Gradualness: Lessons from Paul

Wise preachers and teachers in every age understand that growth in faith happens gradually, one step at a time. Today we turn to the apostle Paul, the most successful Christian preacher of all time.

Paul’s life and message can be summed up in one word: conversion. He experienced a profound conversion to Jesus, not only once on the road to Damascus, but each and every day of his life.

Paul boldly proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20-21). For Paul, every day was a dying and rising with Jesus: Christ living in him and he living in Christ. Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He took on a new name and new identity, and his life would never be the same.

This new identity is not simply a “me-and-Jesus” existence. We become fellow members of the one Body of Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Saul on the road: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not say “my followers” or “my friends”  but me. To be a disciple of Jesus is to co-exist in Christ as one whole person.

We exist organically as members of the one risen and ascended Body of Christ. Little by little, we become fully alive as members of that Body. It is a gradual and lifelong process. Paul understood that point. His primary task was always his own conversion: “It is not that I have received it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may receive it, since I have indeed been received by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the “fullness” of Christ. There is a gradual and dynamic growth into that fullness, until at last God’s plan of salvation comes to perfect completion. The entire human race (those willing anyway) and the whole cosmos will be brought into perfect unity under the headship of Christ. He will become all in all.

In the meantime, conversion is all about growing reception and receptivity. We earnestly strive to receive more and more from on high. We receive and give help from and to each other. And most importantly, we are received, taken up into this heavenly Body of Christ that is always beyond us, beckoning us daily to come further up and further in.

At any given moment, each of us receives and is received into this fullness as much as we can. But our capacity for reception depends upon our depth of desire, our freedom, and our willingness to cut out the things that are blocking our receptivity.

That means that we need different kinds of care and different moments. Paul explains the gentle nurturing that is so often needed in the early stages of conversion. While we are still spiritual infants, we need milk rather than solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). And hopefully we remember the same when it is our turn to nurture the faith of others, whether our own children or the adult members of our churches who are only just beginning to relate to Jesus as a real person. Paul explains to the Corinthians that he guided them, not “with a stick,” but “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), for he is their father in Christ Jesus through his preaching of the Gospel to them.

But notice the next point. As Paul proceeds in a spirit of love and gentleness, he urges them to use a stick – figuratively anyway – by casting out from their midst the man who is living with his father’s wife. And he urges them not to associate with the sexually immoral, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. He concludes pointedly, “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).

This whole “gradualness” thing is complex! On the one hand, our shared membership in Christ constantly impels us to receive one another as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7),  and to be receptive to those who are weak (Romans 14:1, 15:1). Yet there are also moments when we have a duty to hold others accountable and impose consequences.

Remember the lessons learned from Gregory the Great regarding the evangelization of Kent: some attitudes and practices (idols, idolatrous prayers) must be cut off at once; others are to be tolerated patiently with a view to full maturity. Discernment is key.

Paul often draws a distinction. Some Christians are “mature” or “spiritual” while others are “immature” or “fleshly.” We need patient tolerance for those who are immature or still in the flesh – but we also need to keep nourishing and caring for them so that they do not get stuck there!

We can ask an obvious question: What distinguishes a “mature” from an “immature” Christian? For Paul, it is simple: the mature Christian has embraced Christ Crucified, and is willing to sacrifice himself with Jesus. Paul warns strenuously against those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Sadly, some of the approaches to gradualness by some Church leaders today have become the equivalent of avoiding the Cross.  Yes, patience and gradualness are important, but so is finishing the journey, fighting the fight, running the race to the end! We are wise to begin with gentleness, sweetness, and patience. But in due time, full conversion is the goal. We must never forget that! With Paul, may we all truly take on this attitude of constant conversion and inspire others to embrace the same: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…

Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.

Learning to Sit with Sadness

The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Doing so enriches the human experience and makes the love of Christ visibly present.

Unfortunately, heeding Paul’s advice is not so simple as it sounds. Rather than rejoicing, we are sometimes saddened at the successes of others. Rather than weeping, we sometimes avoid accompanying others in their misery. Sure, we’ll send them a sympathy card or drop off some food. We’ll say some pleasant-sounding words like “Everything happens for a reason” or “He’s in a better place.” But one or two or twelve month later, when the anguish is even worse, they find few friends still willing to be with them in their grief.

Sitting with others in their sadness can be one of the most unsettling things to do – especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. It is so much easier to throw a cliché at the unpleasant emotions, as though uttering an incantation that will magically make us all live happily ever after. The truth is that we are unsettled and are trying to protect ourselves from the mess of the other person’s experience.

I have written before on the importance of healthy grieving, and our human tendency to avoid it. Whatever our pain or loss may be, our human misery will be too much to bear if we try to do it alone. God made us for communion with himself and with each other. It is within healthy community that healing happens.

Unfortunately, healthy community can be hard to find. All too often, when it comes to grieving well, we encounter dysfunction in our families and even in our Christian churches. The more challenging emotions like anger or guilt or grief are unwelcome and avoided. They are seen as an evil to be eliminated, rather than a healthy part of the human experience. This extermination of unwelcome emotions can be done in a more abusive way (“Stop crying, or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”) or a more subtle way (“There are other people have it much worse…”). The unspoken message is “you shouldn’t feel that way.” But sometimes we do. It’s just a fact.

If we want to understand what it truly means to be human, we look to Jesus (the New Adam) and to Mary (the New Eve). They model so many virtues for us, including a refusal to shortcut the hardest human experiences like sadness.

“Jesus wept” (John 11:33). It’s the shortest verse of the Bible, and one of the most meaningful: Even though he is the resurrection and the life, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb, Jesus wept. He wept over his dead friend. He wept with those who were weeping. He didn’t avoid or minimize the healthy human experience of grieving.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus became “sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). This was not a dismay at his own immanent death. Rather, he was freely taking upon himself the full depths of human suffering and misery – drinking it to the dregs. He felt in his heart every agony, every sorrow, every wound, every tragedy – the greatest of which is sin. He entered into our sadness and freely offered our human condition to his Father, crying out from the Cross the plea of every agonizing human heart: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Jesus’ empathy with human sorrow led him to the point of loud sobs and tears (Hebrews 5:7). Is that not what is popularly described today as an “ugly cry”? You know, the kind of uncontrollable sobbing that we suppress or avoid or feel deeply embarrassed about? Apparently, Jesus wasn’t worried about sobbing uncontrollably or oozing a little snot. Most of us are much more cautious and self-protective. As the poet T.S. Eliot used to say, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

The problem with painful emotions is that, well, they’re painful. We’d rather avoid the experience of powerlessness in the face of others’ suffering. It’s easier to flee or to fix. We “flee” by avoiding those around us who are suffering in an unbearable way, like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story. Our withdrawing causes their experience of abandonment and isolation to become like that of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom people turn their face…” (Isaiah 53:3).

“Fixing” is no better than fleeing. Many Christian families and faith communities, in their avoidance of “ugly” emotions, try to make it all better with a pious saying or an invitation into busyness and distraction. Fixing is not grieving, and it doesn’t actually comfort anyone. When Job was in agony, he didn’t need fixing; he needed someone to sit on the dung pile and be sad with him.

On Good Friday, Jesus drank the chalice of human suffering to the full. He refused to numb his pain with the gall offered him. Likewise, his mother Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She suffered together with him, refusing to avoid or escape.

On Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, and Mary continued watching and waiting in sorrowful hope. Perhaps she had some inkling of the resurrection to come – but surely not of when or how. Hope is hard. We know that God is faithful, but during the darkest moments we have no idea how long the suffering will last, or how our prayers will be answered. We are tempted to take a shortcut and avoid the full experience of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The joy of Easter Sunday indeed comes as promised – but often in ways that catch us by surprise. Intense sorrow is no obstacle to intense joy – quite the opposite. It is only when we learn to stop hardening our hearts and protecting ourselves that we become capable, not only of embracing the “ugly” human experiences that we’d rather avoid, but also of experiencing the boundless joy of the resurrection. May Jesus open our hearts and help us to empathize with each other as we watch and wait in hope.

Mary’s Receptivity

Today we celebrate the Annunciation. God sends the archangel Gabriel to announce our salvation to the Virgin Mary. God promises to send us a savior, a mighty king, the Messiah, his own beloved Son. Mary gives her free and wholehearted “yes!” to God’s message. The Word becomes flesh and dwells in our midst, beginning by abiding in the womb of the Virgin Mary for nine months.

Mary models for us what it means to receive. She is an empty vessel who eagerly accepts all that God gives – without adding or subtracting or altering. Yet, far from a passive bystander, she actively engages the entire process from beginning to end. Moreover, she shares the experience in communion with many others. The joy of the gift she is receiving leaps like flames of fire into the hearts of John the Baptist and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the angels, the Magi, Simeon, and Anna.

Receiving love should be the easiest thing in the world to do. Is it not a deep desire of our human heart? Yet somehow, receiving love proves exceedingly difficult! Speaking for myself, I daily notice layers of self-protection and resistance to the free and wholehearted receptivity that Mary so joyfully exhibits. My fear and my pride repeatedly get in the way. Even when I do begin to receive, it is not usually a steady abiding. It proceeds in fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back.

Receptivity is a theme quite dear to me – one that I ponder often. In a more academic fashion, I delved deeply into this topic as I researched and wrote my doctoral thesis. If you are ever needing a sleep aid, you may find it a great help! Truly it has the worst title ever: The Ecclesiological Reality of Reception Considered as a Solution to the Debate over the Ontological Priority of the Universal Church. In fact, I had to add another hundred pages just to ensure that the title would fit on the spine of the book. Well okay, maybe not – but it’s still a terrible title, and not a book most people would enjoy reading.

Nevertheless, the core insight I received in writing the thesis was a simple and spiritual one: Receptivity is at the core of our identity in Christ. The Church is a community of reception by her very nature. To be a Christian means being received and receiving. First and foremost, that means being taken up into the one Body of Christ – a reality that always looms over us and calls us into deeper conversion. Ephesians describes God’s eternal plan of drawing all things into one in Christ. Little by little, this Body of Christ grows to full stature. One day, he will become all in all. The life of heaven will be the life of the one Body of Christ.

Our encounter with this living and breathing Body of Christ changes everything. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Jesus did not say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” He said, “Why are you persecuting me?” To be a disciple of Jesus is to be received into his very flesh.

However, being a Christian also means actively and freely cooperating, eagerly desiring to grow and to receive more and more of the fullness of Christ, to become who we are. Our faith in Jesus becomes active in good works, as we grow and bear fruit, building up the body in love.

Finally, to be a Christian means to be receptive of each other, just as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7). That visible communion among believers is the good fruit that emerges. Love of neighbor is a wonderful litmus test of our love of God. As the apostle John reminds us, if we do not love our fellow Christians, whom we see, we cannot claim to love the God we do not see (1 John 4:20). Saint Augustine comments on our need to love our enemies and to love the poor in our midst. If we say we love Jesus, but do not love these little ones, we are effectively giving Jesus the embrace of peace while stomping on his feet with spiked boots. Ouch.

That brings us back to the Virgin Mary, and her holy example of receptivity. She models all these virtues of reception. First and foremost, she is passive. There was no question of being “creative” in the moment of the Annunciation. The initiative was entirely on God’s side, and her deepest desire was to receive. True receptivity is perfectly passive before the divine mystery. In humility and silence and peace, we become like a mirror that reflects God’s glory.

Yet her passivity, her radical receptivity, did not mean any shutting down of her God-given faculties. She loved him with all her heart and mind and soul and strength. And so she asks the angel, “How can this be?” Actually, the Greek literally says, “How is this?” Unlike Zechariah, Mary does not doubt God’s promise. She believes that what is spoken will be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). But true faith desires understanding. True faith desires a free and active cooperation, matching God’s initiative step for step with a  free and wholehearted response, a total “yes!” – as though she were a partner in a divine dance with the Lord. She is always attuned to God’s initiative and responding to it. Luke tells us twice that Mary ponders God’s mysteries in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). Recognizing that the mystery is ever greater than she is, she keeps actively cooperating while passively surrendering.

Finally, Mary’s heart is wide open to communion with others – receiving and being received by the many members of the Body of Christ. She sets out in haste to visit Elizabeth and share what she has received. The scene of the Visitation is one of joyful recognition of the mighty deeds of the Lord. The infant John recognizes the infant Jesus, and dances for joy. Elizabeth praises the mighty things God is doing in and through Mary – a truth which Mary affirms and celebrates. Far from false humility, she sings God’s praises, and even prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. However, all praise goes to God her savior. She is merely the empty and receptive vessel who has received God’s Word and freely cooperated.

The love of Jesus truly sets us free. He is our savior. That love flows in and out of us in the person of the Holy Spirit, who is the soul, the lifeblood of this Body of Christ, whose members we are. We drink deeply of this Spirit, and share the same Spirit as we give our love to others. The gift is meant to be received and given, to flow in and out as the Heart of Jesus sustains us all in unity and peace. On this, Mary’s feast day, may she help unclog our hearts so that we may be truly receptive and abide in the love of Christ.