Lent can be full of surprises. Even though we think of it as a time of deeper sacrifice, prayer, and almsgiving, there are a number of unexpected celebrations which pop up throughout the process. Depending on the lunar calendar for the timing of when Lent begins and ends, it seems that every year there are many reminders that Lent is indeed a joyful season, just as the whole of our Christian spiritual life is meant to be joyous. St. Patrick and St. Joseph have already punctuated our Lenten observance, and this week we have the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. This feast is about the announcement of the coming of the Son of God into the world and it is about a yes that was spoken which changed everything. It is interesting that during Lent we are directed to think of the parents of Jesus who lovingly raised Him so that He could enter into the ministry for which He came. In true Lenten fashion we can also remember the sacrifices, prayer, and difficult work that came with raising one who was integral to the plans of the Father for the salvation of the world. No doubt they had to constantly be in tune with the rhythm of the Spirit in order to correctly discern their roles step by step. They truly had to go with the flow of God.
The feast of the Annunciation reminds us that Mary had to let go of all her expectations for the direction her life would take. Every child has hopes and dreams for the future, so I am sure that as a little girl she had many thoughts of what her life as a wife and mother would be like. For Mary, however, those hopes and dreams were always in concert with whatever the Lord would want for her. As she grew, she cultivated her heart to be in a constant ‘state of yes’ to God. She was willing to continually go with the flow of the Holy Spirit, such that when the angel Gabriel approached her, she was not frightened, but rather welcomed him along with the message he bore from the Holy One of Israel. She was, however, startled by how he addressed her: “Hail, full of grace!” This was not because Mary was unfamiliar with the ways of God, but rather it came from having a heart full of humility.
Mary said yes, letting go of all the ideas she may have had about how her future might be lived. She let go of worrying about whether Joseph would marry her, even though she knew he would have difficulty understanding her pregnancy. She also had to let go of the plans she had as to where they would live with their child since they had to follow the rules of a census and then later had to flee for their lives. Mary could never have imagined that she would eventually be a fugitive and foreigner in Egypt when she said yes to God. And I can imagine that even when they returned to Nazareth, Mary had to continually rely on the plans of God as to how she was to raise Jesus who was fully God and fully man.
Implicit in both the feasts of St. Joseph and the Annunciation, is the ideal of letting go of our plans in order to follow those of God. To do so is the ultimate sacrifice. It is also the hallmark of those who are holy. It means we have to trust God so radically that we put ourselves completely in His hands, come what may. It is not about fulfilling His will such that we are puppets in the hands of a fickle or whim-driven God. It is about trusting in His love and wisdom, knowing that He sees things from a far different vantage point than the one from which we see things. It is in having the faith to accept that which we do not understand, knowing that God is compassionate, merciful, and kind, and that He knows what is best for us. It means embracing endless mystery and giving up the need to understand. Of course, this is not so easy, but He will help us if we ask. Love is the key here. If we love God and trust His love for us, He will lead us home to Him.
Even Jesus, who was the Son of God, had to go with the flow of His Father. He said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) He understood that He had to let go of His life, a life I am sure He loved because He was able to see the beauty of the world and all the people in it. But He recognized that He would have to let go of how He embraced life by also embracing the path of suffering, betrayal, and death. He surely could have invoked His own will at any time, a fact which is evidenced in many passages in the gospels, especially the Passion narratives. Perhaps this is what He had to struggle with all along. At the beginning of His ministry Jesus was confronted with the temptation against following the plan of His Father while He was out in the desert. He came to see that only God does not have to acquiesce to going with the flow because He is the flow. Therefore Jesus could follow through with everything asked of Him by the Father because He was able to put His human will aside and choose the flow of His divinity.
In other words, the only way to accomplish the call we have been given is to trust that God has only the best intentions for us. But since there is more to the Kingdom than ‘me and my will,’ the only way to truly love God, and make a return of love in gratitude for all He offers us, is to trust in His plan and to do so even when, (especially when), it involves suffering. We need to trust that we are that grain of wheat which has to fall to the ground and die, letting go of all that we cling to which prevents new life, and trust the promise of the life to come. Jesus went on to say, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) I do not think Jesus meant we are to literally hate our lives. Rather, I think He meant that we should not cling to life each step of the way such that we prevent growth. Jesus hopes for us to trust in His plans, even though He knows that we do not always understand, because His way is the path to eternal life. Mary learned to trust in God by saying yes to the angel whose message was definitely outside of anything she could have imagined. But the one thing she did know is that God loved her (and the world) so much that even something as impossible to understand as her conceiving and giving birth by the power of the Holy Spirit, was that to which she could say yes. She knew that going with the flow was the only way, though she could freely choose to say yes or no. She chose not only to go with the flow; she chose the flow itself, who is God.
Let us be like Mary, choosing to let God’s way become ours. This means we need to continually pray for the grace to let go of our way of doing things and accept His way, which is the way of mercy, compassion, and love. It is the way of accepting mystery; it is the way of embracing suffering, of working against injustice, of reaching out to the poor, marginalized, sick, and alien; it is the way of forgiving those who have wronged us, including the one who might be an enemy. It is not something that comes to us naturally. Therefore we need to pray, asking God for the desire to trust Him as Mary did and then for the ability to receive this grace. This is why Lent is such an important season for us: we need to continually learn these lessons. And the only way to learn is to immerse ourselves in prayer, sacrifice, penance, and almsgiving so that we turn our focus from ourselves to the other. Let us learn to trust in the flow of God so that we might grow in holiness just a bit more this Lent.
May we immerse ourselves in the study of the gospel so that we might learn how to follow Jesus without reserve! May we learn from Mary, praying that we might have radical trust in God! May we ask Mary to intercede for us to have the courage to say yes to God’s call! May we persevere in our acts of penance, our renewed efforts at prayer, and the pathway of generosity throughout Lent and beyond! And may we have the freedom and the trust in God that we may go with the flow, who is God! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first painting is called Annunciation by Antoniazzo Romano and is found in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.
The icon which comes next is La Sagrada Familia, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/la-sagrada-familia-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The two photos are mine and were taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Heart Speaks to Heart