As a little girl I was fascinated by my grandmother’s “prayer corner.” She had a spot in her kitchen with a vigil light always burning near a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary which I came to understand was like a continuous silent prayer asking Mary to intercede for her intentions. My grandmother was often at prayer, though it was never obtrusive or obvious. She always had Rosary beads in the pocket of her dress, and so the Virgin Mary was never far from her thoughts. Grandma was a humble, loving woman who always shared what she had and was always cheerful, even though she suffered from terrible arthritis. It was she who taught me of the importance of a relationship with Mary.
In my mind, therefore, celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of Mary seems like a natural thing to do. In celebrating the birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we celebrate her life, not just the day on which she was born. She was chosen from among all women to be the bearer of the Son of God, something which should give us all great joy. God chose Mary to be a fitting tabernacle in which He resided during her pregnancy, but also she was the fitting mother of such a Son.
Mary is very important to salvation history, yet the Old Testament reading for today’s Mass (in the Latin Rite) from the prophet Micah emphasizes humble beginnings: "The Lord says: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:1) The Messiah would come forth from a town and a family too small to be taken seriously. His mother would be the humblest of all, deeply rooted in humility from her own birth through widowhood in much of her adult life. Today in celebrating her birth we celebrate both the greatness and humility of Mary: her holiness lies in her understanding that in God is extreme humility, which in fact, is part of His glory. Her greatness, and therefore her holiness, lies in her embracing of His will which meant she would be lowly, as the Son made Himself lowly.
It was an act of the most extreme humility for the Holy One of Israel to send His own glorious Son from Heaven into our world of brokenness. There is no greater act of humility than this, save the one which allowed the glorious Son of God, (who chose to live in hiddenness most of His life), to be killed on a cross as a derided criminal. The entire life of Jesus was part of that extreme humility. Therefore it is fitting that His mother, Mary, would be chosen by God since she was humble from the day of her own birth. She was indeed a fitting vessel, humility bearing Humility.
Actually, the feast of the Nativity of Mary is bit of an unusual celebration. Rarely does the church celebrate the birth of a saint; the celebrations are usually of their entrance into Heaven which begins on the date of the saint's death. But Mary is so important to our salvation history that we celebrate many feasts in her honor: her Immaculate Conception (December 8), her birth (September 8), her entrance into Heaven (August 15), and her enthronement as Queen of Heaven (August 22), to name a few. Many do not understand why she is so celebrated, but to be clear, we honor her, we do not worship her. We honor her because without her assent to God's request that she be the mother of His Son, salvation would not have entered into the world. Her 'fiat' (‘Let it be done’) was the one word that changed the world forever. Her word enabled The Word to enter into the world to conquer sin and death.
Mary deserves acclaim, having suffered so much for her role in salvation history. She bore the Son of God within her womb and she then raised Him from infancy into manhood. I can imagine no more difficult task. In addition, throughout her life she had to let go of Him continually, especially as a widow with no other children. Just as all mothers have to let their children move from one stage to another, so too did Mary. But many of the times she had to do this were very difficult. Indeed, it was Mary who told Him at Cana it was time to begin His ministry when she urged Him to perform His first miracle. It was about much more than water into wine; it was a preview of His death, that He would pour out His humanity and humble His divinity through water and blood on the cross. By asking Jesus to perform that miracle she knew she was urging Him to enter into His ministry, but because she was a woman of prayer she knew that this was what the Father wanted.
Mary also let go of Jesus at the foot of the cross when she could have begged Him to come down and miraculously conquer those who wished Him death. Instead she observed, weeping, but not clinging, so that He could finish the mission for which He was born. The apostles so revered her that she was at the center of the group when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost. This indicates her importance: she is considered mother of the Church, since without giving birth to Jesus there would be no Church. While it is not in Scripture, tradition has it that she accompanied John the apostle until her own death. During all that time she did what she always did: she prayed for God's work to be carried out through His followers. In other words, she prayed for the Church, for individual members for the entire Body of Christ.
We celebrate Mary’s birth because it was the beginning of a life so worthy of the Son she bore: her entire life was directed toward that moment. Mary spent her life in service of God, and so she is one whom we should imitate. We can turn to her to let her teach us what we need to do in order to be of service to the Lord. In celebrating her birth are also reminded of all that she continues to do. At this time in history there are many evils in the world such as those in Syria, Iraq, Libya, (and other oppressive regimes), as well as the ravages of poverty and disease. We have moral decline and we have self-centered attitudes running rampant. Therefore we need Mary more than ever. She has always been the protector of nations. (She is the patron of the United States.) We need the example of a humble mother who is the one closest to Jesus. She does not have the power of God, but rather she has the power of love which she offers when she intercedes on our behalf. That is all that she needs. She knows what pleases God and what disappoints or angers God, and because of her great love, she tries to warn us so that we can fight off evil through prayer and repentance. She is a wonderful friend to have, as a mother to us, especially in times of trouble.
I have read a lot about the saints and I have never found one, not one, who was not devoted to Mary or who was even the slightest bit tepid about Mary. All of them were absolutely devoted with the greatest love for her. Imitating her is a path to holiness, given the holy life which she lived. Therefore if we want to grow in holiness it makes sense to travel the journey with her. To be a follower of Jesus we can look to her since she was the first disciple, though in the background during His ministry. Her qualities are the ones we need if we, too, want to be disciples. And asking her intercession for our world is something we can do no matter what our status in life may be. She reminds us to fast, pray for the reparation of sin, and to do works of charity. All these are acts of love and they are critical for our world today.
We are so blessed to have a mother such as the Blessed Virgin Mary. We should celebrate her birth and therefore her entire life by imitating her and honoring her. When we ask her to lead us to her Son it is her greatest joy. She asks nothing for herself, but rather she asks everything for her Son. Let us remember Mary in a special way in order to glorify the Lord who gave her to us in order to bring Jesus into the world. There is no greater gift than this.
In celebrating the birth of Mary may we find the joy of Heaven! May we imitate the virtues of Mary, letting her draw us closer to Jesus! May we learn from Mary's humility, asking her to help us grow in this gift! May we pray to Mary for intercession for our world and for each of us to live the Gospels! And may we recognize that Mary points us to her Son above all else; may we also point others to Jesus! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus and with Him, celebrate the birth of His mother! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
All the icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is called Mater Domini and is found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/169-mater-domini.
Second is Mother of God of Vatopedi which is found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/224-mother-of-god-vatopedi.
Third is Mother of God, Light in All Darkness and is found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/174-mother-of-god-light-in-all-darkness.
The last is a brand new icon, Fr. Bill's latest, called She Who Reigns. For an explanation of this stunning icon, click here for a link to his blog: http://www.fatherbill.org/father-bills-blog.
You can purchase a print or card of any of Fr. Bill's icons by accessing his website or the links I have provided. As I have said previously, I get no remuneration from presenting his icons or publicizing his work. What I do get is the great joy of sharing the beauty of his iconography in the hope it will touch your heart as much as it does mine.
Heart Speaks to Heart