Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Holy Family and Poverty of Spirit

This morning as my children and I headed out for daily Mass, my daughter was having what is traditionally known as a conniption fit over the footwear she selected by default. As a result, upon arriving at church, my son proceeded to the church proper while she and I sat on the big comfy couch in the foyer where she nuzzled and calmed herself down. (Thank goodness for a functional sound system and a church designed with families in mind.)

I, meanwhile, found myself face to face with a statue of the Holy Family (our parish's namesake) not entirely unlike this one:

This sacramental earned its keep by me this morning. Contemplating these figures I was struck by the poverty of spirit that Our Lord engenders in His followers. What do you mean by that, you might ask. When I say poverty of spirit I am thinking of the virtue of receiving something from the Lord, yet not grasping, possessing, reckoning oneself as the controller or owner of that which God gives. It is holding God's gift with an open hand. It is always being ready to honor God and His purposes and not imposing our own schemes and designs upon what God gives. It is acknowledging God's gift as His gift, given to me, and held by me with a spirit of worship, which is all about the act of self-giving, of freedom, of sacrificial love.

I looked at Mary, holding baby Jesus. She was given the most amazing, unique vocation as the Mother of God, the Mother of the Savior, the Messiah. I think of the incredible urge for a mother to hold tight to her beloved child, and yet Scripture shows us Mary being called from the very beginning to open her motherhood, and not to just anyone: shepherds, uncouth and unkempt; wild-eyed prophets in the temple; Magi and Egyptian neighbors. Mary knew this Child was the Mystery her whole life had to bow before. Although she was given a mother's authority over Him, I can only imagine how her life was molded and sanctified by exercising that authority.

Then there's Joseph. Contemplating him made me grab my copy of Guardian of the Redeemer off my bookshelf this afternoon. Joseph has no recorded words in Scripture, and doesn't that seem fitting? What can you possibly say when you realize your vocation is to father the Son of God and be husband to the Immaculate Virgin? I sure couldn't think of any appropriate words. John Paul II's aforementioned Apostolic Exhortation makes it clear that before Jesus was conceived, the legal portion of Mary and Joseph's wedding had already taken place. Theologically speaking, it is also pretty clear from GR and from Scripture that Mary's words to the angel "how can this be since I do not know man" indicate that her consecration to the virginal life was certain at the time of the Annunciation. It isn't completely clear, to me at least, whether Joseph was as certain of this arrangement. I hope those of deeper theological persuasion than myself aren't offended if I say that I wonder if some of the popular piety about St. Joseph scrubs this issue just a bit: was he really the old man who knew he was "just" a legal figure in a divine drama? But whenever it happened, it did indeed transpire that Joseph surrendered to God, in an act of self-giving, the whole reality of a normally consummated marriage with Mary. And he accepted what any sane man would run from: ultimate responsibility for the human formation of the Son of God. Why? Because this was what God placed into Joseph's open hand.

Think about what the marriage of Joseph and Mary must have been like. Jesus was not the product of some dysfunctional family. This was the Holy Family. (By the way, I am keenly, sharply aware of the difference in contemplating these things as a Catholic Christian. Mere textual analysis here is like eating flour instead of freshly baked bread.) And Jesus, Mary and Joseph being the Holy Family requires three persons' humanity fully and completely open to the power of the Holy Spirit. I cannot accept Mary and Joseph as automatons or neutered beings who lived in the same household as if they were each married to a cardboard cut-out. Guardian of the Redeemer points out that Joseph's love for Mary was molded to perfection by the Holy Spirit, yet, I'm sure, with all the more effect due to the graces given this couple for their exceptional vocation. Theirs was a true exclusive gift of self one to another, a true image of the communitarian life of the Trinity, fully human, fully spousal, yet virginal. Upon their relationship the reality of the Church is based, She who is Virgin and Mother. Did I mention really, fully human? This is poverty of spirit, receiving indescribably rich gifts from God and yet holding them with an open hand, offering them back to God for His purposes. If this seems too amazing to believe, I think it is because you have the collision of two "impossibilities": God made flesh, and grace elevating and transforming, not abolishing, nature.

And what of Mary at the foot of the cross? Did she not need Joseph then? Why could Joseph not have lived to see the public ministry for which Jesus came? Poverty of spirit does not make the calls of or arrangements for what we need and what we deserve. It accepts a plan which doesn't feel good. It accepts death when death comes, change when change comes, and always looks to God for meaning.

And He never fails in supplying and revealing that meaning!
Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia:
Quia quem meruisti portare. alleluia,
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia,
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

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