Mary was chosen to bear Jesus because she kept her purity intact. Those who know understand that to be pure means to be completely adaptable, to flow with each moment, to be like a running stream cascading from the waters of life itself. The eternal messenger is always within, waiting to unfold the moment through the Word, and one day when Mary is recognized again, there will be a reappearance of the Christ, manifested in the outer world. Remember who Mary is.
Reshad Field, in the Essential Sufism
I was part of an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2011, mostly Jews and Christians, with one Sufi thrown in the mix. The whole idea was to visit each other’s sacred spots and to try to learn from each other about our various traditions. We spent the majority of the trip in the south, near Jerusalem, and then we went up north, visiting mostly the Christian spots. Our first stop up north was Nazareth, and on our first morning we all piled into the Basilica of the Annunciation. For being such a popular pilgrimage spot, it was a lot less touristy than I thought it would be, and it had very modern architecture. One of the features of the place is that there are plaques in honor of Mary all over the walls in the plaza and in the basilica itself from countries all over the world. When we were inside I happened to be walking with my friend Rabbi Paula, who was one of the co-leaders of the trip, and at one point we were standing in front of the plaque from Portugal that carried the title “Mary Ark of the Covenant.” And Rabbi Paula looked oddly at me and said, “What does that mean?” Obviously this is something very important to the Jewish tradition––and especially to a rabbi!––and here I was, having to explain to her how and why we had co-opted such a revered term for Mary. And so I launched into it as best I could, and if I recall, rather fast and furiously, the words just kind of tumbling out of my mouth, how I understood that we believe that there is an aspect of God that we call the Word, and that Word is the very principle of intelligence and intentionality in the universe; and as St. John explains it in his Gospel, that Word is not only with God, but that Word is God, like the Word that God spoke and all things came into being, as the Psalmist says, or the Wisdom that was at play at God’s side all the while. It’s what lies before all specific laws or dogmas, even before the Law as articulated in the Torah and the Ten Commandments––the covenant––, like the Tao that Lao Tzu says is before all virtues. And that Word is always being spoken to us, transmitted to us, but we can’t hear it in the sense of fully receive it. It’s in sighs to deep for words, as St Paul says, perhaps like the OM that hums beneath all created things. But we believe that Mary was a human being so pure, so receptive, that she was able to fully receive that Word, so much so that it became something in her; it took root like a seed in the garden of her womb; it took flesh in her, it became a baby, and she named that baby Jesus, in whom we believe the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily because he was that very Word made flesh. And so we believe that this is the new covenant, or better, the fulfillment of the covenant: this is what God had intended all along, for there to be no separation between heaven and earth, that we would share in divinity through, with and in the Word. And so Mary, pregnant with Jesus, is the ark of this new covenant, because she is carrying the Word-made-flesh inside her.
There was a guy on the trip who was a wonderful older man, a little less sophisticated than the rabbi, the minister, the monk, the Sufi and rest of the crowd, but totally fearless, and he was always saying things that were filled with a kind of childlike wonder. I didn’t know it but he was standing at my shoulder listening to my whole discourse, and when I had finished, and Paula and I were standing there nearly in tears over this moving moment, suddenly this guy busts out and says right into my ear, “You know I never thought of it like that. So this is kinda where the whole thing got started, huh?” And suddenly I thought to myself, You know, I actually had never thought of it that way before either. And I said, “Ya, you’re right. This is where it all got started, with Mary receiving the Word so deeply into her heart that it became something in her; actually it became someone in her body.”
In the Jewish tradition there is a type of literature called midrash, which is exegesis and commentary on scripture. Often its moral principles and theological concepts, but midrashim are also trying to explain the full meaning of the biblical law, and find the hidden or new meanings in scripture. Sometimes it almost seems as if some of the Christian scriptures started out as simply midrash on the Jewish scriptures. And we are one step removed: we’re trying to understand the Christian scriptures that are trying to understand the Jewish ones. And such is especially the case today. It’s as if Luke is doing midrash on 2 Samuel.
Our naming of Mary the new Ark of the Covenant is no accident. It’s not that very well hidden at all in Luke’s gospel. This Sunday we read the story of what we call the Visitation, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John, who will be the Baptizer. And Elizabeth says that At the moment the sound of you greeting met my ear, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Not only does Luke use the same Greek word––skirtan––“dance,” for what John the Baptist is doing in his mother’s womb as the Septuagint uses for what David does before the Ark, but the whole layout of the story is strikingly similar. It’s almost as if Luke is purposely using the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem as a literary framing device. So it is actually Luke who is telling us that this is the new law, the new covenant, and, as he does throughout the infancy narratives, telling us that this is the fulfillment, as Elizabeth says, of the promises of the Lord; and John is dancing before the ark that/who Mary is. So this could be seen as Luke’s midrash on 2 Samuel.
But there is also something interesting going on in the section we hear from the letter to the Hebrews today. The author to the letter to Hebrews quotes Ps 40, but actually misquotes it, or else purposely changes it. Psalm 40 says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but an open ear. But here Hebrews says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me. So the ear has become a whole body, or the whole body has become like an open ear. I used to think that ‘body’ referred to Jesus’ body, and maybe it does, but it strikes me now that it could just as well refer to Mary’s body. Mary, whose whole body was a listening, a receptivity, an open ear––the ear of her body, the ear of her soul, as well as the ear of her heart, as St Benedict calls it, her spirit. This is why she could say, My whole being rejoices in God my savior. Her whole body was a vessel, not just her mind or her soul, nor some kind of disembodied spirit. This body of Mary is a living breathing blood-filled pulsing grounded vessel. Her sacrifice was her whole being, including her body. Maybe this is why Paul tells us, in imitation of Mary, to offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable, to God, your spiritual worship. The psalmist tells us, and the author to the letter to the Hebrews interprets for us: as fine as they are, ultimately God does not really want our ritual sacrifices and liturgical offerings, holocausts offered on the altar. What God really requires of us is what those sacrifices and offerings are supposed to symbolize. What Jesus’ ultimate prayer was, in the midst of the Our Father as well as in the garden of Gethsemane, is what God requires: Behold I have come to do your will. An open ear, a body offered up as a spiritual sacrifice, our whole being––body, soul and spirit available to be a vehicle, a vessel, an instrument. One of our monks the other day in our scripture study, what we call collatio, said this is what the yogis are trying to accomplish. I was quite pleased to hear someone else say that. Yes, that’s right: that’s what I think the yogis are trying to accomplish, that the whole person becomes a vessel of divinity.
This is the great turnaround, the extra step that most spiritual traditions are hesitant to take, all the way from classical Yoga through Christianity: that the body is not just a vehicle––though even that much has taken us a long time to accept, that the body is a vehicle. We tend to think in the spiritual life that we peel it off like a banana peel and throw if away (that phrase of Fr Tom Ryan that I like so much) so we can be ‘spiritual.’ But somehow this whole great story all the way from the Annunciation straight through to the Ascension is trying to convey something more to us yet: that not only is the body a worthy vehicle, an instrument, a hinge, as Tertullian would say––it is the field, it is that which gets transformed. My whole being.
And somehow this is the fulfillment of the promise that started out with the promise to Abraham. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, a little phrase that haunted Teilhard de Chardin, God will be all in all. Jesus will say in reference to his own mother, Blessed are all those who hear the word of God and keep it. They/we each of us become arks of the covenant if we but stake our claim on this promise, that God will be all in all, if we offer even our bodies as spiritual sacrifices, though not something to be burned up and destroyed, but something to be transformed into a vessel and then transfigured, sharing in the promise of the resurrection, if we but offer ourselves up for that Word to take root in the ground of our very being. Isaac of Stella wrote that “every Christian is also believed to be bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, … at once virginal and fruitful.”
Saint Benedict says that the monk’s whole life should be a little Lent, but I always thought you could just as easily say that a monk’s whole life was a little Advent, watching and waiting, the vigil, the longing. I remember in a discussion I had once with a Buddhist monk, he said that for them the monk’s main practice was meditation––zazen in his tradition, emptying the mind and sitting. Actually they don’t even want to call it meditation in the Zen tradition; it’s shikantaza––“just sitting.” This is from the Shobogenzo of Dogen zen-ji (5–10):
One day Ejo asked, “What should we diligently practice in the monastery?”
“Shikantaza (Just sitting)! Whether you are upstairs or under a lofty building, sit in samadhi!”
Whereas, this monk said, the main practice of you Christian monks seems to be chanting the psalms. And I said, “No, I think our main practice is actually listening.” We even only chant the psalms so that we can hear them; we’re singing them to each other so that we can listen to them. Now, I am quite devoted to silent meditation as well, but I think that even that practice is about something more. As our master Romuald says, “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting.” So the listening presupposes a certain silence, but when we empty ourselves, we wait; while we meditate we listen, but ‘listening’ in the absolute broadest sense of the word, listening as a symbol of receptivity, like the receptivity of a fruitful virginal womb. Hence, the first word of the Prologue to St Benedict’s Rule for monks is, Listen! But it’s a special kind of listening: he goes on, Incline the ears of your heart. It’s that same heart that Benedict tells us at the end of the Prologue to the Rule that we have to prepare along with our bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions (in other words, the Word); and then as we run on the path of God’s commandments (again, the Word), when they really take root in us those same hearts will overflow with the inexpressible delight of love. And I think it’s that inexpressible delight of love that is exactly the Word made flesh, the exuberance that is the dynamic behind creation, now happening in us.
I was happy to serendipitously run into the exact same sentiment in the writings of John Main the other day, specifically referring to the Christmas season.
For Benedict, the first quality we all require if we would respond to Christ and be open to his life in our hearts is the capacity to listen. The first word of the Rule is ‘Listen!’ And as you all know, this capacity is one of the great fruits of meditation, which teaches us that the condition of true listening is silence. We can only listen to the word spoken to us by another if we ourselves are silent of all words. (Silence and Stillness, Dec. 22)
So, silence ought to be the fundamental condition of our heart. We empty ourselves, and sit, waiting.