Many years ago, during my days as a university chaplain, I led a weekly prayer and meditation group. We practiced centering prayer, Quaker silence, visualizations, and lectio divina. After one of the sessions, a visitor, active in the campus Intervarsity group, took me aside and asked, “Isn’t this mysticism, taking time to meditate?” To which I replied, “Is there something wrong with mysticism? After all, Psalm 46 tells us to be still and recognize God’s presence.” His response was a litany of concerns which boiled down to the question, “Doesn’t mysticism – times of quiet and meditation – somehow circumvent our relationship to Jesus in its attempt to reach God?” His assumption was that every Christian practice must invoke Jesus to be authentic. Anything that didn’t conform to their narrow understanding of biblical revelation was potentially dangerous: it might imply that we can reach God by our own efforts. While the student’s concerns were real, both then and now, I believe that our relationship to God is synergistic – a matter dynamic call and response in which the graceful and lively God encourages creativity and agency, and discourages uniformity and passivity. The call goes forth, but invites us to become creators in the dynamic interplay of grace and action.
There is no better example of this active mysticism than Mary and Joseph’s responses to God’s invitation to be partners in the incarnation. Imagine encountering an angel – in both flesh and spirit! Would you acquiesce to the angelic requests without any questions? Would you be passive or respond actively to the challenge?
We don’t know how Mary was chosen to bear this special child. Was she the first one that the angel asked? Had others been overwhelmed or resistant, knowing the personal and social cost of an unplanned pregnancy? Did Mary exemplify certain character traits worthy of divine interest? I don’t know the answer although I think all three options have some plausibility. God’s call to Mary and us is always personal and contextual, time bound but with everlasting consequences. Our response always bears our own individual signature and creativity.
Well, back to the announcement to Mary. When the angel came, she was inquisitive and surprised. In words later echoed by the Beatles, Mary responds, “Let it be.” In other words, I am open to following God’s vision, embracing it in my own flesh and blood. She is no passive clay manipulated by the unilateral potter. She joins agency and receptivity as she opens to God’s movements in the birth of her child. She is an active mystic – encountering divinity and then choosing to follow God’s vision in her life. She chooses incarnation, the holiness of birthing, for herself, Joseph, and the coming child. But, it is clear that “she chooses.”
Mary is perplexed, and so is Joseph. The exact details of this child’s birth are less important than the responses of the actors involved. As many biblical scholars assert, unusual births are common in the annals of great spiritual and military leaders. They are somehow set apart by the divine for a special mission and this begins at conception. This fact does not nullify the Christian affirmation of the virgin birth, but it invites us to ask whether or not the virgin birth is essential to the story. Is the incarnation about supernatural interventions or the natural holiness of flesh and blood and the world in which God’s quest for healing and salvation take place?
However this birth takes place, it stretches Joseph’s credulity. A good man, he is looking for a way to get out of the marriage without creating a scandal or putting Mary in jeopardy. He wants to do the right thing. His agency is paramount in this story. Even a surprising conception does not eliminate Joseph’s ability to say “yes” or “no.” The tipping point is a mystical experience. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream, calming the surprised father, and revealing the holiness of this birth. “God is with us” is the revelation and the meaning of this child’s birth. Awhile later, Joseph has another life-changing dream, alerting him to flee the country to save the child’s life. Perhaps, it was a communal dream – the same vision that the magi had, calling them to another pathway home.
There is no way to domesticate these stories from another time and place. Still, they have a message for us. First, we can experience God in life-transforming ways. God is not aloof, but present in cells, souls, and communities. A one-dimensional faith – defining everything according the tenets of the modern world view – robs life of beauty, wonder, and amazement. The incarnation raises all life to revelation; each moment – even tragic moments – as a potential theophany. Sleepers awake! God is with us!
Second, God comes to us through many ways – personal visitations (Fatima, Medjugorje), visionary experiences, dreams, intuitions, synchronous encounters). Third, divine encounters enhance rather than diminish freedom and creativity. Graceful visitations invite us to greater agency. God wants us to be companions in healing the earth, whether in the process of conception, child-bearing, and our ongoing care for the safety of our children and all children. Mary and Joseph’s agency is a model for our own mystical agency as embodiments of grace in our time and place.