On Nov. 14 I posted Part 1 of Advent: The Active-Wait. What follows (in Part II) is a rereading or exegesis of Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth as an Advent waiting with hope, anticipation and trust, but also with action.
The second form of waiting, illustrated in verse Luke 1: 39, reads: “In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” The verse before this has Mary in complete surrender, “Here I am” Mary proclaims, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.”
Typically Mary’s departure to her cousin Elizabeth is explained as taking on the 90 mile journey through rocky terrain as her desire to be with and assist Elizabeth in her pregnancy. But I wonder if another reading is possible? Could it be that even after her mountaintop experience with the angel Gabriel, Mary needs something more from God. I suspect she was in search of what Andrew Greeley has penned as the sacramentality of the Catholic imagination. The formal definition of a sacrament, to which all Catholic school children are held accountable, is with me still: A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, instituted by Christ within the Church. Greeley’s project seeks to expand our understanding of what constitutes a sacrament by liberating us from the restriction of believing they are only seven sacraments (well, 7 if you are male and 6 if you are female in the Catholic Church). Andre Dubus, in his text, Meditations from a Moving Chair, underscores Greeley’s notion of sacramentality. He writers: “A sacrament is physical and within it is God’s love; as a sandwich is physical and nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love if someone makes it for you and gives it to you with love; even harried or tired or impatient love, but with loves direction and concern, love’s again and again unwavering and distorted focus on goodness, then God’s love too is in the sandwich.” So how is Mary’s journey to her cousin Elizabeth a sacrament? Mary needs to touch, to see, to embrace in the physical world this visible sign of an invisible grace. Even though Mary had just had her encounter with the angel Gabriel where she is singled out as the future Mother of God (no pressure there), and even after she experiences total kenosis, or self-emptying through surrender to God’s divine plan for her, still she needs something more. Mary travels over 90 miles, a 10-day journey to see for herself. What does this say to the rest of us? That Advent can be both/and. Yes, we are called to draw back, even as Jesus did from the crowds in order to recharge his connection to God. But are we not also called to witness God’s handiwork born anew through created reality? That means you and me, in all our strengths and weakness that characterize and make us human; we are hard-wired as a sacrament, a visible reality of an invisible grace, to both ourselves and to one another. The “and” of the both/and is what I see as the active wait. Mary moved, she traveled and held within her own arms a real live sacrament, her cousin Elizabeth.
In reading the Annunciation story, I find a different kind of Mary. A Mary who looks more like me. A Mary who must see with her own eyes, grasp with her two hands the visible reality of an invisible grace. Mary’s journey is not to be viewed as doubt of God, but rather as an affirmation of the sacramentality or the presence of God in the physical world. During this Advent season, I will withdrawal in mindful prayer, but I also hope to move, see and touch the manifestation of God’s invisible grace made present in my human and nonhuman relationships. To do anything less would lessen the possibilities of this Advent season.