[This is a re-post from last year’s feast (when the feast fell during the Easter Octave). I felt it was better than anything I could say presently in my busy state, so here it is. Happy Feast!]
As we pass over the Solemnity of the Annunciation today in silence (it’s transferred to after the Easter Octave), I have been thinking about the beauty of this hidden feast — the feast of God’s enfleshment in the womb of Mary. In Jesus, God has forever and ever made our body and soul essential to His existence. God will always have a human body, a human soul, a human will, a human intellect, a human heart, a human smile. In Jesus, God will always love in a human mode, always express His omniscience in and through a finite mind, always reveal His glory in those gaping and never-to-be-sealed Five Wounds that are our sinister handiwork become His merciful artistry. We humans, therefore, come to know, love, taste and see God in the depths of our humanity. Coming closer to God means becoming more human.
We can feel the electricity of Job’s overwhelming awe as he was given a glimpse of what was to come in the Risen Christ:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him: my inmost being is consumed with longing. — Job 19:25-27
Absolutely astonishing. Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.
Every Knee Will Bend
And all this very theological thinking made me recall the beauty and power of the human body as seen through faith, which in turn made me think of Malcolm X.
When I was an undergrad student, soon after my return to the practice of my Catholic faith, I had to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I found it very powerful.
For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book was the moment of Malcolm’s final decision in prison to convert to Islam, which for him represented the agonizing choice to disavow a past filled with sex, drugs and violence. What struck me most in this scene was the role that his body played in his conversion. I remember setting the book down and thinking, “Wow, faith is even in the body.” It helped me appreciate anew the power of bodily ritual in Catholic worship that gives expression to and shapes our faith.
Here’s an excerpt from the scene:
The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. . . bending my knees to pray – that act – well, that took me a week. You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it.
Forgiving in the flesh
That story in turn reminds me of a personal witness that a man shared in the context of a parish faith enrichment group. He gave me permission to anonymously share it here. The man, who had been married for over a decade, had cheated on his wife over a period of several weeks. Though he finally broke off the adulterous relationship, he carried the secret with him day and night for several more weeks. It was awful. As he put it,
After I had ended the fling, every morning I would rise early to read the newspaper and when my wife would come downstairs to greet me with her trusting and loving smile, and kiss me, I felt like acid was being thrown on my face. To look at her was to see the word “BETRAYAL” written on her forehead; my betrayal. I went to see my priest to confess and he counseled me to reveal to her my unfaithfulness and repair the damage I had caused. I did and it was utterly devastating.
She cried for days, could not speak with me, could not sleep with me. We tried to cover it up in front of the children, but we lived like we were a thousand miles apart. It was pain like I have never known. Day after day. Shame. Pain. Tears. Angry words. All because of my infidelity and I felt I deserved the worst treatment the rest of my life.
But one day she came downstairs on a Saturday morning and stood next to me in silence. I stood up and looked at her. I was afraid. She looked me in the eyes, put her hands on my shoulders and said, with the force of a hundred million atom bombs, “I forgive you.” I collapsed, literally collapsed to the floor. She joined me and we sobbed together. We embraced, we kissed. I looked at her and thanked her, and I can say I will never ever take her face for granted. To look at her face without shame, nothing is more beautiful.
The rest of my life is about rebuilding her trust. That will never go away.
Dragging My Body to God
A final story. I met a young man last year who told me that his conversion to Catholicism from Protestantism came about as a result of the “soul following the body.” Here’s my recollection of our conversation:
When I was still Methodist, I was dating a Catholic girl who loved to go to the Chapel and sit for an hour in front of a fancily enshrined piece of bread to pray. That’s how I described it when I was still Protestant. She invited me to join her to pray, and so, because I loved her, I went with her even though I didn’t “get it” at all. Week after week I would sit there with her, and though it was always a peaceful hour, it didn’t really mean anything much to me. But then…
One week she was out of town and she asked me to cover her hour, so I did. I sat down alone in the chapel and started to feel a little nervous without her, almost even felt afraid of being alone with that piece of bread. After about 30 minutes, I began to feel a somewhat disconcerting and real sense that Jesus was standing there, that his love was flowing from the bread, and suddenly, without knowing why, I found myself on my knees and crying. Thank God no one else was there. It was just this profound sense of being loved. I knew that this bread wasn’t just bread; it was living Bread; it was, as I later would come to find out, really Christ. But I can tell you this, I knew it was true before anyone ever explained it to me. What I now call transubstantiation is completely perfect for explaining my experience, because what lit up that room was substantial, real, in your face, was Jesus radiating from a very particular place in the chapel where he was present in a way he wasn’t anywhere else. Not a generic Jesus everywhere, but Jesus right there, present, pouring out his love all over me.
It’s like she dragged by body to God, and later my soul caught up.
Let me end with a 600 year old eucharistic hymn, Ave Verum Corpus, that honors the life-giving Body of Jesus:
Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet
in the trial of death.
O sweet Jesus, O loving Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.