Friday, March 25, 2011

Footnotes (Reflections on the Feast of the Annuncation of the Lord)

“Mary’s life is a footnote to Jesus
her Son”.

A ‘footnote’ is that small print at the bottom of a text, that’s usually an explanation of the larger print, or tells you where the larger print comes from. It’s the ‘fine print’ usually found at the bottom of a page—something usually passed by, sometimes barely read, if noticed at all.

“Mary life is a footnote to Jesus her Son.”

The first time I heard these words, I felt so uneasy. Having a devotion to the Mother of God myself, I found it hard to accept that she was in fact, just that, a “footnote”.

When I was in grade school, I’d usually pass by the school chapel before the bus came when class was over in the afternoon. I’d kneel in front of the altar, say a prayer, and then go to a side altar with a relief of the Blessed Mother. If I remember correctly, it was a relief of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I guess one of the Franciscan priests, Fr. Julian was noticing my visits, so one afternoon, before I headed out of the door of the chapel, he called me and said, “I noticed you’d pray before the big crucifix and then go to the side altar and say a prayer to the Blessed Mother. Why do you do that?”

I had no idea what the point was of his question, so I replied, “I don’t know. I’ve gotten used to doing that I guess”.

“Ok. Well, I guess what I wanted to know is whether you thought Jesus was more important and that’s why you’d talk to him first. Who do you think is more important anyway?”

I still had no idea what the point of the questioning was, so I said, “Well, I think they’re of equal importance”.

“Not really”, he said. “The mother is important because of her son. She is there because of Him. He is the one she is pointing to”

It was to be my first lesson in Christology and Mariology—in my 5th year in grade school. I will never forget that lesson for the rest of my life. Many years later, in seminary, I slowly understood the point of Fr. Julian’s question, and the very brief lesson he taught me about Jesus and the Blessed Mother. Jesus is really the point. She, like all of us, is but a pointer to him.

After much discussion concerning the place and role of the Mother of God in the life of the Church, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council chose to connect discussion on the Blessed Virgin to the document on the Church, at the end of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

Was that to make Mary simply a “footnote” to the Mystical Body of her son? Perhaps it would be good to understand what a footnote really is and what it is that it’s meant to do.

When I was a student at the University of Louvain in Belgium, one thing I learned from my scholarly professors was that one should never take footnotes for granted. The surprising thing is—my professors would always tell us to pay as much attention to the “fine print”. “Because the footnotes are just as important”, they would constantly remind us.

In fact, my very first exam question was on a footnote. The one and only chance I had of passing depended on one footnote number 72, on page 30 of the course notes that had hundreds of footnotes and hundreds more pages. I did remember what it was, so I passed. But that nightmare of an exam opened my eyes to something important.

We’ve all heard of the expression: “Read the fine print”. Notice car ads running in several newspapers. Prices always seem so cheap—that's the large print. Then there’s the small print down below, telling you about the more important conditions attached to the large print of the prices. “Read the fine print”. It’s very important. The footnote, the fine print tells you a whole lot about the larger text—just as much as Mary tells us a whole lot about Jesus her Son.

“A tree is known by its fruit”
The faithfulness and trust in the Father’s will that Jesus will show throughout his life could not but be (somehow) a fruit of the same faithfulness and trust that his mother showed when Gabriel uttered those eternal words, “You shall conceive and bear a son”.

The “Yes” that Mary gave to God’s invitation in the gospel reading today, is the perfect mirror image of the words Jesus will speak at Gethsemani, “Not mine, but your will be done”.

And it is in this that Mary’s greatness lies—a greatness that shines forth in her littleness, her faith, trust, and fidelity to God.

Fidelity is a path toward happiness, and yes, it is also a way toward greatness. Not the greatness and importance that the world knows, but the way of greatness that we see in Christ’s mother—the path of littleness, the path of humility, obedience to God’s will, and faithfulness to his words.

But this fidelity, this faithfulness, is never a one-time affair. Instead, it’s something we build up day by day, hour by hour, and it’s never finished; for we are constantly being called to live lives worthy of our calling as Christians.

In this season of Lent, we could perhaps pause and ask ourselves how much have we been faithful to God’s words being spoken to us day by day, in the countless men and women who need our help, in the many challenging situations we find ourselves in, in the numerous decisions which shape our lives as well as the lives of others?

As we enter deeper into Lent, and as we remember Mary’s faithfulness and trust in God, in whose hands she entrusted her life completely, may each one of us become a mirror of fidelity, trust, and obedience to the will of God for us. May we be constant reminders of his love and compassion for those who need us most, and may our greatness—like the Virgin Mother’s—lie in this alone.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)