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Week 4: Theotokos - A Retreat for Advent
© Fr. Mark Toups, 2008. Expressed written permission required for duplication.
Introduction to the Fourth Week of Advent
As "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled,"
Mary and Joseph knew where
they were headed - Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was a small Judean village
about 90 miles south of Nazareth.
Bethlehem was the birthplace of
the great King David. (1st Samuel 16:1-13)
While small by the world's standards,
Bethlehem had the greatest of promises.
It was the birthplace of David
and it was prophesied
to be the birthplace of the Messiah.
"And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel." (Micah 5:2)
This fourth week of Advent finds us on a journey.
It is a journey to the homeland of David.
It is a journey to the homeland of Joseph.
It is a journey to Bethlehem.
Fourth Week of Advent: Sunday
"all went to be enrolled, each to his own city" (Luke 2:3)
The decree did not simply affect Mary and Joseph, it affected everyone, for "all went to be enrolled." The news of the census sent shock waves throughout all of Galilee. Nazareth would have quickly worked itself into a frenzy as anxious pilgrims hastily prepared to journey "to his own city." Again, once again, Mary found herself swaddled with questions. When was her baby due? How long would it take to get to Bethlehem? Would they make it to Bethlehem in time? Joseph too had questions. Could Mary's body handle the journey? Where would they stay once they arrived? Would his meager savings be enough for the census tax, plus the journey there and back? The census didn't simply present a convenient answer for Micah's Messianic prophecy (Micah 5:2), it presented Mary and Joseph with penetrating questions demanding further trust and absolute dependency. The journey to Bethlehem demanded everything.
Sometimes Divine intimacy calls us to places we don't want to go. Sometimes we wonder, "God, I've given you so much already, do you want everything?"
The answer is ... yes! God does want everything. But, remember, God seeks intimacy. But, if the essentials for intimacy are complete self donation and unbridled receptivity, then that's a two-way street. If God requires your complete self-donation, then He is prepared to give you His complete Being. If God requires unbridled receptivity, then He desires to receive all of you. God requires everything so that He can give us everything. The stretching we feel "in the everything" is so that we are more able to receive everything He wants to give us. Spend some time with Mary and Joseph. Ask them how they surrendered everything.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have prayed with the Book of Genesis. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Genesis 22:1-19. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:3.
"Father, I desire to taste just how much you want me. I give you permission to lead me wherever you want so that I may give you everything."
Fourth Week of Advent: Monday
"Mary ... was with child" (Luke 2:5)
Mary would have had quite a 90-mile pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Mary "was with child" and according to basic gynecology, traveling would have created disproportionate pressure on the pelvic area creating lower back discomfort. Without a chair to support her lower back, the constant swaying from the donkey's rhythm increased movement in her torso, further intensifying her aforementioned discomfort. As pregnancy matured, Mary's stomach shrunk, holding less food; however, in the womb, Jesus used much of Mary's nutrients. Holding less food, but sharing more of it with her son, Mary's body had less energy, craving 20% more rest.
However, because of the journey, the sun, the dust, and the donkey, Mary couldn't get the rest she desired. Mary's journey wasn't easy; it was anything but easy. Mary experienced ordinary discomfort like any ordinary pregnant woman would have on such a journey. Yet, Mary "was with child" and she knew who that child was. Throughout her journey, especially when the discomfort intensified, she placed her hands on her womb and was reminded that God was with her. Her discomfort may have been like the discomfort of any ordinary pregnancy; however, Mary knew God was in the ordinary.
Most of our life is ordinary - especially during this time of year. We sit in traffic. We wait in long lines at department stores. We clean our house for the holidays. Most of our life is not flashy, it is just rather ordinary. The truth is that God is with us, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Yes, God is with us, even in the ordinary. Take some time and ask Mary to describe the ordinary truths of her trip to Bethlehem.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have often prayed with Psalm 33. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 33. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:5.
"Father, I long to taste your presence in my ordinary life. I beg you to open my heart so that I may do all things, even ordinary things, with you."
Fourth Week of Advent: Tuesday
"while they were there" (Luke 2:6)
The 90-mile pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken about a week and a half. With miles behind them and Bethlehem now just a few days before them, we take great interest in what is not said about their arrival.
Joseph is returning to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of his family; however, there is no mention of his family. There is no mention of a relative, no mention of a family caravan, and no mention of his plans to reunite with kinsfolk.
As Mary neared delivery and Joseph led them into Bethlehem, they had no idea of what they would do in Bethlehem. They were both utterly dependent on God. But, then again, considering what we have tasted during this Advent retreat, how could it be any other way?
Most of us don't like to be dependent. In fact, our culture champions those who are independent and who go out and make it on their own. However, God loves it when we are dependent because it is there that we most need God to be God.
Where are you most dependent on God? What circumstances in your life are out of your control? What situations will you face this holiday season that will make you feel utterly dependent on God? Where do you feel weak, helpless, or vulnerable?
Now, say this with me, "I can't" ... "You can" ... "And, you promised." That's a great prayer. "God, I can't, but I know you can. And you know what? You promised." Whenever you feel dependent and God is the only thing you have, say that prayer- "I can't, You can, and You promised." Then, wait with Mary and watch for God to act.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have often prayed with the Book of Genesis. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Genesis 15:1-6; 16:1-16; 22:1-7. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:6.
"Father, I yearn to taste your desire, fidelity, and consistency. I beg you to open my heart so that I embrace dependency."
Fourth Week of Advent: Wednesday
"while they were there" (Luke 2:6)
As Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, the quiet silence of their journey was invaded by the frantic noise of thousands of pilgrims cramming into the Judean city. Joseph's meager income hadn't provided for the surprise "decree"; therefore, the simplicity of his Galilean lifestyle was strained. There was the census tax. There were obvious travel expenses. Joseph had not prepared for any of this. Plus, it was a sellers market, and the unexpected census created an unseasonable demand. Everything cost more - food, water, lodging, etc. This young couple, tired from 90 miles of exhausting travel, had no one and nothing. They were utterly dependent on God. Mary and Joseph were swaddled in poverty.
God loves poverty, so much so, that it was the canvas upon which He painted His birth into humanity. However, why do we not like inner poverty? Perhaps it is because it feels like we are dying. As we let go, it feels as if we have nothing to hold on to. Perhaps it is because we feel vulnerable. Vulnerability feeds panic because of a loss of security. Perhaps it is because we have nothing to offer God. We really believe that we have to give God something in order for Him to love us. Perhaps it is because we are afraid. There is a lie in us that sounds something like, "I'm alone, and God won't come through."
Now, listen to the voice of God. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3) God loves poverty. Why? Because poverty leads to emptiness, emptiness leads to perfect echo, and echo leads to perfect worship.
Mary was empty, which means she was poor. Spend some time with the Theotokos and ask her what it was like to be utterly poor.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have prayed with the Book of Zephaniah. Prep your imaginative prayer by reading Zephaniah 2 and 3. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:6.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your strength in my weakness. I beg you to open my heart so that I embrace my poverty."
Fourth Week of Advent: Thursday
"there was no place for them" (Luke 2:7)
Poor, dependent, and exhausted, Mary and Joseph urgently searched for lodging, for Mary's contractions had started as the time had come for "her to be delivered" (Luke 2:6). Joseph restlessly searched, however, the only thing he found was rejection.
"THERE'S NO ROOM."
"YOU CAN'T STAY HERE."
"I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE."
Doors closed, one after another. And, as Mary sighed with each contraction, all they saw was rejection.
Instead of being welcomed by the arms of Bethlehem, they were rejected, and cast aside.
Sometimes our commitment to discipleship challenges us. Depending on where we find ourselves, sometimes we can feel as if we have been cast aside. Because of different situations, holiday family gatherings, conversations at work, or difficult encounters in strained relationships, our commitment to Christ can cause us to feel as "we're on the outside looking in."
In those moments, commitment can lead to rejection, rejection can lead to dependency, and dependency can lead to intimacy. Mary was able to embrace the rejection of Bethlehem. Although cast outside, she knew who she had on the inside. Instead of grasping for acceptance on the outside, Mary adjusted her gaze to the inside, finding God with her.
Spend some time with Mary. Ask her to reveal how she handled the rejection of Nazareth. Ask her to reveal to you how you handle rejection. Ask her Son to help you taste His consistent presence on the inside, even if you feel rejected on the outside.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have often prayed with Psalm 31. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 31. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:7.
"Father, I long for your unconditional acceptance when I'm rejected. Help me to stand firm in your Truth, no matter the circumstance."
Fourth Week of Advent: Friday
"in a manger" (Luke 2:7)
Because "there was no place for them" (Luke 2:7), Mary and Joseph were led to the poorest of places, "in a manger" where the animals were. Second century tradition places the birth of Christ in the caves on the outskirts of Bethlehem. In Dawn of the Messiah, Edward Sri writes, "This tradition was so strong that by 325 A.D., Constantine erected a basilica over a series of Bethlehem caves to commemorate the place where Jesus was believed to have been born."
Regardless of the exact place of Christ's birth, this we know: it was simple. No hospital. No bed. No epidural. Nothing. It was bare simplicity. However, it was fitting. Lying on the naked earth, Mary heard sweet music.
Empty. Nothing. Everything. Dependence. Poverty. These were her companions since her Annunciation, and they accompanied her as she prepared for birth. It was a symphony of empty and the orchestra was led by simplicity.
If we embrace the Theotokos, we must also embrace simplicity.
Our lives can seem awfully busy. The faster our frenzied lives become, the more complicated we feel. Busyness cramps our spirit. Life gets complicated, and the simplicity of God's design grows crowded. On the other hand, with simplicity I have nothing - nothing but God. There, I find my soul's deepest desire. There, I am in deep union, and completely receptive to the glory of God. It is pretty simple - simplicity leads me to God.
Ask Mary to reveal the utter simplicity of "the manger." Ask her to help you really focus on Christmas and its true meaning.
So, we end where we began. Slow down. Get quiet. Listen. After all, what's the rush? What are we really preparing for?
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have often prayed with Psalm 131. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 131. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:7.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to slow down. Prepare my heart so that I might experience miracles this Christmas."
Fourth Week of Advent: Saturday
"the time came for her have her child" (Luke 2:6)
For the past 27 days you have come to know Mary as the Theotokos. You have journeyed the emotional roller coaster with her and the pilgrimage has led you to Mary's triumphant moment of physical surrender.
You have listened to her questions.
You have tasted her love for God.
You have savored His presence in her womb.
For the past four weeks, you have come to know her true identity.
Chosen. Echo. Gaze. Intimacy. Poverty. Empty.
These are not simple words anymore. These are springboards that plunge you into the heart of a woman who danced with God forever.
Now, she is in labor.
To the naked eye, one could think that Mary's delivery will empty her womb of the child within. However, to you who have been on retreat with her, you know that the child's birth into the world will simply be an echo of praise birthed from the perpetual emptiness that will always remain. There, in the stillness of simplicity, Mary waits.
And, with the manger's animals attentive in intrigue, the time comes:
Mary's labor pushes forward ...
Joseph clutches her hand ...
Heaven leans in ...
Mary's soul sings her refrain of praise ...
She gasps for one last breath ...
Your eyes widen ...
Your heart quickens ...
The baby is seconds away ...
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:6.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste the profound depth of your joy for me. Inflame my desire for you so that my Christmas may be filled with your joy."