us people that we have a duty to love.

The Opposite of Sexual Harassment

This month we read St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation three times at Holy Mass. We read it on December 8; we read it today; we will read it again on Sunday.

You can’t meditate on the Annunciation too much, of course. We spend at least two decades of Hail Marys a week meditating on it, if we say the Rosary every day. And we try to recite the Angelus at least once a day, if not three times a day.

El Greco Annunciation

We’ll talk about this more on Sunday, when we will read this gospel passage yet again. But let’s focus for a moment on a highly topical aspect of the Annunciation, given all the recent news about men getting fired for being aggressive pigs.

Let’s remember that the Annunciation does not only involve the angel’s message. The angel brought an amazing message, but that’s not the whole thing. The Annunciation also involves: Mary consenting to the angel’s proposal.

In other words, what happened at the Annunciation is like the polar-opposite of sexual harassment. A predatory man makes a sordid suggestion, and then he won’t take No for an answer. Meanwhile, the Archangel Gabriel made a sublimely pure and beautiful proposal, and then patiently waited for a Yes before he made another move.

mary-logo1Mary could have said No. She could have said: Wait a minute. Give up normal married life and the prospect of a large and prosperous family? Expose myself to unimaginable solitudes and sufferings? Jump off into the abyss of faith, just because you say God has a plan here? No, thanks. I’m not that kind of hero. Go annunciate to someone else.

Mary could have said all that, and who would have blamed her? But, instead, she said Yes. Just like Jesus gave Himself up completely to the will of the Father and went obediently to the cross, Mary gave herself over completely to the supernatural plan announced by the archangel, and she wound up at the foot of the cross.

Only the immaculate one could have managed such an all-encompassing Yes. Only Mary conceived without sin had a heart pure and unified enough to say that Yes. To say it once and for all, and never doubt, and never flinch from a single duty that her unique mission imposed upon her.

(That’s why we read this passage on December 8, by the way. Even though reading about the Annunciation on Immaculate Conception Day can cause some confusion regarding whose conception was immaculate, and Whose was virginal.)

Anyway, let’s just pray. O Mary most-pure, help win us the graces we need to imitate your sinless, selfless Yes.

El Héroe del 12 diciembre

Nuestra madre, la madre de Jesús–¿cómo se llama? Sí. Ella puso su imagen en una “tilma.” ¿A quien perteneció esta tilma?

GuadelupeSí. A San Juan Diego. Cuauhtlatoatzin,—“águila que habla.”

Pues, ¿fue ver a la Virgencita el evento más importante en la vida de San Juan Diego?

Aparentemente no. Escuchamos al papa, San Juan Pablo II, hablando de Juan Diego, en la misa de su canonización:

Siendo ya adulto y casado, Juan abrazó el Evangelio, y, juntamente con su esposa, fue purificado con el agua bautismal.

Ahora—¿fue eso antes o después de cuando San Juanito vio la Virgen? Fue antes. La Santísima Virgen se apareció a un indio cristiano, un fiel de la gente indígena de México.

El papa continuo:

San Juan Diego, después de su bautismo, vivió como cristiano, bajo la luz de la fe, y de acuerdo a las obligaciones asumidas ante Dios y la Iglesia.

Podemos decir que el país de México no tiene un  héroe más grande que El Águila que Habla. Él representa todo lo que es rico y puro en el corazón del país. Fue místico de la belleza de la tierra que Dios ha dado a la gente.

Y él vio a la Virgen Madre de Dios, y recibió la imagen que distingue la gente. De veras, esta imagen distingue toda la gente de América—del norte al sur. San Juan Diego no es solamente héroe de México, sino héroe del continente entero.

Pero él vio, y recibió la imagen, porque fue bautizado. Porque fue cristiano fiel, cumpliendo diligentemente sus promesas bautismales.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe no quiere gloria para sí misma. Ella no quiere ser puro signo de nacionalismo u orgullo racial. No. Ella quiere gloria solo por su Hijo. Ella quiere ser imagen de la gente de América solo para unirnos en la Iglesia santa y católica, la Iglesia de su Hijo.

Si la amamos a la Virgen de Guadalupe, no pensamos tanto en el milagro de la tilma—aunque es milagro maravilloso—sino pensamos más en el milagro de la fe cristiana. San Juan Diego merece nuestra admiración, no tanto por recibir la imagen, como en vivir fielmente como hijo de Dios, bautizado en Cristo. En vivir lleno de amor por los misterios de la fe cristiana, especialmente los sacramentos—la santa Misa, confesión, etc.

Que vivamos en esta manera, como San Juan Diego, acercándonos a Dios por los sacramentos. Y Dios sabe que tipo de milagros podamos ver.

Our Sister Who Was Never Her Own Worst Enemy

El Greco Virgin Mary

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who chose us to be holy and blameless in His sight, destined for adoption as His children. (Ephesians 1:3-5)

This pilgrim life on earth can be okay, at times. A nice sunset; a quiet, peaceful evening with some loved ones; a hearty meal, etc.

But we don’t have a permanent home here. And the things we have to deal with: they can get tiring. What we really want is heaven. Peace and happiness—life without struggle, without unwelcome surprises, without any fear or anxiety at all.

God has what it takes to give this to us. We solemnly believe that He made us in the first place for this exact reason, to give us eternal life with Him in heaven. On the cross, He offered an infinite sacrifice; He offered the eternal love of the Son for the Father. This love can and does overcome all evil. The sacrifice of the Son, since it involves eternal and infinite power, can bestow the goodness of heaven on anyone, anywhere, anytime.

So we might wonder: Why doesn’t God just give us heaven immediately? We know that He lacks nothing in generosity. Why does He leave us to struggle through an extended pilgrim life here on this confused planet, with all its spiritual and physical dangers?

shaving mirrorAnd not only that. Struggles and dangers that come from outside myself are one thing. But, when I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that the greatest spiritual danger I face is myself. In the end, the only one who can truly ruin me is me. Satan can tempt; enemies can attack; bad circumstances can deprive me of every material thing—can even deprive me of my bodily life. But only I myself have the power to turn my self into something evil. Only I can do that. And the danger of me doing it is very real.

Who will deliver us from this? Who will deliver us from the evil we can do to ourselves?

Well, we know Who: Jesus Christ. And: His Mother.

We already went over how the Lord Jesus bestows heaven by the power of His infinite love, offered for us on the cross. And He doesn’t do it immediately, not because He’s trying to torture us, but because we need more time.

Heaven isn’t something that fits everyone the same way. Heaven will involve the person that I have become during my time on earth—the person I have grown into being, by making my way through all the trials of patience and perseverance that face me.

And the Blessed Mother helps me in this way: She is both wonderfully like me and wonderfully unlike me. She is like me because she’s a human being who had to rely completely on God, on Christ, just like I do. She always had the same hope for heaven that I have: namely, Jesus.

But the Blessed Virgin is wonderfully unlike me in my craven, self-destructive selfishness. The Lord, in His mercy, spared her that. Mary was never her own worst enemy. She stands above me–above us all–as the beacon of pure-hearted love, of peacefulness in doing God’s will. Her purity always keep us believing that we can learn to love like that, too. That there’s hope for us fallen children of Adam and Eve.

Our Lady is one of us, and yet the Lord freed her at the moment of her conception from the enemy within. She still faced plenty of trials. She had the life of a poor woman, then she had to watch cruel men kill her innocent Son. But even then—even in her hours of greatest distress–her entire heart and soul rested in total dependence on the generous goodness of God.

The serenity of love that Our Lady has always had: it means there’s hope for me. There’s hope for us, as we make our pilgrim way.

Friends with Saints

john paul ii mother teresa

Age can catch up with a guy. The good Lord gives us plenty of reminders. Like the gray hair. The sore back. The diminishing powers of memory.

But how about when you celebrate the feastdays of saints that you met in person–back when you were young? Like Pope St. John Paul II. Or St. Mother Teresa. The good Lord blessed me with the opportunity to meet both of them, back before I had gray hair, and those two saints still walked the earth.

Not everyone gets opportunities like that. Being a seminarian gives you some special chances. But all of us have the opportunity to get to know particular saints. We can visit the places they lived. Or we can read about them. Or, if they themselves wrote, we can read their own writings.

st_therese_of_lisieuxSt. Therese of Lisieux died in 1897–way before I was born. (I’m not that old.) But I feel like I know her well, because I have read her Story of a Soul. Everyone who has read that book feels personally close to St. Therese, because she wrote so honestly and humbly and clearly.

St. Junipero Serra died in California even way before St. Therese was born, way before any of our great-great-great-great-grandparents were born. But I feel like I know St. Junipero well, too, because I had the chance to visit the missions he founded, from San Diego to San Francisco. I walked where the saint walked, and I saw the land and the sky from the same point-of-view as he saw them. Also: I got to concelebrate his canonization Mass with Pope Francis.

My point here is: Getting to know a saint or two—getting to know them personally, so to speak, is something we can all do. And when we do that, we discover that the saints always had a saint or two that they knew personally, to whom they prayed every day. St. Junipero was friends with St. Francis, even though St. Francis died centuries before Junipero was born. St. Therese was friends with St. Theresa of Avila, even though St. Theresa died centuries before St. Therese was born. Part of becoming a saint is to have a saint or two among your best friends, the people you talk to the most.

Reading really helps in this area. I love to read, so I have made friends with a couple saints who wrote a lot, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s just me; we all have our particular interests, which means we will have affinities for particular some saints, and not others. The important thing is for each of us to find an interesting saint.

Or, let the saint find me somehow. A lot of times we stumble across a favorite saint, just by visiting a new church, or looking into things like: Whose feast day is my birthday? Or my wedding anniversary? Or such-and-such other day that is significant in my life.

So let’s all find a saint or two for close friends, if we haven’t already.

Of course, we all have the Blessed Mother for a close friend, of course. All the saints have loved the Blessed Mother best. That’s the way it should be. That is, all the saints have loved her the best, except she herself. She simply loves others with everything she has.


God’s Today and Our Lady’s Birthday


El Greco Virgin Mary

We hear St. Paul give thanks in our first reading a Holy Mass today, from the beginning of his letter to the Colossians. He thanked God that the gospel had born fruit and grown. Born fruit and grown among the Colossians, and also throughout the world.

Since we will celebrate Our Lady’s birthday in just two days, let’s think about St. Ann’s special fruitfulness. On December 8, she and her husband Joachim embraced. Their embrace set in motion the chain of events that would eventually make them God’s grandparents. And God made that moment uniquely fruitful. By the grace of Christ crucified, Joachim and Ann conceived a child free of sin.

God sees everything—all time—at once. At the very beginning, He saw everything, all the way to the end. That’s called the “Today” of God. All time is the Today of God.

Fresco of Joachim and Ann by Giotto

Now, such extensive knowledge would certainly seem like an unsupportable burden to our little minds. But for the Lord, all-seeing knowledge means perfect blessedness. He can see the full realization of all the growth He sets in motion, and it adds relish to His infinite delight.

God makes trees and plants and animals grow. The trees and plants and animals don’t perceive their own growth; they just grow. We, on the other hand, can perceive growth. We can delight in it, like God does. But for us, it’s not pure knowledge. Rather, it’s a kind of mystery. We see growth occurring, but we don’t know how it will end.

Maybe all the growth we see will end only with tragic death? After all, cancer is a kind of growth—run amok. Maybe the power we see that gives living things an unknown future—the power of growth; maybe that power ultimately succumbs to the other power we see at work in living things: the power that brings growth to an end. The power of dissolution and death.

Our Lady’s birth gives us the answer to that honest question. In the Garden of Eden, our human flesh lived with immortal life, until our First Parents fell. When St. Ann gave birth to Mary on September 8, our flesh lived on earth with immortal life again.

In other words: the birth of our immaculate Lady means that the Today of God is not The End. The Today of God is always the beginning.

Report from the Path of Totality

Paolo Veneziano, Coronation of the Virgin, National Gallery of Art, Washington

You can’t put on a pair of special cardboard glasses and watch the moon occlude the sun everyday. But I was always more interested in the visual effects on the surface of the earth.

Here the streetlights came on at 1:17pm. The sky still had sunlight in it–a thin, grey blue kind of sunlight. The traffic lights and neon signs shone to the eye like they look at night. The faces of the people around me looked silvery, as they all craned their necks skyward with their cardboard glasses on. An eerie calm interrupted the terrific heat of a dog day of August, because the blazing sun wasn’t blazing.

The nightlights came on in the farmers’ market we were all standing next to. We must have looked ridiculous, standing there in a little crowd, and a passing driver shouted, “It’s the end of the world!”

But of course it wasn’t. And I do think that Annie Dillard oversold the experience. I’ll take the sight of another human being smiling for ten solar eclipses. Or a fleeting moment of real prayer: a hundred times more captivating, exulting, and life-changing than all the solar eclipses you’re ever gonna see…

Hail, Mary, full of grace! Eight days after the Lord brought her to heaven, He crowned her Queen. Eclipse, shmipse. Revelation 12:1 tells the really interesting tale:

There appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.

The Day Our Lady Went to Heaven

st mary major mosaic
apse mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

We keep the feast of our Lady’s immortality. Not just her immortality of soul, but also her immortality of body. Today her earthly pilgrimage ended. Her flesh, rather than facing the corruption of the grave, entered right into heaven.

Blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). St. Elizabeth said this about the Blessed Mother.

Now, at the particular moment when Elizabeth pronounced that beatitude, the Lord had spoken but few words to Mary. Only that she would have a son, who would reign forever on the throne of David. How? By the Holy Spirit.

Mary learned only this much information from Archangel Gabriel. You will give birth to the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit. Very simple. No extra details. –She believed it.

But what about later on? Did she learn more during the course of her life? More about the great mystery of the Christ–the mystery in which she had believed, when the Archangel visited her? Had she learned more about those original promises by the time her earthly life neared its end? What more had she learned?

Whatever more she learned about the Christian mystery in the time between her conception of her son and her last earthly breath–whatever further aspects of the great promise had been revealed to her–certainly Mary believed it all, with a heart full of love.

We humble sinners really can’t even begin to speculate about all the intimacies that passed between Jesus and Mary during their pilgrim lives on earth–both before and after He suffered, died, and then rose from the dead. We can hardly doubt that the Blessed Mother became a thorough expert regarding Christ’s promise of eternal life in the flesh. She saw Him, of course, during the forty days He spent on earth in His risen body. Mary, first among all Christians, saw the resurrected Jesus. And she believed that He had risen, not for His own sake, but so that she, too, and all the faithful, could conquer death in the flesh, as well.

Which means that this feast of our Lady’s bodily entrance into heaven is the feast of our immortality of body, too. Until August 15 arrived, in the year she finished her earthly life, Mary participated in Christ’s mystery like we do: by faith. We do not begrudge her the privilege of having seen Jesus during the forty days after Easter. We don’t begrudge her because, now that Jesus reigns in heaven, we can, by faith and prayer, achieve our own intimacy with Him, too. After all, as Mary’s cousin put it: “Blessed is she who has believed.” Not she who has seen. She who has believed. Believed in the Christ, and His triumph over death–which He accomplished for the sake of all mankind.

So we stride on towards the inevitable end of our own pilgrimage with vivid assurance. The luminous assurance with which the Virgin herself faced the end of earthly life. That, by the power of Christ, our bodily death will get swallowed up Jesus’ victory.

Abram and Lot Part

Abram and Lot part mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore
Genesis 13 mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

We read at Holy Mass today from Genesis, about how a separation occurred. Lot went one way, to the Jordan Plain. Then God made a prodigious promise to Abram.

Today, we, too, say farewell to each other, dear Roanoke–like Lot and Abram. The Lord has apportioned to me the fruitful plains to the south. Actually, they are hilly piedmont counties, on the far side of Cahas Mountain.

But the promise to Abraham holds good for all us sons and daughters of the Church, in whatever lush county the Lord gives us to inhabit. We will bear immeasurable fruit. The good that can come from even one single Christian walking the narrow way behind our Lord—that good trumps all the dust of the whole earth, if all that sand and soil could get measured in a scale.

…Now, some of us make it a habit of calling our Lady the “Mother of God” quite often. Like at least fifty-three times a day. We have St. Cyril of Alexandria to thank for keeping that phrase in use. He battled the heretics who tried to eliminate “Mother of God” from our Christian lexicon. St. Cyril died 1,573 years ago today.

Hail Mary,…