The poems and homilies of St. Ephrem the Syrian are known for their artful turns of phrase, which give vivid insight and color to the Christian mystery. In “Hymns on the Nativity,” No. 11, titled “The Virgin Mother to Her Child,” for example, he writes:
“Your mother is a cause for wonder: the Lord entered into her / And became a servant; He who is the Word entered / and became silent within her; thunder entered her / and made no sound; there entered the Shepherd of all, / And in her He became the Lamb, bleating as He comes forth.”
For Ephrem, Mary is mother, daughter, sister and bride of Christ. Her womb is a place of paradox and mystery, a foreshadowing of her Son’s baptism in the Jordan. In fact, she herself is a mystery, for while she bears the Son of God, she is also his disciple, a Christian.
In an image that has always appealed to me, Ephrem writes in his “Homily on the Nativity” that “(Christ) entered the womb through her ear.” He explains that just as “by means of the serpent the Evil One poured out his poison in the ear of Eve, the Good One brought low His mercy, and entered through Mary’s ear.”
As preachers, we priests are bearers of the same treasured Word. Many years ago at my parish in Memphis, Tennessee, my parochial vicar and I met in the kitchen between Masses. In conversation we discovered that we both had difficulty preparing our homily for that weekend. I told him I had spent too much time grasping for an image to frame the homily and had come up empty. But then it had dawned on me that evaluating the effectiveness of my image was not the point. The questions I should have been asking myself as I proofed the homily were, “Did I proclaim the Word? Did I proclaim Christ?”
I learned a valuable lesson in that kitchen conversation. Christ, the Word, is at work in preaching. And as with Mary, he enters through my “ear” and the ears of my parishioners. Since childhood, I have been taught the Word, heard the preached Word, read the Word, studied the Word. I have tried my best to live it, with more success at certain times than at others. But I must also trust the Word — trust the Lord Jesus — to speak through me. Or even despite me.
In prayer, I try to allow the soundless Word to be silent within me in such a way that I am aware that he abides in me as I go about the daily tasks of ministry. It is here, it seems to me, that the Lord prepares us to preach: He nurtures within us the recognition that we bear a mystery, something far beyond our ability to grasp. He plants a sense of awe that his living word has the power to save. He opens the ears of our souls and helps us listen more deeply to the people and events we encounter.
The “womb” of the priest is that place where the Word abides — and from which a good homily is born. It is for that reason Mary’s pondering the mysterious events in which she was immersed is the model for the preacher.
Do I marvel, as she did, at the mystery into which I am immersed? Am I in awe of the Word I am sent to preach, the thunder that entered Mary but made no sound? Is the ear of my soul open? Will I listen?
Devotion to Mary is essential to everyone called to preach God’s Word, and a Marian prayer should be part of all homily preparation. Her life was totally given to Jesus, and it was through her obedient listening that the Word became flesh. She is the perfect evangelizer, the model for all who seek to draw others to her Son. Her love for him is tender and tenacious, quiet and courageous. St. Ephrem writes:
“It is a source of great amazement, my beloved, / that someone should inquire into the wonder / of how God came down / and made His dwelling in a womb, / and how that Being / put on the body of man, / spending nine months in a womb, / not shrinking from such a home; / and how a womb of flesh was able / to carry flaming fire” (“Homily on the Nativity”).
ARCHBISHOP J. PETER SARTAIN is archbishop of Seattle.