It’s a blessing to live in a climate where the seasons of the liturgical year clasp hands in prayer with that of the natural world. We’re in the middle of Advent, and in the northeastern USA, the dark and shorter days leave us yearning for more Light.
The bare bones of tree branches reach achingly into grey snow clouds, desperately longing for the warmth of the Sun. Advent just feels like this fallow time, this place of waiting. As we trudge through the days toward that cold star hovering over Our Savior, I’m sure our friends in more southern, warm, and sub-tropical climates are really jealous of this connection we have with Advent, the dark winter and the longing. Well, maybe not.
The twin signs in nature and in the liturgy for Advent, however, always remain an invitation. Even though the Lord in the unfurling of seasons writes these stories for us to feel in our very bones, we can still choose not to read them. Advent’s frost and forced wait can push us to hastily head for warmer hills, excessive activity, and the online distractions glowing on our smartphones as we dream by the fire. That star of Bethlehem looks lovely, but it’s so far away. Nearer lights beckon us and we follow.
In his sobering book, The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Sarah exposes this Siren’s call and reveals our modern weakness:
“Man can no longer see the stars, cities have become such flashlights that dazzle our eyes. Modern life does not allow us to look calmly at things. Our eyelids remain open incessantly… Man feels obliged to seek ever new realities that give him an appetite to own things… In the brightly lit prisons of the modern world, man is separated from himself and from God. He is riveted to ephemeral things, farther and farther away from what is essential.”
– Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, 45
Our present consumerist, materialistic culture is serving us up all manner of “false infinities” to fill the Ache of Advent. They are a click away. But these false idols can never satisfy our deeper longings. We need an advocate in Advent. We need one who can take us to that one thing that is in fact “essential” and necessary. We need someone to show us what (or Who in fact) this Ache is made for and to trust that He will fill us. We need Mary, the woman whom Pope Benedict XVI called “an open vessel of longing.“
We need to be led by the hand into the dark of Advent, away from the bright lights so that we can see the stars again. Who else could lead us but the one who is called the Star of the Sea, that Lovely Lady dressed in blue who has the very stars stitched into the deep azure fabric of her robes, and the Son housed in her womb?
Mother Mary can teach us how to pray. She knew silence, and it spoke to her. She took in all things dark and cold, the pain and sorrow into her contemplative heart and made the stark silence sing of God’s mercy! Dom Dysmas de Lassus, Prior General of the Carthusians, writes:
“The contemplative soul that has learned the language of the divine Bridegroom, although it never hears it as one hears human speech, still learns gradually to notice its traces everywhere.”
Mary can make us sensitive to those whispers in the dark and the inner workings of the Spirit, just as she felt those inner stirrings in the days before His beautiful birth. She can help us read the signs in the silence. Dom Dysmas continues:
“This soul then resembles a loving woman who knows that she is deeply loved, waiting to meet in the evening, the man whom she loves…”
Mary’s whole faith life was a life of silent aches and of waiting. Here she was, full of grace, and yet a Daughter of an unfaithful Israel that longed for a savior. She was a virgin bride who was tenderly loved by Joseph yet whose heart and flesh belonged fully and chastely to God. Mary was a tender mother whose Son still somehow slipped away from her arms for three miserable days, with her searching everywhere for Him Whom her heart loved. And in the prime of His Life he departed for the dusty roads of Palestine, and seldom had time even for Himself, let alone His mother.
Finally, her supreme ache came at Calvary, in that deeper ontological winter, where the bare bones of another tree stretched up towards grey rain clouds, desperately longing for the warmth of the Father, and that holy mother had to hand Him over, to death.
Mary teaches us to trust that even death is not the end. She saw it coming even as the toddler Christ reached out to embrace her, and His cross-shaped shadow lay on the ground behind Him, foreboding Golgotha. So our posture during Advent must be the very posture of Mary, the theology of her body proclaims the language of waiting, longing, trusting.
Mary, teach us how to pray!