Homily of the Feast of the Nativity of Mary - Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.
Simple Profession, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Friday, September 8, 2017
Romans 8: 28-30. Matthew 1: 18-23
My dear Novices — not all seven of you, the three about to profess — my dear novices, you have heard the Word of God, and you respond now by professing monastic vows. You were consecrated to God in Baptism. You seek to deepen that consecration now by vowing to live in stability, conversion to the monastic life, and obedience. This is a good response to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit has formed it in you.
And according to our custom here at Mount Angel, you make your profession on the feast of the Nativity of Mary. For different reasons we are not always able to do profession on this day every year, but most years we manage to do it then. And in any case, we count September 8th as a profession anniversary for many members of the community. This is because the monks of Mount Angel have wanted to put their monastic profession under the protection of Mary and to understand their monastic vocation in the light of the Marian mystery.
So, dear Novices about to make vows, and dear confreres who have made your profession on this day in years past… or for that matter on any other day… and dear students and friends who are listening to me speak as an abbot to his monks — let us ponder the monastic vocation and vows in the light of today’s joyful feast.
This liturgy began with an entrance song in which we sang Mary’s words, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum…” Every day of his life a monk sings these words at Vespers, and they are incised in him as the meaning of his life. In the Prologue to the Holy Rule St. Benedict describing who can live in a monastery, it says that those “who fear the Lord and glorify him working in them” can live in a monastery. To perceive the Lord’s grace at work in our life every day, every hour, and to praise him on this account — this is a definition of a monk. Dear Novices, you are promising today before God to do this — to do it every day. And dear confreres, you have already promised this. Freshen your promise inside the graces of today’s liturgy.
The Collect of today’s liturgy was clear in what it asked of God. Let’s be sure we heard that to which we added our Amen. “Impart to your servants, we pray, O Lord, the gift of heavenly grace…” Praying in this way we were, of course, praying for this whole assembly and, indeed, for all the holy People of God across the globe. But how can we not be especially mindful of these three novices on the verge of their profession. They are the Lord’s servants — Mary’s word for what she is — they are the Lord’s servants for whom we all pray the gift of heavenly grace. For us all, and especially for these three about to profess, we went on to pray that this feast “may bring deeper peace to those for whom the birth of Mary’s Son was the dawning of salvation.” Deeper peace for you, my dear Novices! The dawn of what you do in full light today was breaking long ago on Mary’s birthday, and she stands watch over what you are doing now. And she will never stop watching.
Two tightly packed verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans are proclaimed in the liturgy today that remember Mary’s birth. Her birth is the preeminent instance of what Paul wants every and all Christians to know. Let’s think of it first for Mary and then apply it to monks who profess vows and then apply it to every Christian. In virtue of the forseen merits of the death of her Son, Mary was immaculately conceived and kept from all stain of sin — a reality celebrated by us on December 8th. Nine months later, on this day, September 8th, we remember the birth of the one who was so conceived. What does all this mean? What is God doing? Paul says it. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” “Foreknew, predestined.” Mary immaculately conceived and born today! But also in her same pattern, every Christian, every monk. Let’s continue with Paul’s text, applying it to these three novices. Paul says “those whom he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.” Predestined, called, justified, glorified — Mary in a preeminent way. But every Christian, every monk. And, Jonathan, Matthew, and Junípero — in these vows you are about to make you are called, justified, and glorified. And what you do shows us with clarity and as a witness what we all are in Jesus Christ.
There are no gospel accounts — naturally enough — of Mary’s birth; and so the liturgy today chooses as a gospel text to focus on the scene which the woman born today was “predestined and called” to fulfill. We hear Matthew’s account, which some scholars accurately enough call the “Annunciation to Joseph.” In Luke’s gospel the annunciation is made by the angel Gabriel to Mary. Here an unnamed angel — perhaps also Gabriel — says to Joseph what Gabriel says to Mary and what I would also say to any novice about to make vows… or to any monk who has made vows. The angel says, and I say, “Do not be afraid.” In the story Mary is described, marvelously and mysteriously, as “with child by the Holy Spirit.” The reader knows this truth, but poor Joseph does not. As such, Joseph also is an image of a monk. Mary’s mystery is there, near him, unfolding, as is the body of her divine Son in her womb. But Joseph’s understanding and ours is short and without details. Trust is required. Enormous trust. “Take Mary into your home,” Joseph is told. Novices, I advise you to do the same: take Mary into your home. And you know how the story goes from there. You know who is born of the one whom you take into your home in taking Mary: Emmanuel, God with us.
“God with us” — this too describes this monastery and its professed monks. God is with us in the human nature the divine Son assumed from Mary. And so, marveling at this in the Prayer over our Offerings of bread and wine placed on the altar, we will pray today, “May the humanity of your Only Begotten Son, O Lord, come to our aid.” How is it we are able to appeal to this humanity? It is because of what dawned today in Mary’s birth. God the Son took his humanity from her and so enables our offering too to be acceptable to the Father.
Well, these are huge mysteries; and I could go on and on. I would kind of like to, but I won’t. Oh, but let me say just one more thing as I think about the humanity of the Only Begotten Son taken from Mary. It affects the whole of humanity, as St. Justin Martyr already said so clearly in the 2nd century. He said, “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her…” (Dial. 100). Mary is a new Eve of a new humanity, and that new humanity is professed in monastic vows today.
Within the context of all that I have been speaking about, we must move on now very deliberately and invite these novices to make their monastic profession. Chapter 58 of the Holy Rule describes a procedure for receiving brothers into the monastery, a procedure we are following and enacting now. A prolonged period of testing and discernment — this was your postulancy and novitiate — and then the promise, the vow. For the next three years, St. Benedict’s words apply to you: “From this day you are no longer free to leave the monastery, nor to shake from your neck the yoke of the rule, which in the course of so prolonged a period of reflection, you were either free to reject or to accept.”
The ritual within which you make your vows is placed between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. You respond to the Word, and you bring your vows as an offering to be joined to Christ’s own sacrifice. So let us proceed to enact your response to the Word and to bring your gift of self now to the altar for consecration and for transformation.
As you prepare to come before your abbot and profess your vows — and you monks who have already professed the same vows before an abbot of this monastery — I offer for us all this reminder that our monastic profession is a turning away from a former way of life. St. Anselm, one of the greatest of Benedictine monks, prayed to Mary in these words which I recommend we make our own. He said: “Mary, powerful in goodness, and good in power, from whom was born the fount of mercy, I pray you, do not withhold such true mercy where you know there is such true misery. Let the brightness of your holiness confound the darkness of my sins.”