As we approach the Feast of Christmas, Mary, of whom the Gospels say so very little, is herself a silent figure. She who said “yes” to the call to bear a Son whose coming would alter history, is given no lines in the First Christmas play. Luke writes of angels singing, urging shepherds to go to seek the newborn Child. He adds,” As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Gospel of Luke 2:19)
How was it for Mary in the months, weeks, days as she awaited the birth of her Son?
It is not possible for me to imagine myself into this time in her life, nor to summon up any experience in my own life that might help me to understand what was in Mary’s heart as she waited.
Frustrated, I put on high boots and a warm jacket. I go outdoors on this snow-melting day to walk along the Nature Trail that winds between stands of evergreens to the ruined railway bridge above the Bonnechere River.
What I notice first is utter stillness. Not only the trees, their limbs, branches, twigs and needles, but even the left-over tall weeds of autumn are motionless.
Waiting, I think. They are waiting. But for what? for whom? and why?
As my boots sink deep into wet snow, creating a fresh pattern beside the marks left by animals, I continue to wonder about the trees. There is a quality of presence in these woods that speaks of quietly-held strength, invisible energy.
A memory returns from late last winter, when there was still no visible sign of spring. I was standing beside a delicate silver maple that hovers just at the river’s edge. I had placed my palm on the strong slim trunk that erupted above me into a rack of apparently dead branches. I wondered how the tree felt knowing she appeared to be so lifeless. As though she were responding to my question, I suddenly knew that the tree’s sense of herself came not from this barren outer form but from her inner life, her sap already rising, preparing for the new life of spring. She knew herself by her energy, by the movement of life within, only barely contained, ready to push beyond this apparent death out into fullness of life.
That evening, I came across a poem from Hafiz, a promise to the tree, to me:
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,
For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown in an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.
Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy…
A life–giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come…..
(Daniel Ladinsky trans. in “The Subject Tonight Is Love”)
Today as I begin the walk home, the early darkness already rising around me, I feel I have begun to understand something about waiting: the trees’ waiting, Mary’s waiting and my own. Expectant waiting is an active experience. It is rich with joyous anticipation, strengthened with deep trust in the promises given, and busily engaged in the work of nurturing the “divine seed” that Hafiz speaks about.
For “Love will surely bust (us) wide open into an unfettered blooming new galaxy” bringing “a life–giving radiance”, bringing “the Friend’s gratuity”.
This time of waiting in Mary’s life invites us to wait with her, companioned by her barely-contained anticipation. But there is more.
For, if we can begin to know that Mary has become for us in our time, when our need is so great, an expression, a manifestation, a presence of the One in whom ancient peoples lived and moved and had their being, our waiting is turned inside out! Then we might glimpse that the winter trees, the snow-covered earth, the entire aching planet, and we ourselves are held within a womb, nurtured from the life, the body, of the Great Mother. And that what we are each awaiting is our own birth into the fullness of life to which we are called.
The mystic-poet Jessica Powers expresses this beautifully:
I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.
And on one night when a great star swings free
from its high mooring and walks down the sky
to be the dot above the Christus i,
I shall be born of her by blessed grace.
I wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place,
with hope’s expectance of nativity.
I knew for long she carried me and fed me,
guarded and loved me, though I could not see.
But only now, with inward jubilee,
I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:
someone is hidden in this dark with me.
(Jessica Powers 1948)