Homilies,  Sanctoral

1 January 2022 – Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

One of the most significant lessons that I have learnt in life is about the necessity and power of paradox in our lives. Spiritual experience attends to sets of opposites; it does not seek to resolve them. In the paradoxes and the intersections of our life we are, as one writer puts it, we are “stretched out amid the opposites in [our] life, between hanging on and letting go, between involvement and surrender, between deep engagement and gentle detachment.  This is [our] crucifixion and [our] joy. It is [our] crucible in all its insecurity and beauty, fragility and possibility.”[1]  

A problem is to be solved. A paradox, on the other, is to be attended. And often enough in our life problems arise when we confuse a problem with a paradox. When we can accept the reality of paradoxes then we can live with things not resolved. Everything does not need to clear cut, and determined, neat and packaged. We can live with things in tension, never fully resolved. The American writer, Parker Palmer recognized this when he observed that paradox represents a transformation of contradictions into fresh hope and new beginnings:

“The poles of either/or, the choices we thought we had to make, may become signs of a larger truth than we had ever dreamed. And in that truth, our lives may become larger than we had ever imagined.”[2]  

The future becomes manifest in the conversation between what first appears to be in opposition.[3]  The art of spiritual living is to acknowledge both the presence and the potential of paradox.  The art is in holding the paradox not in eradicating it.  Authentic spiritual experience does not resile from apparent contradictions – the opposition of the personal and the social, the mystical and the political, limitation and transcendence, emplacement and displacement.  “Truth,” writes the contemporary author Scott-Peck, “is virtually always paradoxical, and the presence of paradox is the test of truth.”[4]  Thus, paradox is the doorway into the sacred experience of Mystery drawing us into its infinite horizon.  

Our Christian spiritual framework lives and breathes irreducible sets of tensions – humanity and divinity, fear and love, darkness and light, death and life.  The Spirit looks for the place of blindness in order to bring vision; it seeks out the place of deafness to shout out a new message; it seeks out that place of paralysis to offer new movement.  Indeed, if we want to find the God of Jesus Christ, we must go to that place of darkness awaiting light; we go to that place of emptiness awaiting fullness; we go to that place of death awaiting life.  We enter the absences of our lives occasioned by the disruption of the COVID pandemic and find the presence of new perspectives on life. We come to the endings in our life, and we look for the new beginnings. 

As a New Year begins, we celebrate a very particular paradox: the virgin motherhood of Mary.  Mary is both virgin and mother.  This is an extraordinary contradiction.  It is at the very heart of our Catholic faith.  It is an indispensable paradox for us:  two things in apparent contradiction, Mary is both a virgin and she is a mother.  One does not negate or replace the other – she is both virgin and mother. From a biblical understanding it is precisely the reality of such a paradox that holds a great truth for us. Just as in the Incarnation, and in the person of Jesus, we encounter the paradox of humanity and divinity, not one at the expense of the other, but both co-existing, so too in Mary herself we see the mystery of a paradox.  Precisely as the virgin mother Mary is presented to us as in encapsulating what lies at the very heart of the biblical understanding of our experience of God.  She is both barren and fruitful at one and the same time; she is both empty and full at one and the same time; she is both lifeless and life-giving at one and the same time.

And yet further, this very paradox which we celebrate, indispensably in Mary, precisely as the Virgin Mother, also teaches us by what means the life of God is birthed in each of us spiritually, as it was in her physically.  The Spirit of God is conceived in us as it was in Mary in that place deep within us where the mystery of paradox is most alive – that place in which our hurt and our hope touch each other. Our own emptiness becomes the place of new possibility; our own confusion becomes the place of new meaning; our own endings become the place of new beginnings.  Henri Nouwen, the popular spiritual writer late last century, expressed this spiritual implication of paradox in a poetically eloquent way when he wrote,

“[There is] a time for mourning, a time for dancing (Ecclesiastes 3:4).  But mourning and dancing are never fully separated.  Their times do not necessarily follow each other.  In fact, their times may become one time.  Mourning may turn into dancing and dancing into mourning without showing a clear point where one ends and the other starts.

Often our grief allows us to choreograph our dance while our dance creates the space for our grief.  We lose a beloved friend, and in the midst of our tears we discover an unknown joy.  We celebrate a success, and in the midst of the party we feel deep sadness.  Mourning and dancing, grief and laughter, sadness and gladness – they belong to each other as the sad-faced clown and the happy-faced clown, who make us both cry and laugh. Let’s trust that the beauty of our lives becomes visible where mourning and dancing touch each other.”[5]

The most unmistakable experience in the life of the Spirit which holds Mary’s virginity and motherhood in unity is that our possibilities don’t replace our emptiness, our meanings don’t follow our confusion, our new beginnings don’t leave behind our endings.  Rather, in a most remarkable way one is found in the other.  Mary herself remains barren.  She is empty, lifeless.  And at one and the same time she is fruitful, fecund and life-giving. She is so by virtue of her surrender to the Spirit of God who overshadows her, as it overshadows us, so that we might glimpse that it is to the earthen vessels of our own limitations that is given a treasure more precious than gold.  

What might this mean but that we seek to be present to one another in our struggle, confusion and searching even in the midst of our own vulnerability, inadequacy, and stuttering.  It is the ordinary that is pregnant with the extraordinary.  We touch the Perfect in the imperfect; we hold the sacred in the profane; we reach out to the limitless in the limited; we glimpse infinity in finitude.  The incarnate God comes to us in no other way.  For this reason, we can start a new year, shrouded as it is with all the uncertainty of the implications of the pandemic, in no way better way than celebrating the virgin motherhood of Mary.  

In all that we will experience in this new year may we keep coming back to ponder more deeply and to learn more fully the truth of the essential paradox at the very heart of our faith.  For life this year will generate in us, as it did for Mary, in the very midst of our paradoxes if we attend to them with her same fidelity and constancy.  Our future lies in the intersections our journeys afford us.

[1] Author and source unknown.

[2] Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox:  A celebration of contradictions in the Christian life, (Notre Dame, Indiana:  Ave Maria Press, 1980), 19.  

[3] This methodology of conversation is at the heart of the theological project of David Tracy.  See for example, David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, religion, hope, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 17-28.

[4] M. Scott-Peck, To a Different Drum, (New York:  Simon and Shuster, 1987), 238-239.  

[5] Henri Nouwen, πBread for the Journey a daybook of wisdom and faith,(San Francisco:  Harper SanFrancisco, 1997), 28th March.

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