A Faith That Does Justice engages The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola[i] (Exercises) to discern God’s will and live faith in action on behalf of all God’s people. When appropriately adapted they offer a way for all people of good will to do the same.
The Second Week builds to a moment of profound decision. We will be asked to decide whether or not we will commit to following Jesus in his mission on behalf of the unfinished work of the kingdom of God. To assist us in making this decision, Ignatius offers a series of contemplations of the gospel stories of Jesus’ life and three profound meditations.
The initial contemplations engage the Incarnation, the union of divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ, and Jesus’ early years.[ii] While none of these scenes is historically verifiable, they are intended to ground Jesus’ life in human history and foster our growing sense of intimacy with him so we might come to know, love and follow him in this world.
The first contemplation is the Incarnation.[iii] Ignatius personifies the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, as it overlooks creation with so many people “going down to hell” because of their sinfulness. In response, it decides to send the “Second Person … to save the human race.” As the scene plays out (Lk 1:26-38), the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary of Nazareth that she has found favor with God and has been chosen to be the mother of salvation. She will bear a son and he shall be named Jesus.
Mary’s exalted status also leads to a predicament that cannot be overstated. She will become pregnant before living with Joseph in a culture that condoned stoning a woman to death for such a breach of covenant law (Deut 22:20-21). Mary can only trust God will not abandon her during her pregnancy and in the coming years as she nurtures Jesus to maturity and then follows him to his cross. Her “Yes” to God’s initiative reveals a profound sense of inner freedom and courage in the face of uncertainty and peril.
Ignatius asks us to contemplate Mary’s “Yes” to God’s call as we ask for increasing intimacy with Jesus. She is, in effect, Jesus’ first disciple and she models for us a pathway to discipleship with him. We then conclude with a colloquy (conversation) of our choice with either the Trinitarian Godhead, Jesus, or Mary, with the intention of deepening our desire to follow and imitate Jesus in this world.
The second contemplation is the Nativity.[iv] It depicts Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth for Bethlehem to be enrolled in a census that will raise revenue for the Roman Empire (Lk 2:1-20). While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger, an animal feeding trough, because there is no room for them in the inn. “A Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” has been born into this world, not among the rich and powerful, but in the midst of poverty.
Jose Ignacio Gonzaléz Faus, in his book, “Adiestrar La Libertad” (Teaching Freedom), challenges believers today to not only recognize God’s redemptive action in its cosmic sense, but also to realize that in offering God’s self in the Incarnation, God offered human beings the opportunity to participate in the ongoing redemption of this world.
“God incarnates God’s self so that we may stop searching for God in the heavens and search instead on earth; that we may stop searching for God in the structures we call ‘temples,’ and instead search for God within people, to see if this might change human relations.”[v]
In entering this world among poor and suffering people, God offered a powerful message about who God is and how God has chosen to redeem humanity. It was among the most vulnerable that God’s redemptive force took hold in Jesus. He would soon suffer alongside the poor, oppressed and marginalized of first-century Jewish Palestine and offer them God’s radical love, compassion and promise that they who were treated as last by society would be first in the kingdom of God (Mt 20:16).
Ignatius asks us to contemplate the Nativity, recognizing that Jesus will one-day die on a cross for our salvation and that of the entire world. We then conclude with the same colloquy as in the previous exercise, before making two repetitions of the Incarnation and Nativity, taken together, in order to explore moments of deeper understanding, consolation, or desolation. An application of the five senses to these contemplations may also prove beneficial. We continue this method of prayerful reflection for the remaining contemplations of Jesus’ early years.
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There are additional contemplations of Jesus’ early years that take us from his birth to his childhood and adolescence. Jesus’ presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem[vi] and the Flight to Egypt[vii] comprise one unit, while Jesus’ obedience to his parents[viii] and his presence in the Temple at 12 years of age[ix] account for another. These contemplations serve to depict Jesus’ growth in years and wisdom, all in anticipation of his public ministry and our call to participate in it today.
Jesus’ presentation in the Temple (Lk 2:22-39) suggests that his salvific presence was recognized from his earliest days. First, it was Simeon, an aged-man filled with the Spirit, who took Jesus in his arms and praised God for fulfilling the promise that he would see “the Lord’s Messiah” before he died. Then, it was Anna, an aged-women and prophetess who, having spent years in the Temple awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem, also encountered Jesus. She praised God and extolled the child’s coming role in salvation history.
The Flight to Egypt (Mt 2:13-18) takes Jesus from the Temple in Jerusalem to Egypt, where God seemingly intervenes to spare his life. With great duplicity, Herod the Great asked the wise men, who had come from the East to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews, to find the child and report back to him so he might do the same. However, Herod’s plan to destroy Jesus was thwarted when the wise men were warned in a dream to return home by another way. Joseph, similarly warned by an angel of God, avoided Herod’s wrath by fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. They remained there until Herod died and an angel of God appeared to Joseph announcing it was safe to return to Israel. They settled in Nazareth of Galilee (Mt 2:19-23) where Jesus lived his formative years.
Ignatius concludes the infancy and adolescence contemplations by anticipating the election of a state of life or the deepening of one already chosen, and the call to discipleship that will soon follow.[x] In the contemplation of Jesus’ obedience to his parents (Lk 2:51-52), he offers a model of secular life grounded in the observance of Mosaic Law (the Ten Commandments). In the contemplation of Jesus’ presence in the Temple at 12 years of age (Lk 2:41-50), he offers a glimpse into Jesus’ precocious understanding of his unique relationship with the God he would soon call Abba (Lk 2:49). Ignatius asks us to contemplate this latter scene as a model of religious life and the pursuit of evangelical perfection, that is, poverty, chastity and obedience.
Ignatius’ mindset was that of a sixteenth-century Christian with a distinct understanding of the separation of vocational calls. Today, many recognize their baptismal call to live both obedience to God’s will and some sense of evangelical perfection as a true disciple of Jesus, regardless of whether one is single, married or in religious life.
As we conclude the infancy and adolescence narratives, let us pray that our identification with Jesus continues to increase and that we experience a growing desire to follow him in this world.
[i] The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are a series of Christian contemplations and meditations written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th‑century Spanish priest and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic “weeks” of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of approximately 30 days. They were composed to help participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God and commit to following Jesus in this world whatever the cost. When appropriately adapted, they can also help people of other faith traditions discern God’s will and engage problems facing society in the 21st century.[ii] L.J. Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), Sections 101-34.
[iii] Ibid., Sections 101-09.
[iv] Ibid., Sections 110-17.
[v] J.I. Gonzaléz Faus, Adiestrar la Libertad (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2007), 48. (Translation mine)
[vi] Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Sections 132, 268.
[vii] Ibid., Sections 132, 269.
[viii] Ibid., Sections 134, 271.
[ix] Ibid., Sections 134, 272.
[x] Ibid., Section 135.