Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Contemplation - Seeing through the eyes of Love

Feast of Presentation of the Lord

It is truly providential that we should begin our novena in preparation for our Patronal feast day on this Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Today’s feast commemorates the event of the holy family paying a visit to the Jerusalem Temple, 40 days after the birth of Jesus to perform two rituals: the first is that of the presentation of a first born son who is to be redeemed from God and the second is the purification of the mother since child birth had rendered her ritually unclean. It is a day that brings together many themes. In the East, today’s feast was traditionally called ‘Hypapante’: the feast of meeting, it commemorates the event where Simeon and Anna met Jesus in the Temple and recognized in him the Messiah so awaited. For the Eastern Christians, these two individuals represent the whole of humanity that meets its Lord in the Church. In the West, the feast took on a different focus which gave emphasis to the symbol of light, and so for centuries, the feast was known as “Candlemas”- where the candles blessed and lit during the liturgy came to symbolize Christ, the light to the nations. A third theme arose during the pontificate of Venerable John Paul II, when he chose to celebrate the Day of Consecrated Life on this feast day as many parallels could be made between those who lived a consecrated religious life in the Church and the presentation of the Lord.

These three themes may seem unconnected with the theme which we have chosen to preach today, that of Love. But it will soon become apparent that as one contemplates and enters into the very experience of Mary at the scene of the Presentation, as one gazes into her immaculate heart, which does not only represent the heart of a mother but indeed of the whole Church, we will soon recognize a deep pedagogy of love. To contemplate the pierced and wounded heart of Mary, as Simeon prophesied in today’s gospel, means entering the school of love. To enter in the School of Mary, Venerable John Paul II tells us, is “to put ourselves in living communion with Jesus . . . through the heart of his Mother” (John Paul II, RVM, 2).
Today, much of the love that we know and encounter is external. Love is seen demonstrated by the expensive and opulent gifts which we heap on each other. This kind of love depends constantly on strong emotions and passions. This is a love that only appreciates external beauty. But Mary teaches us that much of true love lies hidden and mysterious. Even though the fire of passion cools, the beauty of youth fade, the happiness bought by wealth disappears, love remains. It takes prayerful contemplation to recognize what seems invisible to the eye. Simeon and Anna, both physically blinded by age and by the dim light in the Temple’s interior, were able to recognize the Christ Child where others could not. They saw through the eyes of faith, the contemplative eyes of love. The Blessed Mother teaches us the art of love which is contemplation. To contemplate is to look with the heart, to look with love. It is only if we contemplate with love can we discover the greatness of God’s love. This is the reason why we need to contemplate with the Heart of Mary: to read, understand and penetrate the mysteries of Jesus with the love of Her Heart. She is our model and our teacher of contemplation.

So what does Mary teach us of love through contemplation?

The first fruit of contemplative love which Mary reveals in today’s gospel is this ‘Love means letting go.’ Mary and Joseph followed the ancient Jewish custom of presenting their first born son to God at the Temple and provided the requisite fee, a poor man’s portion, to redeem him from the Lord’s hands. But more than just blindly following a tradition and custom, Mary understood the truth of her actions. This child does not belong to her. This child belongs to God. The irony of this episode is that her child, destined to be Redeemer of the World, is in no need of redemption. Mary understood from the very moment the angel announced his conception in her womb, she would not be able to force or manipulate the direction of his fate. This child comes from God, he will live a life in accordance with the will of God and when his earthly mission is accomplished, he will return to God. Unlike other parents who often behave in a manner which indicates possession of their children, controlling their future, their career and even their love life, Mary’s love would provide space for her Son to fulfill his mission, even though this would mean breaking her heart at the end. Letting go doesn't mean we don't care or that we’ve given up. Letting go means we stop trying to force outcomes and make people behave. It means we stop trying to do the impossible--controlling that which we cannot--and instead, focus on what is possible for God. And we do this in gentleness, kindness, and love, as much as possible. As the Buddha wisely taught, “In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you love? How deeply did you learn to let go?”

Mary also shows that ‘Love risks wounding.’ Simeon’s contemplative gaze penetrates the inner depth of Mary’s heart and prophetically foretells the pain which she will have to endure for her son. By doing so, the story links the love of Mary with the passion of Christ right from the very beginning. There are times we wish to shield our hearts from injury and wounding. We enclose ourselves in a cocoon hoping and desiring that our hearts will not be broken. We often extend this protective veil over our loved ones, our family members, our children, our friends. But as much as we try to shield them and ourselves from pain and suffering, wounds are inevitable when one takes the risk of loving. In his book, ‘The Four Loves’, C.S. Lewis beautifully speaks of the intimate relationship between love and pain, as he himself tries to make sense of the loss he experienced as a result of the death of his beloved wife. He writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

The third fruit of contemplating Mary’s love is that Love purifies or to be more accurate, it sanctifies. We had encountered the first ironical point of the story when we noted that Jesus, who was presented at the temple, was actually not in need of redemption. The second irony is found in the ritual which Mary would have to undergo at this juncture, purification, because the Jews considered a woman ritually unclean and not fit for temple worship or social interaction after child birth. What is ironic here is that Mary also is in no need of such purification because she is the Immaculate Conception, the true Ark of the Covenant unsullied by original sin, the bearer and temple of the Lord, her son Jesus. Her holiness finds its source in the love of God that had consumed her from the moment of conception. St Augustine tells us that Mary’s love first conceived in her heart and then in her womb. So what is the single most important sign of sanctity? It is love. Scriptures constantly remind us that the beginning of love does not lie with the individual man or woman trying to be more altruistic or caring. The beginning of love always begins with God’s love for his people even though they remained sinners. The love of God divinizes the beloved and thereafter the beloved transforms the world and sanctifies it through this same love which he had received.

Thus, let us rejoice together with Mary as we begin this novena in preparation for our feast day. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will fill our hearts with this contemplative love, a love that is always ready to let go and not seek to posses; a love that risks wounding and is always ready to share in the passion of Christ; and finally, a love that purifies, sanctifies so that our mortality may be exchanged with the immortality of the one who is Love incarnate, the Son of Mary, the Son of God.

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