Even though it feels like the liturgical season of Christmas just began, in reality we are in the middle of it. The true season of Christmas is astonishingly short and so we must savor every moment. While Advent is four weeks in length, the waiting to celebrate Jesus’ birth is actually longer than the season in which we celebrate His arrival. We might wonder why the Church chose to do it that way, but the answer must lie in the very reason for the season: Jesus. Everything that happened in His ministry stems from His entrance into our world and was part of the greater scheme of God’s plan. We celebrate this every day of every year, and therefore the Christmas season is foundational for all that follows. It also should be remembered that it is into a family that Jesus chose to come: He came into the human family, yes, but through a particular family who we refer to as the Holy Family. Without Mary and Joseph and their individual and collective assent to serving God, Jesus would have had no household into which to come. Interestingly, however, for two people who are so essential, Mary and Joseph are also two of the most hidden people in the Gospels. And in choosing to remain hidden we come face to face with true humility.
Love and humility are at the core of the Christmas season. As the Franciscans like to say, God bent low in entering the world. In the ultimate act of love expressed in humility we receive an insight into the goodness of God who chose the quiet path of birth into humanity rather than to come amid trumpet blasts, thunder, and smoke as in many of His earlier manifestations. The angels and shepherds responded in joy in the glory of the occasion of His birth, but the Son of God actually came somewhat surreptitiously. However, the arrival of the Magi aroused attention and therefore no sooner was He born than Jesus had to go into hiding, given threats made against Him by the insecure King Herod. Hiddenness, and the humility that goes with it, seems to be an underlying theme in the story of the Holy Family, that is, until it was time for Jesus to begin His ministry. It may seem odd that the Son of God would come into the world only to hide for most of His life, and yet it needed to be so in order that we might learn something about the virtues of humility, hiddenness, and patience.
Humility is clearly important to God in that He chose two deeply humble people to be the parents of Jesus Christ. They were obedient and unpretentious in every way, spending the first part of their marriage and family life homeless, fleeing, and as aliens in a foreign land, remaining exceedingly patient in their hidden circumstances. Joseph was always to be hidden, given that a large part of his role was to protect his family from danger, a reality which began with Mary’s pregnancy. (See Matthew 1:18-25; Matt 2:1-18; also Luke 2:1-7.) In his book on St. Joseph, Fr. Andre Doze wrote: … “Joseph disappears at the same time as Mary and Jesus, or, rather, Jesus and Mary disappear thanks to him. He keeps in the background and conceals at the same time. He is hidden and he hides.” And again, “Joseph is a veil to cover Him [Jesus], and behind this veil, are hidden Mary’s virginity and the greatness of the Saviour of souls.” * Thus, Joseph remained hidden with his family until his own death. In this, Joseph teaches us the virtue of selflessness: he did everything for others, particularly for Mary and Jesus, in obedience to God.
Mary is also a humble, hidden one. St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1700) used an interesting term to describe Mary as such in the preface of his classic work, True Devotion to Mary: he called her our “Alma Mater.” He explained the usage of this Latin phrase to describe Mary as “Mother, secret and hidden,” which was how de Montfort envisioned her. ** He wrote: “Her humility was so profound that she had no inclination on earth more powerful or constant than that of hiding herself, from herself, as well as from every other creature, so as to be known to God only.” In modern terms we can understand “hiding herself from herself” to indicate that due to her profound love, she was intent on serving God to the extent that she lived without being ruled by her ego. De Montfort did not mean she was oblivious to her own thoughts and feelings, but that on the contrary she was so in touch with her heart, soul, and will that she was able to totally dispossess herself, offering everything into the hands of God: all was for God and whatever He asked of her. In this, she is a model of humility. If we put ourselves at her feet, desiring holiness, she becomes Alma Mater as our mother, role-model, and a source of wisdom. Would that at the end of our lives, the Lord might see that we were her students, ‘learned’ in the art of hiddenness, selflessness, humility, and love!
On January 1st we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Honoring Mary on this day provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon the profound humility embodied in her motherhood and it also continues that which we began to celebrate the previous day with the Feast of the Holy Family. Each member of this family was humble in that they were part of the anawim (God’s poor ones) and in what they had consented to do: Jesus as the Messiah, Joseph as the hidden protector, and Mary as the perfect mother. But it is important to understand that we celebrate a solemnity dedicated to Mary on January 1st because she is more than mother to Jesus: this feast celebrates her as our mother. To miss the opportunity to reflect upon these mysteries during the Christmas season would be to miss a great gift which can be our focus long after the season ends.
We can always ask Mary to offer us her motherly assistance in any area, but if we want her to truly be our Alma Mater we must let her teach us. She can help us learn to do as she did: to discern the will of God and then to have the courage to humbly act upon it. We can reflect upon what we see of her in Scripture and therefore imitate her in pondering things in our heart as she did. Another effective way to do this is to pray the Rosary in which we meditate upon the mysteries found in those gospel passages which reveal her role and relationship to the mission of Jesus. We can learn from Mary how to point others to Jesus through acts of humble service and prayer. And she will also be present when we come to realize that something is too far beyond our ability, thus we learn humility when we ask for her intercession. To learn from our Alma Mater ultimately means letting ourselves become hidden ones, sitting at her feet as we ask her assistance, trusting in her love for us and in her relationship with Jesus.
This season would be a good time for us to make (or renew) a commitment to Mary as our mother and to let her teach us in the ways of holiness. Perhaps we can learn to be generous in opening our hearts to children and those who are innocent like children. Like Mary we can learn to be generous in giving to the anawim of our time, the poor materially and in spirit, the lonely, the ill, the displaced, the addicted, the incarcerated, the alien, and the marginalized. Perhaps we can learn to listen to those whose views (religious, political, or otherwise) are different than our own so that we might truly dialogue rather than argue. Perhaps we can learn to offer intercession for those who ask, and to keep interceding long after the request has been made. And perhaps we can learn to sit with God in the silence of a quiet hour rather than turning our attention to that which is not essential and thus leaves no time for the most essential relationship of all, the one with our Lord. These are all the qualities that are found in our Alma Mater, Mary, and they are the gifts she offers to us. It would be good to meet both Mary and Joseph at the manger and to be enveloped in the hidden time with Jesus between the arrival of the Magi and the departure of the shepherds. This is the gift of this season: that we might have some precious time with our family and friends and that our love may invite them to the stable, so together with Mary and Joseph we might adore.
May we imitate Mary and Joseph in seeking the gifts of humility, patience, selflessness and patience! May we find Mary and Joseph in their hiddenness and learn how much courage it takes to remain so! May we turn to Mary as our Alma Mater, personally accepting the gift of her motherhood! And may we have gratitude for the gift of one so holy and wise as our Mary, mother and Alma Mater! Let us meet at the manger and together adore the Christ Child in joy and peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*St. Joseph Shadow of the Father by Fr. Andre Doze, page 4
**Preface to True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort, translated by Fr. Frederick Faber
Note: Happy New Year to All! Next post will be on January 15.
1. This icon is called The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is one of my favorite Holy Family icons and it depicts much of what I was trying to express in this entry: Joseph is looking away, as if to be in touch with instructions for how to proceed. He is also hiding and protecting Mary and Jesus, as seen in his cloak held around them. Mary has her eyes totally on Jesus while trusting Joseph to keep them safe. Jesus has His hand on her cloak, but He is playfully squirming in her arms, just as any small child would do. You can find this icon for purchase in one of many formats (or simply to get a better look) at Fr. Bill's website: http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
2. This is one of my photos, taken in the Badlands of South Dakota. I chose this sunset because the sun is low in the sky, about to become hidden. The sun is still there at night, of course, but it is hidden from our sight, symbolic of the hiddenness of Joseph and Mary.
3. I took this photo in the St. Joseph Church in Nazareth, Israel. This church is not far from the Church of the Annunciation; in fact, they are right next door to one another. This icon was on one of the walls and it caught my attention. I love the way Joseph holds the scrolls of the Scriptures and Jesus, one in each arm. He has the Word and the Word in his safe keeping.
4. This icon is called Mother of God Waiting in Adoration by Fr. William Hart McNichols. In this work, Mary is seen in a posture of prayer and great humility. She is pondering everything in her heart and she is learning from the Word within her. (She is pregnant in this icon.) She is totally dispossessing herself to God: "I am the Handmaiden of the Lord!"
You can find this at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/mother-of-god-waiting-in-adoration-248-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
5. I have chosen another of the exquisite icons written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This is my favorite icon, Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations: I chose it since we celebrate the Solemnity of the Mary the Mother of God on January 1. She is the Mother of All Nations. You can read more about the apparition and subsequent devotion of Mary under this title at http://www.de-vrouwe.info/en. You can find Fr. Bill's unique and beautiful icon at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/mary-most-holy-mother-of-all-nations-080-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This photo is also one of mine, taken in Estes Park, Colorado, (in Rocky Mountain National Park.) It was a scene of peace and serenity and so I chose to use it here because I hope to convey the peace and the prayerfulness that comes with reflection. Perhaps we can find a place in our own town or city, and especially a place within our own heart, to sit with Mary and let her be our Alma Mater, leading us always to her Son, so that we might respond with love, mercy, and compassion toward those in most need, as well as to our own loved ones.
7. This final image is a painting called The Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds by Bernardino Luini, (1480). I chose it because I like the more youthful Joseph, seen on the far right, as well as for the posture of rapt attention of each figure, focused on Jesus. The anawim are gathered, the poor shepherds and the lowly parents, in adoration of Jesus. (Note the foreshadowing of the Cross in the beams behind them, though this should not take away from the joy of the moment. It is a reminder that this Child has a mission which has only just begun.) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bernardino_Luini_-_Nativity_and_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_-_WGA13754.jpg
Heart Speaks to Heart