Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Child and His Mother

Christmas is dedicated to the Son, and the day after Christmas is dedicated to the Mother—without whom there would be no Son, not in the flesh anyway. The Son of God existed from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit, but He entered time through the body and the consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Byzantine tradition the day after Christmas is the feast of the Synaxis (“gathering” of the faithful) of the Mother of God.

We heard in the Gospel of Christmas that, having experienced and witnessed such marvelous and divine things, Mary kept them all within herself and pondered them in her heart. Yet events soon made it clear that hers was not to be a life of contemplative solitude, at least not before Jesus completed his earthly mission. Mary, though always a contemplative at heart, was not a nun but a mom, and she had to be busy doing whatever it took to ensure the welfare of her Son, just as her Son said he had to be about his Father’s business. We see in the Gospel for this feast (Mt. 2:13-23) that she didn’t have much time to dwell in idyllic peace and happiness with her divine Child, and Simeon’s prophecy did not take long for its fulfillment, at least its initial stages. Jesus, even as an infant, was a sign of contradiction, someone who would be opposed. Long before Jesus could even place a humanly rational act, Herod sought to kill Him.

So we make a leap liturgically from the celebration of the joy and glory of Christmas to the hardships that followed soon after. Mary and Joseph had to leave their home, had to leave even the Promised Land, fleeing to a foreign country to escape the merciless swords of Herod’s henchmen. But Mary, like her Son, was there to do the will of God, whether convenient or inconvenient, for in his will alone is peace, life, and salvation. It is interesting to notice in this Gospel how God respects the family hierarchy. Before Mary was married to Joseph and moved in with him, God spoke directly to her through the angel. After her marriage, God sent the angel to Joseph, the head of the household, with the instructions as to what had to be done. Though not the biological father of Jesus, St Joseph was still entrusted with the full responsibility of human fatherhood, and he exercised it in perfect obedience to the will of the Heavenly Father.

The angels also exist solely to do the will of God. Gabriel brought the glad tidings of the incarnation of God to Mary. Was he also the one who announced the good news to the shepherds? And was he also sent to St Joseph with the instructions about the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt? If so—and it is likely—it is interesting to see that he can go from profound rejoicing to severe and urgent warnings simply at the word of the Lord. I don’t think there are some angels predisposed to bring good news and some more suited to bringing bad news—they all simply do the will of God, whatever it is, whatever it requires. So again we make that liturgical leap—in only one day!—from “I bring tidings of great joy; a Savior is born” to “flee to Egypt, for Herod seeks to destroy the child.”

It is interesting to note that there’s another subtle clue in the text to indicate that Joseph is not the father of Jesus according to the flesh. When the angel spoke to him, he did not say, “Rise, take your wife and son to Egypt,” but rather, “Take the child and his mother.” He mentions the child first, which is unusual, unless the Child happens to be the Son of God, and then “his mother.” So Joseph is, in a sense, gently put in his place, somewhat outside the impenetrable intimacy of Mother and Son—which is beyond all human understanding or articulation—while still retaining his God-given authority as head of the Holy Family. The angel says the same thing when calling them out of Egypt back to Israel.

So they went, in the middle of the night, leaving their familiar surroundings, their relatives and friends, because this was the will of God. God seems to want to detach his chosen ones from their earthly and material ties in order to free them for total dedication and service to Himself. He called Abraham out of his homeland to show him a new place. He called Moses to bring his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and it has often happened in the history of the Church that the saints have had to depart from their familiar place to some unknown land or unfamiliar situation in order to do God’s will. We see a similar thing in the monastic tradition. Jesus said that he would bless a hundredfold those who would leave home and family and possessions for his sake and that of the Gospel. To enter a monastery we have to detach from family ties, and have to leave our former places of residence (sometimes even our native land), embarking on a spiritual journey that may be quite demanding. It is not for us to figure things out, still less to grumble or rebel like the Israelites in the desert—but rather like Mary and Joseph simply to get up and do what the Lord says, precisely because that is his will, and that is what we live to do.

What if Joseph had decided to reason with the angel, explaining how inconvenient and impractical it would be for them to leave right away, and what’s wrong with serving God in their own country and home, etc? Meanwhile, the mailed fists of Herod’s soldiers would be pounding on their door, and the angel would say: that’s what wrong with it—and salvation history would have come to an abrupt conclusion.

So let us follow the example of St Joseph and the Mother of God, who had no agenda, no preference but the will of the Lord, and who did not calculate how things might better work to their advantage, did not count the cost of obedience, but simply said yes, as Mary first did at the Annunciation.

We are still rejoicing in these holy days of the celebration of the birth of our Savior, but we do so with the constant readiness to hear the angel of the Lord tell us to get up and do whatever God’s will requires. For only in this obedience, this fidelity, this love of the Lord that transcends concern even for our own well-being, will we discover the transforming power of divine grace and reap the rewards promised to those who love and obey Him.