Now regarding Chapter 2: The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, written by Pope Benedict XVI. Due to the length, I will publish it in two parts.
There are three aspects that stand out to me as I read this chapter, much longer than the first chapter. First, the juxtaposition of grandeur and humility. Second, the qualities of joy and hope present in, what we now call, the Christmas story. The third aspect is the deep portrayal Pope Benedict gives of Mary. To be honest, theology is not my favorite type of reading. For me, exegesis is very interesting, but on the drier side. Some of it is very inspiring and it certainly enriches my later reading of scriptures.
It was many years ago when I first studied the tenants of our faith. I admit the extreme limitations of my memory. I will likely never do a formal debate on matters of doctrine. But there was the time when I had my questions, I asked my questions, and I found deeply satisfying answers and explanations to those questions. Since then, the information I encounter now deepens what I already know, but it is not often that I am shaken by a new revelation. A part of me thinks that probably sounds terrible, or maybe terribly foolish (only fools are satisfied with their level of knowledge, right?) but I’m being honest.
That being the case, I stand by my previous statement that this information can deepen later reflection. So I apply the overarching aspects that stood out to me to my current mental fodder, which I will share with you now.
First, the idea of the temple and the mustard seed (p.21). The annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist takes place in the temple, as Zechariah, a priest, enters. This is the height of greatness, is it not? For a people who will not utter God’s name, the role of the priest is sacred. It is he who can enter the sanctuary. And the temple in Jerusalem must have been magnificent. Then we contrast this with our Lady, a young woman, traditionally portrayed as in her home, perhaps at prayer or in bed, when the angel appears. The number of paintings striving to capture the beauty of this moment is mind-boggling. My favorite is this, by Henry Ossawa Tanner:
The temple versus the mustard seed. Pope Benedict’s highlights the incredible humility of the setting, the recipient and the reaction of Mary as she receives the angel’s message. She quietly ponders how it shall be, which is different from Zechariah’s doubt. The temple and the mustard seed. God chooses the mustard seed for his greatest gift.
I have to learn to accept the mustard seed. “We are lower class who live like middle class who want to be rich,” my husband said. And it’s true. It is a lesson I come back to time and again, accepting the gift I have with all its blessings and letting go of the greed for money, power and ambition. I won’t say I was groomed to be a career woman. My parents were ever supportive of whatever path I wanted to pursue. The role of motherhood and the work v. stay-at-home debate were never discussed. There were two temples in my childhood: a career or the convent. As of now, God had neither in mind for me and it has taken some doing for me to get used to that. Of course, it helps when we consider what the mustard seed is (Mt 13:31): it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
In the smallness of our home, our life, the simplicity of raising children as one’s work we will find our fruit. And I have. That part is not difficult to see. But there are still times when I must quiet the ambition. There are still times I must sacrifice because this job or this ministry or this path are not options for me at this time. Yet this is precisely what the Lord wants me to see. In my story, A Girl and her King, the girl is taken from the battlefield, the place of glory, and asked by the king whom she loves, to return to her home inside the walls: a dusty, dry, plain place that lacks all the romance she experienced on the field. She has to talk herself into believing the challenges that exist in returning home have any merit at all. So whether worldly ambition or spiritual ambition, I had to learn to let it go.
And who is my saint? St. Therese of Lisieux, the author of the little way. Why was I drawn to her? Her desire for glory, her audacity before the Lord to ask for whatever she wanted. Never did I realize that God would take me the same little way as he did she. Desire for glory, ambition, he would turn it to his own direction. We must see the glory available to us in the little things, to make countless little sacrifices as a great offering to give him glory, not ourselves.
Stay tuned for part II.