The hyacinth is blooming right now. Also known as Lily-Among-Thorns, hyacinth is a symbol for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each year, right around the Solemnity of the Assumption, it pushes it’s first green leaves from the earth as a messenger of spring.
The Annunciation, like a lily among the thorns, was quietly celebrated last week. I said a private Mass with only a few people assisting. It was a surreal experience, but the more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of hyacinth. I actually smell hyacinth before I see it. It’s a small plant, easy to overlook, but its fragrance drifts in the air like an angel wing. It causes a subtle but definite change.
Exactly nine months before the birth of Christ, St. Gabriel utters his fateful words to Mary. She agrees to God’s plan, and so a mystery is birthed. The Annunciation feels like any other birth announcement, with all the wonder and awe and trepidation. It contains fear of the unknown, a covering sense of responsibility, and the dawning realization that life is forever changed. Life, for a parent, is happy but also difficult. It is shared and intertwined with another soul, mother and child forever connected.
Sally Read, a poet I read regularly, says the Annunciation is, “God swooping towards us and his hair-raising nearness; our anxiety as to what might be asked of us; our finding our identity in God; our consent to our vocation; and finally the periods when God does not seem so near.” In other words, when God enters our lives, it’s a harrowing experience.
Our fear arises from our limitations, the inability or refusal to follow God with total trust. God is not trying to scare us. He desires to set us free, but we have mistaken notions of what’s important, so we cling to what feels familiar. We’re accustomed to practicing faith in comfort. What happens when comfort disappears? What if going to Church to pray is dangerous? What if practicing works of mercy exposes us to personal sacrifice? These are our fears when God swoops down and overshadows us. What will he ask of me?
Who knows? Could be anything. God’s plans are unsearchable. The only certainty we have is that, somewhere down the path we walk with him, there is a Cross. Beyond that Cross is a Resurrection. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but if Jesus is by our side, what do we have to fear?
St. Gabriel he assures Mary – “Do not be afraid.” When God draws near, we naturally experience fear. First is the fear of his power, the overwhelming of our senses. Our knees shake and knock in the presence of unimaginable, fierce strength. Here is a power we cannot control. We can only surrender and trust that this world-creating power is united to great love. God is our Father, cuddling his newborn babe, gently placing his cheek upon the crown of our head. Once we overcome our astonishment at our Father’s strength, we experience a different type of fear – fear of what he’s going to ask. Why has he come to me?
He comes to you because he loves you.
Remain in his embrace. Remember, the path to the sacred heart is through the wound in his side. Stay at his side in Gethsemane to pray through the dewfall. Stay by his side at his trial with Pilate, shivering by the night fire of the Roman palace. Stay at his side as he collapses under his Cross and is brought to his knees on a narrow cobbled road slippery with blood. Stay at his side in the predawn quiet of the tomb. Stay at his side even as the empty grave yawns like a void and he seems to have escaped and abandoned you. Stay there. Consider who you are. It is time to re-choose our Christian identity.
Our Lord is near, even if we are afraid and frustrated and lonely. He sets his face toward a consuming furnace where the palms we wave to praise his name will be turned to ash. We will stay by his side.
This year’s message from St. Gabriel is an Annunciation to impoverishment. Nothing we thought mattered actually matters – not our jobs, not our social life, not our daily routine. Our identity is completely and totally buried with Our Lord. This is what it means to take on a Christian identity. It’s not about us anymore. My needs, my desires, my wants, all are to be surrendered to God.
I read a poem the other day that astonished me. It’s by James Matthew Wilson, titled, “March 15, 2020.” March 15 was a day just like any other day, and he’s completing a routine spring chore. But as he picks up mulch for his landscaping, the traffic on the roads is sparse, many of the stores are closed, and the restaurants have shut their doors. It isn’t a day like any other day. In fact, none of these days we are currently living through feels quite right. We’re surrounded by contradiction. Hyacinth perfumes the air and the magnolia are flames of pink against the gentle blue of the spring sky. Meanwhile, we stalk the streets like ghosts and stare out our front windows in silence.
James Matthew Wilson, nevertheless, has chores to do. He writes,
But I return home with the car’s rear end
Weighed low with seven musky bags, and toss
Them one by one like limp, resistless bodies
Along the walk. I take up rake and shovel,
Begin the small, familiar, yearly tasks
That after a long winter one must do
To overcome its slow decay, to greet
Old life’s new start, and set the house aright.
God has announced his purpose. He will bring us new life. So set your spiritual house in order and prepare to follow him all the way to the end, past the cheering Palm Sunday crowds, into the dark of Gethsemane, and to the foot of the Cross to receive his resistless body as it falls to the earth. Stay with him. Everything else in the universe may fall prey to illness, entropy, and decay, but he shall burst forth from the dirt, a hyacinth in spring. He will gather his children in his arms and press our anxious brow to his divine heart.
This is Father Michael Rennier’s Palm Sunday homily. More homilies can be found here.