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When Mary finally departed from Elizabeth’s home, she entered into a period of waiting -- waiting for the Christ Child to be born. She was aware of the laws of nature and birth. She knew that she could not force the birth of her Son. She had to wait. And waiting with Mary we again gain certain insights regarding how to make Christ alive in our world.
At the outset, we must highlight and emphasize the role that waiting has in our spiritual strivings. “The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction.” (Father Henri Nouwen, Weavings)
As with any expectant mother, Mary’s being would have been consumed with the life within her. And through the actual intercommunion between mother and child there would be growth.
As the Christmas hymn, “Adeste Fidelis,” reminds us, the child we are focusing upon is “God from God, Light from Light.” In his last letter, Father Andrea Santoro (the Italian priest who was shot to death in Turkey while at prayer) has some thoughts which may help our concentration on Christ, the Light of the World. He wrote: “...Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness.’ If His light illuminates us, not only will it illuminate every situation, even the most tragic, but in addition we too, as He always said, will be light. The tenuous light of a candle illuminates a house, an extinguished lamp leaves everything in darkness. May He shine in us with His Word, with the Spirit, with the sap of the saints. May our life be the wax that is consumed willingly.”
A child in the womb is fragile. Naturally, Mary would have done everything in her power to protect and form the creative newness within her womb until the body of Christ would be presented to the world. In our attempt to bring forth Christ into our world, we should learn from Mary’s protectiveness. We are privileged to be able to nurture the body of Christ as it is present in our world.
Paradoxically, the very nurturing of the body of Christ, already present, is an essential part of Christ’s continuing birth. Such is one of the antinomies of our faith -- truths which are seemingly contradictory but which are reconciled on the level of faith.
We must exercise a protective care toward the body of Christ, which is enfleshed in the poor and suffering of our world. These are the ones with whom Christ realistically, although mystically, identified Himself.
For the past few years, shortly after Christmas, I visited Rome to see the various Nativity scenes around the city. Often one finds what we might term an artistic theology. In the church of St. Alphonse of Ligouri (generally associated with the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help) we find, for example, a crèche where the background is the very area and neighborhood where the church is located. The contemporary nature of the scene reminds us that we should be alert and aware that Christ is still being born in our present-day world -- though sometimes He is in disguise.
Near the Trevi Fountain there is a small church which has perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Here the Nativity scene was unusual. All of the figures (Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child) were made of bread. And the verse over the crèche reminded us that Christ came as the Bread of Life to feed His people. In our context, it is a reminder that we are called not only to reverence the body of Christ in the Eucharist but also to grow in appreciation of what this gift should mean in our lives.
We must also never forget, there is the body of Christ which is the Church. Concretely, we are challenged to realize our own personal vocation to the Church -- our vocation to build it up by our prayers and sacrifices. In our day, there is a true urgency to this task.
Looking at Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, we realize that Mary’s journey required courage. There would have been a myriad of dangers along the route. And in the deepest sense, the Christian life in our world requires courage -- courage to challenge the world’s value system, courage to resist peer pressure, etc.
Finally, I will conclude these reflections with the following insight from author Caryll Houselander:
“Christ’s way is unchanging; He came into the world through individual lives. In the individual heart is the world’s redemption. He comes to those who desire Him, to the heart that is given to Him to shelter His light, and to each He comes as He came to Mary, for the whole world.”
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.