Lent 2023: Monday Lent Week Five

Yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation and so of the conception of Jesus: that moment in time when the eternal Word translated itself into the human.

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Yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation and so of the conception of Jesus: that moment in time when the eternal Word translated itself into the human. Everywhere in Italy one meets visual meditations on this event with, of course, countless variations on the Madonna and Child. The subject of Mary holding or playing with her baby boy provided some of history’s greatest artists with opportunities to display their genius while also reverencing their faith. The maternal gaze, a dangling shoe, a tiny hand reaching to her face, the infant feeding from her breast endow the most universal of human love gestures with an experience of the divine penetrating and transforming the human, enhancing not destroying it. In these pictures, tenderness triumphs over theology, the concrete over abstraction.

My photo for this week is of a painting by Jacopo Pontormo in the church of Sta. Felicita near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It captures Mary as a girl walking upstairs and, between steps, turning towards something she sensed behind her – the rustle of an angel’s wings or the whisper of the cosmic shift she would be part of – holding the moment of conception and creation in time forever. It is an image of a particular and simultaneously boundless relationship. Here and everywhere. Now and always.

The human capacity for relationship is fundamental to our nature. The main regret of the dying is often that they did not give enough of their time and energy to their relationships. Un-healed relationships, for which there is no time left to say sorry or to lament together the damage done by foolish misunderstandings, rob us of peace. Nothing is unredeemable; but the sum total of human unhappiness is needlessly increased by missed opportunities and decisions postponed once too often.

This is all only too familiar in personal lives and the affairs of nations. Yet we continue to invest in the wrong things that promise happiness but betray our hopes. A frightening survey of US students showed a large majority believed that ‘making lots of money’ was an integral element of happiness. A recent Nobel prize behavioural economist would disagree, arguing that the best investment we can make in happiness is in our relationships.

As with any investment there is risk in relationship. We can be burnt. Technology offers risk-management in a virtual zone of distant relationship, protecting the players from real encounter often by hiding people’s true identity. Social media specialise in this and often cruelly betray innocent hopes and dreams. Fantasy is inherently deceptive because of its impatience. It leaps ahead too far and too quickly, trying to over-ride the times and spaces necessary for growth and nurturing that lead to birth and the subsequent relationship that grow, through risk and failure, into real love.

The quickest way honours tenderness and fragility, the smallness and uncertainties of each of the steps that form the journey into union. We want it all now; but the only way to achieve it is to let go of all in the risk of being present. This is what I feel in the backward look of Mary as she is about to put her foot on the next step forward.

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