God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed. — St. Anselm of Canterbury
I was planning to write a theological flourish on today’s atom-splitting Solemnity — the Incarnation! I had hoped to sing of Infinity becoming itty-bitty in the womb of the Virgin, that all-lovely Woman before whom the Angel Gabriel found himself at a loss for words — as the Eastern Akathist hymn reminds us:
Awed by the beauty of your virginity
and the exceeding radiance of your purity,
Gabriel stood amazed and cried aloud to you,
O Mother of God:
“’How can I praise you as I should?
With what name shall I invoke you?
I am lost and bewildered!
Therefore I will greet you as I was commanded:
“Hail, O you who are full of grace!”
Listen to this haunting version:
O Mary, echo of the creating words of God in Genesis, you said, “let it be.” And so it was! In the Garden of your all-pure womb shone the Dawn announcing “a new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).
At least, that was the gist of what I had been thinking I would write…
…but then last week I heard a talk at the seminary by a visiting priest who was sharing stories from his years of service to those who live on the margins of life, and his stories dismantled my plans.
He shared the story of a man who was, in his words, “a mass of suffering.” He was entrusted with the care of this man who was a committed patient in a psychiatric ward — for eight hour stretches, five days a week. The man’s name was Joe. Joe suffered from chronic involutional depression, severe compulsive anxiety, was unable to speak anything other than repetitious babble. He was also stricken with cancer of the intestines that often left him severely incontinent. After Joe would have an “accident,” this priest would have to get on his hands and knees to clean the feces from the floor under Joe’s chair, from his shoes, clothes and body. “The stench was noxious,” he said, “unlike anything I’d ever smelled before.” One day, it happened three times in three hours. Each time, the priest stripped the man of his soiled clothing, thoroughly cleaned him and re-clothed him, trying all the while to preserve the man’s dignity.
After bathing Joe and re-clothing him the third time, while the priest was still tying his shoes, Joe said: “Up!” The priest looked up, and the man looked in the priest’s eyes, aspirating the first meaningful words he’d ever spoken: “Thaaank yooou.”
The priest was deeply emotional as he shared this story and choked up as he repeated Joe’s words. I was overcome with feeling and wrote this in my notebook:
The Annunciation. God become incarnate, fragile flesh, stooping down to clean up our filth, and bidding us: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15). Holy Mass! Having our unlaced shoes tied by the downward-bending God who bids us: “Join me! Sursum corda! Up!” We cry, “It is right and just!” as we look up in an anaphora, aspirating toward the Father’s Face: “Thaaank yooou…”
Amen. Deo gratias. Ite, missa est…