The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
Today, March 25, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. It is the day when we contemplate the moment Mary was asked to become the Mother of God. We know that she agreed, and 9 months later Jesus is born at Bethlehem, on December 25. Whether or not this is the actual date of the Annunciation, and therefore Christmas as the actual birth of Jesus, is not really the point. I've met people who get all worked up about the truth of dates, especially Christmas, and they so often seem to overlook the baby in the manger. So, today we will not concern ourselves with that and instead focus on how this day can help us on our "Slow Greening" Lenten journey.
Certainly, Mary experienced a type of "slow greening" as the Child Jesus grew within her. If ever there is a literal interpretation of the "greening" or life-giving power of God, this is it. But we should remember that it all started with a question. Mary was not forced into anything, on the one hand. She was clearly given time to think about it, to ponder it, and she even asks questions of the angel. Interestingly, this is one of the few times in Scripture where an angel appears, and the human who sees it doesn't tremble in fear. Mary seems surprised, but not afraid. On the other hand, it is not that surprizing that she says "Yes." She has already formed her heart and soul into being the receptacle of God. To be able to to respond to God in a way that allows her to give even more of herself is going to be her natural answer. We also know that Mary was conceived without original sin. Other than Jesus, she is the only human being not to inherit the tendency to fall into choices that move her away from God. Did that make her life easier? Was sin less tempting to Mary because of her unique dispostion?
Not likely. There is no triumph or victory in doing something that is easy. The triumph lies in overcoming what is more difficult, what is hard. Perhaps Mary was thinking that making this offering, saying "Yes," would increase her suffering greatly. That seems likely, especially considering Simeon's prophesy that "a sword will pierce your heart." But, in a true Lenten journey that leads to the cross, the death and burial of Jesus, and the resurrection, Mary accepts and begins to walk the path. She puts her faith in God. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in Jesus of Nazareth, Mary knows that the word of God "is more real and more lasting than the entire material world. The word is the true, dependable reality; the solid ground on which we can stand, which holds firm even when the sun goes dark and the firmament disintegrates. The cosmic elements pass away; the word of [God]is the true 'firmament' beneath which we can stand and remain." So, Mary says "Yes," and places her hope and belief in God.
What is God asking you to do, to say "Yes" to this Lent, in order to experience the "slow greening" power of renewal?
Although we are used to seeing lots of shamrocks and assorted green things in honor of St. Patrick during the month of March, there’s another special day in this month we should keep in mind as well. March 19 is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In many parts of the world, this is a big feast day, marked by special foods and by setting up a St. Joseph’s Altar. This day is remembered especially as a day to thank God for the intercession of St. Joseph.
The tradition of setting up an altar honoring St. Joseph began in Sicily, Italy, and was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants in the late 1880s. As the story goes, a severe famine hit Sicily in the Middle Ages
(likely causing one of the “megafamines” Europe suffered) and the crops were in danger of failing. The farmers and families prayed to St. Joseph for his help, and were filled with gratitude when the rains came. They attributed the help to their patron saint, and at harvest time erected a large altar in his honor. On the altar they placed fruits, veggies, baked goods and lots of fava beans – the beans that had sustained them during the lean months until harvest. In recognition of St. Joseph’s humble life, the families invited everyone, especially the poor, to come to the feast. Everyone was invited, and everyone could participate in the abundance.
Today, many churches and Italian communities still erect an altar to St. Joseph, and over time specific foods have become traditional to place on the altar. The custom of remembering the poor has also become an aspect of the altar.
Many of the altars are elaborate and the foods can be quite involved to make, but don’t let that stop you from setting up an altar in your own home! We are aiming for participation, not perfection. With a few adaptations, every family can join in the celebration. Below, you can see the altar I set up in our house. A quick trip to the grocery store, plus a tour around my house for plates and linens, and I was done. I used our Family Prayer Space to set it all up. There are just a few things to keep in mind in when setting up a St. Joseph’s Altar. Below are close – up pictures and an explanation of how we did it.
1. Give Our Best: In keeping with all things sacred, we always try to give our best. That means I got
out the nice china and Easter linens to use. There’s no need to buy anything “good,” of course, but this is a great time to get out those fancy items usually tucked away for “one day.” That day has come!
2. Showcase the Trinity: The altar should be 3 levels. This is a physical representation of the Trinity, who listened to the intercession of St. Joseph and came to the aid of the farmers. It reminds us that the saints are fully united to the Trinity, and always carry out the best for us. It also reminds us that the Trinity is under and behind everything, even though we only see the people and things on the top, the surface level.
3. Honor St. Joseph: Place a statue of St. Joseph on the top level. After all, this is his day. The folks
at Holyart.com sent me this lovely statue of St. Joseph to preview. It features St. Joseph, with his carpentry tools, inside a wooden niche with swinging, hinged doors. I had this statue sitting out on my kitchen bench and 2 of my boys picked it up. They were fascinated with the doors and St. Joseph hidden inside, and it led to a great conversation about St Joseph’s “hidden” life, and how little is recorded of him. Yet, in spite of this, what an enormous role he played in the life of Christ and salvation history. The statue proved to be a wonderful conversation starter about what it means to be a man of God.
- The statue is handcarved by Italian woodworkers from a company called
Pema. (Pema.it). My boys loved the idea that woodworkers today made this image
of St. Joseph, also a woodworker. It made St. Joseph seem more real, like there was
a connection to him through the work of hands. They looked at the tools St. Joseph
is holding – a square and a plane- and thought about how those same tools created
the statue they were holding.
- This particular statue is a bit more expensive than I would normally spend on a
statue, but the detailing and high quality craftsmanship make it worthwhile. This is a
holy item that I can keep as a family keepsake, and perhaps even see it in use on St.
Joseph altars in future generations. (though not for a while!)
4. The Food! There are some food items that are almost always seen on St. Joseph altars.
Fruits and Veggies: Put an assortment of veggies and fruits on your altar. I used what I had in my fridge.
Pastries: As I mentioned above, some of the baked good items are traditional. A delicious cream filled pastry called a zeppole features prominently. It looks amazing, but I am not that mom. I hope to be that grandmother. Instead of baking these myself, I went to the bakery at my grocery store and bought a few individual cream themed pastries. Another traditional cookie for the altar is called a pizzelle. It is created using a special type of waffle iron. Again, I picked up a container of these at the grocery store in the cookie aisle. I also added some
mini cupcakes, just for fun.
Figs: Figs are plentiful in Italy, and so generally appear on the St. Josephs altar. I do not like to waste food, even for these teaching moments, so instead of the fruit I bought a couple of types of Fig Newton – like cookies.
Bread Crumbs: These symbolize the sawdust found in St. Joseph’s workroom. I used the Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, of course.
Wine: a bottle of red wine is appropriate, as a reminder of the joy and happiness of the occasion. It’s also a good reminder of the red wine used at Mass, and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana, which took place at another festival as well.
Bread: some nice bread is also usually on the atlar. I picked up a tasty assortment of bread rolls at the bakery.
Beans: Fava beans were originally used on the altar, and are still widely used today. However, I substituted them for great northern beans, as they were not available at my grocery store.
5. What else?
Candles: Especially a candle of the Sacred Heart, if you have it, reminding us of St. Joseph’s years of caring for Jesus.
A rosary: because after all, this commemorates an answer to prayer and Mary is always close to Joseph.
Crosses: I placed a couple of small crosses on our altar, to remind us that it is through the sacrifice of our Lord that we receive the blessings of God.
A CRS Rice Bowl: we also want to remember that the story of the altar emphasizes that the graces and abundance of God are to be shared with everyone. Since my parish participates in the CRS Rice Bowl during Lent, I added it to our altar as a reminder to include the poor in this celebration.
Once everything was all set, we held our own Prayer Service. (see below to download our Family Prayer Service)
All told, my grocery bill came to $20.26 to create our St. Joseph Altar. As I said, I used mostly what I had in the house already, which I think is a fitting tribute to the life of the Holy Family, anyway. Remember, participation, not perfection! My kids, having never experienced a St. Joseph’s altar before, absolutely loved it. It was a fantastic way to remind ourselves of the the life of St. Joseph, learn more about another culture, participate in the liturgical calendar, and of course, enjoy some really yummy treats. I think this is destined to become a new family tradition.
We are now well into the season of Lent. Lent brings with it 3 Pillars, or traditional practices. The 3 Pillars are very simple - Pray, Fast and Give. Although we tend to think of the season of Lent in terms of deprivation, it is exactly this deprivation that gives us the space to see things more clearly.
When Hildegard of Bingen wrote about viriditas, she included physical health. She offered many recipes to assist people in returning to health, in restoring balance within them. Like most medievalists, Hildegard did not separate "body sickness" from "soul sickness." They were both integrated. If one was off balance, the other would inevitably also fall ill.
So, as we start the journey of slow greening this year, why don't we recapture Hildegard's vision? Let's reframe the idea of going without to one of seeking restoration. Take an honest assessment of your life. Here are some ideas to help you lean into the slow greening:
Is your relationship to food or drink making your body sick?
Is the time spent with your phone or other screen making your realtionships sick?
Do you spend a significant time with negative or anxious thoughts?
Do you give your comments and opinions too often and too freely?
Do you feel hopeless?
Do you feel angry?
Do you feel overwhelmed?
Do you feel anxious?
Did you pray yesterday?
Have you prayed today?
Who do you want to pray for?
How will you pray? (through words or actions or offerings or all three?)
Do you give compliments?
Do you give smiles?
Do you give hugs?
Do you give patience?
Do you give the benefit of the doubt?
Do you give your time?
Do you give your attention?
Do you give your pocket change?
Do you give from your wallet?
Do you give from your bank account?
Do you give your talents?
Do you give from your heart?
Before the new growth can appear, we have to clear out the old, dead clutter keeping it from maturing. We have to prepare the soil. Start on the slow greening journey today by deciding what it is you need to fast from, to give away or to pray for.
"The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.” Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess, poet, composer, botanist and mystic. She had an extraordinarily wide view of the world and was interested in everything from music to philosophy to cooking grains. She lived in the early part of the 12th century, yet her writings and visions are still studied today. She was named a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
One of the ideas Hildegard is known for is that of viriditas - the greening power of God. I like to call it the "slow greening," because, with just a few exceptions, that is how God's greening power works and is perceived in our lives. Although we are used to everything being at the click of a button these days, the truth is that growth takes place through a process, not an instant. Viriditas means greeness, vitality, creativity, growth. Hildegard's meaning especially refers to the greening power of God within us, the divine spark that sets everything into motion and resurrection. We can remind ourselves that a baby first becomes a toddler, then a young child before more growth occurs and the child becomes an adult. It would seem truly bizarre for us to see a child one day become a 25 year old the next! We would think there is something amiss! Yet, so often we assume our interior life is different from the rest of creation. We feel that praying once or twice is enough, like fine tuning our soul is like turning on the tv. That's like watering a field once a twice, and then wondering why nothing grows.
Other writers, such as St. Gregory the Great, have also referred to viriditas in their writings, in particular when speaking about spirtual health. Since Lent begins in early March this year, why not make it a journey into veriditas - leaning into the slow greening of God that creates health within us? Along the way, we'll look at a few significant people who have lived the life of "slow greening," people like St. Patrick and St. Joseph, for example, and modern day artists like Marjolein Bastin. So take a deep breath and settle in. This is not going to be quick!
artist: Edythe Kegrize
materials :porcelain and metal
This ornament is a perfect reflection for St. Patrick's Day. The cross curves and twists into the shape of a traditional Celtic knot. These knots are always, in one way or another, symbols of eternity in that they have no beginning and no end, but are continually in motion. This is an obvious analogy for the Trinity, and it is not a coincidence that St. Patrick's example of the Trinity as a shamrock-shape came out of Ireland. The Celts were a deeply symbolic and religious people, who were very highly visually literate.