By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As we live out these last days of preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we take Mary as our model as we await His coming.
In the many works of religious art that we see at this time of year, even in the midst of our secular society, we often see the Infant Jesus depicted with Mary. This is most appropriate and reflects the words of the Gospel of Matthew, which tell us that “they (the Magi) saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11).
The Roman Catechism reminds us that “we truly honor and venerate Mary as Mother of God, because she gave birth to a person who is at the same time both God and man” (Section I, chapter 4:7).
Given these facts, even our common sense tells us that the Child is inseparable from the mother. A famous writer of the 20th century expressed this truth in this very logical and common sense manner: “You cannot visit the child without visiting his mother; you cannot in common life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross” (The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton).
Our Lady of Guadalupe
We have recently celebrated, along with our Mexican and Mexican-American brothers and sisters, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We are also awaiting the completion and installation of a new mosaic image of Our Lady under this title in our own Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. It is appropriate that this Feast takes place so near to Christmas because it places us in close contact with Mary during these final days of her expectation of the Birth of Jesus.
Of the many beautiful lessons which the story of Our Lady’s appearance to the humble Saint Juan Diego teaches us, perhaps the most beautiful is the extremely personal nature of everything connected with this Apparition. Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego in his own dialect, or local form of speech, as she did with Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. Her appearance was not so much a proclamation from on high as the intimate visit of a mother to her child, using the local manner of speech which would be used in the home. The image which Our Lady caused to appear miraculously on the tilma, or cloak of Juan Diego, shows her with the features of the native population and dressed in their manner.
This personal relationship of Mary with Juan Diego and with her own spanine Son reminds us that she wishes our relationship with her to be personal and intimate. Given that fact, we can speak to her intimately and ask her to teach us the lessons of a mother: in this case, the lesson of how she prepared for the Birth of Jesus.
We all know that, even with the best of intentions, our prayers are often imperfect. Who among us does not experience distractions, wandering of the mind and intrusions of worldly cares, even when we are trying our best to communicate with God in prayer? This is because one of the effects of original sin is what is called the “darkening of the intellect.” We do not understand earthly things perfectly and our minds, glorious as they are in their possibilities, are often distracted.
Since Our Lady was free of all stain of sin, she experienced no such imperfection in her union of prayer with God. While she certainly went about doing earthly tasks and was even engaged to Saint Joseph, her words and actions were not clouded by the effects of original sin and neither were her prayers. We sometimes see Mary pictured in an attitude of prayer when she is portrayed as receiving the message of the angel at the Annunciation. Whether or not she was actually at prayer at that moment, the fact is that her union with God was intimate and undefiled by the darkness of the intellect. She did not possess the perfect knowledge which God possesses but her knowledge and prayer were unclouded by sin. Therefore, her intimacy with God in prayer was the perfect preparation for her vocation as Mother of the Incarnate Word.
Even though we do not possess her sinlessness, we have the privilege of communicating with God in the conversation between creature and Creator that is called prayer. We also, in imitation of Our Lady, prepare for the coming of Jesus by speaking to Him and telling Him that we wish to prepare a place for Him. This Advent Season, as all others, is also a time to work on sinful habits so that we may be purified to become a worthy place for our Savior when He comes, just as Mary’s soul was prepared by her Immaculate Conception.
At the North American College in Rome, where some North American students are sent to study for the priesthood and where others live while obtaining advanced degrees, the Patroness of their Chapel is Our Lady of Humility. This image, which is so dear to the alumni of the North American College, seems to have a somewhat strange title: Our Lady of Humility! Is this not the same Mary who predicted: “all generations will call me blessed?” Indeed it is, because humility does not mean denying who we are. It also does not mean exalting ourselves beyond who we really are.
Our Lady’s sinlessness gave her a clear vision of reality: the reality of her exalted mission as mother of the Word made Flesh and the reality of her lowliness in comparison to God’s majesty, from which she had received her fullness of grace. This humility, which recognizes our debt to God for the gift of His Son at Christmas but also allows us to rejoice in the gift of faith that allows us to know and recognize Him, is another lesson which Mary teaches us as we prepare for the birth of her Son.
Mary, the Dawn
A very ancient understanding of Our Lady’s role in the work of salvation, is that of Mary as the dawn which prepares for the rising of the Sun of Justice. Just as the light of dawn announces that the sun is about to rise, so the brightness of Mary’s sinlessness prepares the way for the spanine Son, who is born in to the world at Christmas. In this way, we are able to continue the imagery we began with this week when we pointed out the inseparable relationship of Jesus with His mother.
The Solemnity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which we recently celebrated, reminded us that her role as Mother of God was prepared for her from all eternity. Our recent celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us that this mother, who is inseparable from her spanine Son, is also united to us, her children in an intimate way.
It is said that five million native inhabitants of the area around which Mary appeared to Saint Juan Diego received Baptism within the first months after this apparition. Mary always leads us to the life of her Son and always helps us to recognize Him. Let us conclude with the following poem, which places Our Lady in the role she has been given as the one closest to her spanine Son, who draws us, her children to that same Son with the love of a mother:
Mary the dawn, Christ the perfect day; Mary the gate, Christ the heavenly way. Mary the root, Christ the mystic vine; Mary the grape, Christ the sacred wine. Mary the wheat, Christ the living bread; Mary the stem, Christ the rose: blood-red. Mary the font, Christ the cleansing flood; Mary the chalice, Christ the saving blood. Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord; Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored. Mary the beacon, Christ the haven’s rest; Mary the mirror, Christ the vision blest. Mary the mother, Christ the Mother’s Son; By all things blest while endless ages run. – Anonymous
17 December 2009
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