At one point or another in our life we are allowed to contemplate the intricacy of the reality that surround us. I had one of those “aha!” moments once while reading the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus “in the night.” You can read it in the Gospel According to St John, chapter 2.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
That passage reminded me of the story of the Tarquin brothers. Brutus Tarquin the son of the Roman ruler Tarquin the Proud accompanied his elder brother Titus and his cousin, Lucius, to consult the Oracle at Delphi at the bequest of his father, the king of Rome. The noble pilgrims consulted the oracle as requested by the king, and then decided to also ask who among them would be the next to sit on the royal throne. The reply was — in appearance — quite straightforward: “the first to kiss his mother upon their return to Rome.” Brutus guessed the correct interpretation: that the Oracle was referring to the earth who is the mother of all things. So when they returned to Italy he feigned to stumble and fall to be the first to kiss the soil of the motherland. Predictably he inherited the kingdom.
Jesus referred to a different kingdom a few centuries after that. He was talking with Nicodemus, a religious leader of the Jews who came to ask Jesus a few questions. Fearing his peers, Nicodemus came to visit Jesus “in the night.” That is when Jesus told him that, to see the kingdom, he had to be born again. We must give credit to Nicodemus because he got the meaning right, although he could not quite understand it. “Can one enter a second time into one’s mother womb?” he asked. Well, Brutus would have figured that one in a second and perhaps with typical Italian exuberance he would have told our man Nick: “You have to die and be buried first, you big dummy!” for that is exactly what Jesus was mysteriously talking about: we must die to this world to inherit the next. I think there is a strange counterpoint between these two classic stories. They both have this element of earth as a mother and also as a way to a future kingdom. Earth as the starting point, the beginning and the mother of all things.
Years ago I visited a garden on a glorious summer day in Virginia. There was a great rose plant next to a brick path. I remember walking by distractedly when the fragrance of the flower caught my attention. Soon I was admiring one perfect rose. A little bit earlier I had decided to skip lunch and perhaps I was a bit lightheaded, I really don’t know. I only know that I entered into a slight trance as my senses filled with the perfume and sight of a beautiful flower. I looked at it and I thought of all the things that came together to make that moment possible. Not only the flower’s beauty and exquisite scent but the fact that the rose was designed to attract bees and other insects, that it was made of the same stellar dust that I was made of. I thought of the marvel of the seasons, the inclination of our planet’s axis that made summer and winter possible. I thought of Guillaume de Lorris and the Roman de la Rose. The beauty of that flower, I thought, is connected to human art and history but that is not all. That rose has a structure, atoms, subatomic particles, and all that stuff described in quantum mechanics. The whole thing is a dizzying collection of unfathomable mysteries all connected to Guillaume the Lorris, to my nose, to a war in England, to the name that some ancestor of mine picked in the Middle Ages to identify his clan. The center of all that is: this garden we call Earth, this realm we live upon, this house, our mother, and also the place where — we Christians believe — men will choose if they are going to be an eternal celestial glory or a never ending infernal abomination.
In the story of Adam and Eve, God’s judgment to Adam is: “cursed is the ground because of you.” Sin has ecological consequences (“thorns and thistles”) and those consequences are also tied to the first human economy: “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken ... ” Since Adam we have been in this difficult relationship with our mother, we are always traveling in time to the moment when we will return to her; and we depend on her to survive. But sin is a form of madness, perhaps the origin of all madness. It seems we have arrived to another critical moment in human history, that moment described in the Apocalypse of St John where God in his wrath makes war against those “... who destroy the earth.” What kind of man would think of destroying the very source of his life? What kind of madman destroys his own mother?
Five centuries ago, San Juan Diego met Our Lady of Guadalupe. His heart was heavy with many worries, he was a man living at the end of the Aztec world. He surely was anxious about the future of his land when he unexpectedly found his true mother who asked him: “Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?”
San Juan Diego was given a sign for the local bishop to see. That sign was meant to be unequivocal proof that Juan had met that Woman destined to be the Mother of all the living. The sign Our Mother chose that winter day in 1531 was a bunch of flowers by then unknown in Mexico: roses, exquisite fresh roses from the glorious summer that is Heaven.