One of the classes I have taught a few times for RCIA is on the Mystery of the Incarnation; in teaching it I have been struck with several things from the Gospel of St. Luke that never fail to impress me at this time of the year.
For me, the Christmas story always begins in March - at the Feast of the Annunciation. Our Blessed Mother is approached by the Angel Gabriel ("in the sixth month" - bonus prizes if anyone can leave me a comment on what that refers to). Mary has this fantastic choice to make about her ability to trust in God. I prefer to believe that the Incarnation of the Son was not only the work of God (the Father), of His Power and His Spirit: it was also accomplished thru the will and the faith of the Virgin.
This then was indeed the most momentous moment of all time. It was as if all creation held its’ breath and waited on Mary’s response. St Bernard of Clairvaux speaks about it:
“Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel speedily; rather, through the angel, answer your Lord. Speak the word, and receive the Word; offer what is yours, and conceive what is of God; give what is temporal, and embrace what is eternal.”To her eternal credit Mary uttered her great act of faith: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your Word.” Mary entrusted herself completely to God and totally accepted God’s design in her life. Truly, she, “Gave what was temporal and embraced what is eternal.”
But now she has a large problem. She is an unwed, pregnant young women in first century Galilee. Certainly she will not be believed if she tells the circumstances of this miraculous Conception. The Gospel makes no mention of her parents - they may even be dead by this time. How can she reveal what she has been told? What she has agreed to? The penalty for unwed pregnancy at that time was stoning.
Gabriel gives her the answer: “You remember your kinswoman, Elizabeth. The fine, upstanding old women. She is pregnant, who was called barren.”
It is not hard to picture: she hurries to the hill country of Judea, as fast as her feet can carry her; the whole way, imagining how she will tell this news to the old woman - perhaps rehersing the strange, incredible news in her head (don't you do that when you have "big news"? I certainly do).
And what happens? Luke tells us:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.
She knows! She doesn’t have to be told, to be convinced … miracle of miracles, she knows! What relief must our Blessed Mother have felt? She expresses this in her Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, … He has done mighty things for me, and holy is His name!”Mary stays with Elizabeth until John is born, then returns to her home. But what now of Joseph? St. Matthew tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and tells him, "Do not fear to take Mary into your household." Fear? Would Joseph fear Mary? Wouldn't hurt or anger be the more natural reactions? I think Joseph was a little afraid of this young girl - who was plainly very holy. I think he may have been afraid to upset the plans that God had for her.
This leads us to the Great Enrollment, and the trip to Bethlehem and the Nativity,
Mothers, imagine the fear, the stress – you are 16 – you have seen and conversed with an Angel! Your most precious child – also happens to be the Son of God – the promised Messiah destined to sit on throne of his father David. You have been consecrated to God since your birth, and know well what this means, and what it will mean for your child. You know that the child will be born on this trip – the Messiah must come from Bethlehem (as prophesied in the Book of Micah) and you know this well.
Imagine their joy at finally ariving in Bethlehem – she must have been exhausted – only to find no place to rest. How many doors did Joseph knock on before settling on the cave? – Explaining, again and again with growing anxiety; Mary standing behind him, hearing the refusals? How sorry she must have felt for him!
Pehaps is was her idea to take shelter where they could find it. She probably encouraged him, telling him not to worry, that they would make do. So they made their lodging in the stable, with the few belongings they had been able to carry from Nazareth: the swaddling clothes, some items that she herself prepared with that joy only a mother can experience in preparing for the birth of a child. What must that place have been like? – Cold and damp – Imagine the smells of the animals, of the hay in the manger...
Fathers, imagine the stress – an angel (Gabriel?) has told you the truth about this child in a dream. You love Mary - and you have to take her to a stable to bear this holy child. I was in full fledged panic in the heart of Albany Medical Center when my children were born! About one in ten women in first century Palestine died in childbirth. The child might have supernatural guarantees – you are not sure of that. But Mary, as far as you know, has no guarantees. You have no help, no light, no “boiling water”.
What happens next is not recorded. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have debated how the actual Birth of Christ happened for many centuries. The only definitive doctrine here is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary - that Our Blessed Mother remained a virgin "before, during, and after the birth of her only Son".
But this birth does not go un-noticed, or unheralded. Angels appear to the shepherds in the fields. Shepherds in those days were considered rough and ignorant "people of the land" - the modern equivalent of how a New Yorker might feel about a country bumpkin. But Oh! do they turn up to see this miracle, proclaiming loudly as they come what they had seen and heard in the field about a newborn King and Lord.
Which is also a big, big problem. The whole town will turn out to see this. And sitting on his throne a mere seven miles away in Jerusalem is that malevolent spider, Herod the Great. Herod will brook no-one else bearing the title "King", or "Lord". They must get the Child out of the cave and away from the commotion raised by the shepherds.
There is much to say about this - about the Circumcision of the Lord, His Presentation and Epiphany, and the Holy Innocents - but that will need to wait until the next post.