Last Sunday, which was the last one before Christmas, we heard the gospel of the Annunciation to Mary: the Archangel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that, if she consents, she will become the mother of the Son of God. And of course she does consent.
This gospel story is dear to us, but in order to see it in a new light, we might focus on the second reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, especially on his reference to “the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.” What exactly does he mean? He says something about what “is made known to all the Gentiles… to bring about the obedience of faith.” So the hidden secret is now made known to the Many, to the multitude of peoples who have not been taught by the prophetic writings, the “Law and Prophets,” that is, the Bible. Through these writings, says Paul, the knowledge of the only wise and eternal God was given to the Hebrew people, and now it is extended freely to anyone and everyone.
Question: does Paul affirm or imply that before the coming of Christ, nobody but the people of the Bible knew anything about the wise and eternal, the good and merciful God? First answer: ever since the Romans read the letter Paul sent to them, they, that is, the Christian people, have kept affirming that knowledge of the Ultimate as wise and good has always been available to humans, whatever their religious traditions. This Ultimate Reality communicates to us through nature and through the human spirit; those who contemplate nature and their own soul can know that the Being we call “God” is absolute, eternal, and good.
This is what our own Camaldolese monk Bede Griffiths, whom we remembered on his birthday last Wednesday, called “Universal Wisdom.” The idea goes back to the New Testament itself, and it was developed by Justin Martyr, Basil, Thomas Aquinas, and many others. At the First Vatican Council, it was made into a dogma, in the sense that the council affirmed the mind’s capability of understanding, by contemplating nature as both matter and consciousness, that God is our ultimate end and our highest good. The other dogma of Vatican I, papal infallibility, pales before this affirmation of the reach of the human spirit.
Another question arises when we read the sacred writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and whatever: do they also reveal the Ultimate Reality? Before these writings were translated into a Western language, that is, before the nineteenth century, the answer was always “no”: it was taken for granted that there was no revelation outside the Bible and church tradition. We can’t take this for granted any more. That is why Bede Griffiths and Jules Monchanin looked forward to an Advent of India in the Church, as well as of the Church in India: advent and incorporation in each other.
The icons and other images of the annunciation to Mary usually show her with a book in her lap. Was she reading the Bible? Maybe, but the symbolism is deeper, and early church writers knew it. She was contemplating the Word in her own spirit, and so the Word was made flesh in her body. Augustine said it in Latin: Prius concepit mente quam ventre: “Mary conceived the incarnate Word in her mind before she did in her womb.” Of course neither Augustine nor anyone else was saying that Mary was a philosopher or an intellectual; what they meant was that her spirit was totally open to the reality of God as present in all things and available to all sentient beings. That is why she could let the Word be made flesh as a child in her womb.
The essential thing is not to restrict the scope of the Word, the divine reality, either in our consciousness or in the cosmos. Philosophers and scientists, intellectuals in general, often restrict their thought to current paradigms; that is, they think freely, but they stay inside the box. Other restrictions exist: David, for instance, had gained power through violence, and this made it impossible for him to build a temple for unrestricted access to God, a house of prayer for all people. Mary gave full access to God in the temple of her mind and the temple of her womb, so that the new temple, the body of the Incarnate Word, might come into our universe.
How do we become temples? One way is when the body of the Word comes to us as transfigured Bread. With Mary we pray that this coming will empower us to shed all our restrictions and to think and live freely in God.