When Hope Hurts

As followers of Jesus, we are people of Hope – especially during Holy Week and Easter.

This year we will experience a Holy Week like no other – gathering the family around our tablets and TVs to view the live stream of the holiest liturgies of the year.

I think back to the middle of March – which now feels like ancient history – and remember how I wept and sobbed over the cancellation of public Masses. The part that was the most painful for me was when it fully dawned on me that our faith communities would not be gathering together for Holy Week and Easter. Having had time to process my grief, I am now grateful that we’re doing our moral duty and serving the common good by joining in the shared effort of social distancing. I’m grateful for all the creativity and innovation that has opened up new opportunities. I’m getting accustomed to Mass on facebook live and Zoom meetings. But let’s face the facts: it’s still hard.

Since the middle of March, there have been far greater hardships for many than the temporary disruption of prayer gatherings and public Masses. Some find their entire livelihood in grave peril; others are under enormous daily stress; many others have died of COVID-19 or lost a loved one.

All of us have felt our daily lives turned upside down. Almost everyone I know seems to be experiencing a significant spike in anxiety or a resurgence of unwanted behaviors. So much is uncertain and unknown; so much can change so quickly. We trust God, but it’s incredibly hard at times to keep believing that it’s somehow all going to be blessed by God as part of his greater plan.

Hope is hard. The Christian virtue of Hope is not rosy optimism; it’s not a feel-good pretending like everything is just swell. Hope involves longing and desiring, watching and waiting. Hope stretches our human hearts far beyond what feels easy or comfortable. Indeed, keeping Hope alive in our heart can be painful. It’s so much easier to try to avoid, it, numb it, or even kill it – choosing instead a path of self-soothing or self-reliance. But we cannot save ourselves.

Holy Week is a time of Hope. The death and resurrection of Jesus, his Paschal Mystery, constitutes THE human story. Without Jesus dying and rising, our human existence becomes empty, fruitless, and meaningless. On the contrary, as we allow ourselves to be plunged into those saving events, we are brought to new and more abundant life.

In the “in between” of that transformation stands the virtue of Hope, like a brave soldier standing in the breach. It can be far more agonizing than we may realize. It’s quite possible that only a few Christians these days are truly steeped in Hope.

Hope is the virtue of Holy Saturday – a day that is easily overlooked. Many are bustling about preparing for Easter; others are pre-binging on food or Netflix or some other pleasure. The invitation of Holy Mother Church – rarely accepted – is to engage in fasting and silence and prayer as best we can, to continue keeping our vigil at the Tomb of Christ, watching and waiting in Hope.

Think of the various characters in the Gospels and imagine what their experience of Holy Saturday was like. Think of Peter and the other apostles, having suddenly lost their Lord and their friend Jesus – and under the shameful circumstances of having abandoned him or denied him. Jesus had recently given a glimpse of glory to Peter atop Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. Maybe that remembered experience emitted some faint glimmer of Hope amidst his overwhelming feelings of grief and disillusionment, fear and doubt, guilt and shame.

Think of Mary Magdalene and the other faithful women, holding Jesus in their hearts, continuing to love him even when it hurt so much. Their instinctive and intuitive Hope drew them to the tomb on Easter morning, even if they didn’t understand what was happening in their hearts.

Think of Jesus’ own mother Mary, who had borne him in her womb, nursed him, taught him to walk, taught him to read the Scriptures, taught him to pray, and so much more. Over the course of 33 years, she was more intimately close to him and held more conversations with Him than any other human being. Scripture does not record these, but Luke does tell us more than once that Mary kept pondering these mysteries in her heart. She is perhaps the one person who was not entirely surprised at his Resurrection.

But even for Mary – nay, especially for Mary – there was that agonizing in-between moment of Hope between the first day of Good Friday and the third day of Resurrection. If the experience was anything like the previous patterns (the birth of Jesus, the Flight into Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple), she knew and believed God’s promises, but did not know how those promises would be fulfilled.

That is what is so hard about Hope. It is an invitation to plunge into the depths of Jesus’ suffering – which involved far more than physical torments. He freely chose to dive into the depths of our fallen human experience – including the isolation, the loneliness, the fear, the shame, the rejection, and the abandonment that so many of us experience. When he cries out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” He is crying out with and for each of us from the depths of our hearts – places we are often not willing to go ourselves, because they hurt so much. Jesus allows himself to feel the pain of rupture from God and rupture from neighbor that is part of the story for each of us who are fallen.

Then it’s our turn. Like the Virgin Mary, like Mary Magdelene, like so many of the other disciples, we are invited to keep vigil at his Tomb. We are invited to keep believing his promises – even when it seems impossible anything will ever change. For each of those followers, Easter morning was a wonderful surprise. The risen Jesus brought them joy in a way they had never imagined possible.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, Catholics show up in large numbers for Good Friday, and are often moved to tears at the torments Jesus endured on the Cross. This year, only the priest celebrant will get to kiss the Cross.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, most Catholics give little thought to the experience of Holy Saturday. This year, we all have an extended Holy Saturday opportunity. We have been given a share in Jesus’ suffering and death. In the form of all this unrest and all these unknowns, we have an opportunity to share in the same disorienting and agonizing experience of those early disciples on that first Holy Saturday. Like most of them, we do not know how long it will last, whether it will get better, or how it will get better. We surrender in Hope; we wait in Hope, even when it hurts.

We are free to choose. We can plunge fully into the deep waters of Hope. Or we can keep popping up for air. There are any number of ways we can do that. Some turn to the false soothing of food or alcohol or pornography. Others minimize or deny, pretending like it’s not really that hard (thus distancing themselves from genuine Hope). Still others crack a joke or enter into fault-finding and peevishness – anything that will distract us from the present agony of abiding at the Tomb in Hope.

These are normal ways of avoiding – and they make sense. We all do at least some of them. The truth is that tt is terrifying to be under water for a long period of time! For many of us, it feels like it will be too much or too long. Indeed, that is the whole point of being plunged into the waters of Baptism – we actually die with Christ!

We Catholics think often of Good Friday and of suffering with Jesus. This year, I invite each of us to think especially of Holy Saturday, and give ourselves permission to experience the full depth and breadth and length of Christian Hope. It is not for the faint of heart! If we allow it, it will grow and crescendo into an earthquake that will finally break open the cave of our heart; it will roll away the stone so that we, too, can be surprised by the joy of the Risen Jesus.

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.

Untying Knots with Mary

Over the last two weeks, I have reflected on the need to unlearn what we have learned and to be disentangled from unholy agreements. Today I would like to reflect on the assistance we can find by turning to our blessed mother Mary as we seek full freedom in Christ.

Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Undoer of Knots” – a devotion popularized by Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known as Pope Francis). In 1986, Bergoglio spent a few months in Germany. He never finished his doctoral thesis, but he found himself captivated by  an image of Mary in the church of Saint Peter in Augsburg. The painting is the work of Johann Georg Schmidtner (completed around 1700).  It depicts one angel feeding a knot-laden ribbon into Mary’s capable hands. Beneath her calm and persistent gaze, we see the other end of the ribbon passing back down, knot free, into the hands of another angel. Bergoglio took his newfound devotion back to Argentina. With his papacy, it has spread throughout the world.

Its popularity is not a surprise. The image speaks so readily and so deeply to the human heart. Children instinctively bring their tangles and knots to their mother, often in frustration and exasperation. Under her calming and soothing gaze, what had seemed overwhelming and impossible becomes livable and manageable. They find that she has eased their agitation and restored their hope.

This childlike need for soothing and calming does not go away when we enter adulthood. We get just as tired and just as agitated. We have our “meltdowns” and frustrations and tantrums. We are merely much better at hiding and pretending and denying our need for help. If anything, the tangles and knots we experience in adult life are far more complex and scary!

The idea of Mary as one who unties knots is actually an ancient one. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about A.D. 180,  describes Mary as the New Eve who unties the knot wrought by our first mother: “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Just as Eve became the mother of all the living, so is Mary now the mother of all those who are alive in Christ as members of His Body.

Jesus knew our lifelong need for a spiritual mother, and so He gave Mary to each of us when He died on the Cross: “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). If you read John’s Gospel carefully, you will note that the name “John” is never given. Rather, he uses “beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom he loved.” This allows each of us to put ourselves into that identity as a beloved disciple. When Jesus gives Mary as a mother, he is not creating a mother-son relationship between Mary and John only, meant to last merely a couple of decades. In that case, why bother to record the conversation? If ever there was a dying man whose last words are charged with meaning and intentionality, it is the eternal Son of God who died on the Cross for us! He wills us to receive and be received by Mary as our mother. We need her motherly care as we grow into our identity in Christ.

Although Schmidtner’s painting is beautiful, I chose instead to share this less-known icon written by Alfred Rebhan. It speaks powerfully to my heart. Living now by faith in Christ Jesus, we are one with him. The life we live now is not our own (Galatians 2:20); we literally become Christ. His Father is now Our Father. His mother Mary is now our mother. When we need a soothing and calming mother who can aid us, she is there, just like the Virgin in this icon, placing her gentle and encouraging hand on our shoulder as we (one with Christ) find the freedom to face our knots and untie them.

That has certainly been my story – especially during the last couple of years of my life, which have been truly transformational. Devotion to Mary has been at the center of that conversion. I sought her aid in my desire to untie one or two frustrating knots. Little did I realize that I would need to face a massive tangle of interconnected knots, long ago buried and forgotten in the basement of my heart: including lies, unholy agreements, unhealed wounds, and much more. Little by little, I have been learning to be open and receptive like the Christ Child – who emptied himself completely and let himself depend upon His heavenly Father and upon Mary His mother. Apart from Christ (and apart from his blessed mother) I am powerless to disentangle these knots. But one with Him, close to His blessed mother and close to other members of His Body, I am finding the freedom and peace I need to proceed and persevere.