The Passion in Light of the Annunciation

There is a moving scene in The Passion of the Christ when Mary, the mother of Jesus is walking in the Praetorium while her son is chained in prison below ground. At a certain point she pauses, almost with a kind of mother’s sixth sense, and drops to her knees while resting her ear on the cold stone floor. The camera pans down, and we see Jesus chained to a pillar, raising his eyes sensing his mother directly above. If children are tied to their mothers, who bore them and gave them life, in a natural sense, how much more so would the Mother of our Lord have a supernatural bond with her son even when separated by physical time or space?

As we begin to round the corner out of Lent and enter into Holy Week, I would like to propose a concurrent meditation–that of Christ’s terrible Passion on Holy Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane with his holy mother’s Annunciation thirty-three years prior. For in both scenes, we see the fate of humanity hinging on two fiats–one human, one divine–but manifested uniquely in each historical setting.

Catholic tradition maintains that the Annunciation–the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive and bear the Christ–took place in Nazareth in Mary’s home (it is interesting to note that the Eastern Orthodox tradition places Mary at the town well in Nazareth for this event, but for the purpose of this meditation we will maintain the Catholic tradition). For women, the home is the heart and sanctuary of a mother. We can see in Proverbs 7 that the tempestuous woman goes out from the house, “not bearing to be quiet, not able to abide still at home; Now abroad, now in the streets, now lying in wait near the corners (v. 11-12). When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the sanctuary of her home in Luke’s gospel, he startles her with the proclamation, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And she was “greatly troubled” (Lk 1:29). The angel, in turn, assures her not to be afraid.

When women find out they are with child, there can be a mix of emotions–from overwhelming joy and hope to trepidation and fear. Now, we know Mary was conceived without Original Sin, but the general consensus among theologians is that as a human, she did not possess the Beatific Vision that her son had. The great and holy virtue of the Mother of God lies, I believe, in her unwavering faith and trust in God. But that faith and trust did not answer all of life’s questions for her. In fact, after the angel makes the announcement and drops that bomb on her to which she offers up her fiat of faith and trust in that which she does not understand, he departs (Lk 1:38).

In the garden of her home, and in the arena of her heart, I am inclined to believe that she wrestled with the implications of this divine assignment–what does this mean?

What do I do now?

How will this work?

How is this even possible?

She must have been mindful of her low stature and standing, for in her canticle which follows her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims in great faith her own lowliness (Lk 1:48), and that the mighty will be cast from their thrones and the likes of those lowly will be lifted on high (v. 52). Her trust in God, who reveals His plan to her not in advance but on account of her faith with only that which she needs to know at each moment, is the secret to her preservation from sin. God with us–Emmanuel–is her living reality, her nine month perpetual communion, in which the Messiah homes in the refuge of her womb until his appointed time. During that time, the Christ is nourished by her human body and Mary in turn feeds off the spiritual communion her son growing in her belly provides. There is not a moment in which she is separated from him–physically or spiritually–while pregnant.

For the alcoholic in recovery, he knows his only chance of sobriety can at times depend on seconds or minutes, not months or years. If he looks too much beyond those small steps, the temptation to wilt under the weight of the long road stretching before him becomes too much. I have to think that Mary, recognizing the great weight of her divine assignment while not fully understanding it, similarly takes these small steps in faith and trust the way a car on a dark road illuminated by headlights only sees three feet at a time in front of it. It is in the present, not the future, that faith lives. Faith waits for instructions, faith assents, faith obeys and trusts.

It is in the present, not the future, that faith lives. Faith waits for instructions, faith assents, faith obeys and trusts.

When we see the anxiety of Mary on the return to Jerusalem when Jesus is separated from the caravan. This is a natural, human emotion for a mother who has lost her son; but it would also lend credence to this idea that Mary is not a kind of omnipotent, all-knowing creature able to keep cool detachment in all circumstances. Just as she was “greatly troubled” at the annunciation and also experienced anxiety at losing her son, so too I think Mary wrestled in her home after the Annunciation against the natural factions of her mind–the “what ifs,” the doubts, the questions, the not-knowing. She counters all of these ‘demons’ in a sense in the way her lowliness gains the highest stature in the divine economy: absolute, unwavering faith and trust in God. Her verbal fiat is her human “yes,” though it was not as if the angel Gabriel led with a question “Do you assent to be the Mother of God?.” Her ongoing fiat until she is taken up is that unwavering faith and trust in God that must re-assent each moment in the darkness–in the cloud of unknowing.

Her ongoing fiat until she is taken up is that unwavering faith and trust in God that must re-assent each moment in the darkness–in the cloud of unknowing.

Now let us turn our meditation to that of her son in the Garden of Gethsemane during his Passion on Holy Thursday. Jesus is confined in a semi-private space in the grove he enters into of his own accord “to pray” (Luke 22:41). Whereas his mother was greeted in her sanctuary with the words of Annunciation by an angel, and we can presume her monthly bleeding at that time stopped, Christ instead is subjected to the brutal test he tells his friends with him to pray to be spared from and his mental anguish is so intense that he sweats blood, a seemingly impossible scenario for a man. He is only comforted by an angel after the qualified fiat–“Not my will, but yours be done” is preceded by his heartbreaking admission of not wanting to go through what has been preordained for him before the beginning of time: to drink the chalice of redemptive torment.

Whereas Mary has the comfort of kin in her cousin Elizabeth in their miraculous respective pregnancies, Christ’s friends fail him at his hour of need. The women embrace and commune; the man Christ finds his company asleep from grief. He is alone with the Father who ordains the very weight that threatens to break his back: is the Father there? Does he provide the comfort Jesus seeks? For hours he seeps blood from his pores in a gripping fearfulness, an anxiety not of unknowing as when his mother sought him, but of KNOWING what awaits him. His Passion is not in the questioning of “what does this mean?” or “how can this be possible?” but of knowing EXACTLY what needs to be done to accomplish the divine will by nature of the beatific vision.

We can almost imagine the hero Mashiach, in a moment of complete and gripping human fear, wanting to be back in the womb of his mother–with her and nourished by her and spared from such suffering. For he knows–by the Beatific Vision–his fate, which causes such agony. And so there is a kind of hypostatic union in his prayer to the Father: Take this cup from me; but Your will be done. For it is the great temptation of man–much different from the temptation of woman–to run from his destiny and seek refuge in the womb while armies go to war. The man goes out to meet death, while the woman stays hidden to nurture life.

In meditating on the Annunciation and the Agony in the Garden in this kind of parallel, we can then direct our thoughts to our own placement as human victims of sin and ransomed prisoners wholly dependent on grace. We are as helpless to save ourselves as infants are dependent on their mothers. We do not have the benefit of an Immaculate Conception, and yet we are washed from the effects of Original Sin by baptism. Remember that Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3 was followed by his immediate ‘going out’ into the wilderness to be subjected to temptation. We also do not have the benefit of the Beatific Vision, and so our spiritual sobriety rests on the faith and trust of Mary–moment by moment, step by step, nurtured by prayer without ceasing. When we fail to do so, or are distracted by sin and carelessness, we step off the path in the night without the lamp of grace and cry out in the dark for help.

Men of faith cannot avoid going to war–against the world, the flesh, and the devil–and cannot avoid suffering in resisting the concupiscence that blinds us. Meanwhile, St. Paul writes that “women, however, will be saved by childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15). What does the Apostle mean by this? In imitating our Holy Mother, whose fiat or “yes” saved us from darkness and death, so too does humanity depend on women not going out to the desert to wage war with the self as men do, but in bringing forth life from the sanctuary of the home like the Theotokos.

While we may not have the beatific vision to know exactly how we are being used by God in the divine economy, that is by God’s plan to keep us hidden. Faith is born in darkness and refined by fire and only after it has been tested can it bring forth light to others.

This Holy Week, do not shy from that suffering in the dark, and resist the temptation to crawl back in the womb when you start to bleed. Cry out to your Mother from your personal cross that she might strengthen you with faith and trust to endure what you need to endure and not fail the test. If you are wracked by the “Why me?” of doubt or the seemingly merciless effects of tragedy in your personal passion, look to your Mother who rests her ear to the ground just above your prison cell, whose own heart was pierced by a sword and who knows more pain than you can ever imagine.

Look to your Mother who rests her ear to the ground just above your prison cell.

Jesus, I trust in you. 


Image: Ruth Gledhill on Unsplash

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