Have I ever mentioned that I love Advent? And have I ever mentioned how thrilling it can be to pray and feel your life standing in God's presence, yes, even despite Him allowing a few more things to be unhidden about the mystery, often the totally miserable mystery, one is to oneself? Because when you stand in God's presence, even though you realize what a miserable wretch one is in oneself, one is also aware of God's all-sufficient love and being which is at the ready to fill us. The timing, the process are His. We need not fear or fret or let shame swallow us; we need only stay aware of our need and of His bigness.
This morning I read the commentary by St. Ambrose on Luke that appears in the Office of Readings for December 21. This is what has inspired my little outburst of delight in Advent and prayer. I found myself stopping in the middle of reading to exclaim, "Gosh, St. Ambrose, I love you!" Here's the link to the full text: http://divineoffice.org/1221-or/ (you'll need to scroll to the bottom).
Stroll through this with me and let me show you what makes me so happy.
First it says: "When the angel revealed his message to the Virgin Mary he gave her a sign to win her trust." God really seems to like signs. He felt one was appropriate for Mary -- I want to say even for Mary, the sinless one, but perhaps it should be especially for the sinless one. What is it about signs that require purity to be received? In the next paragraph, St. Ambrose says "she does not disbelieve God's word; she feels no uncertainty over the message or doubt about the sign." And I think, wow. Mary knows very well the difference between God's message, God's promise, God's word, and make-believe, her own thoughts, her own desires. She knows the Word of God before He is even incarnate. And she trusts Him completely.
I wrote about my experience with a big sign in my life, back a few posts. My experience has been, uh, quite different. Actually, I've had many incidents of "signs" in my life and frankly most of the time I've hated this kind of thing. But I realize now this is a process of purification for me, and what I've hated is the pain associated with purification. Every time, this type of thing drags out vast tracts of impurity out from hiding into my awareness. And that can be, well, a little hard to deal with, shall we say. St. Ambrose says the Blessed Mother goes "eager in purpose, dutiful in conscience, hastening for joy." I have often been stuck with an inner sense of certainty (for example, the moment of my first encountering the Lord in the Eucharist -- I knew for certain that I was before the Lord Jesus) and complications in my soul that left me anything but eager, dutiful and hastening for joy in response to my certainty. This scenario has played out again and again in my life. But I think I'm learning. Mary had nothing to learn about getting freed from sin since the Lord accomplished that work in her by a special grace from her conception, as a living portrait of hope for the rest of us, so we would have someone human to look to and follow. Our being able to do that is super duper important to God.
Ok back to St. Ambrose.
"The Holy Spirit does not proceed by slow, laborious efforts." Oh, this makes me happy. Someone once was sermonizing to me about how conversion is a slow process. As I listened, my gut said a firm "no." But most people who sermonize are quite sure of their wisdom, and this left me in the common position of listening patiently to something my deep-down simply flat out disagreed with. Conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit, and it is more like lightning. What takes a long time is the lead-up to conversion and the follow-on from the change He brings about. This is of course especially slow the more resistance we throw up to God's work in us. When I met the Lord at St. Anthony of Padua parish on Christmas morning of 1991, I was changed forever, but it has taken decades for that change to unfold. We can cooperate to unfold what God gives, but we cannot give ourselves that moment of encounter, regardless of how badly we want it. When God comes to us, it is His work and His gift, period. We stand in utter need of Him.
Then St. Ambrose looks at the contrasts involved with the four people present at the Visitation. Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. I can relate just a little to John the prophet, and how his disposition makes for awkward social moments (if awkwardness is something one is to worry about). Elizabeth is aware of Mary, and certainly she has a joy in seeing her. But John is responding on a completely different level. There have been times when I've felt like people are exchanging the proverbial social niceties, and I am leaping for joy. And of course, the response of those who are "dealing with reality" is like: (raised eyebrow) what's going on there? But St. Ambrose goes on to say that when St. John leaps in the womb, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. He responds to, and thereby points out and makes accessible for others, the unseen presence and reality of God. This can feel strange when it plays out in real life. It's like dancing to a melody others can't hear. And I realize this is one way to describe exactly the Carmelite vocation.
And then St. Ambrose talks about how Mary's soul is to be in each of us, in the sense that we are all to receive and bring forth the Word of God. "The Lord is magnified, not because the human voice can add anything to God but because he is magnified within us. Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created..." And thus we are blessed and exalted by God, purely as His gift.
And what he doesn't say is that this exaltation by God then draws others, enabling them to encounter God and enter into their own odyssey of faith. God is good. And He chooses to need us. To the degree one can grasp that, what other response can we give but to give our hearts to Him entirely in worship?