That Christmas Day, I received a gift: my prayer had become a poem.
There is a certain poverty in language. As a poet, I am particularly sensitive to this. Some things are just hard to capture in words, like the mysteries of faith. Mystery, after all, is elusive, and words mere artifacts. They simply cannot capture the fullness of reality.
But they can witness to it. Here — at the intersection of life, mystery, and poetry — we can capture glimpses of the great realities of our existence.
Three years ago, I sensed a growing call to the diaconate. Not a clear, unmistakable call — more of a quiet whisper. I remember taking a walk in a nearby park where the trees of spring shone beautifully in the air. I made a mental note of it. Soon, the image reappeared in a dream. This time, I saw Our Lady, hovering in those same trees. Her lips moved, but I heard no words. In this dreamy state, I said, “Speak then to my heart.”
A few months later, I applied to the diaconate formation program. Sensing Mary’s love, I wanted to write a poem to honor her. As Advent approached, the poem took shape.
Tabernacle for a Savior,
New Adam from New Eve.
Set against mayhem,
Sways upon a donkey,
Crusades to Bethlehem.
Virgin of the stable,
Apostle of the Lamb,
Show us to our Shepherd,
Oh Mother of Who Am.
Mirror to three Lovers,
At this Theophany,
Daughter, spouse, and mother
Of the Blessed Trinity.
Most loving, caring, advocate,
Strong, gentle, true,
That we might speak your Fiat,
All for Jesus, through you.
The mystery of the Annunciation marks the beginning of New Testament salvation history. At that moment, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Mary’s vocation as mother of Jesus had begun. That vocation would take on a fuller dimension at the foot of the Cross. There she would become our mother too and the mother of all vocations, including my own. In some way, Mary’s “Yes” now seemed connected to my “yes.”
Last Advent, I hoped to write a Christmas poem. Various thoughts had coalesced into one idea: the moment when the eyes of Mary met the eyes of the newborn Jesus for the very first time.
Christmas approached, but no words had come. On Christmas morning, I asked the Holy Spirit for help. My simple prayer was — Show me. Show me. Show me. At that moment, the poem was born.
Show me a moment when
Eternity looks up and
Sees a mother’s eyes and
She herself in her infant’s eyes.
Maternity responds with joyful sighs
And finds herself in her infant’s cries.
Show me now how God responds
To the terror of the times
And humanity’s crimes,
To the violence of our days
And dysfunction of our ways:
With infant eyes and nose,
Nostrils, nipples, fingers and toes.
The Word expressed in human flesh,
Humanity uplifted in the wilderness.
Show me Christmas!
I had received a special gift. The — Show me. Show me. Show me. — of my prayer became the heart of the poem.
This Christmas, be open to the gifts the Lord wishes to give you. The most significant of these may be your vocation, which brings me back to Our Lady.
One evening, a classmate showed me his favorite image of Mary. It was The Annunciation (1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner. The painting hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He said, “Maybe you can write a poem to go with this.” Could I?
A few days later, after hooking the leash onto my dog’s collar, I stepped onto the sidewalk and the poem came to me.
Yes to what I fear
And cannot comprehend,
Yes to what I hear
And do not understand,
Yes to what is near
Placed now in your hands.
Mary’s triple yes underscores the enthusiasm with which she embraces her vocation. I also see the three Yeses as individual responses to each person of the Blessed Trinity: the first, a Yes to the Father; the second to the Holy Spirit; the third to the Son.
My classmate was pleased with the poem. We agreed the words were a perfect match for the painting. “Maybe I can get the rights to the image and use it with the poem,” I said. My classmate seemed doubtful.
I called the museum, left a message, and waited. Then one early December afternoon, I received a phone call. It was the Museum’s permissions department.
“Now what do you want to do with this painting?” A woman’s voice asked.
“I would like to use it with my poem and make it available to people.”
“You’re in luck. Our new policy allows us to give you that permission. The answer is yes.”
I ended the conversation with a thank you. Then I noticed the date on my phone. It was December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Maybe this will be the Christmas when you will ask for the greatest gift of all. That gift may simply be the grace to embrace fully the vocation God wishes to give you.
We now share in the mystery of the Incarnation. Say Yes! Say yes enthusiastically! Say yes to Christmas!
This article is excerpted from a piece published in Christ Is Our Hope Magazine, a publication of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, Bishop Daniel Conlon, publisher.