Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Amazed at What You Find Within

Thomas Merton followed Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century) in writing about the three Advents of Christ. The first Advent, Bernard said, was the coming of Christ in human form, born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

The third Advent will be the coming of Christ again at the end of the age.

During the season of Advent, we give most of our time to the first Advent, and a little less to the third Advent.

We seem to be slowly recovering the second Advent, which according to Bernard and Merton, is the continual coming of Christ into our lives in our times. This is an ongoing Advent that happens every day within us and in our world. Christ is born into our life-world momently, whether we notice his coming or not.

Thus, Meister Eckhart and others have urged us to prepare a space within our hearts for his birth every day -- not just for one day or one season a year!

Merton put it this way in Seven Storey Mountain: "The soul of a monk is a Bethlehem where Christ comes to be born." And not only monks, but all who give themselves to Jesus in openness and with intention, are invited to open up the stable of the heart, the Bethlehem of the heart to allow Christ's birth within.

I am drawn to meditations and art that help me open up to this birth. It can be hard to trust that God could birth something of value within me . . . yet deep within I believe that is what God does in and with each one of us. Like Mary, we open ourselves to God's work within us and we, too, bear Christ constantly in our lives.

These words, written by Kathleen Norris, helped me believe today that Jesus is being birthed in me.

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story. I once heard a Benedictine friend who is an Assiniboine Indian preach on the Annunciation to an Indian congregation. “The first thing Gabriel does when he encounters Mary,” he said, “is to give her a new name: ‘Most favored one.’ It’s a naming ceremony,” he emphasized, making a connection that excited and delighted his listeners. When I brood on the story of the Annunciation, I like to think about what it means to be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit; I wonder if a kind of overshadowing isn’t what every young woman pregnant for the first time might feel, caught up in something so much larger than herself. I think of James Wright’s little poem “Trouble,” and the wonder of his pregnant mill-town girl. The butt of jokes, the taunt of gossips, she is amazed to carry such power within herself. “Sixteen years, and / all that time, she thought she was nothing / but skin and bones.” . . . Told all her life that she is “nothing,” the girl discovers in herself another, deeper reality. A mystery: something holy, with a potential for salvation. The poem has challenged me for years to wonder what such a radically new sense of oneself would entail. Could it be a form of virgin birth?

[Meditations on Mary: With Essays by Kathleen Norris (New York: Viking Studio, 1999), 30 – 31.]

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