“God Enters Without Publicity into the City of Rapacious Men”: The Secrets of Advent

The Nativity Story, dir. Catherine Hardwick
New Line Cinema (2006)

And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.

Luke 1: 43-44

These tender lines from Luke’s account of the Nativity story have been the subject of countless renderings in Christian art down through the centuries. Two women, the younger Mary and her elder cousin Elizabeth, celebrate in one another the wonders that God can do for God’s people, through the wild contingencies of human agency. “Blessed are you,” Elizabeth joyfully exclaims, “who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Who could believe that God would choose such humble and ordinary means to invite our participation in the drama of Love-becoming-flesh in history? In the words of Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, through Mary’s “wise answer, through her obedient understanding, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men.” 

In a poem of 1949, wonderfully titled, “The Quickening of Saint John the Baptist,” Merton shifts the lens of the Visitation story, adopting the perspective of the unborn child enclosed in Elizabeth’s belly: John, the fetus not-yet-named who leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary draws near with the unborn Jesus in her womb. In Merton’s rendering of this mysterious pre-natal encounter, the womb of Elizabeth becomes a kind of metaphor for the monk’s cell, and more broadly, those silent rooms where every believer waits in longing and expectation for the coming of God into the world: 

The day Our Lady, full of Christ,
Entered the dooryard of her relative
Did not her steps, light steps, lay on the paving leaves like gold?
Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon miraculous Elizabeth?
Her salutation
Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John
Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery.
Sing in your cell, small anchorite!
How did you see her in the eyeless dark?
What secret syllable
Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the Spirit of God?
Oh burning joy!
What seas of life were planted by that voice!
With what new sense
Did your wise heart receive her Sacrament,
And know her cloistered Christ?

The poem dares us to imagine the impossible made possible not only through Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph and Zechariah, but in the “quickening” seeds of our own fragile acts of faith. How will we know—not just know, but feel, in our whole person—when the living Christ draws near? Are we awake? Is our perception alive to the world around us, so that even in this “stone valley,” this world of “rapacious men,” we might be alert to the divine good that hides in all things, in every person who comes before us?

What secret syllable will wake your faith to the mad truth that your Lord approaches?

In other words, that mysterious “something” that stirs in the unborn John—years later, the Baptist who will herald the coming of Jesus—hides like a dormant seed in each of us, waiting to break open and catch fire. The seed of faith that longs for Christ, the renewing power of God’s Love in the world, is in all of us. 

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 

The great temptation of our time, it seems to me, and for young people especially, is cynicism, the cold shadow-side of despair. The elder Elizabeth wonders how such miracles are possible not only for Mary but would be given to her, a longtime barren woman living under the boot of Roman occupation in the sunset chapters of her life. The whole of Luke’s Nativity story, and this scene in particular, rebels against the preeminent lie of our times that there are no new gifts to be given.

Faith’s fragile “Yes” makes it possible once again to find a way through this “eyeless dark” with renewed hope, and to find our way together.

From Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph and Zechariah, Jesus and John, the Nativity story spirals outward to meet us where we are, two millennia later. With our Yes, the seed of Advent hope trembles in the realization that our humble lives, too, no less than Jesus’s, “could be washed in the Spirit of God.” Oh burning Joy! Blessed are we, when we believe that what is promised to us by the Lord will be fulfilled.

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