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Week 3: Theotokos - A Retreat for Advent
© Fr. Mark Toups, 2008. Expressed written permission required for duplication.
Introduction to the Third Week of Advent
As Mary "returned to her home" (Luke 1:56),
she returned to the region of Galilee.
It was the home of her parents.
It was the home of her family.
And, Galilee was the home of Joseph to whom she was
betrothed. As Mary returned from Judah and neared
the region of Galilee, she prepared herself
for her anticipated reunion with Joseph.
She knew he was "a righteous man" (Matthew 1:19).
She knew he was a man of prayer.
She knew he was a man of integrity.
Mary knew Joseph. She knew his heart.
She knew his faith and she knew his holiness.
However, Mary didn't know what he would say or
how he would respond to such unexpected news.
As Mary returned to Galilee,
she had to face the unknown.
As Mary returned to Galilee,
she had to deepen her trust.
As Mary returned to Galilee,
she had to talk to Joseph.
And that is where our third week of Advent begins.
Sunday of the Third Week of Advent
"she was found with child through the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18)
Unlike our Western tradition, betrothal was more than simple engagement. According to the Ignatius Study Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, "Betrothal was a temporary period (up to one year) between the covenant of marriage itself and the time when spouses lived together."
Joseph and Mary have already entered into the covenant of marriage. During this betrothal period, Joseph was preparing their home and preparing for Mary to move in. While Mary was readying herself in Judah, Joseph was in Galilee preparing for her return. However, her return brought more than he was prepared for. When Joseph found his bride, "she was found with child."
Imagine the look on Joseph's face when he first saw Mary "showing." Imagine his shock to the explanation that it was "through the Holy Spirit." Likewise, imagine Mary and her emotions to Joseph's response. None of this was going according to plan. Joseph didn't plan for what Mary told him. Mary didn't plan on it either, nor did she plan for his shock and surprise. However, God knew what He was up to. God is quite content with His plans.
Each of us has our plans. Each of us has our idea or dream or image of how we want our life to unfold. However, our plans seldom unfold according to how we think they should. In fact, often when we evaluate our lives, we realize that life is different from what we expected - our plans rarely come to be. Whether or not your life has unfolded according to your plans, trust that God knows His plans. After all, Mary didn't plan for the angel to come. Joseph didn't plan for Mary to be "found with child." None of this was in their plans. But, aren't we glad that God had His plans?
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have prayed with the Book of Jeremiah. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Jeremiah 29:11-14. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Matthew 1:18.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your love for me and my life. I beg you to help me trust you and to trust your plans for my life."
Monday of the Third Week of Advent
"decided to divorce her quietly" (Matthew 1:19)
Joseph's response to Mary's news leads to his decision "to divorce her quietly." Why? Perhaps Joseph's discomfort was not because he did not understand that Mary's conception was "through the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:35), but rather because he did understand. The Old Testament Ark of the Covenant was the sacred vessel that God prepared for the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:10-22). The Old Testament Ark of the Covenant was so sacred that Uzzah died immediately after touching the ark while he himself was unclean (2nd Samuel 6:1-7). Astonished, King David exclaimed, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" (2nd Samuel 6:9). As a "righteous" man (Matthew 1:19), Joseph would have been steeped in the truths of the Old Testament, and therefore, Joseph would have been very familiar with Uzzah's death. Mary is the New Ark of the New Covenant and Joseph knew it. Joseph decided to divorce her, and to do so quietly, perhaps because he felt unworthy of such a blessing in his life. As Joseph compared himself to Mary, or the child in her womb, he felt unworthy.
At different stages in our lives, many of us feel unworthy. On the heels of sin, we feel unworthy. When we taste our inability to be consistent, we feel unworthy. When we do "the things we don't want to do" (Romans 7:15), we feel unworthy. Thus, when we feel unworthy, we tend to shy away from God, distancing ourselves with classic patterns - we stop praying, we focus on ourselves, we try to "clean our spiritual life up" in order to be worthy.
When do you feel unworthy? How do you handle feeling unworthy? While today's meditation might be difficult, trust the process. Spend some time in prayer and ask God to reveal your patterns of unworthiness.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Joseph would have often prayed with Psalm 139. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 139:1-16. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Joseph in Matthew 1:18.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your love for me. Help me understand my patterns and how I feel about feeling unworthy."
Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent
"do not be afraid" (Matthew 1:20)
Joseph felt unworthy, thus he planned "to divorce her quietly." "Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, do not be afraid'" (Matthew 1:20). Joseph felt unworthy and God knew it. So, God pursued Joseph and in a sense said, "do not be afraid - I will make you worthy." God took the initiative. God did more than enter into Joseph's dream; God entered into Joseph's unworthiness and thereby reminded him that God makes things worthy.
When we feel unworthy, there is a deep, subtle, subconscious fear - it is a dread that our deepest fear is true - a fear that we aren't good enough and God will abandon us. Therefore, as we look at our patterns, we learn more about ourselves. Many of us, when we feel unworthy, distance ourselves from God - we abandon God before God can abandon us.
The good news is that God pursued Joseph. God knew exactly how Joseph felt and said, "do not be afraid." Likewise, when you and I feel unworthy, and all the fears associated with unworthiness, God whispers to us the same words -"Do not be afraid."
God will never abandon us. When God has access to all areas of our life, He makes all things worthy. You are worthy because God is worthy. Our worth in life has nothing to do with us and has everything to do with God. Regardless of your past, how people may or may not have loved you - you are worthy. Regardless of your present, and whether or not your life has lived up to the plans you had - you are worthy. Regardless of mistakes, sinfulness, or patterns of distance - you are worthy.
Spend some time with God today. Ask Him, "Why is it that you choose to love me?" Ask Him, "Where does my worth come from?"
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Joseph would have prayed with the Book of Isaiah. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Isaiah 43:1-7 & 49:14-16. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Joseph in Matthew 1:20.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your love for me at all times. I beg you to help me understand your patterns and how you feel about my feeling unworthy."
Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent
"all this took place" (Matthew 1:22)
Joseph was going through a lot. He had to sift through his decision to divorce Mary quietly. He had to acknowledge his fear and unworthiness. There was much going on in Joseph. But, what about Mary? What was Mary doing while "all this took place?" Mary waited. With her gaze still on God, with her spirit empty, and her nothingness knowing that "nothing is impossible for God" (Luke 1:37), Mary waited. While Mary waited, she continued to relate. She disclosed her thoughts to God. She related her feelings. She shared her desires. While Mary waited for Joseph, Mary waited with God - and there was much happening in the wait.
Most of us don't like to wait. Television commercials are littered with gadgets and gizmos that save us time so that we don't have to wait. For most of us, waiting is filled with lacking. Waiting means the delay of that which we want. However, Mary embraced the wait because Mary waited with God.
So far this Advent we have unpacked our wanting to be in control and the fact that each of us has our plans. Furthermore, last week we read from Habakkuk 2:3 that God's plan presses on to fulfillment, and "will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come." There is a difference between waiting for God to do something versus waiting with God as He does something. When we wait for God to do what we have asked Him, then the wait can seem empty. However, when we wait with God as He does something, then the waiting is filled with intimacy and union. Have you asked God to do something in your life? If so, are you still waiting? Spend some time with Mary and ask her to describe her wait.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary would have often prayed with Psalm 27. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Psalm 27. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary as she waited in Matthew 1:22.
"Father, I ask for the grace today to taste your personal love for me. I beg you to help me wait with you while you do great things in my life."
Thursday of the Third Week of Advent
"he did as the angel commanded him" (Matthew 1:24)
When Joseph awoke from his dream, "he did as the angel commanded him." Joseph's obedience to the will of God implies Joseph's cooperation with a Divine plan. However, Joseph's obedience, while illustrating his cooperation, doesn't guarantee his understanding the details therein. The Scriptures tell us that Joseph surrendered to the command of God. However, there is no mention of Joseph understanding why God chose him. Therefore, certainly the conversation between Joseph and God didn't end with his dream; perhaps it was there that it really began.
In a related way, yesterday we unpacked the importance of waiting, waiting with God. Many times God does not answer our prayers how we had hoped or when we had expected. Yet, wisdom tells us we are to wait, and wait with God. While we wait with God, it is important that we ask God to help us understand why we are waiting. What does He want to do in our life while we wait? What does He want to do in someone else's life while we wait? Furthermore, it is important for us to be honest with God so that we are certain that God understands how we feel.
Many of us, when we have to wait on God, feel a temptation to check out and give up. Resist that temptation. Tell God how you feel. Relate all your thoughts, feelings, and desires. In your prayer, empty your heart and tell God everything. Then, be patient and listen. Ask God to help you understand what is going on. Listen to the quiet voice within. Pay attention to what the Scriptures say to you. Look for signs in your life. Spend some time today with Mary and Joseph and ask them to help you understand the ways of God. God is doing something in your life. Ask Him to help you understand what that is.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Joseph would have prayed with the 2nd Book of Samuel. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading 2nd Samuel 22:26-31. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Joseph in Matthew 1:24.
"Father, I desire to taste your fidelity. Help me to understand your desire for my well-being, even if I don't understand your timing."
Friday of the Third Week of Advent
"and took his wife into his home" (Matthew 1:24)
Obedient to God's command, Joseph reached out to Mary "and took his wife into his home." In doing so, Joseph and Mary transitioned from their temporary betrothal and embraced the fullness of marriage. During the initial days of Joseph taking Mary into his home, there was much to discuss. Mary was certainly interested in how Joseph grew from wanting to "divorce her quietly" to wanting to "take her into his home." Likewise, Joseph was certainly interested in Mary. He would have inquired more about the Annunciation. He would have wanted to know about her emotions. He would have asked about her health, about the baby, and how he could best support her. It was a time of listening to each other. It was a time of talking to each other. It was a time of intimacy.
Unfortunately, our culture equates sex and intimacy as one and the same. While Scripture and Tradition teach us that Mary enjoyed perpetual virginity, their marriage was certainly one of profound intimacy. In fact, because of the spiritual maturity that imbued their chastity, Mary and Joseph enjoyed the most intimate of any marriage. Intimacy is a gift; however, there are prerequisites for intimacy. Intimacy requires honesty. It requires vulnerability. It requires complete self-donation and unbridled receptivity. The intimacy that Mary and Joseph enjoyed required all these. Likewise, intimacy with God requires the same.
We were made for intimacy with God. However, our relationship with God requires the same disposition as intimacy with others. We have to be honest. We have to be vulnerable. We have to spend time, commit, and listen. God wants an intimate relationship with you. What do you want in your relationship with God? Ask God what He desires - with you, for you, in you.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have prayed with the Book of Isaiah. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Isaiah 61:10-62:5. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Matthew 1:24.
"Father, I want to taste your desire for intimacy with me. I beg you to help me grow in honesty, vulnerability, and union with you."
Saturday of the Third Week of Advent
"a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled" (Luke 2:1)
Could the plot thicken any more? Mary wasn't expecting Gabriel's Annunciation. Joseph wasn't expecting Mary's pregnancy. Just when the married couple was adjusting to each other "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled." Knowing that there was no negotiating the decree, Mary and Joseph dealt with the unexpected census. They prayed. They trusted. They went where God called.
For reasons they didn't understand, God called Mary and Joseph to leave the comfort of Galilee and set out for Bethlehem. The census was a complete surprise and called them into physical discomfort, emotional uncertainty, and spiritual dependence.
Part of intimacy is being called into places we would rather not go. God may call us to darkness - to embrace our past so that He can heal what is still hurting. God may call us to discernment - to a future with no guarantees, but only His invitation. For greater intimacy, God often calls us to places we do not expect. When we are called to places we would rather not go, we may panic a bit because of where He is leading us. However, the wisdom is not so much to focus on where we are being called, but rather to focus on He who is calling us. If God is calling us to go where we would rather not go, trust that the call will lead to greater intimacy, deeper union, and profound relationship.
Is God calling you to a place you'd rather not go? Is God calling you to greater intimacy by calling you to deeper trust? Spend some time with the Theotokos and ask her how she dealt with God's call. Ask her to help you trust God, no matter where He calls you.
FOR YOUR PRAYER
Mary and Joseph would have prayed with the Book of Exodus. Prep your imaginative prayer by slowly reading Exodus 4:10-17. Use your spiritual senses and imaginatively pray with Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:1.
"Father, I want to taste your desire for intimacy with me. I beg you to help me follow you - wherever you want to call me."