In his lovely little book on the Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, a rare treasure trove of Catholic theology and prayer, Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., distinguished Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat, reminds us that the first Corpus Christi procession took place when Our Lady journeyed into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. “The Blessed Virgin’s initial response,” he tells us, “once God takes up residence in her body, is to bear that presence to others.”
She was the first Christian. Not only because she bore God’s Word in her body—whom she first conceived in her heart—but because she was willing to carry Christ to others, beginning with Elizabeth, whose unborn son becomes the beneficiary of an entirely unforeseen encounter with the living God. And while the stunning news reaches John’s mother in the course of an outwardly ordinary visit between two cousins, his response takes place in the hidden regions of divine grace. As a result of which, the startled child leaps before the Mystery of a fellow fetus, who, mirabile dictu, happens also to be the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. St. Ambrose has rendered this amazing moment in an epigrammatic way: “The woman recognized the woman’s arrival; the child, that of the Child.”
Annunciation, in other words, is always to be followed by Visitation. Both in devotion and in discipleship, the order remains the same. How else do we observe the Joyful Mysteries if not by a sequence that begins with Mary’s free acceptance of God’s gift, followed by her willingness to give it to others? First she assents; then she ascends. Mystery followed by ministry.
Here, then, is the whole splendor and sweep of Catholic theology. “That devouring fire,” Hans Urs von Balthasar calls it, “burning in the dark night of adoration and obedience, whose abysses it illuminates.” Not for a single moment, therefore, may theology forget either its source in the one, or its finality in the other. The roots of theology reach deep down, insists Balthasar, “from which all its nourishment is drawn: adoration, in which we see, in faith, the heavens opened; and obedience in living, which frees us to understand its truth.”
It is the worship of the one, followed by the work of the other, that furnishes those two bookends between which all of Catholic theology—and life—moves in its steady rhythmic procession through time into eternity, history into heaven. The saints know this, of course, having intuited the connection between their adoring gaze upon the face of God and their constant looking for others who have yet to glimpse the light. How God must strain to shine his glory upon the least and the lost amid the dark night of holy obedience!
And who can see this light, asks that sublime poet of the Baroque, Angelus Silesius, which shines “in the breast of night”? Only a heart, he says, “whose eyes keep watch, e’er bright.” And thus while it is certainly true that, “in the evening of our lives,” as St. John of the Cross warns, “we shall be judged on love,” it is necessary that we first savor that love in the adoring gaze of the Beloved, before whom we kneel in adoration, before setting out to share it with those to whom we are drawn in the work of the apostolate. You can’t give what you haven’t got.
Why then did God make such a small splash when he first condescended to appear among us? Why so modest a manifestation of the Lord’s majesty and might? Especially if, as one naturally supposes, God wishes all to find their way home to him. There are no bells or whistles. No dazzling cosmic displays. Those first few stirrings could hardly have impressed anyone. Certainly the wise and the worldly saw nothing of which they needed to take account. How utterly unobtrusive are the ways of God!
So how exactly does he do it? Quite simply, and without any fanfare, he sends an angel to ask a young Jewish girl named Mary to become his son’s mother. That was it. At the origin of all that God intended to happen, including an inexorable institutional expansion that continues even now to extend its reach into everything, appears this momentary ripple in the great sea of history. That it should take place in the life of an ordinary young girl seems a fitting backdrop to so banal a beginning. And yet its shattering impact is such that the whole cosmos will be convulsed by God’s coming among us as a child. As an old professor of mine used to say, “Once the Incarnation happens, nothing remains the same.
So it all begins with this mysteriously expectant young mother of the Hebrew persuasion, who, not wanting to keep the secret to herself, goes and tells Joseph, her husband. And what does he do? Well, against every instinct of outraged manhood, not to mention massive societal norms rooted in the harsh and exacting ethos of Israel, he does not turn her out, does not have her killed. Rather he renews his astonishing offer of love and protection. Go figure, as they say.
So now there are two Christians.
And for the next thirty years there will be no apparent increase. Only with the dawn of the public life of Christ will the numbers slowly begin to grow. Why is that? What catalyzing event causes the figures to start to swell, indeed, in a very short time, to explode? Three events, actually, conspire to produce the contagion that will soon enough sweep everything away: The compelling witness of his life; the protracted horror of his death; the climactic vindication of his resurrection.
And, really, how easy it is for us to picture those three events, around which everything suddenly comes clear. We are not so terribly different from those first disciples, Andrew or Peter or John, who so fell in with him, eating and fishing in his company, listening to his stories, drawn as if by magic to a presence that instantly compels attention. There cannot be much, humanly speaking, that they knew that we do not now know about him. And so, like them, we too reach a certain point, a threshold in the relationship we have to this man, when it becomes absolutely, commandingly clear that if we refuse to follow in his footsteps, disdaining the company of God-made-man, we consign ourselves everlastingly to a life without hope or joy or salvation. An eternity of self-inflicted loss—who could endure it?
“In the Gospel,” asks Luigi Giussani, “who was able to understand the need to trust that man? Not the crowd looking for a cure, but those who followed him and shared his life.” Who, in a word, were willing to put themselves at risk, venturing everything in the hope that the Mystery itself having entered their human history, they could not lose, their lives would surely be saved.
“What is the formula,” Giussani asks, “for the journey to the ultimate meaning of reality?” The answer, he says, is simple: “Living the real.” It is the only way, he says, “for being truly human and faithfully religious.” If one really wishes to set out in search of the meaning of being, to find the ultimate reaches of reality, to commune even with God himself (he who is supremely real … I AM WHO AM!), then one must, insists Giussani, “live always the real intensely, without preclusion, without negating or forgetting anything. Indeed, it would not be human, that is to say, reasonable, to take our experience at face value, to limit it to just the crest of the wave, without going down to the core of its motion.”
Who more than those drawn to Christ, to the attraction awakened by the encounter with Christ, are the ones who live the real with the greatest possible intensity? So much so that they draw others to Christ. To live any other way is to choose death, to join the ranks of the living dead, the walking dead, who will not cast their nets down into the depths. Who evince no eagerness to unearth the hidden seed. They are like the dead man in Hardy’s poem, whom others “hail as one living/ But don’t they know / That I have died of late years / Untombed although?”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Holy Family with Infant St. John the Baptist” was painted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1710.