behold, i have come to do your will!

(fr Cyprian, 4th Sunday of Advent)

The line I am the most attracted to in the readings today (Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45) is what Elizabeth says to Mary: ‘…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ A simpler version of this that sticks in my mind is from a thsong by Michael Joncas, the refrain of which goes, “Blessed are those who believe that the promise of the Lord would be fulfilled.” And that goes right along with the quote from Psalm 40 that is in the section from the Letter to the Hebrews: Behold! I have come to do your will, O God. It of course begs the questions: What is the promise of the Lord that we are asked to believe will be fulfilled? What is the promise of the Lord that we are asked to hope in?” We’ll get to that in a moment. First…

The thing I always find fascinating about this reading from the Letter to the Hebrews is that Psalm 40 is misquoted or changed. Now that could be an accident, a bad memory, the slip of the hand of a scribe or else––and I think this is more likely––it is intentional. Psalm 40 actually says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but an open ear. But the author to the Letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me.’ So the ear has become a whole body, or the whole body has become like an open ear.

Fr. Deiss called this the “prayer of the incarnation”: ‘Behold I have come to do your will. You must imagine a high Christology here, the second person of the Trinity, the Word, speaking to the Father-Creator, the first person of the Trinity. When the Word takes flesh and comes into the world he says, ‘Behold I have come to do your will.’ And this will really be Jesus’ prayer throughout his whole life, even up to the agony in the garden: ‘…if you are willing remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.’[1] This could also be considered a distillation of the Lord’s prayer (at least in Matthew’s version of it): Your will be done, which appears as a parallel to your kingdom come. And of course this is Mary’s prayer, too. Let it be done to me according to your word. And so Luke has Jesus himself say twice ‘My mother and my brothers and sisters are those who hear the word of God and keep it’[2] and, when someone refers to his mother Mary he says, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.[3]

I think it’s safe to say my favorite prayer in the whole world is the 3rd Step Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “O God, I offer myself to you, to build with me and to do with me as you will.” But reflecting on that one day I realized how many saints have offered us some kind of prayer of self-abandonment­––Charles de Foucauld, Ignatius of Loyola, de Caussade; and how this idea of self-offering has been a traditional devotion in the Catholic tradition, that I didn’t really appreciate until I was much older. Even the idea of “offering it up,” which seemed at one time like such a lame platitude, a way for someone to get around explaining or correcting a bad situation, now has taken on new life for me. In every situation it is appropriate to say with Jesus, “Thy will be done!” In every situation it is appropriate to say, “O God, I offer myself to you to do with me and to build with me as you will.” At any and every moment of every day it’s appropriate to say, like Mary, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ It doesn’t get us out of the situation; but it does root and ground us in the will of God and the power of the Spirit.

‘Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me.’ Of course ‘body’ here refers to Jesus’ body, but it could just as well refer to Mary’s body––“You prepared Mary’s body for me,” Mary, whose whole body was a listening, a receptivity, an open ear––the ear of her body, the ear of her soul, as well as the ear of her heart, as St. Benedict calls it. This is why she could say, ‘My whole being rejoices in God my savior. Her humanity was a vessel, not just her mind or her soul, nor some kind of disembodied spirit. This body of Mary is a living breathing blood-filled pulsing grounded vessel. Her sacrifice was her whole being. I like to take the myths at their word. Mary accepted the Word so deeply in her heart, in her whole being, that it became something in her! The Word became flesh in her. She came into such a profound union with God that her whole being was transformed by it.

And, by the way, that’s the promise: that our whole being can be transformed by the Word and the Spirit. That’s why Paul tells us (in Rom 12), like Mary, like Jesus, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable, to God. The psalmist tells us, and the author to the letter to the Hebrews interprets for us: as fine as they are, ultimately God does not really want our ritual sacrifices and liturgical offerings, holocausts offered on the altar. What God really requires of us is what those sacrifices and offerings are supposed to symbolize. What God requires of us is an open ear or, as Paul describes it, a body offered up as a spiritual sacrifice, our whole being available to be a vehicle, a vessel, an instrument.

What is the promise? We’re back to the telos and scopos––the end and the goal. What is the end of Christian life? What are we hoping for? If it is only for my soul to go to heaven when I die, then my aim is way too small! What I am holding out for is union with and transformation in God, and a new heaven and a new earth. Ilia Delio writes these words several times throughout her book Christ in Evolution and each time I underlined it––“union and transformation in God.” And N. T. Wright quotes Revelations several times in this book Surprised by Hope and every time I underlined it: a new heavens and a new earth. The whole point of our lives, and of all creation, “the realization of what we hope for in the universe,” is “union and transformation in God.” Blessed are we who believe that this promise of the Lord will be fulfilled!

Just as Mary accepted the Word so deeply in her heart and came into such a profound union with God that her whole being was transformed by it, so me too! I’m here, wearing these funny robes, showing up at liturgy four times a day, spending time in meditation and lectio, taking care of my physical being, and trying to be a loving and patient disciple of Jesus because I believe that these things are going to lead me to transformation in God and union with God, and somehow contribute to a new heaven and a new earth. And as far as I am concerned, that’s the promise of the spiritual life, of the monastic life, that life in the Spirit, the life of self-surrender to God’s will, the life of kenosis in selfless service for the greater good, is going to not only lead to me being able to be a bearer of God’s saving peace to the world, it is going to lead me to renewed vigor, a transformation of my body and a renewal of my mind. I keep going back to Paul in Romans 12, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, and Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may know what is the will of God.

And, with all due respect, I want to add to Saint Paul’s admonition, do not be conformed to the world, but transform the world! When and if we allow ourselves to be transformed, we then become the transformers, the yeast in the dough, the salt in the earth, the beginning of the new creation. And that’s the promise too: where Christ is there is a new creation. Where Christ is I am a new creation, body and soul. That’s the promise! And blessed are we who believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled!

And so for the Eucharist… God does not want for sacrifices and offerings. The bread and wine we offer are real gifts of the earth, fruit of the vine, but they are nothing if they don’t symbolize our lives. Before they are the real presence of Christ they are meant ot be the real presence of us! Our lives are what we lay on the altar in response to the summons of the Word, just as we monks laid down on the floor when offering our vows and say, ‘Receive me, O Lord, as you have promised and I shall live. Do not disappoint me of my hope.’ Behold I have come to do your will, O God! Or as priests lie down on the floor before ordination, offering their lives for the sake of the whole Body. This is what each of us renews every time we celebrate the Eucharist. And the promise too is that this Eucharist is a banquet that not only symbolizes the union that exists between us, but brings it about––that we may become one body, one spirit in Christ, our Eucharistic prayer says––union and transformation of our community. And not only that: we also hope that this reconciliation will advance the peace and salvation of all the world––a new heaven and a new earth.

The fullness of divinity dwelling bodily in human flesh in Mary, in Jesus, is the realization of everything we hope for, for ourselves and in the whole universe–– union and transformation in God, the beginning of new heavens and a new earth. This is the Advent promise: “Blessed are we who believe that the promise of the Lord will be fulfilled!” So let this be our Advent prayer: “Behold! I have come to do your will, O God!”

[1] Lk 22:42

[2] Lk 8:21

[3] Lk 11:28

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1 Comment

  1. Fr. Cyprian,
    Thank you for a beautiful reflection.
    I add those words-“blessed is you who believed the Word would be fulfilled in you!” to the Hail Mary recitation. After the other 2 lines from Elizabeth. Jean Vanier calls these the “hidden beatitudes,” the ones outside of Matthew 5.

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