There are quite a few people these days who find themselves sitting alone, by a window, by a television, by a phone, by a computer. There aren’t a lot of places to go, things to do; and television, well, most of what’s on is pretty awful. The internet is turning into a sinkhole, a morass of human awfulness – go carefully when you venture into cyberspace.
As I understand it, alcohol consumption is up considerably. No doubt people are smoking marijuana much more now that its legal, moving us toward the fulfilment of the diabolical vision of a nation every evening being half in the bag, or stoned; all self-medicating our depression, our anxiety.
This is all very concerning.
Solitude is difficult for human beings. We are social animals, that is a fact of our psychology. Isolation does terrible things to us, particularly when it is imposed—depression sets in. And it is imposed this year on many. What company we have, I hope we all appreciate.
A parishioner suggested to me that what we have experienced, what we are still going through, this is a chastisement; and I thought that a good bit of theological reflection.
Chastisement is a consequence of sinfulness; and when it is visited upon a society for its waywardness, those hitherto comfortable with their sins, great or small, and those living lives aimed at sanctity both suffer. There seems an injustice at work: the righteous, or those aspiring to righteousness, find themselves afflicted. I like to think, however, what they gain from difficult times far exceeds what is lost; and that the suffering of the godless prompts them to look to these faithful as a model.
In this understanding, perhaps we can look at this time of isolation, enforced solitude, domestic imprisonment, in a more positive frame; and to do so considering our Lady.
For it is when she is alone that she is approached by the angel. Gabriel’s visit, it’s something artists have struggled to render convincingly in painting, sculpture and in the modern era, film.
A film, a movie, it has one advantage over the more static images carved from wood or stone, drawn and coloured on canvas: it can show where Mary begins her encounter. That is, she starts alone.
We know on Christmas Eve, this same angel, with the heavenly host, will overawe the sleepy shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. So, this famous visitation to the maiden of Nazareth could have been done with others present, witnesses provided for her to help diffuse any scandal that might come.
Franco Zefferelli, the Italian filmmaker forty years ago made the two-part television presentation, “Jesus of Nazareth” that is still watched today. He had the scene play out with Mary alone in her parents’ home, and we are witness to only one side of the dialogue, seeing only Mary, hearing only what she says. On the screen, she is by human sight, completely alone.
Now, I imagine that for a modern audience, Zefferelli couldn’t think of a convincing way to show an angelic apparition that would not be scoffed at, the special effects insufficient, laughably bad, or ridiculously theatrical. So, we watch this scene as he composed it with the actress Olivia Hussey looking into space, speaking into emptiness. Mary’s mother Anne, awakened goes to see what is happening, and we see from her perspective, and then by faith we fill in the picture with our sense of the angelic presence, and hear the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.”
Remember the history: Mary did not live in happy times, but in times of great political tension, violence, and anxiety over the fate of Israel. The future of God’s people was in doubt by many. Those sworn to defend the Temple, the faith, and the nation, were bereft of solutions, and their immediate concern was to, at best, maintain what power they had and preserve the status quo in hopes of change, of new opportunity and advantage, and in the prayer of some, the arrival of the Messiah as a military and political leader who would miraculously set all things right.
But who is Mary to those in the corridors of power who are the elite, the leadership, those who gather in faraway Jerusalem to strategize as to how best to deal with the Romans, the corrupt princeling sons of Herod, the troublesome religious factions, and the restless people?
And yet we know that something of unequalled importance and historical greatness happens in a small room, in a modest house, in the nondescript village of Nazareth that renders all that was happening at the Imperial court in Rome, in the chambers of the Temple’s high priest, moot.
The encounter anticipates another lonely encounter that miraculously exceeds it in significance and effect upon the universe, that of Jesus in the garden on the eve of His Passion. You might say He was not alone; the sleeping apostles though, were not great company. The encounter was very much within a time of solitude. In both, God is asking for difficult, but necessary things to be done.
St. Robert Southwell, the English priest and martyr during the reign of Elizabeth the First, died a horrible death for the crime of bringing the sacraments to the people of England, of preaching God’s Word apart from the sanction of the state. In the year of his imprisonment and torture he penned one of the great poems of Christmas, “the Burning Babe.” The lines of which, I hope some of you are familiar, words written by a man coming to understand the nature of God and of our Savior, and coming to unite his suffering with Christ’s: “As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, surprised was I by sudden heat which made my heart to glow…”
His poem has been set to music by different artists over the centuries; but I invite you to these verses (see below) and to read it yourselves, and you’ll be apt to hear in even the words plainly spoken or uttered only in the mind, a deeper music of the soul sounding out.
In the quiet of the hours yet to come, in the days and weeks ahead, all of us will doubtless find ourselves alone, even if we are fortunate in family, to have a household of two or four, or with some of our parish families, of six or eight or more. Yet there will be a time of some time apart, when time almost stands still, and in that quiet moment, of the minutes that partake of infinity, listen to what God’s silence says, and look for the angels who invisibly attend. There are words for you in the quiet, and instruction for your soul, a mandate from heaven to be Christ’s servant, and then after, time enough to serve.
The Burning Babe
by Robert Southwell, SJ
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.