Sisters, we are recent newcomers to Hawaii Island. It is a foreign culture though the people speak English in an American accent. And this, as Sr. Maryann has said, is the problem. In Haiti we knew we were in a strange land if only because of the language differences. Here, we are tempted into a false sense of familiarity. But make no mistake — the culture here is just as foreign and perhaps more elusive than was Haiti's.
Among the categories found in our new culture is purity. When I began preparations for building a road to our land, the young man with whom I worked said, "you can't cut the `aina." A rough translation might be "do not scar the sacred land." Another young man later warned me not to dig anywhere but to set my house on concrete blocks on top of the `aina. And high atop Mauna Kea, the foremost site for international astronomy, the construction of an important 30-meter telescope has been halted as the outcry of impurity goes up from sectors of our Island's population. This category runs deep in this culture. Its true roots, which might go back to the thirteenth-century Polynesians, would be nearly impossible to uncover. Indeed, the concept of purity itself, apart from any particular cultural, is a subtle and difficult concept. What exactly does it mean to be pure? We do know that preparing for God and purification go hand in hand.
During Advent we have been reflecting on the purity of St. John the Baptist, who lived apart in the wilderness with God eating manna and honey. John the Baptist wished to be pure, which cannot be very different, our intuitions tell us, from being heavenly or holy. At the very least, all three are defining aspects of God's nature and character. Nonetheless, if truly understanding thirteenth-century Polynesian culture is challenging, think of the challenges that we face understanding first-century Semitic culture. What is more, precious little has come down to us from this period apart from the Sacred Scriptures. These Iron and Bronze Age peoples did not analyze themselves, publish social critiques, or felt called to explain themselves to others. We who want to learn about them are blessed by their devotion to the Holy Scriptures, an essential part of which is their history, customs, and rituals. But please be aware that when we read these ancients books with modern habits of mind, modern categories, modern sensibilities, and modern values, we must be cautious. When you hear phrases like, "most scholars agree ..." or "we now know ....," please hear this false confidence in perspective and call to mind Pope St. John Paul II's indisputable declaration, "You cannot vote on what is true!" When it comes to the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, and Antiquity our knowledge is always on shaky ground. All knowledge about Sacred Scripture is tentative. And what we do know is certainly corrupted by the shadows of modern understanding and distanced by the unbridgeable millennia that leave us on a very far and distant shore.
The subject of purity goes to the heart of our Gospel lesson this morning, for we are invited to reflect upon the purest people presented in the New Testament: St. Mary, who was born without sin; St. Joseph, an old man whom, God chose to be the guardian of His holy vessel, Mary; and God's Son, Jesus, the Christ, Who was, of course, the purest among all creatures. With John the Baptist, these four figures are set apart for us on account of their purity and holiness. The traditions for understanding the nature of their purity and the background of this purity, especially concerning Ss. Mary and Joseph, in large measure come down to us through the Protoevangelium of St. James, which was thought to have been written c. 145. But even our phrase, "was thought to have been written," which means "came into being" to the modern mind is misleading. For the first century was not a "book culture." It was an oral culture, and the act of writing may have followed the narratives creation by several decades. How ill-equipped we are to grasp the historical meaning of Scripture!
The Protoevangelium of St. James, also called the Infancy Gospel of James, is not about Jesus infancy, as we might imagine. It is about Mary's origins — her parents, her infancy, her unusual girlhood, her significance to her own culture, her betrothal to Joseph, and the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, it is the source for the names of her parents, for the nature of her relationship to Joseph, for the fact of her perpetual virginity, and for her unusual holiness and purity. For these reasons, I am going to devote our reflection today to telling you the story of our Beloved Mother through this remarkable and important scriptural work. I say "scriptural" because that is how the Church treated it for hundreds of years. Sacred Scripture. No, it was not included in the Canon of Scripture during the fourth century when St. Athanasius and the other bishops decided upon that Canon. But without this holy book, we would know much less about Blessed Mary Ever-virgin.
I do not want to spend too much time on the textual scholarship, but let me say a few, brief things. First, all Sacred Scripture existed for decades in oral form only. Spoken speech was thought to be sacred: the vibrations of the living word, spiritus, are holy; the written letter is dead. A composition date of 145 is meaningless as pertains to this work's authenticity. Scholars argue that even the Holy Gospel According to St. John, that indispensible cornerstone of the New Testament, was written only two or three decades earlier. What has prejudiced the case of the Protoevangelium of St. James is its manner of composition. It was not written by a hand as sophisticated as St. John's (or that of the Johannine Community, as Fr. Raymond Brown would insist). It was written by an unsophisticated composer. Its simple style and the insertion of pious legends haved caused it to be adjudged "not inspired by the Holy Spirit." Be that as it may, the Church Fathers did not exclude it from the body of orthodox sacred literature. With the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Shepherd of Hermas, and many other works, it was read as Scripture wherever Christians gathered, and we ought to reverence it today. Without it how are we to understand the Holy Family? How are we to understand the "brothers of the Lord" while honoring the perpetual virginity of Mary? How are we to credit the surefooted maturity and ripe judgment of Joseph if he is a 14- or 15-year-old boy? Finally, this work is the source for several feast days in the Sanctorale. For these reasons and others, this work is indispensible. For us this morning, it is an Advent Gospel — about self-examination, penitence, long waiting, and preparation for the arrival of God.
The Gospel begins as Jerusalem prepares for "the Great Day of the Lord," Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Atonement, when every man, woman, and child of age examined their consciences and their lives, made living sacrifices as we do during Lent, and sought to be restored to God's friendship. As Joachim prepares to make his offering to God, he is confronted by the other men of Israel. Unless you and your wife have conceived children, you cannot make offering, they tell him. It is true that he and his wife, Anna, are childless. Being humiliated and suffering public condemnation for his greatest private grief, all his strength is sapped, and he puts on sackcloth and enters into an indefinite period of prayer and fasting. Meantime, Anna enters a mourning that she expects will lead to widowhood. As their oblations are laid down before God, temptations come, and we are given to know that they have stripped themselves of every bit of finery or comfort. She sings a song of lament to God reminiscent of Muriel's song or one of Mary's. And they wait in deeply intentional prayer.
A year passes as Joachim and Anna continue in prayer and fasting, and the world around them again makes preparation for Rosh Hashanah. But this Day of Atonement will have special significance for Joachim and Anna, who have sought restoratation of intimacy with Father God. Each of them is greeted separately by angels. God has heard their prayers. They are told that they are reconciled to Him and that a very great blessing will be bestowed.
Joachim makes ready to approach the Altar with his offering of ten spotless lambs, twelve tender calfs, and a herd of goats. When the moment of his offering comes and he approaches the Altar, he looks in the reflective discs upon the priest's breastplate and sees that his sins have been removed. His time of purification has been efficatious. And he and Anna learn that she is to conceive and give birth and that their child will be spoken of by all people. They pledge that they will consecrate this child to God.
Their child, Mary, is not brought up as other children. Anna makes her bed chamber into a sanctuary, permitting nothing impure to enter into the child's presence. Her parents shower her with love as well as reverence and at age three present her in the Temple. Virgins of the House of David are gathered for this occasion holding lanterns, and the Temple is lit in the beauty of holiness. All remark that Mary does not turn back to her parents in fear but proceeds to God's house wholly absorbed in the divine place. True to their word, Joachim and Anna give Mary to be raised in the Temple where she is brought into the Holy of Holies and is fed by the hands of angels. Years pass, and she lives with other consecrated virgins who also have been given to God. They serve there according to their holy vocations and are given the honor of spinning and weaving the new veil that will surround the Holy Place. The lot of spinning the royal purple and scarlet falls to Mary.
As she approaches her twelfth birthday, the priests begin to discuss who will have custody over her before the time should come when she should become ritually unclean. The high priest Zechariah enters the Holy of Holies for guidance and later emerges with news that God has willed that all widowers of the House of David be summoned. A sign will given through the rod of the one who is chosen to become Mary's guardian. Joseph is chosen as a dove emerges from the top of his rod and alights on his head. He protests that he is old and has sons and that he would be the wrong choice. But the priest Zechariah warns him: "Have you no fear of God?!"
One day, before entering Joseph's household, Mary carries a pitcher outside to bring water from a well within the Temple's precincts where she encounters an angel. "Ave!" he says. And she learns that she has found favor with God and that the Most High will overshadow her and that she will bear God's Son.
The eventual discovery of her pregancy brings condemnation down upon both her and Joseph, who both protest their innocence. They undergo a trial of bitter water and each is sent separately into the wilderness presumably to die. As each returns, their innocence is proved, and they are vindicated before the priests. Soon they learn that Augustus Caesar has commanded that all Jews be registered in the Roman census, so they depart to David's royal city, Bethlehem.
It is appropriate that this Gospel should be written by a member of their household, Joseph's son. Yet, the original title of this work did not refer to St. James at all but was simply the Nativity of Mary. Set beside our four sacred treasures, the Holy Gospels of our Lord Jesus Christ, is this humble companion, as modest and unassuming as Mary herself. Its simplicity is its hallmark written without adornment, telling its plainly wrought tale as it bows before before the great passages we know — the Annunciation, the Magnificat, the Visitation, the Nativity of our Lord, the arrival of the Magi, the slaughter of the Innocents, the flight to Egypt, to name several. Even the fact of Zechariah's dumbness is mentioned. It closes in its final chapter with Simeon being appointed High Priest, for he may be relied upon to discern the Messiah when He arrives.
We might call Mary's Gospel the Gospel of Purity. From its beginning to its end, we are instructed in holy life through the Holy Ones — fasting and prayer, waiting for God, seeking to be purged of the impurities of the world in our quest to win divine favor and closeness with Him. At center stands the quiet woman. Her purity and virginity are luminous. We behold humankind's highest acceptable reach toward Heaven in humility and simplicity. And all that humans seek is granted to her. For Mary is accorded a one-ness with God that the human mind can scarcely grasp. God, the Holy One, literally dwells within her, is inextricably woven into her being, and her being is woven into God. Mysteriously, this timebound woman is the human nature that abides within the Eternal Trinity. For Jesus, a Person of that Triune God, is fully Divine and fully human, and the fullness of His humanity is Mary's alone. She is the fulfillment of that most ancient and ardent Christian prayer, "that we might dwell in Him, and He in us."
We shall never understand purity. But it is enough for us to know that it is the dwelling place of God which we are invited to be and to say with our Beloved Mother,
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked with favor on His lowly servant."