The Daily Bread, 3rd April 2020
Today I‘d like to go back to the Opening Prayer of the Mass and say a few words about that.
O God, who in this season
give your Church the grace
to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary
in contemplating the Passion of Christ,
grant, we pray, through her intercession,
that we may cling more firmly each day
to your Only Begotten Son
and come at last to the fullness of his grace.
The prayer opens with the recognition that this time of the year, Lent, is a grace: “O God who in this season give your Church the grace.” In Catholic tradition, Lent and Advent were called “tempora fortia”, “strong times”, times of intensity of grace and of observance of the Christian life. That’s why the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving try to focus us more on Christ and on our calling to be like Christ by virtue of our baptism.
But the prayer goes on to specify what grace we are talking about today, and the grace is to “imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary.” That’s the first idea. Every child imitates its parents, its mother and father. And every Christian child is a child of the Virgin Mary. She was given to all of us as our Mother by Christ Himself as He died on the Cross. And so we are invited by our very identity as children of the Church to imitate the Mother of the Church.
It’s also true in life that you imitate people that you love. You imitate those you want emulate, those that you want to be like. And so the Church is encouraging us here to try and emulate, to love, to seek to be similar in our attitude, especially to the Word of God and to the son of God, in the way that our Mother was and is.
The prayer adds the word “devoutly”: to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary. To do something devoutly is to do it with profound respect and with the sense that this is the right thing to do because the person we feel the devotion towards is doing it. So, to imitate Our Lady devoutly means to do so with profound respect, with a sense that we are in the presence of something very special, very particular, very unique, something which belongs to the realm of God. We are always devout in our prayer and in our piety, so to imitate Our Lady devoutly is a way of saying that we recognise that she is someone special in the eyes of God and therefore that in our relationship with her devotedness is very apt.
Because we know that she is our Mother and that she is in this special relationship with God, we also know that she is not going to mislead us, she is not going to lead us up the garden path, she is not going to deceive us. And so, to imitate her devoutly also means that we are doing something we know is right. We know that what she does is always right. She is without sin. Without fail, and without fear of failure, we can imitate her devoutly.
In what are we to imitate her devoutly, in terms of the Opening Prayer? It tells us: “in contemplating the Passion of Christ.” What does it mean to contemplate? It means first of all to gaze for a long time, in a very concentrated and focused way, on something we find beautiful or on something we want to understand more deeply. We gaze on the beauty of the sunset. A mother is inclined to gaze on her own child. I remember my own mother, whenever relatives came to visit us with babies, her eyes would light up and she would gaze at the child. You could see she was enthralled by the innocence of the child. She had a maternal instinct of love for the child.
So to contemplate is first to gaze with the eyes; you are captivated by what you are looking at. In terms of our Opening Prayer, we are contemplating the Passion of Christ which, superficially, is definitely not something beautiful to behold. It only becomes something more beautiful when we gaze more deeply into it and gain an understanding of what is actually happening. With Mary we are gazing on the events of the Passion. You could say we are gazing on the different stations of the Cross, for example, or the five sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. You could also say that we are gazing on the different persons involved: the apostles, the women that were with Mary, Jesus himself, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica and so on. You then also gaze with Mary on the circumstances: the way Jesus was set up to be wrongly condemned to death; you would be seeing the crowds and hearing the noise; you would smell the various odours of the place. You would be looking at the different scenarios in which the Passion of Christ unfolds.
But to contemplate means more. The camera I have up in the gallery of the church has a zoom on it so that you can see a bit more closely the sanctuary here. So, if we first see the general picture with our eyes, we then zoom in further to contemplate with the eyes of our mind. We zoom in to analyse, to understand, to ask questions about the events, persons and circumstances our bodily eyes have already seen. Now, remember that we are doing this as if “from within” Our Blessed Mother, so to speak. We are looking through her eyes, firstly upon the physical things she also saw. But now we are zooming in from within her mind. This is the grace we are being given in this season, to imitate Mary devoutly in her contemplation.
It goes further still. We don’t just zoom in with the mind. There is a double zoom if you like. There is also the zoom of the heart. We bring our heart into play. Our heart benefits from what our eyes have seen and our minds have understood. Our hearts reach out to ponder all this. It says of Mary, at the birth of Jesus and after he was found in the Temple, that she pondered, she treasured all these things in her heart, she turned them over in the depths of her love and also in the depths of her pain. Her heart would ponder not only the self-sacrifice of Jesus but also the terrible tragedy of Judas whom, we can conjecture, she probably once met. She would see the cruelty of the Roman soldiers. So, all that was in her mind will have sunk into her heart. It will have been like a “stir fry”, where everything is in it together. In her heart she would have gone over everything, mulling, pondering and reflecting.
And you could go further. St. Ignatius of Loyola invites us when we are doing this kind of exercise to use our senses, too. For example, to touch. What would the Cross have felt like? What would the filthy streets of Jerusalem smelt like? What would the crying of Jesus or of the women who mourned for him sounded like? The grace is to do all this as if we were Mary. To contemplate with eyes, mind, heart and senses the Passion of Christ in devout imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To what end, though? “So that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only-Begotten Son.” Think of cling-film! You can’t get rid of it. “To cling more firmly” means to believe more and more deeply. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says, “in this our life consists, to cling to the Lord our God.” That image of clinging is to hang on for dear life. You hang on and won’t let go, like a child that won’t be separated from its mother. We are asking to cling to Christ in this way. And he wants us to do that! You and I are not so keen on “clingy” people. We are inclined to dismiss it as something that’s not right. But in this context we are asking for the grace to cling to Christ more firmly “each day.” And the days in question are not just the days of Lent, but every day from now on. We are asking to be more and more embedded in Christ, more and more “stuck onto” Christ, if you like, not in an artificial way, but because the depths of our being want to be one with Christ.
This means that by entering into Mary’s contemplation of the Passion of Christ, we cling to the Passion of Christ. We find in the Passion of Christ, as so many of the great saints did, a place where we are most at home, where everything in our lives can be given sense, including suffering and the things that seem absurd like a pandemic, like a war, like famine. In Christ’s suffering, carrying the wounds of the world, we are healed. Without getting an explanation that satisfies our heads, we find a meaning that goes beyond or transcends the mind. By entering into Mary’s contemplation of Christ, we enter ourselves more deeply into Christ.
The last line of the prayer is, “and come at last to the fullness of his grace.” You will recognise that phrase. The Archangel greets Mary at the annunciation, “Rejoice, full of grace!” as if “full of grace” were her name. And so the goal is that we come to share in that immaculate heart, that we are given ourselves an immaculate heart. What Mary was given at her conception, we eventually come to receive through our contemplation of the Passion and our clinging to Christ.
I have chosen this theme today because we are coming now to the days in which we are called to reflect on the passion of Christ, Holy Week. We are invited to pray for the grace to make that contemplation not only in Mary’s company, but from within her mind and heart.