Renaming the Feast

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us..

On the 25th of March, we observed the solemn feast of the Annunciation.

Somehow, for as long as I can remember, I have only thought of this date as the feast of the of the Incarnation.  (Please blame my language teachers for my being picky about words.)

Certainly, observing the feast as Annunciation is of great importance. The Gospel for Mass on that day is taken from Luke and recounts the stunning appearance of the angel Gabriel to the young and holy maiden Mary. He does indeed make an announcement to her, hence Annunciation. What he announces is that she will conceive and bear a son who will be called Son of the Most High. The church has consistently taught that Mary’s “Yes” was required, though clearly Gabriel did not ask a question but made a statement to which she consented. And we thank God that she did.

Yet, we bow during the Creed as we assent to the Word made flesh, and not to the announcement. And though both occur at practically the same moment, there is a difference.

So what’s the issue?

Simply that it seems to me that the event is more important than the announcement of it. Just as being at a winning game is better than reading about it later. And what is the Event?

The Incarnation is as astonishing an event as the Resurrection. Naming the feast Incarnation  emphasizes how deep is God’s love, that He would join the human race and become one of us in the flesh.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God is always described as working side by side with his people, present with them through hardships: hunger, foreign domination, slavery, floods, and all manner of evils as well as successes. But never is God seen or heard except under cover, so to speak, as in a cloud or in a soft whispering sound. Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus was born humanly into the world as the son of Mary and Son of God so that we could witness him with our own eyes and ears.

The enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a phenomenal event and a deep mystery. We can easily understand God’s enduring spiritual presence with the chosen people, but that he should become one of us? That he would live like us? Be tired like us? Work at a job like us? Deal with difficult people like us? Be rejected like us? Indeed. Like us in all ways except sin.

St. Athanasius (d. 373 AD) is famously quoted for having given us the reason for the Incarnation: “God became man so that man might become god.”  Another astounding statement! We are told, however, that whereas Jesus is God by nature, we are enabled to become “god” or “god-like” by participation. By our relationship to God through Jesus our Brother and with the grace-filled help of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God.

By his example Jesus taught us how to be reborn in the spirit as children of God and as God’s image here on earth. He refers to God as our Father — his and mine and yours. His teachings and example show us how we can enter the Kingdom of God — partially now, fully in the next life. Christ tells us to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. He constantly strives to quiet our fears and guilty feelings about not being good enough to be called God’s children, when this is exactly why God made us in the first place.

With all due respect, I feel bound to put the fact of the Incarnation in first place over Gabriel’s Announcement. John’s first letter emphasizes the reality of God’s Son becoming human and our status as God’s children. As I gave John the first word in this meditation, I also give him the last. (1 John 1:1; 3:2)

“The Word was made flesh.
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life. …
 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

Hymn to the Word Incarnate, by Gabriel Fauré
Poem by Jean Racine, trans. RPK

O Word, equal to the Almighty, our only hope,
Eternal day of both Earth and Heaven;
We break the silence of this peaceful night:
Divine Saviour, cast your gaze on us!

Spread over us the fire of your mighty grace
So that all Hell might flee, hearing your voice.
Awaken the sleep of this languishing soul
Which so easily forgets your laws!

O Christ, be kind to your faithful people
Now gathered to bless you.
Welcome the hymns we offer to your immortal glory,
And may they return to us, filled with your grace!

Beatitudes For Friends Of The Aging

Blessed are they who understand
My faltering steps and my palsied hand

And blessed are they that know that my ears today
Must strain to hear what they have to say.

And blessed are they that seem to know
That my eyes are dim and my wits are slow.

And blessed are they that looked away
When my coffee spilled at lunch today.

Blessed are they with a cheery smile
Who stop to chat for a little while.

And blessed are they who never say
You told that story twice today.

And blessed are those who know the way
To bring back the memories of yesterday.

Blessed are they who make it known
That I’m loved, respected and not alone.

Blessed are they who know I’m at a loss
To find the strength to carry my cross.

Blessed are they who ease the days
Of my journey home, in loving ways.

From, Author unknown

If Today You Hear His Voice . . .

The perennial nagging concern of my spiritual life has been: PRAYER. What to say? How to do it? When to do it? How long to do it? 

“Do” is the operative word here and one we need to un-do.

The prayer-by-doing-or saying attitude, along with so many others, became established in childhood. Thank God! Yes, I thank him that my mother taught me to say prayers, that my teachers enforced this habit as we prayed together a Morning Offering, learned the Act of Contrition, and other prayers in addition to the basic sacred three: Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

However, as a result of these good teachings, I grew up in the conviction that prayer was something I was now going to DO. I would sit down or stand or kneel and say prayers or “do” prayers. In other words, I would be the one to initiate prayer. This may be frequently correct, but it doesn’t take into consideration the other and better half of prayer, which is letting God speak and listening to God.

There’s the Old Testament story of the boy Samuel, growing up in the temple under the tutelage of the prophet Eli. In the middle of the night, we’re told,
         The Lord called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you,” Eli answered. “Go back to sleep.” So [Samuel] went back to sleep.

This happened a second time. By the third time, Eli realized that Samuel, a beginner in the spiritual journey, …
          … did not yet recognize the Lord, since the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

So finally Eli said to Samuel,
“Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
   (1 Samuel 3:4-5,7,9)

Samuel did not initiate anything. (In fact, being an adolescent boy, it’s a wonder he woke up at all!) When Eli, his spiritual mentor, realized what was happening, the mystery was solved. At the beginning of his spiritual life young Samuel lacked experience to know how to hear God’s voice. What to listen for? What does he sound like? The talking half of prayer is easy, because we’re always ready to ask God for something. We might even be ready to thank Him for his many gifts.

But to listen is a more elusive skill. To recognize God’s voice, to truly listen, takes much attentiveness and practice. Typically, we humans want instant knowledge and understanding, given to us in a way that is of our own making. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we can’t grow spiritually.

So following Eli’s experienced counsel, Samuel let the Lord know that he was alert to whatever the Lord chose to say. 

How to cultivate the listening habit? We can’t expect an apparition, such as Moses had from within the burning bush or on the mountain top. Saint  Paul tells us this about prayer:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.   (Romans 8:26-27)

Groanings. Not necessarily words. The Holy Spirit’s praying within us may take the form of a sense of longing to be in communion with the Lord. Some days, the only way we can pray is merely by the desire to pray.

Ignatian spirituality teaches us to “find God in all things.” First, however, we have to look for God in all things. Furthermore, we must want and expect to see God in all things. For God speaks in various voices. This means that we need to be tuned in all day to what God might be teaching us through our surroundings: through contacts with others; the state of our physical or emotional health; the books and papers we read; the household chores and the jobs we work at; the music that moves us – all these thoughts, feelings, or activities carry some inner truth from God that will help us learn who he is and who we are in this world. This constant awareness is surely what is meant by “praying always.” Sitting in a lotus position for 24 hours and murmuring prayers is not what we’re after.

It’s what we quoted from Jesuit Father Arrupe in a recent post, about how love directs every one of our actions. (See the closing of “The Divine Romance,” Feb. 12)

To illustrate, let me share with you a recent experience.

It was one of those ho-hum days, gray sky, nothing special happening or speaking to me. I felt that I had failed in prayer that day. But by evening, reviewing what had happened and didn’t happen, and how I responded, here is what I was given to understand: my neighbor asked if I would drive her to Mass. I did. Later, a friend called to vent about some difficult household issues. I let her talk. A third friend texted me that his mother had died that morning; I called immediately to offer him condolences. Finally, another friend called to get my opinion on some job issues. I stayed with each friend as long as needed.

Here, then, were four situations where I was given the grace to help a friend. Was this prayer? I initiated nothing, but by the grace of God I was enabled to listen, which is  part of the dialog of prayer — maybe even the more important part. Furthermore, what I was being asked to do was much better than anything I could have dreamed up on my own because it came from the needs of others and not from me, high upon the mountaintop of my self-initiated prayer.

 Little by little, I’m beginning to learn that the heart of Christian discipleship is not always doing things we consider important. Rather, it’s being alert to the voice of God heard in the needs of others and given to them through our love of God.

As in a Glass, Darkly . . .

oz-sepiaAs a child watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time, I was amazed by the clever use of color. The sepia tone used while Dorothy was at the farm let us know how Dorothy felt there: it was a lackluster, unpredictable place of boredom alternating with danger.

Along these lines, I once watched a PBS program that documented a whole community of people who were not merely color blind, but could only see the world in varying shades of gray to black. I would think that must be a dismal existence, but if that’s all you ever knew then you’re really not missing anything.

Watching this strange report (on color TV no less), I wondered: I think I’m seeing everything in living color, but what if there are colors that I know nothing of, simply because I’m not equipped with the appropriate retinal cones to see them?

In this life we’re not fully equipped, spiritually, to see or understand the splendor that is God. Fortunately, however, St. Paul tells us that even now we may be given a partial glimpse of God’s beauty: We see now indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. Yes, even in this life, if we are willing, the Holy Spirit will draw us ever closer to God, revealing wonderful things to those who seek him in prayer and acts of love, bringing us an increase of peace.

In the common manner of speaking, words dealing with vision have two meanings: one, our ability to perceive the physical world with our bodily eyes. The other and even more precious meaning is the ability to understand as, for instance, when we use the expression,. “Oh, I see what you mean!” 

St. Paul prays “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of our hearts be enlightened, that we may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” (Ephesians 1:17-18)

Dorothy didn’t stay in that drab world. After an arduous journey, filled with a variety of threats, she finally woke up, finding herself in a transformed world of brilliant Technicolor: the Land of Oz.


If we earthlings can marvel at technology that accurately reproduces the full range of nature’s colors, how much more of a miracle will God perform for us, transforming the drab colors of our limited understanding and existence into the dazzling reality of seeing the infinity beauty of God in our heavenly home to come. For even the most beautiful sights of our natural world are nothing compared to the wonders of the Beatific Vision. This is what St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Eye has not seen, . . . nor has it entered the human heart, what things God has prepared for those who love him.

Corresponding to how closely we imitate Christ, our spiritual vision will ultimately be transformed and we will be given the ability to understand fully, knowing God as he knows us, and seeing him face to face.