One of the most painful experiences in life is to carry the burden of unanswered prayer. Such prayer, arises from the depth of one’s heart and is not dismissed easily, because it is closely tied to who and what the person is about. Such people see clearly. This is not prayer which is a passing desire, a simple petition prayed half-expecting it to not come true. Failure is not an option. It is the burden of deeply held desire. One’s life is tied to it.
Such burden is not easily borne by a lot of us. We find distractions – not all of which are bad of course (indeed, a lot quite healthy and necessary) – and okay in moderation, but distractions can become a way of life. Distractions which are unhealthy and those that become a way of life are what we call sin. And there is of course, no limit to the depths we can plunge in running away from the pains. (As I write, I have just come across a news article which talks about how the consumption of internet pornography has soared during this time of quarantine and the different ways some of these sites are capitalising on people’s loneliness at this time. To get them addicted permanently.) If this burden of desire is painful enough for ourselves, it is equally and even more so, when we bear it out of love for others.
I’m thinking of Monica and her prayer for her wayward son Augustine. How, for 33 years, she had to see him go down wrong paths, pursue fame, take on a mistress, and serve all of them in love, while continuing to cry out for what God had placed in her heart for her son’s future. Think of political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, who see truth clearly enough or what society should be like that they are willing to be put in prison or die rather than forget what they know to be true in their hearts.
These dreams, these desires, demand more of us, the truer they are. They are not just passing fantasies. And they are true-r, as they much as they share in God’s desire for our life and for the world. The prophets of Israel were very familiar with this reality. They had to carry the burden of God’s Word in their bosom, a word which showed them what was God’s desire for his people and the reality of life which was so starkly different. Most of them almost died, carrying this burden. Jeremiah would complain,
If I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jer 20:9)
St Catherine of Siena would pretty much die carrying the burden of the Church God would place on her. Having carried it all her life, her last days would come seeing a new vision of the life of the Church. The prophets and saints lived with this pain because their love – their desire – was great. As I’ve said elsewhere, desire increases as our hearts are purified. Sin blunts desire. It acts as a safety-valve, when the pain becomes great. The pain is the flip-side of an intense love for God and His love the saints experienced in their lives. But all creatures, even the saints, in carrying something of Adam’s woundedness, can only bear so much. Greater than that, we will die (not really a bad way to die!).
When we understand that, we can see the young girl from Nazareth, to whom God gave – and asked as much – with new eyes. She stands at the junction of the Old and the New Covenants. Israel, God’s chosen nation, the daughter of Zion, lay languishing in her sin and unable to fulfil the mission she had from God, for herself and for the world. She was supposed to be the instrument of God’s salvation for the world, and yet, she was enslaved to her sin, herself. This enslavement was symbolised, lived out, in her constant enslavement to the pagan nations. What she was promised, what she longed for – the burden she carried – was for the One who will come to save her and free her from her slavery. It was something of this burden, in which all the prophets shared. None could carry all of it.
Until, that is, one fourteen year old girl from Nazareth appeared on the scene, specially chosen by God. On her, God laid the burden of the desire of the generations of Israel – which was in reality the desire of all the world. No one could bear a burden that big and live. But Mary, who was saved from Adam’s fall and preserved from sin, God laid the burden of all Israel. Under that burden she was bowed down, to breaking point, bearing the humiliation of the generations of Israel. How do we know that? She says so – the lowliness of his handmaid. The word in the Greek, carries with it an image of being bowed down, stretched to the limit under a burden. In the Old Testament, this word is used only in two situations, of the humiliation of slavery and of barrenness – both of which come together in the barren daughter of Zion, Israel. Mary bore it – without dying – only because she was sinless. With no sin, her desire was unlimited. And God’s grace – being ‘full of grace’ – had free reign in her life, to give her all the strength she needed to bear this pain. If there was to be one Man who would bear the sin of all the world, there had to be one Woman who would bear that infinite longing for him to come, answer fallen humanity’s stifled cry.
It is in the angel’s greeting of ‘Rejoice’, her burden is lifted as her prayer is answered. Rejoice and be Glad! was the Messianic greeting that was to come to Israel, when the King came to her. Now, it comes to Mary, the one who took Israel – and our place – in bearing the hope of our salvation.
We lose a lot in apologetic arguments about the intercession of Mary and the saints. It is not that we can’t pray to God ourselves and have our prayers answered. But many times, in our sinfulness, our desires are weak. But the saints stand in the presence of God and see his glory. Their hearts are purified and they share his love and his love for us. They magnify our own feeble desires and can ask on our behalf, feeling what we are too dulled to feel. And Mary, remains the queen of the saints and the martyrs, because without dying, she died a thousand times over, in carrying your pain and mine and that of the whole world in giving birth to its Saviour.
On the Feast of the Annunciation, look to Mary, your Mother with a grateful heart. If there is something in your life which you have no power to change, ask her for help with confidence. She has carried your pain and mine, your desires and mine. She remains always to comfort and pray for us in our need. Then, together with her, we will also find the joy of the Saviour’s redemption. Rejoice, daughter of Sion, your king is coming to you.