As evening drew near, the air became cooler and brilliant stars began to shine forth in the darkening sky. The sight could not compare with last night’s sky – but then nothing could. Even my mother’s mother said she had never seen anything like that before.
Like so many others, my family had come to Bethlehem for the census. Being faithful Jews, we did not want to come at all but we had little choice. We knew that God did not permit the counting of the people but, at this point, others ruled us without respect for the Law of the Most High.
By the time we arrived, the inn was so full that we had to pitch our tents a short distance from the road, as did many others. This did not bother me in the least because the inn was full of loud and drunken men and, as a young woman, I did not want to be near them. In fact, I was relieved that my father had chosen a spot far from this commotion and closer to the stable where the owner kept his few animals.
I do not want to give the impression, however, that I am the virtuous young woman that I should be at my age. In fact, I have always liked to be out wandering the hillsides like a boy rather than staying at my mother’s side, learning the tasks of a good wife.
I love adventure and watching the clouds and the trees and the sun. I do not mean to be bad. Yet I am still haunted by a time just months ago when I nearly brought great shame upon my family. My face still burns with humiliation when I think of it.
However, tonight I was not thinking of it. In truth, I was glad our tents were a bit further away from the others because I hoped to slip away from the camp once it became dark. There was something I had to see.
Early this morning, my older brother, Joshua, had been laughing and talking with some of the young shepherds and they had told him the most fantastic story.
It was hard to get the full account because Joshua clearly hadn’t taken the shepherds seriously. “Something about the unusual stars and angels singing and a girl having a baby in the stable,” Joshua had said. “Complete nonsense. You know how shepherds are,” he commented dismissively in that superior tone he sometimes used.
Tonight I planned to go see for myself, to peek into the stable and see if there really was a baby. I knew my mother would scold me if she knew. A young woman my age should be above such curiosity and certain should not be seen going off somewhere alone and at night.
But there was something here more than mere curiosity. Certainly I wanted to see the baby if there was one. What girl wouldn’t? But I felt something deep inside drawing me to go – almost as if God Himself were drawing me to go and see, crazy as that might sound.
When I told Joshua this, he gave me that older brother look of his. But when he saw how intent I was on doing this, he promised to watch out for me, to make sure no harm came to me on the way to the stable.
So when it had grown dark and the cooking fires burned low, I slipped away, with Joshua watching out for me. By the time I reached the stable doors, my heart was pounding wildly and I could barely breathe. What did I expect to find inside? If there was a young family staying there, how would I explain my intrusion?
I almost turned around at this point but again, that feeling of being drawn was so powerful – so sweet – that I gently pushed open one of the doors despite my fear.
When the door inched open, my first reaction was one of immense relief. It was just an ordinary stable. Why had I allowed myself to become worked into such a fright?
And then I heard it. The soft whimpering of a newborn, closely followed by the hummed songs of a mother soothing her infant.
It took my eyes a moment to adjust and make out the layout of the stable but then I saw them. The girl – the mother – appeared only slightly older than me, though there was something about her that made me feel she knew much more than me. A man, a bit older, was with her, and I assumed he was the baby’s father, so protective was he of the two of them.
The door had made a slight creaking noise when I opened it and it seemed only to get louder as I tried to be more careful and quiet. However, when the young couple looked up at me, I felt utterly welcome, almost as though they had been expecting me. The mother’s shy smile beckoned me and I walked over to the stall where they had set up their temporary home.
My eyes searched the darkness until I saw him. The baby. He was properly swaddled and lying in a bed of hay they had made for him in one of the animal’s feeding troughs. Despite the conditions, he appeared quite comfortable and content, all bundled up in the soft clothing.
I looked to the mother, my eyes meeting hers, asking without words. She smiled and nodded. I reached down and gently drew the infant into my arms. I rubbed my face into the downy softness of his head and kissed him. Then, I felt an overwhelming desire to hold this little one to my heart – and so I did.
I do not know how to explain what happened next. I come from a large family and I have held many babies before. But something very different happened as I embraced this little one. As I held him to my heart, I felt him enter my heart. I know it makes no sense to try to say this in words. But I felt his life come into me and it was like a peace, a joy, a light entered me that I had never known before. Nor had I ever even known that such an experience was possible.
I held him and I did not want to let him go. Tears streamed down my face as so much pain that I had carried in my heart was released and his peace took its place. I did not know I had so much pain within me – disappointment, anger, shame. It all came pouring out as I wept softly, still holding him to my heart.
When I regained my composure, I noticed that the man had stepped back so that the mother, the baby and I could be alone. I was still holding him but now I let him rest in my arms. He appeared sleepy and I rocked him slightly, unable to take my eyes from him.
Finally, I looked up at his mother, wondering what she would think of my odd display over her infant. Her eyes were soft – beautifully soft and full of knowing. And she smiled. Though she never said a word to me, I never lost the feeling that she wanted to share him with me. She obviously loved him – yet she wanted me, a total stranger, to know and love him as she did.
When I finally left the stable, I felt like a different person – a new person, still myself but fresh and new as though I had just been born myself. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my life was never the same after that. All of this I pondered for many years, wondering who this child was to be and what all of this could possibly mean.
(This is the first of my Christmas greetings to you, my beloved readers, to celebrate and proclaim the Good News of the holy Birth. This poem is a lipogram – a poem in which all words contain only one vowel – which is part of what gives it its unusual syntax and rhythm. Thus it is not a smooth and delicate poem – but birth is not a smooth and delicate event. Yet it is joyous… Listen and read. I hope to share more as the feast continues…)
inn fills with sin
fighting din within
virgin’s signs swift
missing kin, rich risk –
sighing, “His will” –
skin rips in giving,
birthing +++birthing ++++++BIRTHING!
till wisp, limbs,
silk skin, milk gift.
his is kiss
spirit Child bliss.
sing! sing! sing!
bright light –
fill still night!
find him in night!
right ill’s plight
find him –
sing! +++sing! ++++++sing!
Before I became more drawn to the Theotokos, I had simply thought (if I thought at all) that we were to consider her “mother” because Jesus had given her to John at the foot of the Cross. The words to John, “behold your mother”, I was taught, were meant for the whole Church.
And so they were.
But my reflection did little more than scratch the surface. I do not claim to understand very much more now – yet a bit more was given to me to see.
As we have been reading the narratives of Luke in the past week, I have pondered the appearance of Gabriel to Zachariah and then to Mary. Their responses to the angel have been especially intriguing to me.
Both Zachariah and Mary, like any human beings in such circumstances, where shaken by their visions and asked questions. Prior to this moment in their lives, both were faithful servants of the Lord.
Although I may be wrong, some of my translations give the impression that Zachariah’s questioning held just a bit more doubt than Mary’s. Even when it was explained to him who his son was to be, Zachariah seemed to ask, “Well, how can I be sure of this?”
Not an unreasonable question, from a human perspective. “If I’m going to be put in this position, I want to be sure that this messenger really is from God and that what he is telling me is the truth. I don’t want to be duped.”
But, in my reading, Mary’s response had a different flavor to it. She questioned, but it seemed more like she was seeking instructions, as in, “I don’t know how this will happen since I have not had relations with a man.”
It doesn’t seem so much that she is saying that she wants proof, as much as she seeks understanding. After all, she does not yet know what will need to happen for her to conceive this Child.
Once she is told, her response is seemingly immediate, “May it be done to me…”
Both of these great parents-to-be are given signs to strengthen their faith.
Zachariah is struck dumb. While this sign seems punitive, it was immensely powerful. As priest unable to speak, he had to move inward to listen for the truth. As a prophet, his public silence attested to God’s action in his life.
Mary’s sign was very different, but equally potent. In witnessing the pregnancy of Elizabeth, a barren woman beyond child-bearing years, she was shown that “nothing is impossible with God”. Her own virginity would not prevent God from bringing forth from her the Son of God.
Hence, it does not seem surprising that Mary would then rush off to see Elizabeth – for in Elizabeth was to be her sign.
Yet what we are told transpired there, in the meeting of these two women, is so very important.
Once greeted by Mary, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out,
“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1: 45) (emphasis mine)
What we might have expected in this situation was that the younger woman, Mary, would have come to Elizabeth seeking reassurance, validation of her “sign”, that these astonishing things were really to happen to her.
Instead, holy Elizabeth, inspired, recognizes not only the truth of the coming of the Lord, but that Mary is blessed because she already believes it.
And this is what makes her our Mother.
Though I am much older in years than Mary was when all of this occurred, compared to her, I am but a little child in faith. I am a mere infant with regard to obedience. Humility? I am barely out of the womb.
Perhaps you are further along than me. But I need a mother to “raise” me – a mother deeply rooted in faith, humility and obedience. For was it not these things that Jesus later remarked made a person his mother (or sister or brother)?
The Church is my mother. And my earthly parents provided me with a good upbringing.
And yet I am still so very little.
Oh sometimes I think I’m a grown-up in the faith – and can even convincingly pass as one for short times. But then I stumble and fall. I need only skin my knee, so to speak, and I am crying for myself as though my hurts and needs were of the utmost importance.
I need a mother in faith.
And she is my Mother. A Mother who teaches me to be a mother – a mother of God.
Our mother… Holy Virgin.
Let us walk with her – no, let us ask her to walk with us, during these final pregnant moments of preparation for the Birth, which is, has been and is yet to come.
I have written of becoming a mother of God, through hearing the Word and obeying the Father. This is a great privilege, a holy labor, an abundant joy.
Yet it is nothing like being the Mother of God, the Holy Virgin. I know that I shall never become like her – I am nowhere close.
It has been said that Jesus told us that we can all be His mother and sisters and brothers because He wanted to make it clear that the essential relationship lie not in biological ties. Rather, the spiritual bond – the profound intimacy of being brought into Jesus’ union with the Father and the Spirit – is the true blessing.
And so it is.
The reason I can say I will never be like the Holy Mother of God is because I will never be as completely obedient as she was, as completely giving of my entire self to God.
I have already failed that test. And yet I do not despair.
What is so incredibly beautiful is that we have been given Holy Mary to be part of our family too. Because of what she gave, she carried the Lord God within her – not just physically in her womb, but in the depths of her heart.
She is “Theotokos” not just because she gave birth to Jesus in time, as incredibly important as that was, but because she brings Him to birth throughout time, in all parts of the world, in every race and culture.
It is for this reason that we can rightfully portray the Madonna in art with any racial features – or rather with all racial features – because she is Mother of all.
At one time, all of this seemed very strange to me and I had a difficult time understanding what seemed to me an almost cult-like devotion to the Virgin that I saw in some countries. And certainly, as with any matter of faith, there may be people who slip into the extremes, innocently or not so innocently, and for many reasons.
But the Virgin Mary is given to us to help and protect us. We must never forget that the war of the spirit rages around us and within us – and we cannot fight it alone.
The Theotokos has been given many designations that tell us how very important she is in our Christian life, e.g. Mother of Mercy, Help of Christians, Refuge of Sinners, Seat of Wisdom, Cause of Our Joy and Queen of Peace, among many others.
The Holy Virgin has also been known by the places where she has appeared to humble believers. While some of these appearances may be controversial, some are utterly awesome in their nature and impact.
Today (December 12), we in the Western Church celebrate one such appearance of the Holy Lady to a peasant named Juan Diego. The year was 1531, the place was Mexico.
In the event that you are not familiar with the account (or would like to hear it again), I have narrated it and will reprint the text below, before commenting further.
Text: From a report by Don Antonio Valeriano, a Native American author of the sixteenth century
At daybreak one Saturday morning in 1531, on the very first days of the month of December, an Indian named Juan Diego was going from the village where he lived to Tlatelolco in order to take part in divine worship and listen to God’s commandments. When he came near the hill called Tepeyac, dawn had already come, and Juan Diego heard someone calling him from the very top of the hill: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.”
He went up the hill and caught sight of a lady of unearthly grandeur whose clothing was as radiant as the sun. She said to him in words both gentle and courteous: “Juanito, the humblest of my children, know and understand that I am the ever virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live. It is my ardent desire that a church be erected here so that in it I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land and to those others who love me, that they might call upon and confide in me. Go to the Bishop of Mexico to make known to him what I greatly desire. Go and put all your efforts into this.”
When Juan Diego arrived in the presence of the Bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, a Franciscan, the latter did not seem to believe Juan Diego and answered: “Come another time, and I will listen at leisure.”
Juan Diego returned to the hilltop where the Heavenly Lady was waiting, and he said to her: “My Lady, my maiden, I presented your message to the Bishop, but it seemed that he did not think it was the truth. For this reason I beg you to entrust your message to someone more illustrious who might convey it in order that they may believe it, for I am only an insignificant man.”
She answered him: “Humblest of my sons, I ask that tomorrow you again go to see the Bishop and tell him that I, the ever virgin holy Mary, Mother of God, am the one who personally sent you.”
But on the following day, Sunday, the Bishop again did not believe Juan Diego and told him that some sign was necessary so that he could believe that it was the Heavenly Lady herself who sent him. And then he dismissed Juan Diego.
On Monday Juan Diego did not return. His uncle, Juan Bernardino, became very ill, and at night asked Juan to go to Tlatelolco at daybreak to call a priest to hear his confession.
Juan Diego set out on Tuesday, but he went around the hill and passed on the other side, toward the east, so as to arrive quickly in Mexico City and to avoid being detained by the Heavenly Lady. But she came out to meet him on that side of the hill and said to him: “Listen and understand, my humblest son. There is nothing to frighten and distress you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and let nothing upset you. Is it not I, your Mother, who is here? Are you not under my protection? Are you not, fortunately, in my care? Do not let your uncle’s illness distress you. It is certain that he has already been cured. Go up to the hilltop, my son, where you will find flowers of various kinds. Cut them, and bring them into my presence.”
When Juan Diego reached the peak, he was astonished that so many Castilian roses had burst forth at a time when the frost was severe. He carried the roses in the folds of his tilma (mantle) to the Heavenly Lady. She said to him: “My son, this is the proof and the sign which you will bring to the Bishop so that he will see my will in it. You are my ambassador, very worthy of trust.”
Juan Diego set out on his way, now content and sure of succeeding. On arriving in the Bishop’s presence, he told him: “My lord, I did what you asked. The Heavenly Lady complied with your request and fulfilled it. She sent me to the hilltop to cut some Castilian roses and told me to bring them to you in person. And this I am doing, so that you can see in them the sign you seek in order to carry out her will. Here they are; receive them.”
He immediately opened up his white mantle, and as all the different Castilian roses scattered to the ground, there was drawn on the cloak and suddenly appeared the precious image of the ever virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the same manner as it is today and is kept in her shrine of Tepeyac.
The whole city was stirred and came to see and admire her venerable image and to offer prayers to her; and following the command which the same Heavenly Lady gave to Juan Bernardino when she restored him to health, they called her by the name that she herself had used: “the ever virgin holy Mary of Guadalupe.”
There are a number of things about this appearance that are utterly amazing and deeply moving. One is that the “heavenly Lady” spoke to Juan Diego in his native language and insisted on speaking through this most humble but faithful man.
The image she left of herself on his mantle showed her in Aztec clothing, using symbols that could be readily understood by the Aztec people. A shrine was built on the hill where she requested it and, within 7 years, approximately 9 million Aztecs were converted to the faith.
The image she left has many remarkable qualities and it seems to be essentially indestructible. A strong nitric acid solvent was accidentally spilled on a large part of the image in the late 18th century and it “self-restored” over the next month. In 1921, a bomber placed 20 sticks of dynamite before the tilma in its glass case. Virtually everything around it was destroyed, including a marble altar rail, but the tilma and its case remained intact.
Fascinating studies have been done of the image, revealing things that seem impossible – if we were not believers. For example, it has many qualities that are very much like a human body (it maintains a temperature of 98.6 F).
actual image as displayed in shrine (borrowed from Internet)
However, more important than these fascinating details is that there is an enormously powerful truth among us.
It is called the Kingdom of God.
And its presence was made possible because one young woman, a humble virgin, said “yes” and gave all, out of loving obedience.
She is our Mother. May we accept her loving help as we learn to be mothers of God, each in our own little way.
These are not my words but those of the Lord Christ. Although they were never historically recorded for us, they make themselves evident throughout the Gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with people at every level of society.
I hope that someday they will be my words.
My mind seems relentlessly drawn back to our Scripture passage about being a mother of Christ – or a brother or a sister. To be so close to Him – to be welcomed into His immediate family – such joy!
We are told that if we do the will of the Father, we are mother and brother and sister to Him. This makes complete sense. If we do not love our Father enough to respect and obey Him, we are not ready to be family with Him.
All of us have grown up with less than perfect families – it is part of being human. Even the best of human families are made up of sinners and most of us have not had (or been) the best.
Thus, it is impossible for us to fathom just what it means to be invited into family with the Lord. It certainly must be something far beyond anything we can imagine.
I wonder why I try to write of something I cannot understand. Perhaps because there has been implanted in me (and all of us) a longing for complete and eternal Home. A Home where, as family of Christ, we are so “related” that we are Body together.
We do not live in such a Home alone, any more than the organs of a body function apart from one another. Rather, we support each other so intimately that separation is incomprehensible.
Such a Body is possible only with Christ as our Head. Such a Home is possible only with God as Father of all.
If I might, for a moment, return to the words of St. Porphyrios that I recorded in my last post, he referred to “commingling of the soul with the divine”. Or as is stated in 2 Peter (ch. 1), Christ has bestowed great promises on us that we “may come to share in the divine nature”.
This is particularly intriguing because generally we think of mothers (and fathers) giving their life and nature to their children. But here, as we are invited to be mothers of God, His nature is given to us.
As He is born, we are re-born. We are made glorious in Him. Yet we can only “give birth”, bringing others into the Body, because birth was first given to us.
Despite this promise of glory, we must never forget that giving birth is inevitably a painful process.
The love which gives birth, the love which makes us “mother” to Christ, is that love which reaches out to take the pain of another, to carry his suffering, to hold her sorrow, with profound compassion.
It is not a social policy. It is not a charitable donation. It is my life-blood, offered for the other.
If I am to be “mother of God”, my soul commingling with the divine (I pray it be so!), I must be ready to spill every drop of that life-blood to make it happen.
I cannot accept birth or give birth without labor, the emptying of myself.
I cannot live in Body and not live as Body. My self can only offer all that it is for the healing and health of us all.
My cells cannot be more important than other cells. Nor can they have their own agenda or declare their functions to serve some and not others.
I cannot be in family, in Home, and disobey. I have a Father and only in Him, in His love, with the truth and wisdom of His Spirit, can we be eternal Home together.
This is the life that I long for. This is the life for which we were made.
I am not good enough or strong enough to do any of this, of course.
But He comes – no, He is here – and He shares with me His very nature.
May I bear your pain? Allow me to carry your suffering for you…
Amen. Let it be so.
(Today is the one year anniversary of the beginning of this little blog. Thank you, dear readers, for supporting me here. Let us pray for each other as we allow ourselves to be led by God.)