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Week 2: Theotokos - A Retreat for Advent
© Fr. Mark Toups, 2008. Expressed written permission required for duplication.
Introduction to the Second Week of Advent
The rugged countryside of northern Galilee
was flanked in the south by the hill country of Judah.
Mary had relatives spread wide throughout Israel,
and many of them dwelt in the south,
not far from Jerusalem.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were in that number,
for Luke 1:39 says that Zechariah and Elizabeth
lived in the "town of Judah."
Luke 1:5-25 paints a prelude of Mary's Annunciation.
God was up to something, for not only were miracles
abounding in Nazareth, but God had also breathed life
into Elizabeth's barren womb (Luke 1:24).
The Angel Gabriel informed Mary of Elizabeth's
miracle (Luke 1:36) and the Theotokos
had lots to unpack after Gabriel left.
Our retreat began in Nazareth, but,
as Gabriel departs the scene changes,
and so too does our setting.
With divine life stirring inside,
Mary sets out for Judah.
As Mary journeys to Elizabeth we will go with her.
Our second week of Advent brings us to Judah.
Sunday of the Second Week of Advent
"Mary set out in haste" (Luke 1:39)
Mary has just learned she is pregnant with the Savior of the world. To the naked eye, her pregnancy is unplanned, unexpected, and unthinkable in Jewish culture. Mosaic Law had rules on how to handle such situations-death by stoning. Mary is a young teenager, and now she's pregnant.
So, what does Mary do? Sit down and talk things out with her parents? No. Talk to Joseph about what they're going to do? No. Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, set out in haste for the hill country of Judah.
Mary has also learned that her revered relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So the 130-mile journey, south of Jerusalem, didn't take Mary to Judah, it took her to Elizabeth. The Greek expression for haste denotes a driven diligence much like in 2nd Peter 1:5 and Jude 1:3. Elizabeth is pregnant and needs help. Mary has a driven diligence in her haste, for she wants to be present to Elizabeth.
There is a difference between presents and presence. Sure, the words sound the same, but we all know they are completely different. Although Mary had a lot on her mind, she wanted to be present to Elizabeth. Mary wanted to be there because Mary wanted to be there. With a frenzied pace driving our lives, it is hard to "be where you're at." We can be with people, but because of our own haste, often times it's hard to be present to the people we're with. As the secular Christmas season demands more of us, our haste increases. We have more presents, but we have less presence.
Today, be present to people, not haste. Today "be where you're at." Focus on people. Focus on presence. Focus on God's presence.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 127. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 127. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:39.
"Jesus, I ask for the grace today to grow in my relationship with you. I give you permission to enter into my heart-all of my heart."
Monday of the Second Week of Advent
"she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth" (Luke 1:40)
We understand more about Mary's haste when we understand more about Elizabeth. Elizabeth was more than a relative. Elizabeth was a woman of wisdom. Luke 1:36 tells us that Elizabeth was a woman advanced in her age. While we do not know exactly how old, we do know that her age implies wisdom. As with most Semitic cultures, ancient Judaism revered the aged because of their wisdom. While our contemporary Western culture idolizes the young, Mary and her fellow Jews would have revered the old because they were wise. In addition, Elizabeth was married to Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest who served at the great Jerusalem temple two weeks out of the year. Luke 1:6 says that he and Elizabeth were "righteous before God." Zechariah's honored status within Judaism reveals his being a man of wisdom. Thus, as Mary "entered the house of Zechariah (and Elizabeth)," she entered a house of wisdom.
Mary was at a crucial spot in her life, so Mary sought out wisdom. Mary realized that none of us should navigate our spiritual journey alone. Each of us needs a wisdom figure; a spiritual director, a holy priest or religious, or even a fellow disciple with lots of experience. Each of us needs a wisdom figure to help us in our relationship with God.
Who in your life shares wisdom? Who shares, not just encouragement or advice, but real wisdom? If you have someone, connect with them soon so that God's wisdom can anchor your life during this busy time. If you don't have someone, ask God to reveal who that might be. Spend the day with Mary. Get to know her voice. The Theotokos is the "seat of Wisdom" and Mary can't wait to share her wisdom with you!
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with the Book of Proverbs. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Proverbs 8. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:40.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to hear your voice. I beg you to attune my ears to your voice so that your words may guide all my actions."
Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent
"blessed is she who believed" (Luke 1:45)
Mary believed. She was certain. As Mary set out in haste for Judah, Mary was certain that Elizabeth was pregnant. Mary was certain that she herself was the chosen Theotokos. When Mary left Nazareth for Judah, she had no physical evidence. She couldn't see physical signs of her own pregnancy, nor could she even see Elizabeth. But, Mary was certain. Once in Judah, Elizabeth greets Mary with rejoicing and proclaims her blessed, for "blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). The Greek expression "believed" denotes a certainty, an unquestioning conviction that has no need for evidence. God said it, and Mary believed it. She was certain it would come to be.
Many of us have often asked God for help, and He loves it when we do! However, once we ask, the answer may not come in our time frame. The more that time passes and our prayer appears to be unfulfilled, doubt enters our mind. We wonder, "Did God really hear me?" Or, we think, "Is God going to come through on His promise?"
In Habakkuk 2:3, God reminds us that His promise "still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come." In other words, if God makes a promise it is a promise, although it might not unfold as quickly as we would like. We need to believe that God is faithful to His word. In fact, we should be certain.
Have you asked God for help recently? If so, how did God respond? What did God say in reply? Even if you are still waiting for the results, be patient and be certain that what He promised will come to be. As you wait, wait with Mary. Spend some time with her today, ... and wait ... together.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with the Book of Isaiah. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Isaiah 55. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:45.
"Father, I ask to taste how personal your promises are for me. I beg you to reveal how you have always come through on your promises."
Wednesday of the Second Week of Advent
"My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord" (Luke 1:46)
As Mary receives Elizabeth's greeting, she responds with the first chords of her great Magnificat, "My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord." We presume that as the Mother of God, Mary had a pretty healthy self-esteem, but really - her soul magnifies God? How can a human magnify that which is greater?
Rev. Scott Traynor helps us understand how Mary's soul magnifies God with the image of Echo Canyon, Colorado. Echo Canyon has breathtaking postcard views around every corner. However, it's not famous for the view only. If you stand in the right spot and shout out your name, the sound will literally reverberate through out the entire canyon, echoing over and over and ascending louder and louder. Echo Canyon, because it is perfectly designed to do so, receives a spoken word and perfectly magnifies it for the world to hear. So Echo Canyon is not greater than your voice, nor can it generate anything on its own. However, Echo Canyon, because it is perfectly shaped, magnifies your voice for the world to hear.
Mary does magnify the Lord. Mary's soul, like Echo Canyon, perfectly receives God and echoes to the world what she hears. Remember her emptiness? It makes for a perfect echo.
In a sense, you too are Echo Canyon. Our souls were made to magnify God and echo His glory for the world to hear. However, if our soul (the canyon) is wounded, cluttered, or out of tune, then we won't echo what God says. We'll echo something else entirely different. How's your echo? How empty is your soul from anything that would prevent perfect reverberation of divine Word? What would need to be emptied from your life so that your soul would echo as Mary's did?
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with the 1st Book of Samuel. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading 1st Samuel 2:1-10. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:46.
"Father, I ask for the grace of a perfect echo. I beg you to reveal anything that prevents my soul from magnifying your voice."
Thursday of the Second Week of Advent
"He has looked upon His handmaid's lowliness" (Luke 1:48)
Yesterday we tasted how Mary's emptiness fostered her echo. Today we hear Mary glorifying God in her lowliness, and there is no coincidence. Empty leads to echo, and suffering leads to emptiness. In Dawn of the Messiah, Edward Sri reminds us that the Greek word Mary uses to describe her lowliness is the word tapeinosin. Somewhat paraphrasing Sri, tapeinosin describes not simply a spiritual humility but a condition of great suffering. In fact, the word was commonly used in the Old Testament to depict the affliction of God's people when they were persecuted and oppressed, but about to be rescued by God's saving hand. For example, recalling how God once freed Israel from its slavery in Egypt, Psalm 136 says, "It is He who remembered us in our lowliness (tapeinosin) ... and rescued us from our foes."
As a Jewish woman living during the affliction of Roman occupation, Mary would have lived in the daily cry from a suffering people. The village of Nazareth and the people of Israel yearned for God to save them from their suffering.
Suffering is a tough reality for us. It is dismissed by our culture, yet pervades the life of everyone in it. Few of us embrace it, yet all of us face it. Suffering is a part of life. There is a lie whispered deep inside suffering that sounds something like, "I'm alone." Thus, many of us run from suffering because we fear abandonment more than we fear suffering. None of us want to face suffering alone. Yet, Mary sings of her lowliness (tapeinosin) because she knows she is not alone. God has chosen her, so she need not run from suffering. She can remain empty, for God "has looked upon His handmaid's lowliness."
What's your attitude toward suffering? Toward your suffering? Toward others' suffering? Ask Mary how she dealt with suffering.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 22. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 22:1-8; 19-31. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:48.
"Father, I ask to taste your love for me in my weakness. Help me not to run away from suffering, but to run to you in the suffering."
Friday of the Second Week of Advent
"Mary remained with her for three months" (Luke 1:56)
Mary arrived in Judah for Elizabeth's final trimester. During those three months, Mary and Elizabeth supported each other and prayed together. Hidden within Luke 1:56 are hours of conversation between two people who needed each other. Mary opened her heart and admitted that she did not know how Joseph would handle the news. She shared with Elizabeth that while she sensed her parents would understand, she did not know if anyone else would. Finally, there would be the gossipers in Nazareth who would have a field day as soon as Mary arrived back home "showing."
As Mary poured out her heart, Elizabeth listened. Certainly she reminded Mary that God always delivered His people from suffering (tapeinosin). Elizabeth reassured Mary that God would give her the words as she told Joseph and that God would work a miracle in his life too. While there was no guarantee that anyone would understand, Elizabeth certainly reminded Mary that the face of the one in her womb was more precious than any hardship she would face once she returned.
Mary needed Elizabeth. Elizabeth needed Mary. Together, for three months, they shared community.
Each of us needs other Christians in our life. Living as a disciple is not easy, especially in our culture, and even more so during the secular Christmas season. However, God sends us people. If we're going to really live as disciples, we'll need community to support us. Who's supporting you on the journey? What people, by their sheer presence, make you want to be a better Christian? Spend some time with them this Advent. Spend some time with Mary and ask her to show you the community during her three months in Judah.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with the Book of Ecclesiastes. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:56.
"Father, I beg you to surround me with an authentic Christian community and open my heart to commit to them."
Saturday of the Second Week of Advent
"and then returned to her home" (Luke 1:56)
As Mary began the nine-day northern trek from Judah back to Nazareth, her pilgrimage was paved with the unknown.
Mary was a young, pregnant teenager in a Jewish culture which silenced such situations by stoning. Mary knew Elizabeth's reassurance, but she also knew the reality of Mosaic Law and the small-town, small-mindedness of the people of Nazareth. Furthermore, it is very likely that Mary was returning to Nazareth with relatives. Certainly they noticed she was "showing," and in the awkward silence of isolation, fear whispered to Mary as she "returned to her home."
With uncertainty swarming, Mary adjusted her gaze. Either she could look at the anxiety-laden fear or she could look at God. With her hands caressing her growing womb, Mary remembered who was inside. There she heard: "Do not be afraid" (Luke 1:30); "nothing is impossible for God" (Luke 1:37); "He has looked upon His handmaid's tapeinosin" (Luke 1:48). Sure, the uncertainty remained even as Mary gazed at God; however, looking at fear through the gaze of God is very different than facing the unknown alone.
Most of us are afraid of the unknown. When fear harasses us, we get antsy. Doubt invades our thoughts and gives birth to anxiety. Insecure, we easily begin to dwell in fear. Mary's emptiness anchored her gaze. While the quiet journey back home was filled with the fear of the unknown, Mary looked at God. Her inner gaze was locked on her Creator. We, like Mary, will face the unknown in life. We, like Mary, need not be afraid. We simply need to ask ourselves, "Where am I looking? Am I looking at God or the fear?" God was there for Mary, every step of the way. God is here for us. He promises. All we need to do is adjust our gaze.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 23. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 23. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary in Luke 1:56.
"Father, I beg you to reveal to me the lies inside my fear of the unknown. I beg you to clearly reveal the truth about every one of my fears."