On the night when Jesus was born, the world held its breath in the stillness and then gasped, exploding in the brilliance of angelic hosts, wandering stars, a virgin flowering forth a child, and when it was finished, somehow, someway, the God of the universe had crammed himself into human flesh and taken our nature to himself. It was in this very instant that death itself was put on notice that it was going to be stood on its head. St Ephrem notes how it was Eve, the natural mother of all people, who had become the well-spring of death to all living, because it was Eve who first sinned and caused death to enter our reality as a natural consequence of separation from God. “But Mary,” he says, “budded forth, a new shoot from Eve the ancient vine; and new life dwelt in her.”
At Christmas, we stand shocked by the immense paradoxes with which we are confronted. Impossible things suddenly exist, and everything we thought we knew is left in flux. St Gregory the Wonder-Worker marvels at the way in which Mary becomes the new Eve, saying, “When I remember the disobedience of Eve, I weep. But when I view the fruit of Mary, I am again renewed. Deathless by descent, invisible through beauty, before the ages light of light; of God the Father wast Thou begotten; being Word and Son of God, Thou didst take on flesh from Mary Virgin, in order that Thou might renew afresh Adam fashioned by Thy holy hand.”
And so today, still in the midst of the Christmas celebration, we acknowledge this strange reality, Mary, a mere human being, has somehow become the Mother of God. She accomplishes this feat through the simple act of trusting in his word and allowing God to draw her into his divine plan.
This is where I am stopped short – I don’t really understand any of this. If you ask me a question about the faith, I’ll put my hand on my chin and pretend to concentrate for a moment, then I’ll say something wise and cryptic. All I can hope is that there are no follow-up questions.
Many of us want to know more about the faith. We want to know about Jesus, to read the Catechism from cover to cover and understand it, to ponder the mysteries of God’s action in our lives. We want a loud, clear voice to respond to our prayers with simple instructions. For me personally as a priest, as I bump up against the traditions of the Church, especially the ancient habits of praying the mass that priests have followed for thousands of years, I don’t know why they’re always there or why I do what I do. But I maintain the traditions without fully understanding, because I would hate to decide that I know better without actually having any clue what it is that I am rejecting. This is all to say, the ways of God are above us. This is why the shepherds are said to marvel and be in amazement at the message of the angels and the birth of Christ.
God’s love is his love, it doesn’t have to make sense. Why does he care for us, he just does. Why did he die for our sins, he felt like it was worth it. Why did he choose to be born a child with a human mother, there’s no fancy reason to explain it other than to say that it’s because he wanted to be like us so that we might be more like him.
It can be frustrating to not understand more, and we have so many questions, so many doubts. For all of us who like the shepherds are amazed at the birth of Christ but don’t quite know how to explain it – rest easy. We have a mother. We have Mary.
While the shepherds wandered away, Mary sat by the crib, looked at her son, and pondered in her heart. She looked upon his face, she nursed him, and smelled that new-born baby smell on his head. She watched him grow up. A mother knows her son better than anyone.
Draw close to Mary, and you will draw close to Our Lord. Know her, and you will know her son. We may not always understand, but love doesn’t need explanations, it is content to simply be in the presence of the one it loves.
And how do we draw near to her? Easy. She’s with us all the time, loving us from Heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins compares her to the air we breathe, writing:
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere
When it comes to the faith, take a deep breath, feel the presence of the Church like a Mother. Our Lord is here, always with his Mother, always desiring to know us better, always loving us.