To honor Mary’s flesh: religious vows on the feast of the Nativity.
Fr. José Granados, dcjm
Profession of Juan del Rey Lora-Tamayo, dcjm, September 8, 2022.
These vows coincide with the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. With that precision of the liturgy for the time of pregnancies, is this feast not superfluous if we already celebrate the Immaculate Conception just nine months ago on December 8? For already from her conception Mary is among us full of grace. There is, however, a novelty in her birth. The body of virgin Mary has already been formed in the womb of St. Anne. And her body, as is proper to every body, comes to the light and is manifested to the world.
It can be said that this is the feast of Mary’s body. And of the meaning of this body is that her body will be the body of the Mother of God. It is a body formed in the womb, modeled by the Creator as a work of art: “your eyes saw my embryo” (Ps 139:16). In a way, these nine months anticipate Mary’s entire life: continuing to let herself be made, now with the free “yes” that she will repeat throughout her life. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
And this feast of Mary’s body helps us to understand the religious vows. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch, it is a matter of “honoring the flesh of the Lord”. And it can also be added: to honor the flesh of Our Lady, the flesh of Mary. For religious life, which does not belong to the hierarchy of the Church, but to her life and holiness (cf. Lumen Gentium 56), has a Marian place in the Church. For this reason, Vatican II defines the evangelical counsels as conformity to “that virginal and poor way of life which Christ the Lord chose for himself and which his Mother, the Virgin, embraced” (Lumen Gentium, 46).
Let us begin by honoring the flesh of the Lord. What is meant by this? The question becomes more difficult when it is a question, as it is today, of the vows of someone who is already a priest. Is not the flesh of the Lord already honored as a priest?
Priesthood and religious life: honoring the flesh of the Lord
The religious vows of someone who is already a priest are not very frequent. When attending our vows, sometimes people ask how many more steps are left until priestly ordination, as if the vows were a step towards it. Today it is clear that the question does not apply, that religious profession is a different path.
However, they are related paths. You know well, dear John, that one does not decide to make profession because something is lacking in the priesthood (because it is necessary, for example, a community support, or a greater security in the decisions that are taken). On the contrary, you make your vows out of an overabundance of your priesthood, which asked for more by its very logic of fullness, and which in you was activated through the Ignatian magis: to love and follow him more.
But let us return to our question: is not the flesh of the Lord honored by being a priest? Certainly, but in a different way the Lord’s flesh is honored by beign a religious. The priest represents Christ as head of the Church, and is a living instrument of this bodily presence of Jesus, the source of all grace. Jesus left us the priesthood because he wanted to continue acting, not only at a distance, as he healed the son of Regulus, but with his close touch, as he raised the widow’s son. Just as the priest honors the flesh of the Lord in the Eucharist, so Christ as the Father opens for us a place for us to offer our life through, with and in Christ.
And the consecration of the religious? It depends directly on this offering of life to which the priesthood points, and of which St. Paul speaks: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (Rom 12:1f.). The first Christians therefore applied the vocabulary of sacrifice to their whole existence and, especially, to martyrdom, the surrender of everything for Christ. That is why they saw every martyrdom as a Eucharist. We remember St. Ignatius of Antioch, who evokes his future death in Rome: “I am God’s wheat, and I must be ground by the teeth of wild beasts to become the clean bread of Christ” (Ad Rom 4:1).
Religious life is this martyrdom made in daily life, in such a way that it becomes effective in every aspect of our life. Now you will not only represent Christ, offering him on the altar for the faithful, but you will conform your life bodily to this offering. And so, the broken bread and the wine poured out will become really present in you. The Ignatian oblation comes to fruition: we take part in his works in order to share in his victory.
Kierkegaard’s story of the man who saw the sign in a store, “Here we iron,” and went in to have his pants ironed, can be applied to Christianity. However, the store was an advertising store, and it was the sign that was for sale. Cardinal Carlo Caffarra used to share this anecdote asking: Does the Church sell signs that say, “Here we iron pants?” Or does the Church iron pants? In other words, does the Church sell signs that say, “Here dwells Christ?” Or does she offer the living Christ?
Religious life is in the Church so that this confusion cannot happen. The Church reminds us that she contains not only a sign of Christ, or words about Christ, or the example of Christ, but the reality of Christ.The surrendered life of Christ is the flesh of Christ. Thanks to religious life, the flesh of the Lord is honored within his concrete way of life. The face of Christ continues to be present, so to speak, with the same features. He can be encountered as one encounters any person when leaving the doorway, or turning a corner or answering a cell phone.
Religious life, then, is above all, a place, an open space for Christ to continue to be present in the world. The first space that opened for the Christ to manifest was the womb of his Mother, and not only her womb, but her entire existence as his Mother. This is why religious life has a Marian character. To understand this we must add to the honoring of the flesh of the Lord, by honoring of the flesh of Mary. On this feast of the Nativity, if we look at Mary’s body, we see the logic of the three vows.
Honoring Mary’s flesh
The first feature of Mary’s body consists in allowing herself to be shaped, first by the Creator and then, step by step after Christ, by her Son himself. This shaping goes hand in hand with obedience. The hands of God that shaped Mary in the womb will continue to shape her throughout her life. She will allow herself to be shaped on the outside by her Son, and on the inside by the Spirit of her Son. The Spirit is poured out on those who conform themselves to the flesh of the Son. From Cana, Mary will understand that He must take the initiative, initiating the coming of His hour. And she will command the servants: “do whatever He tells you”. Moreover, since Christ’s work does not remain outside of man alone, but is man himself, this means, “Do to yourselves as He wills to do to you!”
The writer Alessandro D’Avenia has recounted in his novel, “Present!”, the method of a blind teacher taking attendance of his students. Since he cannot see his students, he asks them to stand before him so that he can run his hand over their faces. The student is exposed, defenseless before a hand that explores and discovers every day who he is and how the person is, by exploring the wrinkles and folds of his face. Through the vow of obedience, we allow the hand of Christ not only to explore the face, but also to shape it. His hand shapes our future. The face, as Julian Marias said, tells the person’s project, his future, and that is why the Romans also called the spur of a ship its rostrum. This is the key to obedience: to let one’s own future be shaped in order to receive it from Christ. All of our projects therefore, are now summarized in the Christ project.
Secondly, Mary’s body is a hospitable body, like the body of a mother. This body is a home-body, a dwelling-body, an indwelling where Jesus will be welcomed. She has been modeled into the house of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, within which she carries Jesus bearing witness to Jesus in her womb (cf. Rev 12:17).
In this hospitality of Mary’s body we observe the vow of poverty. Poverty renounces any place other than the place opened by Mary where Jesus was born. Whoever is poor, renounces the owning of houses or land, those real estate goods that install us in the world. He does it so that his whole home may be the body of Christ who came to us through Mary. That is why poverty is lived in the community as dependence in the use of goods. It means renouncing our own home so that our home may be our relationships with our brothers and sisters centered on Jesus. It is like staying out in the open before our brothers and sisters, without possessions that separate us from the body of Christ. But this openness is the true house, the one that will last for centuries, prepared by the Father with many dwellings.
Finally, there is Mary’s vow of virginity. It is a flesh that is reserved for God, that becomes capable of reaching God, because God alone fills the heart. This is why virginity is associated with a new, higher destiny, which is not reached by the series of generations that we have read in the Gospel. “Generated,” “generated,” “generated…” Although in each “generated” there is the greatest novelty of which we are capable, and that is the novelty of the son, the repetition of “generated” does not manage to overcome the familiar. This list has to be transformed, when we no longer say: “Joseph generated Jesus…”, but: “Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom Christ was born…”. Mary’s virginity, which breaks the list of human “generated,” is the key to the new generation of the flesh of Christ, which renews everything. Virginity brings with it the highest fruitfulness, not the renunciation of love, but the fruit par excellence of love. This is what Dante calls Mary: she who turned the key that opened the doors to High Love.
Conclusion: in the fragility of our flesh
In poverty, chastity and obedience, the religious honors the flesh of the Lord, and also honors the flesh of Mary. His life consists in following Christ bodily in that bodily place opened by the Mother of Christ. It is the honoring of the concrete and humility of the flesh. The Fathers said that man is capable of God, capax Dei. He is so because of his soul, yes, insofar as he is able to understand and love God. But the expression capax Dei was also applied to the Virgin Mary: virgo capax Dei. And, from there, it could be applied, not only to the soul, but to the flesh that embraces the incarnate Son of God and is conformed to Him. St. Irenaeus of Lyons says: the flesh, capable of receiving the art and power of God (capax caro virtutis Dei, (Adv. Haer. 5,3)). Thus, the way for the soul to embrace God is humility and patience of the flesh. There is a scandal here, because Christ makes himself present in the poverty and limitations of the superior, and in the fragility of the community. But this is the way of the one who, abandoning high solitary flights, allows himself to be shaped by love, so that it becomes evident that it is proper to God to do and it is proper to man to let himself be done. This is the only way to go beyond our own measure and our own schemes, to make ourselves capable of God. This was well understood by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who in his spiritual journey embraced the discreet and humble charity of one who feels with the Church, in the Body of Christ.
From this point of view, it is understandable that in religious life, one can have the superior “in place of God”, as you will say in the formula of vows. It might seem excessive. But it is the essence of obedience: one accepts a humble mediation so that the will of God becomes concrete in our life. This certainly does not happen automatically, but through agreement with the superior and in common work with the brothers. For it is a matter of the mediation of Christ, the Master, present in the Church, who invites us to his mission as eternal King. In fact, we can say, “whom I have in place of God,” because Christ said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”. This entails, therefore, a call to the superior to conform to the will of God, as is the case with Christ, who did only what he saw the Father doing. “Whom I have in place of God” implies: whom I have in place of Him whose food consisted in doing the will of God.
Let us conclude by recalling a text of St. Irenaeus of Lyons that applies very well to today’s feast and reminds us of the receptive patience of the flesh. It appropriates in an exalted way to the body of Mary at her Nativity. “For you do not make God, but God makes you. If then you are the work of God, wait for the hand of your Artificer, who works all things in due season […] Present to Him your soft and malleable heart and preserve the figure with which the Artificer fashioned you, keeping yourself moist, lest you lose, hardened, the traces of His fingers. But if you keep the workmanship, you will rise to perfection; for the art of God will hide the clay that is in you. His Hand has fashioned the substance in you; He will anoint you within and without with pure gold and silver, and so adorn you that the King himself will covet your beauty” (cf. Against Heresies IV 39:2). Today, you receive Mary among your belongings to honor her flesh, as St. John did at the foot of the Cross. With her you will contemplate Christ, and He will show you the way to the Father.