“It is like someone who finds themselves on a mountain ridge,” writes the bishop. “Imagine a shear, steep crag, of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity; on top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he puts his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to.”1
These are words that may strangely describe our experience of 2020. It was a year in which the adjective unprecedented seemed to accompany any and every activity. The civil unrest within the United States has been unprecedented. The election year, which struck some Americans as a battle for the very heart and soul of our nation, has been unprecedented. The high rates of joblessness and the decline of the economy have been unprecedented. And the catastrophic loss of life, liberty, and livelihood that have followed in the wake of the coronavirus is, for our modern era, unprecedented. It’s been a year in which humanity has stepped onto the edge of a ridge overlooking the abyss and found no solid footing.
Oddly enough, however, the description I shared by a bishop of that steep decline into a chasm was first offered nearly two thousand years ago by perhaps the most contemplative of the Cappadocians, Gregory of Nyssa. The words were his attempt to describe the experience of looking on to the infinity of God through meditation:
This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. . . . And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.2
In our desire to move on from this year of unprecedented suffering and change that cannot be grasped, we find ourselves now in the season of the liturgical calendar that is perhaps the most contemplative of all: Advent. Thus, we are invited by the Infinite to gaze upon a year that includes an unprecedented lack of solid footing and to go even deeper into this experience with God. Before running to turn the page, to numb the mind and the spirit with the latest social media controversy or to get nostalgic about the time before the scourge of the virus, we are invited to hear God’s promises to us, to consider our own prayers to God, to listen, and to ponder these things in our hearts.
The Extended Holy Family and the Unprecedented Year
Two millennia ago, another unprecedented year commenced with announcements by the angel Gabriel to two members of a family. First, there was the priest Zechariah. According to the biblical account, he and his wife came from notable priestly stock. They are described as being “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6 NRSV). Yet they had no children. We can speculate about the agony this righteous couple must have experienced at being “on in years” and barren (Luke 1:8), at being deprived of the blessing of children, as described by the psalmist (Ps. 128:3–4), and finding themselves every year considering why this had come to be. In this unprecedented year, Gabriel meets Zechariah as he is fulfilling his priestly duties and tells him of the future birth of his son, the prophet of the Lord.
Some months later this same angel visits another member of this holy family, a young virgin, and greets her with the words that have become the prayer of billions throughout the ages: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). This greeting becomes the setting for both Mary’s perplexity and an astounding act of contemplation, an act that comes to exemplify her life and the life of the body she births. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” Gabriel continues, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:30–31). Mary responds in contemplation, asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” It is here that the angel proclaims God’s promise to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Mary’s older relative, Zechariah, asks a similar question upon hearing the promise of God, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18). When I read this response to the angel’s promise, I hear years of living through unprecedented times and unanswered prayers, years of questions and silence. I sense a frustration in the old priest that can then be echoed in our own frustrated prayers. Joining our own context with Zechariah’s, we might include the death of loved ones, the dimming of professional hopes, the loss of relational connection with those we love, and the very real threat of our own death. The response of Zechariah is pregnant with the frustrations of a humanity that has lived through unprecedented times and wondered whether God was even paying attention.
The angel’s word—God’s promise—strikes the priest mute, for the promise of God, and not the doubt of humankind, is always the last word, even in a world of fear and death. In contrast, Mary, the teacher of contemplation, responds in quiet repose, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to you word” (Luke 1:38). This is particularly remarkable considering that the promise spoken to Mary does not appear to be an answer to prayer. Unlike her aging relative, Mary’s future should, by all appearances, include the blessing of the psalmist within the respectable structure of married life. Yet Gabriel’s pronouncement of God’s promise opens a new reality in which Mary’s future, not her past like that of Zechariah, will be described as “a sword [which] will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). And instead of choosing to ask the legitimate question—why me?—the contemplative mother chooses instead to ponder these things in her heart.
The promise of God to Mary, the mother of the church, is a promise of the anticipated Messiah and salvation, that which is longed for by Zechariah and all of us who are like him. As Robert Jenson notes, “Her [Israel’s] God is not salvific because he defends against the future but because he poses it.”3 What Jenson is getting at is that in this promise spoken to Mary there is given the assurance that it will happen. Salvation will come through Emmanuel, God with us, and we are given the opportunity to be like the mother of contemplation by pondering these promises in our hearts even in the midst of an unprecedented year.
Looking Back and Remembering Promises
As we transition into a new liturgical year, we may be tempted to move quickly past the unprecedented nature of 2020 with its suffering and unwelcome change. But Advent, in a way, sits between times and invites us to step out onto the chasm, to gaze upon the infinite as we remember the promise of the Messiah, and to look back and wonder what God with us means for a year of unprecedented suffering. We are invited to understand anew our reality in light of God’s promises and to consider God’s promises in light of our reality. This was the life exemplified by the contemplative mother whose act of rumination began with the annunciation and travels to the promised Son hanging upon the tree, where the beloved disciple, whether that be John or anyone who enters into communion with Christ, is given to the mother and the mother is given to the beloved. Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that in Mary’s example we begin to see the Advent invitation of contemplation anew,
God’s word is his invitation to us to be with him in the truth. We are in danger of drowning on the open sea, and God’s word is the rope ladder thrown down to us so that we can climb up into the rescuing vessel. It is the carpet, rolled out towards us so that we can walk along it to the Father’s throne. It is the lantern which shines in the darkness of the world . . . ; it casts a softer light on the riddles which torment us and encourages us to keep going. Finally, God’s word is himself, his most vital, his innermost self: his only-begotten Son, of the same nature as himself, sent into the world to bring it home, back to him. And so God speaks to us from heaven and commends to us his Word, dwelling on earth for a while: “This is my beloved Son: listen to him” (Mt 17:5).4
As we ponder God’s promise, which is his Son, we are invited to ask difficult questions, to allow a sword to pierce our own souls. Perhaps in this act of reflection we will begin to recognize that it is the act of suffering that is itself the deepest form of contemplation, for in suffering we are united to Christ’s own suffering. Indeed, the pierced heart of Mary is caught up into the pierced side of the Word, and from this fountain of living water flow both the cleansing waters of baptism and the sustaining nourishment of Christ’s very self. In this way, perhaps we will begin to see with Balthasar that “contemplation starts at the point where the believing mind begins to perceive a dawning light in the abyss of the mystery, where the mystery begins to reveal itself in all its vast proportions. Not in the sense of doubt, of loosening the tautness of the dogmatic affirmation, but in an astonishment which reaches to the very roots of our being.”5 This dawning light should not bring us optimism, for optimism isn’t set upon promise. Instead, it should bring us hope. And this hope does not disappoint, for it is set upon the Word, the God who suffers and is with us through unprecedented times, death, doubt, and the longing that comes from a pierced heart. This unprecedented Advent, let us allow our hearts to be pierced in the act of contemplation and to find ourselves in union with the mother of contemplation and the wounded side of her Son.
- Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, ed. Herbert Musurillo (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 127.
- Gregory, Ecclesiastes, 128.
- Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 67.
- Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1986), 15.
- Balthasar, Prayer, 158.