Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans.- Phil. 2:6-8
I came early to the vigil Mass on the first Sunday of Advent this year. Kneeling to pray, I was distracted by stirrings at the front of the church: the jangling of a chain and murmuring voices. I looked up to see a tall young man preparing the censer, his low voice barely rippling the stillness, sweeping me into the memory of an Advent 15 years past.
That first Sunday of Advent found me early to the vigil Mass as well. It had been a chaotic week as I juggled teaching and preparing a paper for a conference overseas, all overlaid with the exhaustion of pregnancy. Within the church, the candles were lit, the light soft and gentle. I could just stop, like a breath suspended in time.
In that incredible stillness, I was suddenly distracted. The stirrings were gentle, but unmistakable. What I had rationally known for almost five months, but never quite believed, was suddenly made manifest – I carried a child within me, the same child whose movements drew my eye this year, at this Mass. I remembered the joy of cradling him in my arms for the first time, tinged with the loss of that hidden, mysterious time we shared when my entire being enfolded him.
I wonder how Mary felt after Jesus’ birth. She held God within her, knew His movements intimately, only to surrender Him to a cold, uncertain and unwelcoming world. Her willingness to be filled with the Holy Spirit was equally a willingness to be emptied of God’s Son – a foreshadowing of Christ’s own emptying so eloquently described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians.
Pondering the Magnificat, I sense that Mary was aware of this paradox, of the necessary tension between emptiness and fullness, between richness and poverty of spirit, and of the challenges embracing such a way poses. She proclaims: He has routed the arrogant of heart … He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty. Mary held the riches of the universe within her, and labored hard to surrender them to us.
In his treatise “Poverty of Spirit” Johannes Baptist Metz, a Bavarian priest and theologian, argues that since Christ – who emptied himself – shows us what it means to be fully human, it follows that the essence of being human is this complete poverty of spirit: “A human being with grace is a human being who has been emptied, who stands impoverished before God.”
Mary, full of grace, is emptied, and stands poor in a humble stable before the God she has given birth to. Mary’s poverty of spirit enabled heaven and earth to meet in the saving mystery of the Incarnation. The fullness of God’s work requires emptiness: Mary’s, Christ’s and so ours as well.
Poverty of spirit is not something we can give ourselves. If we hold it as a possession, we’ve lost it. We can’t grasp for it, we must instead assent to it. It is a gift to us that demands we give our very selves away.
The gift that Mary holds for us, that we await so eagerly this Advent season, is not one of riches, but the gift of utter poverty.
Here in our midst, O God of mystery, You disclose the secret hidden for countless ages. For You we wait, for You we listen. Upon hearing Your voice may we, like Mary, embrace Your will and become a dwelling fit for Your Word. Grant this through Him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. – Opening prayer for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.