This reflection is based on Luke 1:26-38 for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
“You are not nearer God than we,” the angel declares almost resentfully to Mary in Rilke’s poem “Annunciation: Words of the Angel.” But no sooner has the angel said these words when he gazes into Mary’s eyes and is stunned by God’s shimmering presence in her. In fact, so surprised is the angel, according to Rilke, that he nearly forgets the message he has been sent to announce in the first place.
Of course Rilke’s angel has been mistaken: Mary is nearer God than even the angels. And that’s what this feast of the Immaculate Conception is all about: God has willed that Mary receive this unique grace of an immaculate conception–to be, unlike the rest of humanity, conceived without sin–an honor God has reserved only for her. In another poem on the Annunciation, Rilke narrates how a doe chances upon Mary in the forest and beholding her purity, conceives–of all the loveliest things–a unicorn!
And so today we turn to her and ask, “Are you nearer God than we?”
Last April 2006, I took a train from San Sebastian to Lourdes to visit Mary’s famous shrine. I only had a day, so that meant missing out on the bath and the evening procession, two significant features of a Lourdes pilgrimage. I prayed in the church and walked over to the grotto, where there was a crowd, from the very young to the very old, many of them on their knees, their fingers racing through the beads of their rosaries. I saw a queue and instinctively fell in line, and before I knew it, I was led to the grotto.
There was nothing much to see there, but there was so much to touch: the rocks, its waters, its coolness… Like the other pilgrims, I let my left hand caress the walls of the grotto as I walked by it. By the time I reached its end, I was inexplicably and immeasurably reduced to tears. I could only join the crowd in prayer, on my knees, bewildered by–but also grateful for–the experience.
For me, that brief but unforgettable experience in Lourdes was nothing but a sharing in Mary’s nearness to God, a gift received from her. Her presence at the grotto was palpable, and even without speaking, the pilgrims recognized in one another’s eyes that we all felt it.
And so today we honor her for being “nearer God than we,” but we also thank her for sharing this nearness with us. That has been her role, whatever title we use for her: Intercessor, Mediatrix, Mother. As the angel in the poem repeatedly says, she is the Tree.
(image: detail from Henry Ottawa Tanner’s Annunciation)
The complete text of Rilke’s poem:
The Words of the Angel
You are not nearer God than we;
from him we are all distant.
But wonderfully have
your hands been blessed.
They mature so by no other woman,
gleaming from the hem:
I am the day, I am the dew,
but you are the tree…
You are a great, high gate,
and soon you shall open.
You, dearest ear of my song,
I feel now: my word got lost
in you as in the forest.
So I came and fulfilled what to you,
are a thousand and one dreams.
God looked at me; he dazzled …
But you are the tree.
Rainer Maria Rilke