The Solemnity of the Holy Family (Year B): Making Our Family Holy

Fr. Bernard Ukwuegbu 

Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria,

Associate Editor of the Nigerian Journal of Theology (NJT)

It is not a coincidence that the Church follows the celebration of Christmas directly with the Solemnity the Holy Family. Christ came within the context of a family, the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary. This means that the family as the locus of human community both in its creation and redemption is valued by God. If our celebration of Christmas must have a meaning therefore, then this meaning must start in and from the family, the domestic Church and the bedrock of the human society. So today’s solemnity of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus is one that has added significance to us as Christians.

It is therefore no surprise that all the readings of the day revolve around the theme of family life.  In the first reading, Jesus Ben Sirach, a pious Jew who lived in the 2nd century BC, in an amplified commentary on the 4th Commandment (Honour thy Father and thy Mother), presents that aspect of wisdom which includes filial reverence. Speaking precisely to children, he advocates respect and honour to parents, claiming that such filial respect has as its benefits the guarantee of future happiness.  A line in his wise advice is worth bearing in mind in today’s context of conflicts among generations: “My son, support your father in his old age, do not grieve him during his life. Even if his mind should fail, show him sympathy…” Sometimes in our dealings with our parents and elders we tend to think that they are out of touch with our reality, and with the problems and challenges facing us.  We tend to think that “their minds have failed.”

Even if this is the case, this wise author still maintains that such is not an excuse for refraining to show them reverence and respect. In the natural scheme of things, we are the ones who should try to understand our parents and attune our views to theirs, and not the other way round. Their world may be past and history, but it still has some inklings of wisdom that comes from experience. They may appear intrusive, but is an intrusion that is motivated by genuine love and concern, at least from their own understanding. And in this they deserve ‘sympathy’ and ‘kindness.’ Jesus Ben Sirach concludes that such filial reverence shown to even intrusive and ‘out of their minds’ parents and elders will not only not be forgotten; they also carry with them the potential of atoning for sins and meriting divine favours.

In the second reading, Paul expanded the instruction to include all the members of the Christian Family. Realist that he was, Paul knows that building a community, even the most nuclear of all communities, is not an easy task, since this implies the coming together of individuals who in themselves are unique and different. So before giving particular advice to each member of the family, Paul saw the need to address all of them as a group: “You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins.”  Paul takes it as a given that there must be misunderstanding whenever more than one person live together.  This is not strange and not bad at that. What is unusual and unfortunate is to allow such normal misunderstandings to spoil for ever or for long our relationship with each other as members of one family.

In the last part of his admonition, Paul takes each member of the family according to their roles, which, in my view, in no way is designed to imply the subordination of one over the other. To wives, who, as mothers, are the pendulum on which the Christian family rotates, Paul admonishes that they should give way to their husbands. This is another way of saying that they should not always insist on their rights or in telling their husbands their faults to their faces. None of us likes this, no matter how well intentioned they may seem. Rather, wives should always seek to please their husbands in everything, to bear with their failings and to compliment their good deeds. This, for me, is an instruction that is valid for all (husbands, wives and children); if we ever hope to build a harmonious family. To husbands, Paul says that they should love their wives and treat them with gentleness. They should not be harsh or demanding but rather be patient with their wives and show them how important they are for them and for their home. What Paul has to tell the children is similar to the wisdom of Ben Sirach: “Be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord.” Paul would want children to follow their parents’ advice; because in the last analysis parents always mean well. Tomorrow these children will be parents; and they too would demand respect and obedience from others. Paul did not forget to say something to parents in their relationship with their children: “Never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated.” In other words, be hard to them, yes! But not too hard! A shout or a scolding is not necessary when and where an understanding talking-together will do. Be a father/mother to them, but never be an accomplice to their evil deeds.

These, in sum, are the ABC of harmonious living-together in the family according to Paul; and they are worth giving a trial in our homes today if we hope to make our home happier, simpler and holier. Coincidentally, these are the same things that marked out the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus that we celebrate today. Most often we think that since their son was God, family life for Joseph and Mary was a tale of harmony and peace. But this is not what we read in the scriptures. On the contrary, the Infancy Narratives contain ample evidences that Joseph and Mary, like all parents, also went through tensions, conflicts and crises like every other human family; from mutual suspicion of betrayal of trusts (Matthew 1: 18-25); through threats of physical insecurity (Matt 2:13-15, 19-23) to even generation conflicts involved in the raising up of children (Luke 2:41-52). In today’s Gospel story (Luke 2:22-40), we see them in the temple redeeming their God-child with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons;” the minimum required by the law that they could afford. When simultaneously confronted with two ominous prophecies – first by the upright and devout Simeon, and then by 84 years old widow and prophetess Anna – about the destiny of their child, they could only wonder “at the things that were being said about him.” In the end, they had to return to Galilee and to their own town of Nazareth. And of their child Jesus, Luke reports that “he grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.” So with the angel fanfares silent and the astrologers no longer present to confirm their special destiny, the couple could look forward now only to fear, worry, pain, drudgery and the unexpected. But it is in confronting this reality that they were able to contribute their own quota to the making of redemptive history; each in his/her position as husband/father, as wife/mother and as child.

As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Holy Family, let us look into our own individual families and make concrete resolutions on what we need to do as husband/father, as wife/mother and as children to make our own family happier, simpler and holier! Let us make a concerted effort to live out our resolutions! And let us always ask the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to be our help and our model! Amen.

The Darkness of Christmas

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not over come it” (John 1:1-5).

For the most part, our celebration of the feast of Christmas often passes over the darkness.  The joys of family celebrations, the anticipation of gifts to be opened, the splendid dress of those gathered in church.  Insofar as these “traditions” help us to celebrate the Word’s enfleshment among us (not simply in the stable at Bethlehem but in the Church herself), they are very good things. But, they can become idols, distracting us from the truth that Christmas proclaims:  in the small child born in the Bethlehem stable (or cave, if you’re reading the Protoevangelium of James) is the light that shines into the darkness.  

And this great truth requires that our contemplation of Christ in Christmas acknowledge the darkness.  For in each of our parishes, there are those that know only darkness.

  • The young mother, with three children, who must suffer the abuse of her husband, may see only the darkness.
  • The couple, unable to have children, may perceive in the feast of Christmas a reminder of their own infertility, and thus may see only the darkness.
  • The elderly husband, who just lost his wife and seeks to get through the holiday without too much pain, may see only the darkness.
  • The family of illegal immigrants in the United States may know only the darkness of fear, of poverty, of hatred, and of deep loneliness.
  • The young woman, who hates her body so much that she continues to harm it through cutting and vomiting up everything that she eats, may know only the darkness.
  • The Wall Street banker, who gets up each morning only to increase his own profit and prestige, may at times look at himself and know only the darkness.
  • The poor, who feel desperately out of place amid those dressed in their finest Christmas clothes, may know only the darkness.

I often think about these people at Christmas Mass.  For Christmas is the feast for them in particular.  The light shines into the darkness, which of course means that there is darkness for the light to shine into.  Christ comes to proclaim the very good news that God comes to dwell among us. And his Advent into the world has not resulted in the erasure of darkness but rather an enlightening of it.  For that infant, fresh from the womb, would one day be laid into the tomb.  He is to be the despised, rejected, the suffering servant of Good Friday.

Christmas is the feast of God’s love among us, His descent into the darkness of the human condition, and His enlightenment of human history.  From the moment that that child was born in Bethlehem, darkness met its match.  Not because that child passes over the darkness as if it did not exist (the “Christianity” of Joel Osteen).  Rather, that child will transform the darkness through the light of love, through self-gift.  He will himself encounter darkness (the darkness of infancy and speechlessness, the darkness of the flight into Egypt, the darkness of temptation, the darkness of Gethsemane, the darkness of Calvary).  And through his Church, he will continue to know the depths of darkness (the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the persecution of St. Paul, and all those dark spots that we call history–especially the 20th century!).  Jesus Christ reveals to us that the only way to conquer the darkness is through the light of a descending, self-offering love.

So let us not forget those who dwell in darkness during the feast of Christmas.  For Christmas is the season of darkness (in Indiana, where I reside this is a literal truth).  But, it is the season in which darkness meets its match in love, akin to the first rays of dawn that pierce the horizon after a cold winter night.

Of course, our reception of this divine love at Christmas does not mean that we must be passive to the darkness.  The woman in the abusive relationship needs to seek help.  The teen suffering from hatred of self ought to find the light.  The banker who pursues a selfish, socially harmful way of life needs to recognize the futility of his life.  But, in Christmas, we come to see that these actions are always more than human effort alone. Rather, they are the in-breaking of the light itself into the human condition.

For is this not the very meaning of redemption, the Good News that the season of Christmas inaugurates?  We are no longer held captive to the darkness.  The darkness of death and sinfulness and power and prestige is not defining of our existence.  Rather, love alone is.  And we come to know this, to perceive the possibility that God might enter into my darkness through the feast of Christmas.  As Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) writes in his Introduction to Christianity:

“…Christian faith really means precisely the acknowledgment that God is not the prisoner of his own eternity, not limited to the solely spiritual; that he is capable of operating here and now, in the midst of my world, and that he did operate in it through Jesus, the new Adam, who was born of the Virgin Mary through the creative power of God, whose spirit hovered over the waters at the very beginning, who created being out of nothing” (279).

No matter how dark it gets; no matter how little I view the value of my own flesh, my history–God seeks to enter into it.  Indeed, we can glimpse here how Christmas may in fact be the best of news to those who “sit in darkness and death’s shadow” (Lk. 2:79).  Only our growing capacity to see this light will “guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Christmas 2011 (Mass During the Day): A Good News that Demands a Response

Fr. Bernard Ukwuegbu 

Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria,

Associate Editor of the Nigerian Journal of Theology (NJT)

It would be hard to imagine a celebration about which more words have been spoken, more poems written, more stories told, than Christmas. It is almost too much to absorb.  So too are the Scripture readings of this Feast.  They are rich beyond measure.  We cannot digest all in one single homily.  But we can contemplate them in order to see what benefits there are in this celebration for all of us; as well as what is expected of us as the privileged Christmas Community.

The first reading of today from the prophet Isaiah sets up the tone. “How beautiful on the mountains,” the prophet declares, “are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation…!” The Greek word Euaggelion, translated here as good news, is at the root of our English word Gospel.  It does not initially refer to a Book or a Collection of Stories about Jesus but to a message. The Greeks use it only for special type of messages: like news of victory at war or of the birth of an heir to the throne.  It was this special phrase that the early Christians used to describe their proclamation about Jesus.  They saw in their message something that has relevance for all of humanity. No wonder then that today’s first reading came from that section of Isaiah where the word Euaggelion was used.  Israel was in exile in Babylon on account of her sins. But they know that because of their covenant, God never counts their sins against them forever; they still lived in anticipation of deliverance from bondage.  And the prophet Isaiah invites them today to look up and behold the feet of the Messenger of this wonderful Good News!

The same announcement of the Good News is continued in the Gospel. Of the four gospels, two Matthew and Luke told us of the story of the birth of Jesus. Mark did not mention the infancy narrative, because for him what is necessary for faith is the resurrection of Jesus.  John, the gospel we have just heard, however, did something else.  Instead of telling us how Jesus was born, he began by telling us who it was that came to us: “In the beginning is the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word is God.  He was there in the beginning, and it was through Him that all was made.  He came to his own; but his own did not accept him.” This is John’s way of expressing the same truth that we heard in the night: that when Maria and Joseph were searching for a place to give birth, there was no room for them in the inn.  One wonders whether they will find a place in our inns and homes today; or whether they would be locked out by high security gates.

After a search for a dwelling place that went through all the bye ways, the Word eventually pitched his tent among us. We may not understand the full implications of this singular act. Consider, for example, a man who loved dogs so well, but hates the way that dogs are treated by men. To correct this he decided to become a dog, just to teach men how to treat dogs. This will involve subjecting himself to the humiliation of having to act like a dog, even though he fully knew that he is a human being. Because he was originally human he could hear all that human beings are saying about him; but because he has freely accepted to become a dog he pretended that he does not hear. As a human being he could speak. But because he is in the form of dog he decided only to bark. If this is difficult for us to imagine, then how much difficult is it for God to become man; for the distance between God and man far outweighs the distance between God and humans. The humans at least share the animal property with other animals. But between God and humans there is no common boundary.

What then could motivate God to identify with humans to the extent of being one of their likes? The same Gospel of John supplies us the reason in 3:16: “For God so loves the world that He gave His only Son.” Yes! That is what Christmas is all about. It is a celebration of God’s love for us, a love that moved Him to identify with us to the extent of being one like us. Such a love demands a response on our part. But how do we appreciate this love that Christmas is? How do we celebrate the advent of God in our midst? A story was told of a group of Kindergarten pupils in the habit of paying a regular visit to the Christmas Crib in a nearby Church. The kids were so excited by the image of the tiny baby Jesus that some of them resolved to visit the Crib before and after school.  It so happened, however, that one mischievous boy from the group went behind the rest and took away the tiny image of  Jesus.  On the following morning, the pupils came as usual, but on noticing that the image of the infant Jesus was missing they were disappointed. One of them, a 5 year old girl, ran back home and crying, reported to her mother: “Mummy, they have stolen Christ from Christmas.” One wonders if this little girl has not aptly captured our modern day celebration of Christmas; with our special Christmas sales, our Christmas buying and selling, our Christmas gift giving and receiving, our Christmas travel plans and holidays. How are our plans a celebration of the God child that is at the root of our festivity?  Have we really not stolen Jesus from Christmas in our present day quest for material comfort?

What must we do to restore Christ to Christmas?  I’d like to conclude with a final story.  It is a story about Paul, a boy 9 years old. Paul has heard so many nice things said about God in his Sunday school; and he decided that he would give God something for Christmas as a sign of gratitude. Paul had a look at all his toys, but there was nothing he found good enough for God.  Then it was Paul’s birthday. He got many, many toys. Among them he saw a golden coin. Suddenly he shouted: “Yes, that’s it. I am going to give this golden coin to God! But then comes the next problem! Where will Paul find God to give him his gift? Paul did not take time to resolve this one. He recalled that around his neighbourhood there is a well-kept beautiful garden; and in his child-like mind he draws the conclusion that God will definitely be in such a beautiful spot.  So very early on Christmas morning, Paul set off en-route to  the beautiful spot with his golden coin in hand. When he arrived at the field, however, Paul could not find God.  Rather he saw an awkward looking old woman, who found it difficult to walk. Paul became sad and disappointed. But he still gave the coin to the woman with the following words: “Ma’am, I had wanted to give this golden coin to God for Christmas. But it does seem that you need it more. Take it and take care. I guess I have to find something else for Him another day.”

Like this boy we are called today to identify those who will receive our Christmas gift on behalf of God.  We do not need to go far. We only need to look in our neighborhood.  When we do this, the beneficiaries of our gift will have cause to give God the glory. And we all will be in a better position to hear the angelic Christmas message: Glory to God on High, and on earth peace to men and women of goodwill!  Yes! That is what Christmas is all about: God’s gift of Himself to us, and the challenge to be gifts to one another. Even if we have no golden coin to give, we still can give something. A Christmas card that I received few years ago seems to say it all, and I will like to end this reflection with its wordings:

This Christmas:

Mend a quarrel; Seek out a forgotten friend

Share some treasure; Give a soft answer

Keep a promise; Find time to listen

Apologise if you were angry; Be gentle

Laugh a little; Express your gratitude

Welcome a stranger, Gladden the heart of a child

Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth

Speak your love; Speak it again, Speak it once again

And you must have celebrated a Christmas

O Oriens

Aimee Shelide 

Recruiting Coordinator, ECHO:  Faith Formation Leadership Program and Emcee of Notre Dame Vision

Catholic Worker Resident, Peter Claver House, South Bend, IN

Contact Author

O Oriens (by Aimee Shelide, inspired by the Dec 21 ‘O Antiphon’)


“O Oriens: O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, Sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

O Radiant Dawn,

Splendor of eternal light.

Eternal light: an unfamiliar glow

this time of year.

Bright.  Warm on my face,
pores opening to soak up the

Radiance.  Radiant dawn,

I dream of you.

Winter has bid you ‘adieu,’

but I, here, await your return,

masked—or better yet…
this season in the baby
born God
in a trough
for animals.

O radiant light.

O rancid smell
that surrounded you.

O humble birth.

Come into my darkness—
cold, wet, dark,
smelly, scared, and alone.

I invite your eternal splendor

into my temporal, mortal life,

to make my joy eternal
and my fear put to flight.

O Radiant Dawn, I see your glow


You have already dawned

and will dawn
in my darkness
And dwell with me

“Church Life” Coming February 2012


So remember when I promised a series of reflections on the O Antiphons.  Oops.  It turns out that with the end of the semester and a couple of looming projects, those texts haven’t been written yet.

The major project has been a new publication for the Institute for Church Life (ICL),
aptly entitled Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization.  In this free, online, quarterly publication, the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy will harness the collective energies of the ICL in articulating the theological and pastoral foundations of the Church’s new evangelization.  For those of you in the know, Church Life is the journal replacing Assembly:  A Journal of Liturgical Theology, published through Liturgy Training Publications and the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.

Each issue will begin with a series of columns on themes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

  • John Cavadini, director of the ICL, member of the International Theological Commission, and Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, will treat the role of Christian doctrine in the Catechism.
  • Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon and professor of theology at Mount Angel Seminary and the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome, unfolds a liturgical theology, steeped in the sacramental wisdom of the Church (and thus, with practical consequences!).
  • Deacon James Keating–of the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton–muses upon the freedom and gift of morality when understood as life in Christ.
  • Larry Cunningham, a leading scholar and teacher in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, discusses the place of the “heart” in Christian spirituality.
  • Fr. Virgil Elizondo, a leading pastoral theologian at Notre Dame, considers the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the continued evangelization of the world.
  • Finally, Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology and Director of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society, draws out pastoral conclusions from his magisterial analysis of the National Study of Youth and Religion.

Then, in the second part of the journal, we will include a series on articles on the new evangelization.  Our first issue will deal with the theme of evangelization in general. Articles for this issue include:

  • John Cavadini, “Evangelization, Catechesis, and the Mystery of Christ:  The Catechetical Legacy of Blessed John Paul II”
  • Timothy O’Malley, “Three Obstacles to the New Evangelization:  A Theological, Pastoral, and Cultural Analysis of Parish Life.”
  • Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, “The Dignity of the Human Person:  A Catholic Doctrine.”
  • Elizabeth Scalia (a.k.a. “The Anchoress”), “Catholics Online: Cogs in a Divine Whirlygig.”

The last part of the journal will feature a pastoral book essay (this time on liturgical formation in Alexander Schmemann’s The Eucharist, Edith Humphrey’s Grand Entrance:  Worship on Earth as in Heaven, and Yves Congar’s At the Heart of Christian Worship). Finally, we conclude with an essay by a minister for the new evangelization.  Future issues of the journal in 2012 will treat Evangelization and Art; Evangelization and the Rites of Return; and, Evangelization and Catholic Social Teaching.

Once this journal launches in February of 2012, Oblation will become the site where the themes of the journal are actively discussed.  For this reason, we will be changing the name of the blog this February to:  Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization.  If interested in subscribing to the new journal (all of you already subscribed to Oblation will continue to be signed up once the name change takes place), please contact us at:

Happy Advent to you all.  We’ll continue to publish over the Christmas holiday here at Notre Dame but with less regularity.


Practicing Radical Gratitude: A Heart Hungering for Justice

Aimee Shelide

Recruiting Coordinator, ECHO:  Faith Formation Leadership Program and Emcee of Notre Dame Vision

Catholic Worker Resident, Peter Claver House, South Bend, IN

Contact Author

 Reflection on Wisdom 1:1-7

“The heart hungers for that new social order wherein justice dwelleth.”  Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, wrote these words in January 1972, closing her newspaper column entitled “Of Justice and Breadlines.”

Her words remain true today.  Whether we have named it or not, our heart desires justice.  When bad things happen to good people, we ask (reasonably), “Why?”  What was just about that?  When we suffer, we have a tendency to ask, “What have I done to deserve this situation?”…My parents’ divorce, my boyfriend breaking up with me, the death of a close friend at too young of an age.  Where is God’s justice in all of that?

We read in this first chapter from The Book of Wisdom that God is the “sure observer of the human heart.”  God observes our hearts.  God knows our hearts—not in the sense that God knows our hearts like we know geometry, but God knows our hearts like we know one another on an intimate level.  The type of intimacy that makes us get out of bed in the morning and ignites a silent smile as we pass others on the road or on the quad on our way to class.

The English language falls short in its capacity to talk about knowing.  In romance languages, French for example, there are two words for knowing: savoir and connaître, distinguishing between knowing something and knowing someone.  Dieu te connait.  God knows you, as a person, your innermost being, your questions about suffering, and the things, people, and situations that break your heart.  Dieu connait ton cœur.  God observes your heart, and in God’s observance, God knows it.

We must let God enter our hearts.  The act of opening our heart to God is up to us.  We return again to the first chapter of Wisdom: “Into a soul that plots evil, wisdom enters not, nor dwells she in a body under debt of sin.”  God’s Wisdom can enter a heart (and reside there) if it has been cleared of sin, cleared of fear, cleared of vengefulness, jealousy, resentment, and bitterness.  To seek God “in integrity of heart” we must clear away all that we hold onto that weakens our integrity.  A soul afraid is not free; imprisoned by our fears of failure, being disliked, not succeeding, we build an impenetrable wall, shutting God—who is Love—out of our hearts.   Thus, God, the true heart-observer must observe from a distance that we ourselves create.

Acting out of fear is the opposite of acting out of love.  God did not become one of us in the person of Christ Jesus because God was afraid of what would happen if He didn’t.  God became Incarnate because Love could not be contained.  As a response to humanity’s turning away from God, our putting up a barrier to God’s love, God showed ultimate compassion and goodness, taking on flesh for our sakes.

Returning good for evil (something that our world would mark as senseless and even foolish) is a sign, a mark, of Christian discipleship.  In fact, it is our call: Do good to those who persecute you.

Love justice.  Justice and Wisdom are sometimes used interchangeably in the Hebrew Scriptures.  They are both conveniently Gifts of the Holy Spirit, celebrated and particularly received in the Sacrament of Confirmation.  At the risk of sounding redundant: there is a wisdom to holding Wisdom and Justice together.  It takes a wise person to understand the aim and end of Justice.  The practice of “wise” justice requires that we desire the holistic healing of those who are recipients of our justice.  Ones receiving justice for wrongs committed.

I have come to understand justice anew through recent events that have taken place in the Catholic Worker community where I live.  The Catholic Worker began as a newspaper in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, celebrating and advocating for the rights of workers and the Works of Mercy.  Dorothy Day, one of the first editors of the paper, began taking in people who were in need of a place to stay and thus she began the first “House of Hospitality,” in New York City, a model that has since been replicated well over a hundredfold.  The current Worker community in South Bend includes two houses of hospitality (one for men, and one for women) and a drop-in center, affectionately called “Our Lady of the Road,” which serves as our weekend Laundromat-Café for people to do laundry, shower, and eat.

In the summer of 2010 as I was riding the #7 bus to work from downtown, I recognized Matt out of the corner of my eye.  I had last seen Matt months prior at our drop-in center; he was one of the few guests asked not to return for a month because of his violent behavior under the influence of drugs.  Months went by and Matt did not return.  But here on the Transpo bus, I saw Matt, visibly transformed.  I smiled at him and said hello.  He looked at me, confused but apologetic.  He informed me that he had just been released from prison.  With a sense of peace, he told me of his conversion in jail, where he had read the Bible for the first time and realized God loved him, despite his wrong decisions and sinful habits.  It was clear that this love was transforming.  I invited Matt to dinner and he (out of shame for his past) reluctantly, but humbly, accepted.

Matt not only came to dinner; he became an integral part of our community.  He prayed with us, helped with dinner chores regularly, and took shifts on the drop-in every weekend.  Eventually, Matt moved in as a full-time staff member—with keys, a bedroom, and weekly shifts on the house cooking dinner.  He shared the same responsibility, authority and access as I.  He played music with our Catholic Worker band, “Milk and Bread,” and, together with his mother, he put on an entire Christmas party (complete with gifts) for the ten men staying overnight in our Weather Amnesty shelter last December.

We trusted and loved Matt.  But Matt was slow to trust himself, and four months ago he began stealing from the people who loved him.  Drawn back into the damaging circles of influence that led him into a life of drugs and violence, he began hurting the people he loved the most.

But the book of Wisdom calls us to, “Love justice…For the Spirit of the Lord fills the world, [and] is all-embracing.”  There is a reason why this reading is paired in the Lectionary with Luke 17: “Be on your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.”

Last month (and every subsequent Sunday since), two of my community members have visited Matt in prison; Jesus asked, “When was I imprisoned and you visited me?”  During their first visit, one at a time, they talked to him through a plexi-glass barrier and a telephone on the wall.  “Matt, we love you.  We care about you.  We need to know what happened, in your own words.”  And through multiple apologies and a mask of shame, he shared the details.

Love justice, rebuke the sinner, forgive those who hurt you—who steal from you, and who break your trust.  And we must truly forgive them.  True justice wants the good of the other.  Someone who is truly just sees her salvation bound up with the other.

“Wisdom is a kindly spirit, yet she acquits not the blasphemer of his guilty lips; Because God is the witness of his inmost self and the sure observer of his heart and the listener to his tongue.”  In this kind spirit of Wisdom, God invites us to call the sinner (ourselves included) to confession and repentance, particularly in this time of Advent when we await God’s Justice breaking through threefold—in the Incarnation, in our own hearts this Christmas, and in Christ’s coming at the End of Time.  Truly, repentance and forgiveness are the means to freedom in Christ, freedom to love, and freedom to allow Love to observe and enter our hearts and dwell therein.

The Household of Divinity: Mary and the Season of Advent (Part IV)

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

Part I           Part II           Part III

Bernard of Clairvaux

In Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), this Marian poetic is further developed.  For in his Homilies in Praise of the Virgin Mary, he invites the listener into the drama of the Annunciation.  And like both Augustine and Ephrem, he considers each letter of the Scriptures essential to fruitful contemplation:  “All his [Evangelist’s] words, if only they have a diligent reader (one who knows how to suck honey out of the rock and oil out of the

hardest stone, contain supernal mysteries and are full of heavenly sweetness” (Homily I.1).

Yet, before we consider the drama of these homilies, it is prudent to turn first to his sermons for the season of Advent and Christmas.  For throughout Advent, Bernard finds it salutary to consider the reasons why Christ has come into the world:  “If I consider why he comes, I embrace insofar as I am able, the inestimable breadth of his love.  If I think about the way he comes, I perceive the exaltation of the human condition.  Since indeed the Creator and Lord of the universe comes.  He comes to human beings, he comes for human beings, he comes as a human being” (Sermon 3 on Advent).  This coming to human beings as an expression of divine desire is not surprising for the mellifluous doctor.  For throughout all his sermons, Bernard of Clairvaux presents the Scriptures as God’s own desire awakening, inviting, wooing human desire to run forth to greet Christ.  In his Christmas Eve, sermon 2 he exhorts:

 Run, brothers, run:  not only the angels but even the Creator of the angels himself expects you!  The wedding is prepared but the house is not yet full; they are still watching for those who will fill the wedding.  The Father is watching for you and desiring you not only out of the tremendous love by which which he loved you…but because of his very own love, just as it is said through the Prophet:  I am doing this for myself, not for you (Homily on Christmas Eve, 2.7).

God gives of self, not simply because of a promise made, of a desire to save his own creation from sinfulness, but as a total gift of love.  It is pure gift, and the genius of Bernard’s preaching is that he cultivates a desire to become the sort of person who is capable of receiving this gift.

And Bernard’s praise of Mary in his homilies is intended to cultivate within the listener a desire to assume a Marian posture in the Christian life.  By addressing Mary directly, he re-enchants a passage heard so frequently by the monk.  In this drama, we each have a role to play.  Mary’s fiat is the catalyst for the world’s salvation:  “My lady, say this word which earth and hell and heaven itself are waiting for.  The very King and Lord of all, he who has so desired your beauty, is waiting anxiously for your answer and assent, by which he proposes to save the world” (Homily IV.8).  The listener’s own desire for Mary’s yes is increased.  Yet, it is we who take up the place of Mary, an insight that any number of scholars of Bernard have noted.  Christ’s present and future Advent is dependent upon our arousal to this divine desire, as we too utter:

I beg that the Word be to me, [a Word] not only audible to the ear, but visible to the eyes, one which hands can touch and arms carry.  And let it not be to me a written and mute word, but one incarnate and living, that is to say, not [a word] scratched by dumb signs on dead skins, but one in human form truly graven, lively, within my chaste womb, not by the tracings of a dead pen, but by the workings of the Holy Spirit (IV.8).

This is to become the song of the monk, who awaits that Advent in which the Lord returns in his glorious humanity:  “On that day, no other will follow, the righteous Judge will bestow on them the crown of righteousness.  Then shall they see and overflow, and their hearts will wonder and expand.  How far will they expand?  To the point of seeing within themselves God’s majesty.  Do not think, my brothers, that I can explain this promise to you in words” (Christmas Eve, V).  Thus, Mary becomes an icon of what we hope to one day know, to experience the incredible intimacy of the God who becomes flesh within us.  And by contemplating Mary, by preparing for Christ’s present advent through faith, we hope for that day in which we gaze no longer through a mirror but face-to-face. 


Returning then to the question that has guided us:  how might assuming this Marian gaze assist us in our Advent preparation for Christ’s coming in Bethlehem?  Simply, the cooing of the babe is a source of wonder because of his identity.  For Mary, this identity was initially presented through her own Virgin birth.  For us, we shall not know the exact same grace.  But, we do have the whole life of Christ to contemplate, the wonder of his Paschal mystery, a gift that Mary herself would not have had until the end of her life.  And perhaps, it is our own contemplation, our fostering of the desire for this divine-human exchange, which will facilitate a happy Advent preparation.  The prayers of the season of both Advent and Christmas seek to draw our attention to this exchange, inviting us to participate in the mystery.  On Christmas, at the Mass during the Day, the Church prays, “O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  This wonderful mystery is remembered even more poignantly in Preface III of the Nativity of the Lord:  “For through him [Christ] the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor:  when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal.”  In the Incarnation, the Word made flesh took up everything that it meant to be human.  The one who filled his mother’s breasts with milk as the Word of God now drinks in deeply from this fullness, tasting all that it means to be human.  This is the scandal of the Incarnation.  Such strength in such humility, such wonder in such lowliness, such power in such weakness.

Indeed, this divine kenosis (or self-emptying) already recalls for us the obedience of the cross.  That the only way to become fully human is to follow Christ, and the result of such discipleship is a life entirely devoted to self-giving love.

So God became human that we might become divine; but to become divine is to follow this logic of love unto the end.  The model for such love is Mary, a figure intimately tied into the season of Advent and Christmas.  And to contemplate Mary is to encounter an icon of the pilgrim Church.  On December 23, as the collect prayers turn to Mary as tabernacle of the Word made of flesh, we pray:  “Almighty ever-living God, as we see how the Nativity of your Son according to the flesh draws near, we pray that to us, your unworthy servants, mercy may flow from your Word, who chose to become flesh of the Virgin Mary and establish among us his dwelling.”  During the celebration of the Christmas season, all of us, male and female, are to become pregnant with the Word made flesh, to become the household of divinity.  Each time we hear the Word proclaimed at Mass, and believe it in our hearts, the Word becomes flesh.  Each time we reach out to our neighbor as an icon of Christ in need, the Word becomes flesh.  Each time we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration in total openness, the Word becomes flesh.  Each time we come to desire Christ’s advent, a space is opened within us through which God might fill us.  This divine-human exchange, cultivated most perfectly in the Eucharistic life of the Church, continues as we formed more fully into the pedagogy of love that is the mission of the Church.  And this is the Marian character of each Advent we celebrate.




Reflections on the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Season of Advent

Maxwell Johnson, Ph.D.

University of Notre Dame

Professor of Liturgical Studies

Contact Author

Maxwell E. Johnson is professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.  He has published two books on Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflections of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002) and American Magnificat: Protestants on Mary of Guadalupe (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2010).  The above essay is based on his Advent Reflection: “The Virgin of Guadalupe and Advent,” for the Non-exempt Finance Division Christmas Lunch, University of Notre Dame, presented on December 14, 2009.

For several Christian people throughout the world, especially Mexican and Mexican-American Christians, December 12, of course, is the celebration of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.  The feast commemorates her December 9-12, 1531 appearances to Juan Diego, the recent Náhuatl-Aztec convert to Christianity, whose own tilma or cloak bore and continues to bear the miraculous imprint of her image from when “the desert rejoiced and blossomed” (Isaiah 35.1) at Mt. Tepeyac with Castillian roses blooming in December, the

image of the Brown Virgin (La Morenita), the indigenous mestiza clothed with the sun and wearing the cinta, the band of pregnancy, standing on the moon, head bowed and hands folded in prayer, and born aloft by an angel of the Lord. 

I would like to suggest that the Virgin of Guadalupe belongs in a particular way to our Advent preparations because, like Mary herself in her great New Testament hymn of God’s praise, the Magnificat, she proclaims to us the Gospel, the good news of our salvation in Christ, the good news of God who scatters the proud, exalts the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and remembers his promises to Abraham and his children for ever.  The great New Testament scholar, the late Raymond Brown, once wrote:

In the Indian tradition, when Mary appears in the ancient garb of the mother of the Indian gods, she promises to show forth love and compassion, defense and help to all the inhabitants of the land.  Ten years before, the whole Indian nation, their gods and their tradition has been torn down.  She hears their lamentations and remedies their miseries, their pains and their sufferings.  In the devotion to the Lady, the Christian Gospel proclaims hope for the oppressed.…The Gospel of God’s Son means salvation for those who have nothing. I think that is exactly what happened in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  She gave the hope of the Gospel to a whole people who had no other reason to see good news in what came from Spain.  In their lives the devotion to Our Lady constituted an authentic development of the Gospel of discipleship (Raymond Brown, “Mary in the New Testament and in Catholic Life,” America [May 15, 1982]:  378-9).

We can celebrate the Virgin of Mary of Guadalupe, then, because in a special way she proclaims to us the Gospel!

A second reason why we celebrate Mary of Guadalupe is because her very face, which already blends European and indigenous American features, proclaims the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, mestiza “Church” that came to be incarnated as the result of the sixteenth-century cultural confrontation between Spain and Mexico, and still struggles to be born in our own day.  Both the person and the image of Mary of Guadalupe, we might say, function as a typus ecclesiae, a “type,” or “image,” or “model” of the Church.  Indeed, Mary of Guadalupe, this typus ecclesiae herself as pregnant with the Incarnate Word – can surely be seen as, in a mirror reflection, what the Church itself, of what we ourselves (thanks also to God’s unmerited grace) are and are called to be:  similarly “pregnant” with the Incarnate Word for the life and salvation of the world today. “The innermost core of the apparition,” writes Virgil Elizondo, “is what she carries within her womb: the new source and center of the new humanity that is about to be born.  And that source and center is Christ as the light and life of the world” (Virgil Elizondo, Guadalupe:  Mother of the New Creation [Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1997]:  128-9).  I believe, then, that Mary of Guadalupe as an image and model of the Church itself, may be one of the most profound gifts that Mexican and Mexican-American spirituality can make to the whole Church in our day.  For the Church being called into existence more than ever before is one called to be clearly multi-cultural and mestiza in form.  To gaze contemplatively upon the image of Mary Guadalupe, then, is to gaze at the future Church in the making, and to gaze at what we hope, by God’s grace and Spirit, the Church of Jesus Christ, racially, culturally, and even ecumenically, will become.


How appropriate, then, that we celebrate Mary of Guadalupe in Advent.  For what is Advent all about?  On the official Roman Catholic (and contemporary Protestant) liturgical level the season of Advent is primarily concerned with Christ’s coming again at the end of time and only secondarily with his first coming.  That is, within the current three-year cycle of lectionary readings, those assigned to the first three Sundays of this season are all oriented toward the parousia or “second coming” of Christ in glory, and not to his first coming in Bethlehem at Christmas.  The Advent call to “prepare the way of the Lord,” then, is a call more related to the Church’s own eschatological stance in the world as oriented in hope toward ultimate fulfillment in Christ when “he will come to judge the living and the dead” than it is to preparing for Jesus’ “Birthday.”  As such, Christmas becomes less a celebration of a past historical event (Christ’s birth) and more a kind of anticipated celebration of the parousia itself, a celebration of the fullness of redemption and our new “birth” by baptism in the One whom the late Raymond Brown referred to as the “adult Christ at Christmas” (See Raymond Brown’s delightful short commentaries on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke in An Adult Christ at Christmas [Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1978).  In fact, it is only on the Fourth Sunday in Advent where the current readings themselves shift from a clearly eschatological to an incarnational or Christmas focus, with the Gospel pericopes of the Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-24), the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), read respectively in Years A, B, and C.  But on a more popular level, we all know that Christmas is coming and that we will be celebrating Jesus’ birth.  In fact, as Elizondo notes:

The entire complex of events at Tepeyac was as mysterious as it was ultimately real.  The bishop was disconcerted and his household was disturbed, as theologians, liturgists, and catechests usually are with the ways of God’s poor.  To this day, liturgists do not want to accept the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as the major feast of Advent.  For them, it seems that God made a mistake in placing the feast of Guadalupe during Advent (Elizondo, 95).

Within most forms of popular religion and piety, whether Catholic or Protestant, Advent has always been and will continue to be decidedly incarnational in focus and closely related to the people and events surrounding the impending birth of Christ, in spite of what we liturgists and the official liturgy say about eschatology.   And what is most interesting is that, in spite of what the Advent Sunday Gospel Readings are, the readings for the December 8 Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and now for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12 are, respectively, the Gospel readings of both the Annunciation of the angel to Mary and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth in annual proximity to the Second and Third Sundays of Advent already!   In other words, this other incarnational focus has actually remained within Advent under different names and, as such, both already integrate Mary and the principal biblical texts associated with her into Advent itself.  The story and the image of Guadalupe are really about incarnation, about the word becoming flesh, the incarnation of the gospel, the good news of God’s salvation among us here in this land, and about who we are and who we are to become as Church in the world.  Mary of Guadalupe, pregnant with the Incarnate Word about to be born, belongs to our Advent reflections because Mary belongs in a special way to Advent for the simple reason that her Son seeks always to be born anew in us.  For she too, like John the Baptizer, who comes as God’s messenger to prepare the way before the Christ who is coming, also comes as God’s messenger inviting us to give him a home in which to be born again among us this year and every year.  But, as the “woman clothed with the sun,” Mary of Guadalupe also reflects the over-all eschatological focus of Advent as well.  She belongs in a special way to Advent then because she is able to hold together both orientations of the season, the incarnational and the eschatological.

Finally, on an ecumenical level where the popularity of Guadalupe continues to grow, former executive director of the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Bonnie Jenson, draws attention to Mary of Guadalupe in the following manner:

.….I was deeply moved by the story of the poor man’s vision of the Lady of Guadalupe.  I was struck by how lowly, insignificant people have to beg the church to regard them with the esteem with which God regards them… The poor and lowly often have to beg the church to proclaim and live out its message of a merciful, compassionate God!  Behind the vision’s gilded cactus leaves, miraculous roses, and imprinted cloak is the longing for a God who comes, not in the might of military conquest, nor in the ecclesiastical forms and evangelism plans of a mighty church, but in simple compassionate respect and regard for the lowly, the hungry, the women, the poor, the children…. (Bonnie Jenson, “We Sing Mary’s Song,” in Maxwell Johnson [ed.], American Magnificat:  Protestants on Mary of Guadalupe [Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 2010]:  168).

Such is the gift and invitation of the mid-Advent feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.





Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Nothing is Impossible for God

Rev. Fr. Benedict Ukutegbe

Catholic Institute of West Africa,

Port Harcourt, Rivers State Nigeria.


It goes without saying that Mary occupies a special place in the life of the Church and her worship because of her role in the history of salvation.  There is no Eucharistic celebration, for example, where Mary is not venerated as the Mother of God along with all the saints who had done God’s will.  Today is one of such unique moment when the Church contemplates and thanks God for his wonderful works in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Divinely elected, she was to be the channel through which God’s predestined plan of salvation through Christ was to be realized.  The Immaculate Conception celebrates the singular privileged enjoyed by Mary whom God preserved from sin from the first moment of her life because she was to bear the spotless Lamb of God who was to take away the sins of the world.

Rationale of the Feast

The early Church spontaneously understood that the Blessed Mother of Christ could not be linked to any kind of sin, actual or original.  When the Christ was to take flesh it was necessary that the vessel to harbour him should be one of honour, pure and spotless because the Son of Man, the Holy One of God is the Lamb of God without blemish. It stands to reason to believe that the all-holy God can only take flesh in an unblemished womb.  Consequently, God prepared her from conception by preserving her from the stain of sin so she can be a worthy vessel of honour because the “child to be born will be holy; he will be called son of God” (Luke 1:35). This is why the angel addressed her as “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28) and her cousin Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declared: “Of all women you are the most blessed and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42).  Biblical references such as I Kings 8:11, Ps 87:1, 7, and Sir 24:4 have all been traditionally interpreted to refer to the purity of Mary. In the fourth Century, St. Ephrem described Mary as “sinless, immaculate and integral.” Like every human being, Mary experienced salvation or redemption but in a different way. Every other human being experiences liberative salvation since they are set free from sin and made holy.  However, Mary had no sin from which she needed to be liberated;she experienced preservative salvation, that is, she was preserved from the stain of sin in view of the redemption in Christ. These constitute the foundations for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.


Origin of Liturgical Celebration of the Feast

About the 8th century in the East, a feast in honour of the Immaculate Conception of Mary by Joachim and Ann was granted at the request of couples without a child. This was celebrated on December 9 in honour of the parents of Mary. When it spread to the West, it was celebrated in honour of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.In 1050 at the Council of Vercelli, Pope Leo IX recommended that the conception of the Virgin Mary be honoured. In 1166, Emperor Emmanuel Comnen made it a precept for the feast to be celebrated and in 1846 the title of “Immaculate Mary” was chosen as the principal patron of the United States of America. It was in 1854 that Pope Pius IX, on December 8, official declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a dogma of faith. Thereafter, it came to be celebrated universally under the title of Immaculate Conception of Mary.

A renewed Call to Holiness

In celebrating this feast, the church places before us the triumph of God’s grace in the Blessed Virgin Mary whom God preserved from every stain of sin. She becomes a model of holiness and purity for all Christians and in a special way for Priests, religious and members of Consecrated life. She is so full of grace that there could not have been any disgrace of sin found in her. She cooperated with the grace of God, submitted humbly to God’s will and led an exemplary life.  In the first reading (Gen 3:9-15, 20) the woman Eve along with Adam was the source of disgrace and God promised the great woman whose descendants would gain ultimate victory over the devil. In the gospel reading, the great woman Mary, full of grace, gained victory over the wiles of the devil by being pure and submissive to the will of God. She cooperated with God’s plan and became the mother of the Saviour who through his passion, death and resurrection crushed the head of the devil and set the records straight with God. Yet the battle is not over, since as St. Peter says the enemy, the devil is still antagonizing the children of God, luring them to the contamination of sin but they must remain strong in faith (I Peter 8-9).

Mary, the new Eve, is a shining example of purity and total submission to the will of God. As Mother of God and Mother of the Church, she calls us to submission to God’s will,  purity of heart and holiness of life for only the pure of heart will behold the face of God (Matt 5:8). This invitation to holiness resonates with the admonition of St. Paul (Second Reading) to the Ephesians: “Before the world was made he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence” (Eph 5:27). This also echoes God’s demand of his children, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48). This vocation becomes quite challenging in a world which seems suspicious of the name of God and celebrates the liberty of humanity as the determinant of its destiny; a world where the human heart appears coerced by sin and rebellion; a world where individuals prefer and seek to do their wills in defiance of God’s; a world where godly values seem toppled by ungodly ones and divine standards short-changed for mundane pleasures; a world where those who strive for holiness are labelled as “twisted” and moral deviants are celebrated as icons of human freedom. It is true that today’s world pose a great obstacle to the Christian vocation to holiness that some Christians are already acquiescing to the fact that it is impossible to be holy in the present age. In the midst of these, the encouraging and consoling voice of the angel must be heard anew “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you … for nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1: 35-37). Our vocation to holiness of life and purity of heart may be an uphill task, but we should be willing and ready to take it on believing, like Mary, that God’s promise will be fulfilled in us. He promised to be with us all the way on this journey (Matt 28:20).

Mary, Model to be Emulated

In celebrating this feast, we give thanks to God for his grace which bore fruit in the life of the Blessed Virgin, but we also look forward with admiration at her unique virtues and are therefore challenged to emulate her. In our world which seems to be losing the sense of sin, the Immaculate Heart of Mary is given to us as an example to imitate. We must listen to God’s word, meditate on and live by them as Mary did. This season of Advent offers us a fresh opportunity to purify our hearts of sin and remodel our lives according to the Gospel values exemplified in Mary, our Mother. We must remember that shortest route to failure is reliance on self.  Thus, through the intercession of Mary conceived without sin, may God’s grace bear fruits of purity and holiness in our lives as it did in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

O Mary Conceived without Sin. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Household of Divinity: Mary and the Season of Advent (Part III)

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

Part I           Part II

Ephrem the Syrian

This theme of the divine-human exchange, performed through poetic language, is perfected in Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373).  In his Hymns on the Nativity, Ephrem draws the Christian into a prayerful contemplation of the Word made flesh, one always aware of the Word’s origin in the bosom of the Father.  In hymn four, Ephrem sings out:

Glory to that Voice that became a body, and to the lofty Word that became flesh.  Ear even heard Him, eyes saw Him, hands even touched Him, the mouth ate Him.  Limbs and senses gave thanks to the One who came and revived all that is corporeal.  Mary bore a mute Babe though in Him were hidden all our tongues.  Joseph carried Him, yet hidden in Him was a silent nature older than everything.  The Lofty One became like a little child, yet hidden in Him was a treasure of Wisdom that suffices for all.  He was lofty but he sucked Mary’s milk, and from His blessings all creation sucks…As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk, He has given suck—life to the universe.  And again He dwelt in His mother’s womb, in His womb dwells all creation (Hymn 4.143-49; 153-54).

For Ephrem, the Holy Family (like all creation) is taken up into the depths of mystery (raza).  The most human of actions, sucking upon the breast of his mother, being held by Joseph, become symbols through the Incarnation that reveal (galyutha) the hiddenness (kasyutha) of God (see the introduction to Hymns on Paradise by Sebastian Brock; also, Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom).  Unique insights about the divine nature are revealed through the narrative of salvation.  And as the image becomes a part of the human person, our own vision of the universe is transformed.

Because of Ephrem’s remarkable sacramental imagination, our identification with Mary at the Nativity is even more pronounced than in Augustine.  For in his Hymns on the Nativity, perhaps the richest source of Marian poetry in early Christianity, Ephrem takes up Mary’s own voice in the contemplation of her Son.  In hymn 5, Ephrem in the person of Mary declares:

Indeed, how much I am amazed that an aged Babe is set before me—One Who lifts his gaze entirely to heaven without ceasing.  The murmuring of His mouth—how it seems to me as if His silence were speaking with God!  Indeed, who has seen a Babe who gazes entirely everywhere?  He gazes as the Director of all creation above and below.  He looks as the Commander of the universe.  How shall I open the fount of milk for You, the Fount?  How shall I give sustenance to You, the All-sustaining, from Your [own] table?  How shall I approach with swaddling clothes the One arrayed in streams [of light]? (Hymn 5).

In particular, one should consider the context of the hymn. Female choirs sang these hymns within a liturgical setting, and thus the Church as a whole assumes the role of Mary in their performance.  As the Church sings the hymn, we join Mary in offering a lullaby to her child, one that we now sing acutely aware of the full identity of the Word made flesh.  And thus, the hymn that we sing to Christ in the person of Mary transforms us, requires us to look again at the birth of Christ.  In hymn sixteen, Ephrem chants:

You are not [merely] a human being that in an ordinary way I should sing you a lullabye.  For Your conception is a new thing, and Your birth is a miracle.  Without the Spirit who could sing to You?  A new utterance of prophecy seethes in me.  What can I call You, a stranger to us, Who was from us?  Shall I call you Son?  Shall I call you Brother?  Shall I call you Bridegroom?  Shall I call you Lord, O [You] Who brought forth His mother [in another] birth out of the water?  For I am [Your] sister from the House of David, who is a second father.  Again, I am mother because of Your conception, and bride am I because of your chastity.  Handmaiden and daughter of blood and water [am I] whom You redeemed and baptized.  Son of the Most High Who came and dwelt in me, [in] another birth, He bore me also [in] a second birth.  I put on the glory of Him Who put on the body, the garment of His mother (Hymn 16).

The beauty of the hymn should not belie the subtly of thought.  Indeed, Mary is the Mother of Jesus Christ, who is God “to the one who confesses you…Lord to the one who serves You, and…brother to the one who loves You so that You might save all” (Hymn 16).  But, the possibility of intimate union with Christ is not reserved to the Mother alone.  As we sing this hymn, as we take up the identity of Mary, we confess that in baptism we assume Christ’s own glory, we become bride, handmaiden, and daughter of blood and water.

And, Christ comes to dwell in us through the Eucharist, transforming our minds just as Mary’s:  “Dwell in bread and in those who eat it.  In hidden and revealed [form] let your church see You as [does] the one who bore You” (Hymn 16).  Thus, the virgin fruitfulness of Mary is to become the very identity of the Church.  We are likewise to contemplate the wonder of the infant, to offer hymns to the one whose very silence sings to God.  Whereas Augustine encourages us to gaze at the infant, to use Mary herself as a sign of the divine kenosis, Ephrem assumes this very Marian gaze through his poetry.  The genius of this, of course, is that we in some way come to experience anew the Incarnation through this Marian gaze.  The particularities of our human condition, the sorrows and joys of a human life, become seeds for our contemplation of the Incarnation.