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Week 1: Theotokos - A Retreat for Advent
© Fr. Mark Toups, 2008. Expressed written permission required for duplication.
Introduction to the First Week of Advent
Nazareth was a poor, small village,
laughable to the Romans who occupied her
and insignificant to the Jews who surrounded her.
That's how God liked it. For when God saw Nazareth,
He saw emptiness, humility, and utter dependency.
For God, that's a recipe for Glory.
When God gazed on Nazareth He saw her,
Mary, His chosen Theotokos.
It was in Nazareth that young Mary lived.
She was in her early teens
and she was searching for God's will.
She was in love with God
and she desired to love Him with her whole being.
She was in Nazareth and she went to pray
and that's where our journey begins.
Sunday of the Second Week of Advent
"The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth" (Luke 1:26)
Nazareth was a small village of Galilee in northern Palestine. To many, it was a town of little or no importance. In fact, in John 1:46, Nathanael scoffs at the village's insignificance as he asks, "What good can come from Nazareth?"
As an insignificant village tucked away on the outskirts of the Sea of Galilee, not much was happening in Nazareth. It was small. It was poor. It was simple. The pace of life in Nazareth was much like the pace of life in any small town. Nazareth escaped the busy hustle and bustle of the big city.
The city was small.
Life was simple.
The pace was slower.
Mary, as a native, would have had an inner disposition reflective of the village in which she grew up. The outer pace of Nazareth helped create an inner pace within Mary.
The secular Christmas season we find ourselves in is anything but small, simple, and slow. In fact, for many of us, the pace of life quickens as Christmas nears. There are presents to buy, parties to attend, and holidays to plan.
As the world around us accelerates into a frenzy, Advent actually invites us to slow down. Just as Nazareth's pace formed the Theotokos, Mary wants to slow us down so that we can receive as she did.
Slow down. Get quiet. Listen. After all, what's the rush?
What are we really preparing for?
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 131. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 131. Then, imaginatively pray with Luke 1:26 and ask the Holy Spirit to "show" you life in Nazareth.
"Father, regardless of how busy my life is on the outside, I pray that You will help me slow down on the inside."
Monday of the First Week of Advent
"to a virgin betrothed" (Luke 1:27)
In her classic contemplation on Mary entitled, The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander wrote, "That virginal quality, for want of a better word, I call emptiness." Mary's virginity can be more personally understood through her profound emptiness.
Numbers 30:4-6 outlines prescriptions for a Jewish woman vowed to perpetual virginity and complete consecration to the Lord. Steeped in Biblical wisdom, the early Desert Fathers wrote that Mary vowed such Old Testament consecration, embracing the fullness of Biblical virginity. In other words, Mary had long intended to remain a virgin and had made such a promise to God before and after the betrothal.
Mary's virginity points us to her emptiness. She was empty of anything that was not of God. She was empty of anything that would prevent her from resting in her deep union with the Father. Yes, she was empty; however, her emptiness wasn't a "lacking" in essence. Her emptiness came from her deep union, a union so important to her that she had made a vow of virginity, even as a married woman.
Many of us panic at the sheer thought of emptiness. A subtly compulsive need of always having to have something fill us is an epidemic fed by the pace at which we live. We are encouraged to fill our lives with more and more so that we won't have to face our fear of emptiness. The emptiness of the Theotokos is an invitation to us. What needs to be emptied from our lives? What are we filling our lives with, yet remaining unfulfilled in the end?
Spend some time with Mary and ask her what needs emptying so that you might receive as she did.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 63. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 63. Then, imaginatively pray with Luke 1:27 and ask the Holy Spirit to "show" you Mary in Nazareth.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to empty my heart of anything that is not of you."
Tuesday of the First Week of Advent
"she was greatly troubled at what was said" (Luke 1:29)
The Angel Gabriel hails Mary with a profound greeting, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you." The words "the Lord is with you" have deep roots in ancient Judaism and in the call of those chosen. God chose Moses and in response to Moses' doubt, God said, "I am with you" (Exodus 3:12). Many of Israel's revered-Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, and David-resisted the piercing intimacy of being chosen; however, God answered their doubt with similar nuances of the same words, "I am with you."
As a holy Jewish woman versed in the lives of the Old Testament greats, Mary would have been very familiar with the significance of the words, "the Lord is with you." Gabriel's greeting discomforts Mary-not because she doesn't know what the Angel means, but precisely because she does know why he begins with such an introduction! Thus, "she was greatly troubled at what was said." Mary was chosen by God and she now knows it.
There is something penetrating about realizing that God has chosen us - that amidst the 6,000,000,000 people on the face of the earth, God wants me, God chose me. In fact, John 15:16 reminds us of God's particular desire for us as Jesus says, "it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you." Far too often our perception of ourselves echoes something like this, "There's nothing special about me. I'm just ordinary. I wish I were ..." For a number of reasons, many of us don't feel extraordinary, and because of this, many of us doubt that God would choose me.
Do you believe that God chose you? Rest with Mary, for even she "was greatly troubled at what was said." Spend the day with Mary and ask her if you are chosen. Ask her for whom were you chosen.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with the Book of Deuteronomy. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Deuteronomy 7:6-8. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:29.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your particular desire for me. I beg you to reveal why you chose me."
Wednesday of the First Week of Advent
"Do not be afraid" (Luke 1:30)
As God's messenger, the Angel Gabriel senses Mary's being "greatly troubled at what was said." So, Gabriel immediately responds, "Do not be afraid." Similar words spoken to Abram in Genesis 15:1 invited the father of Judaism into a covenant of trust. Identical words to the young Daniel in Daniel 10:12 invited him to trust that God would vindicate his people from bondage. When God's chosen are "greatly troubled," God's invitation is to trust.
Mary is invited to trust, and imagine all that she had to be afraid of. Who was she, after all, to be worthy of being chosen? And, throughout the next few months, she would need to trust. When she told her parents, she had to trust. When she told Joseph, she had to trust. When the gossipers of small-town Nazareth whispered, she had to trust. During the emotional roller coaster imbuing her pregnancy, Mary had to trust God with all her fears.
Each of us has fear. In fact, if you want to find fear, follow the trail of restlessness, worry, and anxiety. What do you worry about? Where is your anxiety? When do you get restless? Underneath those ordinary emotions is fear and where there is fear, there is God waiting for us to trust Him.
1st John 4:18 reminds us that "perfect love casts out all fear." You are chosen, you are important to God. And, He is love, perfect love. No matter what's going on in your life right now, the antidote for fear is not courage, but trust.
Spend some time with Mary today. Ask her if she was afraid. Ask her how she dealt with it. Ask her to help you trust her Son.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 37. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 37:1-11. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:30.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your perfect love that casts out all fear. I beg you to help me trust you in all things."
Thursday of the First Week of Advent
"How will this be?" (Luke 1:34)
Zechariah's inadequate trust in God led to an unexpected silent retreat. However, Mary's response in Luke 1:34 is different from Zechariah's doubt in Luke 1:18. According to the Ignatius Study Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, "Mary is not questioning God's ability to give her a son, but she is inquiring as to how such a plan will unfold."
The clue here is Mary's admittance that "I have no husband" (Luke 1:34). Again, according to the Ignatius Study Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, "The Greek text literally reads, 'I do not know man,' which refers to Mary's virginal status rather than her marital status. Her concern is not that she is unmarried but that she is a virgin at present and that she intends to remain one in the future. The announcement of a miraculous conception thus causes Mary to wonder aloud how God will bless her with a son" and still honor her vow to perpetual virginity.
Mary is in love with God and she shares everything with God. Thus, instead of thinking about her confusion, Mary relates her confusion to God.
There is a difference between thinking about God and talking with God. In its purest definition, prayer is relating to God. Devotion, adoration, and intercession are time honored; however, if we're going to develop a relationship with God, we have to relate with God.
What do you need to talk to God about? What thoughts, feelings, or desires do you need to share with Him? Spend some time with Mary. Ask her to teach you how to relate.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 42. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 42:1-5. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:34.
"Father, I beg you to loosen my thoughts, feelings, and desires so that I share all things with you."
Friday of the First Week of Advent
"nothing is impossible for God" (Luke 1:37)
The glory of Luke 1:37 is the lens through which we see all of Luke Chapter 1, for "nothing is impossible for God." God can silence Zechariah. God can breathe life in Elizabeth's barren infertility. God can conceive His only begotten Son in the womb of a virgin. God can do anything, for "nothing is impossible for God."
God loves to show off. The bigger the odds, the better God gets. Sarah's old age. Moses' Red Sea. Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. From Genesis 18:14 to Jeremiah 32:17, the Old Testament reminds us that when we present God with something impossible, God begins to show off. In fact, the limitlessness of God's possibility is only magnified when we admit the reality of our limitations. When we admit we can do nothing, it ignites God's excitement that "nothing is impossible" for Him.
Perhaps you are in the midst of a "season" where you need a breakthrough or a miracle. However, we often fail to relate those desires to God. Perhaps you were "let down" in the past as prayers weren't answered the way you expected. Perhaps you feel distant from God and don't believe that God will hear or answer your prayer. Perhaps you feel unworthy of God acting such, as if God has other things that are more important. Ephesians 3:20 reminds us that "God can do immeasurably more in us than we could ever ask or imagine." More than we could ever imagine. More than you could ever imagine.
Where do you need a miracle? Where do you feel nothing can happen? Spend some time with Mary and ask her to show you how she believed in miracles. Ask her to help you believe in miracles.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with the Book of Exodus. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Exodus 14:10-14; 19-25 (emphasis on verse 14). Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:37.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your power and possibility. I beg you to give me great desires so that you might reveal your glory."
Saturday of the First Week of Advent
"let it be done to me" (Luke 1:38)
Mary freely and actively embraces God and His invitation. Her exultant "let it be done to me according to Your word" is more than a simple acceptance. The literal Greek translation indicates that she actually longs for it. Mary is in love with God, and she is in love with whatever He wants. Luke 1:38 tells us just as much about Mary as it does about God. Every day preceding the Annunciation, Mary lived as if God was really in control of her life. Mary said "yes" every day.
Mary's "yes" is birthed out of her "no." Mary was not in control of her life. She said "no" to living life on her terms. She said "no" to "being her own woman." She said "no" to control, for she knew it to be an illusion.
Control is like chasing tomorrow. Once you think you're almost there, it slips ahead of you. None of us are in control of our lives; however, that illusion is in the air we breathe. In fact, look at your Christmas shopping list. Are any of your presents aimed at helping someone self-help themselves?
The problem is that control is an illusion. None of us are in control. The more we grasp for it, the emptier our lives become. In fact, look at your Christmas shopping list again. Are any of your presents aimed at helping someone numb the emptiness in their life? Where are you trying to control your life? What issues, relationships, or dreams are you trying to control? Do your daily actions reflect control or trust?
Spend some time with Mary. Ask her to show you how she lived her daily life before the Annunciation. Ask her to show you how she lived out of control. Ask her to help you live the same way.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 62. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 62. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:26-38.
"Father, I beg you to help me fall so in love with you that I may willingly surrender control of my life."