(This post originally appeared on Daily Episcopalian on December 24, 2011)
"If you wish to become a person of knowledge and moderation, and if you want not to be enslaved to the passion of self-conceit, always search among existent things (i.e., creation) for what is hidden from your knowledge, and finding many and varied things that have escaped your notice, you will be amazed at your ignorance and you will abase your presumption. And, coming to know yourself, you will understand many great and marvelous things, because to think to know does not lead to progress in knowing."
--Maximos the Confessor
One of the things I really took to heart about Maximos' quote is that concept that we are changed in holiness by searching for hidden knowledge among already existing things. It's been my experience that most revelatory things I've discovered have been things that I came to realize, have been in front of my nose all along and simply had failed to notice them. I had an opportunity to experience those things in a new way one recent Sunday.
We have a member of our parish who has been physically unable to attend church for some time, because of her broken hip, and the fact that our building is physically inaccessible to her--so we have been taking turns bringing at least bits and pieces of the church to her. Our priest brings her the Sacraments, and several of us have taken turns accompanying her. On a recent week when it was my turn to go on this visit, I ended up with a rather large hunk of consecrated bread, because our priest was headed out of town, and we had more than enough in the tabernacle in reserve. So I was left with this daunting amount of the Body of Christ to consume, and not enough appetite to do it in one sitting. I ended up carefully wrapping it in Saran wrap and carrying it around in the pocket of my hoodie until I had enough appetite to finish it off. So to make a long story short, this piece of consecrated bread got to accompany me on several of my afternoon errands all around Kirksville and on my Sunday afternoon walk down and back on my dirt road that I usually take.
Even though at the time this was happening, we were still a month and a half before Advent, I found myself thinking some very Advent-y thoughts--because there I was, with the Body of Christ snuggled against my belly, going here and there and everywhere--literally the theotokos of Adair County.
Now, generally speaking, I am already a person who tends to want to be obedient to the rules and the customs of the church, so I did not really expect to be changed by this exercise. But as the afternoon played out, I kept noticing all the little things I was doing differently, simply because I was carrying a large wad of the Sacraments around. I thought about how just looking at me, people would not know what I had in my hoodie pocket. I found myself subconsciously keeping a hand on it, in my pocket, so it would not fall out. I didn't have my usual verbal outburst at the person who cut me off in traffic. Things just seemed unusually calm and peaceful that afternoon, even when I was dealing with the usual irritations of my life--and in a strange way, I felt...well...honored that I was entrusted to give the proper liturgical care to such a large remnant of our home Eucharist. I called a friend of mine and even told her about the experience.
Then, all of a sudden, a giant recognition slammed into my brain without warning. What I was being shown was a teeny-tiny glimpse of what Mary felt like when Gabriel told her the news that she was pregnant! I had even subconsciously recapitulated telling Elizabeth (although I'd called a friend, not my cousin.)
In Advent seasons past, I've frequently thought about how unbelievable Gabriel's visit to Mary must have seemed, and had been puzzled that she was merely "perplexed," according to Luke, as opposed to the outright fear most people in the Bible get when they encounter angels. I never understood why she was not full of disbelief, acting out, or even downright despair.
I sat there in my truck, I pulled out the bread, and stared at it in the Saran wrap, laughing to myself. "I GET it now!" Being told to take care of the bread by my priest was not a fearful thing, because I was pretty sure she trusted me with it and I was happy to honor that trust. I walked around the streets of Kirksville unnoticed, but quietly protecting a treasure inside my hoodie pocket that would not have appeared to be a treasure. I didn't feel the need to show it off because I did not want it to be mishandled or treated irreverently.
Suddenly for the first time I could identify with a Mary who understood somehow that Gabriel, an agent of God, trusted her on sight. I could imagine her, as the Christ Child grew inside of her, being protective of him, and being a little grateful that she was rather inconspicuous. It must have felt comforting to not have to deal with other people's projections of the unlikeliness of such a prospect. The attention of such a thing would have been uncomfortable and would have put both of them at risk. She would have told Elizabeth simply because she felt pretty good about the whole thing, and that's the kind of thing one only admits to folks one feels close enough to reveal such a thing.
When I finally got around to eating that bread, it was with gratitude to God for such a unique, yet ordinary way to come to that knowledge.
Advent is the time that we prepare for new births, new possibilities in our lives. The trouble is, our habit is to tend to imagine those things in grandiose, Cecil B. DeMille terms. The more likely possibility is that they exist in the tiny, mundane things of our existence. Are we open to being awake to that possibility?