One of the readings this week for my Ignatian Exercises is, fittingly, the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).
This is from my childhood Bible, Revised Standard Version:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[a] 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” 35 And the angel said 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[b] will be called holy, the Son of God.36 And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.”
We’ve all read it a thousand times. But yesterday morning I made some new discoveries.
Interestingly, the angel hasn’t even yet invited Mary to bear Christ into the world–he starts out by saying, Greetings, you have found favor with God!
And right away, she’s like What? Me? First off, we all know when someone finds favor with us, the next thing they’re going to do is make a pesky request. Also–but–this is an angel. She’s knocked off balance. And the first thing we do in such situations is start weighing things in our minds. What? Who? Where? Why? What do you want, and what do you want with me? Not suspicious exactly, because this is Mary, but sincerely perplexed as many other versions of the passage have it.
But then Gabriel lays it out–and, granted, there had to have been some pauses in there for her to take it all in, but still, almost on the instant–Mary moves from her mind to her heart. Without any idea of what her yes will mean, or what being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit might look or feel like, she gives a full-throated assent. From that point forward she moves from “considering in her mind” to pondering in her heart.
Isn’t that the movement we all long for? Isn’t that what we pray we’re moving-inching, most of us–toward?
I may have been particularly open to interpreting the story that way because Saturday I received a card and enclosures (the second such this season) from Fr. Paul Sauerbier, a Vincentian priest who for the last twenty years has taken it upon himself to correspond with and to travel about the country, on his dime, to visit at this point 45 or so fellow priests who are in prison for some kind of sexual abuse, usually of minors.
As he says–the lepers of the lepers–shunned and abandoned by friends, family, clergy, former parishioners and in large part, by the Church itself. But Paul has a light, light touch–no drama, no self-aggrandizement, no sentimentality. They’re in prison. Christ said, As you do to the least of these, so you do unto me. And Paul who, to put it mildly from what I can tell is a bit of an eccentric, is faithful to his calling. No social media profile whatsoever. No PR. Zero blowing his own horn. If you google him, this one 7-year-old article comes up.
Paul, who is now in his 80s, is known to walk long distances, is enamored of highly cornball jokes, and seems to have a thing for coins. We’ve neve met but he emailed me several years ago (as best I can remember) and has kept up with me since, often sending Xeroxes of jokes, Mad Magazine cartoons, a limited edition silver dollar or a $2 bill, a home-made card.
Yesterday’s envelope contained a copy of a letter he’d received from an imprisoned priest, a Xerox of an unfolded paper snowflake, sent by another inmate, and a folded card on a half-piece of 8 x 11 paper with a color picture of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus on the front–and inside, this:
“2nd Sunday of Advent Readings, Cycle A for 2022: Sword or Rod of his mouth–Call to Change of Life Isaiah 11:4 “He (the Lord) will strike the ruthless with rod of his mouth” which refers to the Lord’s Judgment through His spoken Word to change my life. (other places use “the sword of his mouth” and not “rod”) Matthew 3:8 “Give some evidence that you mean to reform” New American Bible. (Lectionary translation for Mass: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance”
Metanoia, translated in Lectionary as repentance, is quite distinct from being sorry and making a firm purpose of amendment. Metonia is an exciting, life-giving shakeup and shift of outlook. John [the Baptist] summoned his people to metanoia, not because they are sinners but because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Sorrowful repentance and metanoia propose quite different approaches to change. Repentance concentrates on self: myself as perpetrator and my offense. Metanoia is a response to an invitation that focuses on God’s promise that something new is in the offing. It is an invitation to a conversion of mindset. It is so radical that we don’t have an English word capable of communicating it. Nevertheless, practicing it will change our lives as our Real Christmas Gift!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year of Life. Paul“
Check out that 7-year-old article if you want to get a glimpe of Fr. Paul’s own metanoia.
And let’s not forget that Elizabeth’s pregnancy–she who was barren, and old–shows that metanoia can occur at any age–maybe the older, in fact, the better.