Christ Appearing to the Virgin by Follower of Rogier van der Weyden 1475
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
I saw the Blessed Virgin as very full of years, but no sign of old age appeared in her except a consuming yearning by which she was as it were transfigured. There was an indescribable solemnity about her. I never saw her laugh, though she had a beautiful smile
Anne Catherine Emmerich- Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Historians are undecided about the date of the Nativity of our Lord although as a sort of reflex action they are almost unanimous in denying that it was 25 December as if giving credit to the wisdom of the Church was somehow a violation of their professional duty. Likewise there is some dispute about when the Catholics first started to celebrate this event as a dedicated Feast. Some say it was earlier and some later. What I think we can be fairly sure about though is that the Blessed Virgin Mary knew the date and that every year as it came around she would have pondered in her heart the events of the first Christmas and the significance which they bore. Of particular poignance for her must have been the Christmases which she marked in the years between her Son's Ascension and her own Assumption. We cannot now enter into her thoughts, memories and prayers but we can consider those matters which most likely occupied her reflections and which perhaps should occupy ours also.
Our Lady was unique in many ways and led a unique life. Not the least singular facet of it was that she witnessed the death and burial of her Son, His return to life and His Ascension into heaven. These experiences could not but be present before the eyes of her memory every time she marked the anniversary of His birth. Each Christmas for her would be a kind of palimpsest where each recollection of an event or emotion from that night in Bethlehem would uncover a thousand thousand others associated with the life of her beloved Jesus.
It is easy for Christians and sometimes even the Church to overlook St Joseph and his part in the Nativity seeing him as some kind of bit part player, an extra in the scene. We can be sure that this is a fault of which our Lady was never guilty. To her Joseph was a tower of strength, a friend, a faithful loving companion, the first man to hold her Jesus in his arms, to look tenderly at Him, to love Him wholeheartedly. To recall the first Christmas for Mary would also be to recall Joseph's steadfastness in marrying her despite her pregnancy, his support and care for her and the unborn child on the journey to Bethlehem and for mother and newborn during the flight into Egypt. They shared the agony of the hunt for the lost boy Jesus through the streets and Temple courts of Jerusalem. Most of all, perhaps, they shared year after year the hidden life of working, living in a community, raising a child to manhood being lovers of God and lovers of neighbour in that greatest of all trials the seeming triviality and mediocrity of the everyday. No doubt also his presence at this intense moment of life would bring to mind the time when this just man departed from it going to his eternal rest enfolded in the love of the Virgin and the Saviour the two most important people in his life. And this points us to an essential truth about Christmas. It is a family celebration, Mary would not recall the child without recalling too the foster-father. We who are adults seldom pass a Christmas season without revisiting our childhood feasts, the parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts and others who welcome or not trailed through our seasonal rejoicing and accompany us still in our fondest memories. Welcoming a child into the world is a time for bringing families together and in Jesus we welcome the universal child, our destinies and the destinies of all who are dear to us are bound up in His. If our adult selves have dispensed with the large family gatherings of the not-so-distant past we should at least bring together in our prayers those we will not or cannot bring together in the flesh.
If St Joseph is backgrounded in our Nativity scenes and cribs the shepherds and Magi are not. Whilst our Lady may have held these things in reverse order in her heart her Christmas memories would certainly not have neglected them. Most of all, I think, it would have been the shepherds whose memory she treasured. Partly because they were present on that wonderful world transforming night as the Magi were not. Partly also because the Mary who sang-
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
would cherish above all the devotion of the poor humble folk. Filled with the thrilling joy of the Angels song and the bright good news the shepherds had only their adoration of the infant Jesus to give. It was indeed the first gift that Jesus received. How could Mary not be delighted? And who could imagine that this delight would fade with the mere passing of years? The arrival of the Wise Men with their welcome gifts and their acknowledgement of the celestial significance of her child would serve too to remind the Blessed Virgin that her child was not hers alone, He was a Divine child and His life would have a purpose and meaning greater than that of any other man born of woman. These visitors with their backstories of Angels and stars point us to two more Christmas truths. Christmas is not just a private event it is a community one, preeminently the communion of the faithful but the office parties, the being kind to annoying strangers on the bus because its the season of goodwill, remembering to check that the frail neighbours are ok, giving alms to the homeless and treats to the carol singers are all part of the community Christmas and not the least important part either. The second truth this points to is that Christmas really and truly is a religious feast. The Son of Mary is the Son of God, born of a virgin, Saviour of the World. The Angels rejoiced for a reason, the star shone for more purposes than one, a guide to the Magi and a sign to us. There may have been days when our Lady did not recall shepherds or wise men, donkeys, oxen and cribs but there was never a day when she did not rejoice in the God from whom and for whose purposes her greatest gift had come. And Jesus is His greatest gift to us also.
In the events of the Nativity of our Lord we can discern all three of the theological virtues, faith, hope and love. It is safe therefore to infer that they would all have been present in Mary's Christmas meditations. It seems to me that of these three hope is the chief and characteristic feature of the season of Advent and its culminating festival. As our Lady encountered layer after layer in that Christmastide palimpsest of memory I think also that for her hope was its key note. Inextricably linked with the Bethlehem events was that scene nine months before when the Archangel Gabriel had said-
"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.”
So from the moment He was Incarnated in her womb Mary's Son carried her liveliest hopes, for the liberation of Israel and the world from the dominion of sin and death and for the bringing of unconditional love into not only her own life but into every life. And that birth attended as it was with heavenly signs, followed as it was by the prophecies of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) confirmed, strengthened and made present those same hopes. Even the attendant features, giving birth in poverty, fleeing into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents could not dim a hope founded on such sure foundations and now sustained by the living, breathing, joy-giving presence of that tiny infant, flesh of her flesh, who had become the centre and purpose of her whole life. Nor could the perhaps weary years of toil and obscurity when that child was growing before her eyes into the man who would fulfil all that she had been promised and more besides.
In those Christmases which the Blessed Virgin kept between His Ascension and her Assumption it would not have been possible to think of the crib without recalling the Cross. The life which had lain naked and vulnerable in her soft arms at Bethlehem had before the end hung naked and vulnerable once again upon the hard arms of the tree of death on Calvary. The hope which had entered the world from Mary's womb seemed to be buried in the sepulchre of the garden. But if Jesus had died indeed the hope in His mother's heart had not died with Him. It was built on the testimony of the Angels in Judea, the star seen in the East, the Son whom she had come to know as no other creature would or could come to know Him and love as no other creature would or could love Him. This golden thread running through her life could not be snapped. And privately, delicately, filially He returned to her. A joyous moment, a transport of delight an outpouring of love beyond the power of imagination, a second Christmas. Of His appearances to the Holy Women and to the Apostles the Gospel speaks but of this moment there is a discreet and respectful silence and who can wonder?
St Luke records (Luke 24:51-52) that after the Ascension the disciples experienced great joy. Mary is certainly included in that description. And yet, and yet...she was a mother, she had seen her Son die an agonising, horrible death. Such a Son, such a death. And more than this He was now hid from her sight until it should be the will of God for her own life to come to the end of its mortal, terrestrial journey. No one was more nourished by the Spirit in prayer than the Mother of God, no one enjoyed a more close relationship to the Father than she, no one experienced the sacrament of the Eucharist in a more complete manner than she. However, the final, complete and eternal reunion with her Son, body, soul and spirit was not yet accomplished. The plenitude of happiness awaited her but had not yet come. The time to cease exercising the virtue of patience was yet some distance into the future. As Mary celebrated these Christmases of the interregnum years reflecting on her Son's entrance into the world of Men how powerfully she must have felt the hope that the time was near when she would enter fully into the world of heaven. How longingly she looked for her birthday in the Kingdom of God so that she could resume that fully human loving relationship that she had brought into the world on that birthday which we now call Christmas. As in so many things Mary is here our prototype. Sustained by hope, filled with longing the Christian should ever look to that time when we shall see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known. (cf 1 Corinthians 13:12)
Don't forget to read my Nativity fable Adoration of the Pangolins downloadable from Wattpad.
Follow @stevhep on Twitter, Google+ and Tumblr. Follow Catholic Scot on Pinterest
Like the Catholic Scot Blog Page on Facebook
Some of my earlier blogs have been collected as an ebook This Contemplative Life also on Wattpad