This is another lovely book by Saward combining erudition and palpable faith. In this book Saward looks at the consequences of the first nine months spent by the Redeember in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, addressing what this means for Our Lady, what it means for the Church and what it means for us believers. His anlaysis is backed up by many very valuable quotes from the Fathers and from the saints of the Medieval period. Many of the pages in this book could be extracted and used for meditation, particularly as some of the quotes from the saints are quite mystical in nature. Let us take first a sentence in the opening page and reflect on its meaning:
"The first stage of the divine Word's human life was literally "in Mary", in her womb"
Jesus sanctifies the womb but also prefigures the eschaton
Thus Jesus "emptied himself, not by laying aside his divine greatness, but by taking on our human littleness, and first of all the microscopic infirmity of the embryo. He accepts the limitations of the long, slow womb-way to birth."
"In the Virgin's womb, and from the empty tomb, the transfiguration of matter and biology has been set in motion. It will only be complete on the last day. Then the Virgin-born Son of Man will do for us what he has already done for his Mother".
The implications of Mary's visitation to Elizabeth
I was particularly taken by the visitation scene, "intended by the evangelist to recall the transfer of the Ark of the Convenant to Jerusalem (cf 2 Sam 6)". "The babe in the womb is God, so the expectant Mother is the definitive Ark, the antitypical shrine and sanctuary of the divine presence". On the theme of the composition of the magnificat, Saward takes issues with the famous catholic exegete, the late Fr Raymond Brown, who "declared that it is unlikely that such finished poerty could have been composed on the spot by ordinary people" describing his stance as a "breathtaking display of unscientific prejudgement". As I have enjoyed the work of Raymond Brown (his talks available on CD are particularly worth tracking down) I will simply say that I can see both points of view!
The largeness of Mary's heart
I was particularly taken by a quote from Guerric, a disciple of St Bernard:
"If you take account the narrowness of her womb, it is indeed a confined space. But, if you take account of the breadth of her heart, it is a vast throne, and it was this breath of heart that made the womb capable of containing such great majesty".
Jesus sanctifies all stages of human life
Critically for us in the 21th Century, the message of Jesus' nine months in the womb is that "unborn lufe has been assumed and therefore divinised by the consubstantial Word. To attack the unborn is to declare war against God". It is interesting that many catholic politicians use the uncertainty that existed since Aristotle up until modern times as to the time of ensoulment to cast doubt on catholic teaching. Aquinas following Aristotle thought that ensoulment only happened 40 days after conception but that was because he thought based on the knowledge available that the embryo lacking substance for the soul to configure it. As Saward notes, Aquinas would not hold this view today in light of scientific knowledge as to substance of the embryo.
The practical implications of these nine months in the womb are contained in this fine reflection (based on the Christology of Berulle):
"As man, but because he is God, Christ is the "head of human nature". In assuming a complete and concrete human nature, the universal Word in some way unites himself to every man, and, by living a complete human life from conception to the last breath, he touches and hallows every stage, evey state, of every man's existence".
Mary first conceived Jesus in her mind
Moving back to the Fathers, It is noted that "St Augustine says that Mary, full of faith conceived him first in her mind and then in her womb. The Virgin Mother is blessed because she kept the Word of God; not because in her the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, but because she kept God's very Word, through whom she was made, and who was made flesh in her". The Holy Virgin shelters the Word of God in her body for nine months, but in her soul she guards him for ever."
Origen too is touched upon, noting "In and through the Church, the believer is a "mother to Christ" and St Ambrose notes that "The loss of grace is like a miscarriage".
Mary and Holy Communion
And, the closeness of Mary to Holy Communion is also reflected on: "Everything in Mary is for sharing. She even lends the communicant the welcoming womb of her heart". "Mary mothers us in Mothering Christ". "The Mother of God stands by every communicant at the altar"
The unborn Jesus reveals to man his mysteriousness
"In one sense says Gregory of Nyssa, it is easier to know the heavens than oneself. St Augustine says that man is an abyss, the deep that calls upon the divine deep "in the roar of the mighty waters"
Finally, this is a fine short book, ideal to be brought way on retreat to be reflected on.