Advent begins on Sunday, and with it the season of waiting. This year, it feels like we are waiting at the edge. I reflected on this theme in my latest column on Global Sisters Report: Advent Waiting at the Edge.
Advent is not a time to despair or become overwhelmed by all the turmoil and woe, but rather, watchful and alert, to prepare God’s way joyfully. In the midst of it all, the surprising call we hear on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, is to rejoice: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks … Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.” We are invited to rejoice, even as we stand on the edge, recognizing that life itself is gift in all circumstances and that our actions, no matter how small, can make a difference.
On the one hand, this message is so simple, and yet life can seem so very complicated even on the best of days. We know the promise of the good news, yet like Mary, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves pondering, “How can this be?”
Mary’s question to the surprising news of the angel Gabriel always comforts me. I find myself with lots of questions; the biggest one these days is how to be the presence of love in such a mixed-up world.
Advent gives us the much-needed opportunity to pause, step back from the chaos, and wait on the edge during these in-between times.
Today’s Gospel tells the story of the syrophoenician woman, whose persistent faith led to the healing of a loved one. I was inspired by the Gospel, and by current events, to create this video reflection praying with persistent Gospel women.
The women speak out and act for healing, for justice, for compassion, and for love.
Grant me justice
Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs
I will be made well.
They have no wine.
May they inspire us, strengthen us, pray for us, be with us.
May be be blamed for persisting as well, for the sake of the Gospel
Catholic life in the United States, judging by my social media feed, is alive with energy and excitement about the Pope’s visit, and rightly so. Sister Sheila, our Congregation Leader, will be representing us at the Papal mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception today. Meanwhile, I will have to follow the excitement from afar since I am visiting our CSJP community in the United Kingdom for a couple of weeks.
Today I had the sheer privilege of joining some of our CSJP Sisters and Associates on an outing to visit the mission to seafarers at the Immingham Docks, the largest port in this country. I had no idea what to expect, and ended up being very moved by my experiences today. At the end of the day it felt more like a pilgrimage than an outing.
Immingham is located near Grimsby, England on the North Sea, the town where our first Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace began our mission of peace in 1884. The mission to Seafarers there is part of the Apostleship of the Sea – a global Catholic Charity which ministers to all seafarers, regardless of nationality or belief. Some of our CSJP Associates in the area volunteer with the mission.
At Immingham, we met Fr. Colum Kelly who is Chaplain to the mostly men, or “lads” as he calls them, who come from around the globe bringing imports such as coal, grain, biomass, wood, and automobiles to England. If you think about it, most of what we use comes to us wherever we are from places far, far away. And as I learned today, 90% of world trade is transported by ship. And, if you stop and think about it, those ships require human beings to navigate the seas.
That’s where the seafarers come in. A quick look at the visitors book shows that the seafarers come from all corners of the globe – Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, Greece, and Turkey to name a few. Fr. Colum told us stories of some of the cases he has been called in on to intervene, situations where the seafarers arrive in port hungry because there is not enough food on board, or in some cases they have not received their promised wages in months. Sadly, wage theft is a common problem in many industries, and is related to the reality of forced labor and human trafficking across the globe.
The stories Fr. Colum shared were powerful, and renewed my commitment to work against what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference.” We live in a globalized economy, which means that we are intimately linked to the men, women, and sometimes children who harvest, mine, transport, and transform the raw materials which become the many consumer items we take for granted in our daily lives. Fr. Colum spoke of the invisible life of the seafarer. He also spoke with great passion and love for his ministry, which he described as the Church bringing its mission of hope and love to the margins, even in this invisible world to which we are all, in fact, connected.
Not all of the situations are so dire. Many of the seafarers work for honest companies, travel in safe vessels, and receive adequate food and regular wages. But they still spend as much as 9 months at sea, separated from family and isolated. The Seafarers Center welcomes them when they are in port with a shop, chapel, internet cafe, games room, money exchange, phone cards, etc… The mission was damaged in a flood after a tidal surge a couple of years ago, so the space we visited was bright and inviting. Fr. Colum and the lay chaplains also go on board the ships, offering a listening ear, providing religious services, and inviting them to the center. They also hold Christmas parties where they share gift boxes with toiletries and other sundry items donated from local parishes, often the only bit of cheer during the seafarers’ holiday.
In addition to learning about the mission and the life of the seafarers, we also were led in a couple of powerful meditations by Fr. Colum. One invited us to look at our own lives in terms of the cargo we carry–the “bad” cargo such as excessive busy-ness, past hurts, concern about what others might think, etc… — and our “good” cargo — our gifts and love and passion. How do we balance our cargo during our life’s journey, as we go about the work to which the God who loves us unconditionally has called us? Simple, really, but something which I found myself thinking about quite a bit on the two hour coach ride home.
Fr Colum also shared with us a devotion to Mary which was new to me … Mary Undoer of Knots. Apparently this is a favorite devotion of Pope Francis, which he first discovered when studying in Germany depicted in a painting he saw in a Church. This depiction of Mary draws on imagery from one of the early theologians of the Church, St. Ireneaus. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis introduced and encouraged this devotion in Latin America.
Fr. Colum shared a prayer of his own to Our Lady Undoer of Knots — a fitting devotion of course for someone who works with seafarers! He also led us in a time of reflection on the knots in our own lives before we ended the day with liturgy in the chapel there at the mission.
Each of us, of course, often finds our thoughts, minds, and even prayers tied up in knots. We worry about this or that, we are unsure how we will do x or how we will navigate that sticky situation with you know who.
How beautiful to call on Mary the undoer of knots in these moments of our lives. I’ll copy Fr. Colum’s prayer below, because perhaps you too might like to call on Mary in this way:
Holy Mary, mother of God and our most blessed mother too. You know my problems, both small and large, that like knots are tight and difficult to undo. I feel restricted by them and do not know how to overcome them. The knots of my heart, the knots of difficult family relationships, the knots of loneliness, knots of things yet to be forgiven …. Mother of mercy, untie the knots I am burdened with, journey with me from the darkness of confusion, into a new path of light.
Today the church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Mary who stood at the foot of the cross, looking on as the son she bore and cradled, the young boy she searched desperately for when he was lost, the young man she called to ministry at the wedding in Cana, as this God/man who was also her child died a violent death in and for love … She knows love. She knows sorrow.
It is good to pray with Mary, to bring the sorrows of our lives and the sorrows of our world to her. She who know love. She who knows sorrow.
And sorrows abound. Who is not moved by the wave upon wave of desperate people fleeing violence and war, entire families seeking safety on foot just as the Holy Family did 2,000+ years ago. Indeed, Mary knows.
Who is not moved by the sorrows of embedded structural racism, ever increasing income inequality, exploitation, violence and oppression?
There is so much sorrow, it can be overwhelming. Yet Mary knows. Mary prays. Mary is with us.
My own mother had a very special relationship with Mary. It was a quiet and personal relationship, but I know my mother drew strength from her.
And so today, touching the sorrows of our wounded world, I pray on this feast day with Mary as one who know sorrow, as one who knows love.
Pray for us woman of hope, holy mother, queen of peace.
The Gospel readings for yesterday and today are really quite powerful stories of the transformative power of God’s love, as evidenced in the life of Mary. Yet they are also so familiar that we are apt to miss the importance of the message for us today.
The essence of yesterday’s Gospel reading (Luke 1: 26-38) is actually well described in our CSJP Constitutions:
Mary is our model of faith
because she listened, pondered,
and contemplated the word of God in her life,
and witnessed to it in action (Constitution 35)
Faced with the surprising news, from an angel no less, that she who has had no relations with a man will nevertheless bear a son, and this son will be be a ruler whose kingdom will have no end, she sensibly asks: “How can this be?” I love this painting of the Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi because Mary’s body language so perfectly captures her, “What???”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more than a little bit of “how can this be” in my own life. While our own surprising moments might not quite compare with the drama of Mary’s yes, the wonder of the incarnation is that each of us is called to bear God’s love and witness to it in action in our own lives and spheres of influence … again and again. Like Mary, we are called to live as if we believe in the power of that love, that truly nothing is impossible for God. After all, in the words of Margaret Anna Cusack (Mother Francis Clare), founder of my religious community: “There is nothing Jesus desires from us so much as love.”
Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 1: 46-56) has Mary’s response, her Magnificat, which I like to think of as her proclamation of the promise and challenge of that love. I also find it fitting that she is called to proclaim this message in the company of her cousin Elizabeth, who of course has faced a “how can this be” moment with her own unexpected pregnancy. Together, in community, these two women face the future with hope despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Mary’s Magnificat shifts the focus from “how can this be” to “what does this mean.” In the words of Pope Francis: “We need the Song of Mary, the Magnificat: it is the song of hope, it is the song of the People of God walking through history.” It is a song for all those who “believe in the resurrection of Christ, in the victory of love.”
Because we believe in God’s love, we are called to mercy.
Because we believe in God’s love, we are called to use our strength for those without power, to be in solidarity with those on the margins, and to share our gifts with those in need.
Because we believe in God’s love, made incarnate … indeed, God with us! … we are called to act in love, to be love, to incarnate God’s love in our own lives.
We identify with Mary’s acceptance
of the word of God in her life
and aspire to her spirit of openness
and wholehearted response. (CSJP Constitution 42)
During these last days of Advent as we anticipate the joy of the celebration of the Incarnation, how are we being called to respond in hope to the “how can this be” moments in our own lives? Where are we called to show mercy? Who are the lowly and powerless we are called to lift up? Where and how might we say, with all our heart: “May it be done to me according to your word.”