Musical Mystagogy: Singing the Incarnation

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Every year, I lament the fact that there simply aren’t enough days in the Christmas season to listen to all of the incredible music that helps us enter the exultant hymn of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. Let’s face it: there’s a reason we secretly start listening to Christmas music around the middle of Advent (or that we at least really want to). Christmas music is sacred music par excellence. Whether it’s a traditional carol like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, or a chant like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or a more recent addition to the repertoire like Morten Lauridsen’s anthem O Magnum Mysterium, or Alfred Burt’s carol Jesu Parvule, the songs of Christmas make real the idea of “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” a phrase that comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions as he addresses God himself. Some may balk at this analogy between the earthly beauty of music and the divine beauty, but I maintain that one can indeed use Augustine’s description with reference to Christmas music, because its material beauty points beyond itself to the divine beauty present in the very mystery this music helps us celebrate.

On the one hand, Christmas music does seem ancient: we know it intimately. It has accompanied us to the manger each and every year. And yet, on the other hand, it is indeed ever new: we never seem to grow tired of it. The reason for this, I believe, is that every year, we approach this season and this music different people than we were at this time last year, and as a result, though the music remains the same, we will hear it differently. This is the gift of a set repertoire of carols and hymns and chants, and the gift of the new additions to the repertoire that have slowly and steadily found a home within this treasury over time. The music of Christmas allows us to return to it year after year after year, and, like a wellspring, it continually slakes our thirst for beauty and mystery and meaning.

So, with the vast breadth of music, how does one choose a single piece to encapsulate the Christmas season? With the understanding that there is not ever going to be one piece that does so, but with the hope that, at least for this year, this one will help unfold the mystery a little more fully. With that, I offer Egil Hovland’s The Glory of the Father. I came across this piece as an undergraduate member of the St. Isidore Catholic Student Center Choir at my alma mater, Kansas State University, and I have come back to it every Christmas since then. This piece, written in 1957 by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, uses as its text excerpts from the stunning prologue of St. John’s Gospel. This passage is proclaimed on Christmas at the Mass during the day, which perhaps seems an unusual choice. There is no mention of a journey to Bethlehem or a manger, no angels singing or shepherds dropping in. Instead, what we have is light. The light of the human race. The light that shines in darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light that was coming into the world. And what is this light? St. John tells us.

The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.

This text serves as the beginning and end of Hovland’s stunning yet simple piece. In constructing the piece this way, Hovland is holding up the Incarnation—Jesus Christ Himself—as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The music in these sections is open—hollow sounding and yet somehow also full. The first words of the piece—“The Word became flesh”—are sung with a chant-like rhythm using the interval of a perfect fifth, one of the two intervals used in the medieval period to create the first instances of harmony. The other interval was the perfect fourth, and Hovland ends the phrase “dwelt among us” on this sonority (the italics designate the syllables on which this interval occurs). Why mention this? To demonstrate that the openness of the piece comes from a compositional technique that signaled the birth of harmony as we now know it. A beauty ever ancient. On the other hand, the composer uses close harmonies and controlled dissonance (clashing notes) to create a sense of fullness, particularly when the choir sings “We beheld the glory of the Father” the second time. A beauty ever new.

At the heart of the piece, Hovland returns to the beginning of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God.” The piece takes on more life and movement here, indicating the life and movement of the eternal Word, the second Person of the triune God. With the text “In him was life,” a stirring drama builds, and suddenly, a tension is introduced with the phrase “and the life was the light of men.” The startling chord on the word “men” indicates a new presence: darkness. Through the sin of humanity, darkness enters the world and threatens to blot out the life of the Word, “the light of men.” This darkness continues as the composer holds up for our attention a reality that we would rather forget as we celebrate Christmas: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” This child, the Word made flesh, the true light which enlightens everyone, was rejected by those whom he called his own. Is still rejected.

And yet, immediately after this sobering, convicting statement, the composer returns to the opening section, indicating that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Moreover, the abrupt shift from the darkness back to the light indicates that the glory of the Incarnate Word—“the glory as of the Father’s only Son”—is not contingent upon our acceptance of Him. The light has come into the world. It is offered as gift for those with the eyes to see it, and “to those who did accept him”—who accept him still today—“he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This season, as we sing the mysteries of the Incarnation, may we open our eyes to see and our hearts to welcome the light of the world, the Word made flesh, the glory of the Father.

The Holy Family as Community: Thoughts for Our Parishes and Families

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany ’15


Echo Apprentice

Each year on the feast of the Holy Family, I wonder about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I wonder about how we as a Church think about the Holy Family. I wonder how to make sense of their family in light of my own family, or in light of the other families whom I know and love. A traditional (very well-intentioned) bent of homilies on this day sometimes takes the following approach:

“Mary was the perfect mother. Moms, be Mary. Joseph was the perfect example of a father. Dads, be Joseph. And kids, young Jesus didn’t disobey Mary and Joseph. Be Jesus.”

Hearing this sort of approach, my slight cynicism makes me think:

“Yeah, no kidding… TWO of the three members of the Holy Family were literally sinless and the THIRD one lived with TWO sinless people. How does that even begin to compare?”

No family looks like this. Not even on Instagram. Don't kid yourselves, guys.
No family looks like this. Not even on Instagram. Don’t kid yourselves, guys.

The “follow their example” approach to the feast makes sense, at least partially. The Holy Family was obviously a model for our own families, but a perspective that leaves the Holy Family as only a perfect model can seem saccharine and disconnected from reality.  None of us come from sinless families. Some of us come from families aching from recent hardship or loss; all come from families with a variety of dysfunctions; some of us come from families whose stories are too difficult and complex to describe in short detail.

This year, my contemplation of the feast of the Holy Family has been shaped by my first five months in parish ministry. As I thought about this feast for the purposes of teaching catechetically about the family and about the Holy Family, I began to explore different angles. I have noticed an ache for community in my own parish, among young adults, among older people missing their children and grandchildren, with young moms and dads— and this is not merely a reality in my parish alone.

I came across some articles this year that made me realize the loneliness that people carry and all the different ways in which many of us try to fill that loneliness. This article speaks about millennials choosing to live in shared housing with other married couples; another article discusses how parishes can reach out to support young mothers and young families who may be far from tdd_yngheir families of origin. These articles, other sources, and conversations all feed into one reality that is a reality in all places and for all families: the longing, desire and human need for community. This need is all the more acute in a world of families who live far from one another or for those whose family does not seem to even compare with the Holy Family.

Dorothy Day famously said, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.”

On this year’s feast of the Holy Family, for the sake of our own families and the sake of our own Church, what if we looked at the Holy Family not as a moralistic tale of a perfect family, but rather as a model of community? Mary and Joseph lived through an unplanned pregnancy and fleeing hardship together. They lost Jesus in Jerusalem and searched for Him together. “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man,” living in community with Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:52).

Seeing the Holy Family as a model of community and bearing with one another through loneliness, hardship– or in good times for that matter– does not mean our families are sinless. This does not mean our families are without illnesses. Nor does this mean we can label families who may be hurt and broken as failures. What it does mean is this: when we call the Holy Family a model for our own families, we must have a more nuanced idea of what we mean by the family as “holy.” That idea would do well both to bring in a sense of community and to develop what we mean when we refer to any family (including the Holy Family) as  “holy.”

For this, since we often refer to the family as the “domestic Church,” I find this insight from Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity” particularly compelling.

Introduction_to_Christianity“The Church is not called “holy” in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men— this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place… however movingly it may express a human longing….

The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the “New Covenant”: in Christ, God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them.

The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness. It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well disposed toward him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him, and loves him (Ratzinger 341).

These words also apply to our imperfect families and, by extension, our imperfect parish families. Or in the words of Pope Francis:

“So great was His love, that He began to walk with humanity, with His people, until the right moment came, and He made the highest expression of love – His own Son. And where did He send his son – to a palace? To a city? No. He sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And He could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.”

The holiness and dignity of the family, like the holiness of the Church, does not stand merely on the behavior of individuals. The holiness of family, and the holiness of striving to be a holy family, stands upon the fact that by choosing to enter into a family, Christ has forever sanctified all families. Seeing Francis’ and Ratzinger’s perspective on the family and on the Church may help us to see the Holy Family not merely as a model of moral perfection, but rather as a model of holy community that knows how to “love one another with mutual affection, anticipate one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

Counting Down Advent

Molly DailyMolly Daily, ND ’14

Intern, Washington University & Webster University Catholic Student Center Campus Ministry

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Last weekend, my Dad joined me in St. Louis for his birthday gift – a trip to a St. Louis Blues game. We reveled in the buzz of energy and the crisp air. Though we are far from experts on the game, we joined others in raucous cheering and shouting – my dad delighting while I cowered uncomfortably at the occasional lingering fight. We enjoyed a highly anticipated evening together.

About halfway through the second period, my old friend anxiety showed up and demanded a space. It manifested itself as it often does during sporting events, where giant clocks peer obtrusively down from a jumbotron. Though I found joy in being present at the game, I became obsessed with that clock. I started my own internal countdown, calculating what time the game might end. My focus shifted away from the game itself and rushed toward the moment when the clock would hit zero and I’d be on to the Next Big Thing.

This temptation often follows me through life. I begin my day or any particular project with a focus on being present. Though my intentions are good, my focus slips and I begin planning ahead – ignoring the moment I’m in to think about what the next one will be like. While this is fueled by my struggle with anxiety, I doubt I’m alone. A look at my Facebook news feed confirms this. My friends and I post countdowns, making sure everyone knows the number of days or hours until this Big Event we can’t wait for – whether it’s the premiere of Star Wars, a party, or the end time of our last exam. But the next day, we’re looking at TimeHop and thinking nostalgically about how fast time has gone by, gushing about how much time has passed since we were freshmen or since the Last Big Thing. We become so consumed with looking forward that we forget to enjoy the moment as it occurs.

This tendency presents a particular danger during the season of Advent, even on the very last day of this season. Each year, I enter into Advent with a special prayer practice or a resolution of sorts. This year, it was reading each day’s Mass readings in the morning and writing down a phrase to take with me throughout the day. Others may mark the time by setting out an Advent wreath, or taking a devotional book from their parish. Regardless of the practice, we begin Advent resolved to wait in prayerful silence, remembering the patience and silence of those days before Christ’s birth.

But then, we lose focus. Christmas music comes on the radio, shopping begins on Thanksgiving Day, and we pull out the Christmas countdown calendars. Gone is the prayerful, focused waiting. We race toward Christmas, thinking about how many days and moments until we get our presents, or have that party. We throw away proper preparation, and when the moment we are awaiting arrives, we have no idea how we got there. We are not properly prepared to receive the victory. We haven’t postured ourselves to understand what this win means, to know where it came from.

If we wish to truly celebrate the birth of Christ and His entrance into our lives, we have to pay attention to the present moment. We must practice the posture of waiting and use Advent as a time to discover the longing for Christ in our hearts as it exists right now – not as it will in a month, or a year. In our prayer of presence, we re-order our desires as we wait patiently. We learn that preparation is not rushing past dates on the calendar, but an intentional focus on the present moment, where we simply listen and exist. Advent becomes a time of practice. Through prayerful silence and patient waiting, we are formed into Christmas people, who celebrate in the fullness and joy of the faith we have come to know and understand.

In the hockey arena, I used the practices I learned in therapy to push anxiety away and find the puck on the ice, not the time on the scoreboard. As a result, I paid attention, returned to the moment, and saw all three Blues goals. In this season of Advent, my constant prayer has been that I may listen for the voice that calls me to do the same, so that when Christmas comes, I’ll know how I got here.

Holy Trigonometry

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
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Christmas is a feast for families, beginning with the Holy Family. But is it also a feast of the Family of the Holy Trinity? The “Trigonometry” featured in this year’s display of Christmas crèches at the University of Notre Dame answers “yes” to this question.

Trigonometry (from Greek trigōnon, “triangle” and metron, “measure”) is a branch of mathematics investigating the relationships of lengths and angles in triangles. For many of us this science can be compared to the proverbial book with seven seals with which we have become acquainted while in High School. We may still remember that the sides of a right-angle triangle and the angles between those sides have fixed relationships. Provided we know at least the length of one side and the value of one angle, we can determine all other angles and lengths. Trigonometry and its functions are implemented for example in satellite navigation systems.

TrinityChristian iconography, too, avails itself of this science when portraying the Mystery of the Triune God in the form of a triangle. This depiction, as limited and fragmentary as it may be, can tell us something about the “Divine Trigonometry.” The triangle’s equilateral sides symbolize the coequal nature of the three divine persons (est), while the maximal separation of the vertices highlights their distinction (non est). Hence, the rapport within the communion of the Triune God is absolute communion and simultaneous free unfolding of the differences of the Persons and their attributes. Moreover, the Trinity’s modus of interaction in pursuit of the common plan and goal (creation, redemption, sanctification) enables us to better, though never completely, comprehend the Revelation about the Triune God! The Council of Florence explained this Trinitarian mode of being as follows:

Through this unity…the Father is completely in the Son and completely in the Holy Spirit;
the Son is completely in the Father and completely in the Holy Spirit;
he Holy Spirit is completely in the Father and completely in the Son
(DS 1331).

Hence, the three distinct divine Persons are the same Being, the same Life, the same God, and are united in a communion of Love. The reciprocal rapport unique to the Divine Trigonometry is described by the Greek Fathers as perichoresis (round dance) and by the Western Fathers as circumincessio (mutual indwelling). Taking our bearings from this tradition, we observe complete openness and receptiveness among the Persons of the Trinity to each other. In their Being each contains the others and is contained by them. Revelation permits us to define each of the three Persons exclusively on the basis of how they relate to the other two. In the words of St. John Paul II, “the Father is pure Paternity, the Son is pure Sonship, and the Holy Spirit is pure Nexus of Love of the two, so that the personal distinctions do not divide the same and unique divine nature of the three.”[1]

MoneyThe reverse of the current $1 bill shows an unfinished pyramid topped by the Eye of Providence within a triangle. This portrayal of God’s Eye discloses another dimension of the Divine Trigonometry. Dating back to the Middle-Ages, the triangle with a pointed top indicates the unique position of God Father within the Trinity.  St. Irenaeus speaks of the Father’s ‘two hands,’ the Son and the Spirit. The Father may be seen as the ultimate authority in his fatherly compassionate love which is the principle cause of God’s activity. The Father is the sender of the Son and the Holy Spirit, but does not himself go. Thus, the Divine Trigonometry has its origin in the Trinity’s eternal plan and extends from the ineffable communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The classic example of this divine economy is the Incarnation celebrated on March 25 and made visible nine months later on Christmas. Its dynamics is revealed through the Scriptures as a bonum diffusivum sui (good diffusive of itself). It is a love that does not remain closed in a perfect circle of light and glory but offered as a creative, self-gift. God’s Love proceeds from the Father to the Son who by his “departure” transmits to the Holy Spirit the new salvific self-giving of God. The Triune God, however, did not want to accomplish this plan without the cooperation of humanity.

Luke’s account of the Annunciation recounts the Trinity in dialogue with Mary of Nazareth. As a result of Mary’s free and loving cooperation with God’s plan the total gift of herself in undivided love is rewarded with God’s gift to her, manifest in her divine maternity, and culminating in their mutual Gift – Jesus Christ!

The Divine Trilogy provided that the eternal Son of God be born and sheltered in the love of a human family which hence becomes a mirror of God’s communion. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI expressed it this way, “The human family is, in a certain sense, the icon of the Trinity because of the love between its members and the fruitfulness of that love.”[2] In other words, the divine trigonometry seeks a continuation and reflection on earth.

TrigonometryAmong the 30 crèches exhibited presently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, one conveys this holy trigonometry. The Swiss nativity set designed by Elizabeth Kuchen can be admired at the Morris Inn. Its foundation is a triangle-symbol of the Trinity- surrounded by daisies arranged in groups of three. Joseph, Mary and the manger with Baby Jesus form a triangle; the same holds true for the magi kings surrounding them. The A-framed shelter, complemented by its firm foundation is triangular and even the smoke—or is it a lightning rod?—on top of the roof resembles an open triangle. The idyllic scene radiating simplicity and harmony allows the onlooker to be drawn to the fruit of an existence founded in God’s Trigonometry. At the points of each triangle stands a person-free and autonomous-yet centered on the other, particularly on the Child in the manger.  Each one has a unique role and mission and therefore can complement the others. Above all, each figure is supported by the base—symbol for the triune communion—on which they are standing. For that reason, this holy trigonometry mirrors the Divine Trigonometry!

But there is still more! Did you notice the four figures (only two are visible in the above photo) standing in the background? Who are they? The answer is up to our imagination. Allow me to share my thoughts.  The number four alludes to a finite, transitional state which is perhaps the reason why they are placed on a lower level.  Could they be the representatives of those who approach and observe this Divine Mystery skeptically, yet longingly? The four figures are in need of a lift in order to become part of the harmony and peace of the Holy Trigonometry, lest they turn around and get lost in the darkness! Authentic holy trigonometry—a communion in which each is completely open to the other—moves towards the disenfranchised.  The Divine Child at the center of the crèche is the measuring stick for each one of us. From His Incarnation to His death He consumed himself by inviting all into the communion of the Divine Trigonometry. As his brothers and sisters we are invited to do likewise. The Father needs us to be His arms in the world today. Are you ready to be sent and to bring the Gift of the Father to our world in darkness? Then peace and joy will triumph and the Miracle of Love is celebrated in heaven and on earth!

[1] The Trinity’s Embrace – God’s Saving Plan. A Catechesis on Salvation History (Boston 2002), 183.

[2] Angelus, December 27, 2009.

O Jerusalem: Many Will Come from East and West

LevriMary Catherine Levri

Candidate, Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame 

Have you read “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor?  It is the story of hers that I find the most moving, and it is digestible even by readers of the weakest constitutions when it comes to the Southern grotesque.  In sum – and without ruining it for you – “Revelation” is the story of a woman whose understanding of herself in the eyes of God is turned upside down.  She is made to see the greater faults in herself and the hidden virtues in others, and in an ending that I think is one of the most beautiful in fictional literature, O’Connor describes the fullness of this woman’s revelation; it entails the strange and ineffable grandeur of the Kingdom of God.  I would encourage you to go here and read the story right this very minute.  Please do. I will not be upset if you stop reading this post.

It did not occur to me that “Revelation” was an Advent story until I read the Gospel for Monday in the first week of Advent.  It was the passage from Matthew in which the Roman centurion asks the Lord to heal his sick servant.  The centurion is the man from whom we have received a congregational response of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy, that You should enter under my roof…”  What I had never taken notice of before is the entirety of Jesus’ response to the soldier’s request.  He of course says, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.”  But then He says, “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11).

The Lord seems to be remarking that the table of the Heavenly Banquet will be filled with more than just the usual suspects.  Whenever I hear the words “east and west” in Scripture, I immediately think of the three kings; those exotic, noble men, most likely unaware of the salvation history of the people of Israel, coming from the Orient to adore a baby simply because they knew a cosmic event when they saw one.  For all their regality and fineness, they carried within them humble hearts, awake and ready to receive the Wonder to which the star had led them.  These men of Oriental nobility are not the type of folks you would have thought would have been among the first to recognize and believe in the Messiah.  They share that quality in common with the Roman centurion.

A few days later, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard the words “east and west” once again:

“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Bar. 5: 1-9).

These words are from the first reading, and they hearken to a lesser known “O Antiphon” that was sung in the medieval Church.  It is the antiphon dedicated to Jerusalem, the Heavenly City:

O Hierusalem! Civitas Dei summi, leva in circuitu oculos tuos; et vide Dominum tuum, quia jam veniet solvere te a vinculis.

“O Jerusalem! City of the great God: lift up thine eyes round about, and see thy Lord, for he is coming to loose thee from thy chains.”

Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, is the destination of all peoples, from all sides of the world.  Every single person of every single race, country, and creed, is meant to be a child of this Kingdom.  And Jesus seems to want to tell us that the strongest faith is found in the most surprising of places.  His own experience certainly reflects this: He struggled over and over again to communicate the truth of His mission to the religious leaders in His midst who were supposedly of a faith that had been waiting for a Savior for hundreds of years.  Then, out of nowhere comes the centurion, graced with a faith in Jesus that, according to a history of religion, had no business being there.  “Never make the mistake of thinking you have pegged people,” the Lord seems to say. “The sheep who hear my voice may not look the way you think they would.”

You really must read Flannery O’Connor’s  “Revelation,” because it situates the universality of the heavenly Jerusalem in the daily environment of a doctor’s office, a conversation amongst strangers, and the relationship between a Southern woman and the people who work for her.  As Advent draws to a close, this story can help us to see how we may have made the perfect Christian believer in our own image and likeness.  We expect the population of the Holy City to be widely made up of people like ourselves, but the Sciptural characters of the Christmas season show us that such an idea could not be further from the truth.  On the heavenly day we arrive at the gates of the Holy City, our brothers and sisters from the east and the west will astonish us in their strange, unpredictable, and glorious variety.  O Jerusalem, eternal home of us all, let us welcome our coming Lord with joy!

Dwelling with Love Incarnate: Part 2

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Editor’s Note: This second of two posts is part of a lecture given to inaugurate the Institute for Church Life’s 2nd annual International Crèche Pilgrimage, Dwelling with Love Incarnate. 

Dwelling with Love Incarnate: Part 1

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.


Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.


Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.


Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.


What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

This hymn, a text written by Christina Rossetti, rifts upon a number of the motifs that were implicit in O Magnum Mysterium. The silence of the bleak mid-winter is intensified through a placing of the Nativity in an English village, covered with snow. Worship is offered by the angels, yet the marvel of the Incarnation is upon display in Jesus’ drinking of milk from his mother’s bosom, worship being offered most fully through the tender kiss of a mother upon the cheek of her son. Yet, at the end, the hymn takes a turn common in devotional poetry of the time. The contemplation of the pastoral nativity demands some response by the poet and reader alike. A shepherd might bring a lamb, a Wise Man would bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but me—what is left but to give myself?

In this sense, Rossetti’s poetry functions almost Eucharistically. God’s action has unfolded in the Incarnation and what remains but the giving of oneself as a return-gift to the infant Son. And the icon of this return-gift is the blessed Virgin herself, who offers the kiss of love that the poet now desires to give to the Son. Such poetry is self-implicating, wooing one to participate in the gift of what takes place in the hidden indwelling of the God-man.

The liturgical poetry of Romanos the Melodist takes up this same perspective, where the reader of the poem, the singer of the hymn assumes a central role in the drama of salvation. In his hymn on the Nativity, Romanos invites the reader to assume the Marian role in the story:

“For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Savior;

it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,

but for the sake of all I implore you.

You have made me the mouth and boast of all my race,

and your world has me,

as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.

They look to me, those who were cast out

of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.

May all things understand that, through me, you have been born

a little Child, God before the ages (The Nativity, 23).

While also reflecting upon the role of Mary in the drama of the Nativity, the hymn forms the reader to see him or herself as the Marian actor in the drama. In this age, as this hymn is sung, the Christian is also to become the place where Christ is born into the world.

Indeed, it is the very pedagogy of the crèche scene to invite us to participate within our own time in the Incarnation. The “Painted Houses” of South Africa uses tribal imagery to demonstrate how God’s dwelling among us might put an end to the hostility between rival factions.


The material of the banana tree of Paraguay incarnates the Christmas narrative into the agricultural milieu of that country.


Alaska’s own wintry background is now where the Savior of the world is born.


The crèche scenes are moments in which the story of Christmas is seen in its contemporaneity—the world grown weary through sin and death, now renewed through the glory of the Incarnate Word.

The family that keeps watch before the crèche participates in this drama of salvation. And indeed, this drama is unfolding even in the mundane world of family life. Cardinal Marc Ouellet writes, “…the love of Christian spouses and the richness of their family relationships become a sacred sign, a vehicle and sanctuary of a greater Love, the love of the Trinitarian, incarnate God, who enters into a humble and indissoluble bond with their community of life and love” (Divine Likeness, 53). The love of the Father poured out in his Son and then given over to women and men in history itself is still become manifest in the nuptial union. The family becomes an incarnate and inculturated sign of God’s love for the world to contemplate. Each of the families, in their own particularities, reveal something about the triune love of God made manifest in the Incarnation: the couple with a plurality of children, the elderly couple who now live alone, the family forced into migration, and the infertile couple who open their house to care for the poorest of the poor.

In this way, the nativity set can renew family life insofar as it reminds them that although domesticity is often mundane, it is in fact a participation in the drama of salvation in this time and place. It is a participation in a drama where there is not only joy but also signs of sorrow that mark the human condition. And the set invites us, just like the poetry of Christian Rossetti or Romanos the Melodist, to assume our role in the drama.

Born On a New Day

You are the new day.

Meekness, love, humility

Come down to us this day:

Christ, your birth has proved to me

You are the new day.


Quiet in a stall you lie,

Angels watching in the sky

Whisper to you from on high

“You are the new day”.


When our life is darkest night,

Hope has burned away;

Love, your ray of guiding light,

Show us the new day.


Love of all things great and small

Leaving none, embracing all,

Fold around me where I fall,

Bring in the new day.


This new day will be

A turning point for everyone.

If we let the Christ-child in, and

Reach for the new day.


Christ the Way, the Truth, the Life;

Healing sadness, ending strife;

You we welcome, Lord of life,

Born on a new day.

You are the new day.

A relatively modern carol, “Born On a New Day” is an adaptation of a secular song, one that promises the renewal of humanity through the burgeoning hope of love. The irony of the song, of course, is that the language of “new day” is fitting for the feast of Christmas. The hope of newness, of God’s renewal of the created order, is in fact at the font of the season of Advent itself, where we await the glad tidings of the Savior, who comes to renew all things.

And indeed, the crèche itself captures this newness through the presence of the Magi, who come from the ends of the world to greet the king whose power is made manifest in weakness. T.S. Eliot, in his “Journey of the Magi,” gives voice to these kings who have returned to their land:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

With the coming of this new day is a necessary death, a giving up of the old dispensation for the new. Can we participate in a world grown tired from the reign of sign and death, when we have gazed with wonder upon the king who dwells among us? Is this not the reign we long for?

The new day that we long for, that was supposed to be inaugurated through the birth and death and resurrection of the beloved Son, seems so far away. The tragedies in Paris, together with the suffering of the Syrian migrants now denied homes make this patently clear to us. Should we turn away from this weary world? Should we give up on the project of waiting altogether?

LambThe crèche, as one might imagine, serves as a kind of medicine against this hopelessness, this world weariness of those who await the Incarnate Word’s reign on earth. To put up a crèche each year, in the midst of a world that has grown callous to the life of the unborn, to the suffering of the migrant and immigrant, to the prisoner condemned to death is a supreme act of hope. It is akin to the role of the tabernacle lamp, described by Charles Peguy in his poetics of hope in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope:

One trembling flame has endured the weight of worlds.

One vacillating flame has endured the weight of time.

One anxious flame has endured the weight of nights.

Since the first time my grace flowed for the creation of the world.

Since my grace has been flowing forever for the preservation of the world.

Since the time that the blood of my son flowed for the salvation of the world.

A flame impossible to reach, impossible to extinguish with the breath of death (Peguy, 5).

The family who each year puts up the crèche scene is doing more than following the liturgical calendar. Rather, they are manifesting to the world a hope that cannot be defeated by a politics or culture of death. Hope is born anew in the heart of the child, who recognizes for the first time the fact that that little babe in the crèche scene is Savior of the world; hope is born anew as the family prays before this scene each evening before darkness descends upon the world; hope is born anew when the family becomes the love they receive in this crèche.

Indeed, the manner in which hope is kept alive in the hearth of the domestic church is the reason why something so small as setting up a crèche scene is integral to the new evangelization. Secularity will ultimately not be defeated by intellectual argument alone; individualism cannot be destroyed by building a philosophical case alone against the irrationality of the position; nor for that matter will the coldness of the human heart toward the suffering of the unborn be “fixed” through a really fine op-ed. Rather, the hope of the Incarnation is passed on as a living flame from family to family, each time that they place in the infant Christ as the center of their home, manifesting to the world once against the fact that God is love. This, in fact, is the new day.


The Christmas crèche is thus more than a nice tradition, whereby Christians throughout the world mark the arrival of the season, just as they put up lights upon their homes or drink coffee out of a red cup from Starbucks. Rather, it is an embodied practice of remembering what the Father has accomplished through the humility of the Son, who is Love made flesh; it is an invitation to participation in this narrative again and again, renewing each season the hope for salvation that comes from God alone. It is a practice that serves as a bastion against a practical atheism that lives as if God is not more. It is a practice that renews from year to year the memory of the story that makes sense of all other stories.

And perhaps, it is the simple practice of praying before and setting up this crèche in the context of the domestic church that might be a source of renewal for the world itself. For as Cardinal Ouellet writes:

Evangelizing the family’s various relationships in the image of the Trinity, cultivating its sacramental life and consciousness, and revealing to the family the divine missions in which it participates; all of this could have a planetary impact on the mission of the Church and the future of humanity (76).

For the family to gaze with love upon the crèche, to contemplate the wonderful mystery taking place, and to pledge to become this mystery for the world: in this way, even now, the possibility of a new day, a new world of love can come into being. For when we dwell with love incarnate, we may find (perhaps even against our wills) that we become this love that we abide with: “Jesus, immortal boy, let this your birth give/to us peace and joy” (Adam of St. Victor 5.11).

We’re Talking About Practice: The Launch of 3D Catholic

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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One summer in graduate school, I took a course in Syriac. Every day, I engaged in the practice of translating this language, whose characters are read from right to left. After a week of translating sentences from right to left, I suddenly found myself reading street signs in the same way that I read Syriac. STOP became POTS. CONSTRUCTION AHEAD became DAEHA NOITCURTSNOC. The practice of reading Syriac changed the way that I engaged in all modes of reading. Practice matters. It changes the way that we abide in the world.

The transformative nature of practice is behind a new initiative being launched through the efforts of the Institute for Church Life, together with undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame. 3D Catholic is a movement started on college campuses that unites Catholics in the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Everyday at noon, those who choose to participate in this movement, will pray the Angelus. 3D Catholics will abstain from meat every Friday. And 3D Catholics will perform one corporal work of mercy each week. The movement also has an app that enables the person to keep track of one’s progress, to pray for one another, and to see who in your immediate area also has the app. Think about it as YikYak for Catholic practice.

The goal of the movement, in the end, is to present a witness to the world that being Catholic matters; that being Catholic changes the way that one looks at the world. And the way to enter Catholicism, in the end, isn’t simply learning a series of doctrines or having some major, emotional religious experience everyday. Being Catholic is about the slow, transformative art of practice. Or as Allen Iverson reminded us not so long ago, “we’re talking about practice.”

For more on the movement, see this piece at Aleteia.

Dwelling with Love Incarnate (Part 1)

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Editor’s Note: This first of two posts is part of a lecture given to inaugurate the Institute for Church Life’s 2nd annual International Crèche Pilgrimage, Dwelling with Love Incarnate. 

This December, during the season of Advent, my wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I say this not as an invitation for the wider internet community to bestow me with some gift to honor the occasion. Married in the midst of Advent, the most common gift that we received were nativity sets. All sorts. Nativity sets that were Christmas tree ornaments; small stand-alone sets from Mexico, Thailand, and Palestine; a large nativity set purchased by a group of friends (and now in the midst of being systematically destroyed by our son). Our marriage has unfolded in a home overflowing with crèches.

When asked to give this second annual lecture, I wanted to reflect a bit on what the crèche means for family life in general. In the heated debates that seemed to mark the recent Synod on the Family, it nonetheless became obvious that a robust spiritual vision of family life is necessary as we find ourselves immersed in the third millennium. That is, it is the family in particular in which the renewal of the Church will unfold. As Pope Francis noted in his homily delivered at the World Meeting of Families:

These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.

Thus, in this series, I would like to invite us to reflect on how the practice of keeping a crèche in the home is in fact one of these small acts of love, ultimately transformative of what it means for the family to dwell together in love incarnate. It is an occasion of evangelization, that is to quote Paul VI, “…bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (EN 18).

Yet, it seems right in examining family life through the lens of the crèche that we adopt the same aesthetic pedagogy of the crèches themselves. Thus, this series will unfold in three parts, each beginning with a piece of music related to the nativity of Christ. Through these pieces of music, we will explore three ways that the crèche provides a way of renewing the domestic Church in particular:

1) Forming us to see domestic life as a locus for the enfleshment of God’s love.

2) Inviting us to participate in the Incarnation through the drama of history.

3) Seeing the family as an icon of the new evangelization, one in which the practice of keeping a crèche manifests the Church’s memory in history.

O Magnum Mysterium

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

jacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera

meruerunt portare

Dominum Christum.


O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb

was worthy to bear

Christ the Lord.


The irony of the nativity of Jesus Christ is that its prevalence within various forms of artistic media, including our nativity sets, has perhaps led us to no longer be filled with awe at the wonderful event taking place in the manger. We see a mother and a father. A collection of angels, singing songs of joy at the birth of Jesus. Three kings, offerings gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A cast of animals, perhaps even overly interested in the birth of this human child.

Yet, the setting of O Magnum Mysterium (a text sung by monks at the rising of the sun on Christmas morning) invites us to look anew at the iconic mystery unfolding in these crèches. O great mystery, O wonderful sacrament that these animals in particular are the ones, who see the Lord born of a Virgin. What is this mystery, this sacred sign? And what’s the deal with the animals?

For some time, I imagined that I would want to return to being an infant. I considered a world in which I no longer had to be awake for significant periods of times; a world in which my every hunger was met by someone when I made the smallest cry; a world in which although immobile, everyone seemed to delight in moving me about. Yet, as I watched my son in the earliest days of his life, I came to the realization that infancy is in fact a rather humiliating period of life. The infant has thoughts that he or she cannot communicate to anyone, being reduced to making desires known through tears alone. The infant must rely on those around him or her for food, for shelter, for cleanliness, for comfort in the midst of sorrows. The infant is subject to the powers of the world, unable to even really recognize threats against his or her welfare.

Thus, the great mystery, the wonderful sacrament of the Nativity is the fact that God became fully human as an infant. Divine love was poured out from the bosom of the Father through the Son, a love that makes God radically vulnerable. The very Word that orders creation, that gives meaning to all of human life, that gazes with love upon the Father in the Godhead, becomes flesh pro nobis, for us. Augustine of Hippo, commenting on this fact, preaches:

He lies in a manger, but he holds the whole world in his hands: he sucks his mother’s breasts, but feeds the angels; he is swaddled in rags, but clothes us in immortality; he is suckled, but also worshiped; he could find no room in the inn, but makes a temple for himself in the hearts of believers. It was in order, you see, that weakness might become strong, that strength became weak (Augustine, s. 190.4).

IconNativityIconography of the nativity unfolds the radical vulnerability in God in particular ways. The newborn son is depicted wrapped in swaddling clothes, a sign already of the burial clothes that will clothe Mary’s son in the tomb on Good Friday. These icons depict the first bath of the Word made flesh, an image of God’s radical solidarity with the human condition. The crèche scene functions as an icon of the kenosis of the Son, the radical self-emptying love that is the source of the world’s very renewal.

Which brings us to the animals gathered around the crèche? For, perhaps the greatest scandal of the Incarnation, of the enfleshment of the Word, is the hiddenness of the birth of the Son in the first place. He is not born in a palace, a place where the power of the world could be exercised. He is born among the beasts of the field, unable to comprehend the marvel taking place.  As Benedict XVI notes about the hiddenness of this birth:

From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in wordly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Volume 3, 67).

In the birth of the first born Son in the silence of the evening, we have an image of what it now means to be fully human. The fullness of our humanity is exercised through the powerlessness of love.

Thus, the wonderful mystery of Christ’s birth is that the renewal of humanity already has begun through the nativity of the Lord. As Ephrem the Syrian notes in Hymn 3 on the Nativity:

            Glory to Him, Who never needs us to thank Him.

Yet He [became] need for He loves us, and He thirsted for He cherishes us.

And He asks us to give to Him so that He may give us even more.

His Fruit was mingled with our human nature

to draw us toward Him Who bent down to us (3.17).

As God becomes human, the horizon of humanity opens up so that every aspect of the human condition has the possibility of being drawn into divine life.

For this reason, perhaps, it is most appropriate that the crèche finds pride in place in the home itself. The sacrament of marriage is that taking up of what is most human, most mundane, the domesticity of love, into divine life: “In the union of husband and wife/you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace,/so that the Sacrament we celebrate/might draw us back more deeply/into the wondrous design of your love” (Eucharistic Prayer, For the Celebration of Marriage, B). Yet, there is nothing stunning about this love, as any married couple might note. The love of marriage is lived out through those hidden practices of tenderness that mark married life. With the birth of children, the powerlessness of this love becomes even more evident. Salvation unfolds in the context of the Christian family as it did in the manger: without anyone powerful aware of the mystery taking place.

The crèche, then, forms the family to see its own life as the hidden manifestation of divine love. It reminds the family to expect the unfolding of salvation not simply through signs and wonders but first and foremost in the tender compassion we learn to show one another. In this way, in a world that often devalues such a hidden life, the crèche restores the family to its proper place as the dramatic locale for salvation in the world; as itself a great mystery of divine love.

Make of Our Hearts a Home

unnamedMegan Shepherd

Associate Director, Notre Dame Vision 

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We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy.

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it.

Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 2.

In Pope Francis’ proclamation of the Year of Mercy, he invites us all to “gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” As I began to contemplate the mystery of God’s mercy in preparation for the Year of Mercy, I pondered the question: “How can I better respond to the gift of God’s mercy in my own life?” As I prayed, my attention was drawn ever more deeply to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – the practices of enacting and proclaiming God’s mercy through concrete acts of love.

Thinking of ways that I could incorporate the works of mercy into my life, I came up with ideas involving volunteering at the local homeless drop-in shelter, helping sort and deliver food from the parish food bank, donating clothes and household goods. All good ideas, but in the busyness I let fill my days they remained that – just ideas.

An impediment to practicing mercy is our lack of awareness and attentiveness to the needs of others. We can become so wrapped up in the challenges of our day-to-day lives – even lives of discipleship and ministry – that we become blind to the realities of pain and struggle around us.

Earlier this summer, I witnessed a moment of God’s mercy at work transforming a young man’s heart in the reception of the Eucharist that I reflected on in a previous post. As I prayed with this encounter, I experienced a profound renewal of my call to serve as an Eucharistic minister and I committed to regularly serving at my parish’s Sunday liturgy.

As I would distribute communion each week – to the elders of the parish, teens with sleep in their eyes, families with young children clinging to their legs, adults attending alone – I felt my heart continue to grow in love for the entire people of God, the diverse members of the community gathered together each Sunday in the pews. And during the times that I would need to go out into the congregation to those who could not come forward due to physical limitations, I felt an even stronger bond with the parish family.

044a70b7-a5e5-4f6f-b09d-ecf241ca71b5Then I returned home, back to my normal routine and my attempts to practice the corporal works of mercy on my own terms, according to my own plan. And the good intentions were overshadowed by excuses of “I’m too busy this week” or “I’m sure they have enough help.” Yet each week as I received and shared the Body of Christ, God slowly chipped away at the hardness of my heart, transforming my heart more closely into the Heart of Christ, a heart poured out in love unto death in mercy for the world.

The mercy of God penetrated into the closed-off space of my heart, shattering the limitations I had placed upon my ability to show mercy. God hollowed out space for me to allow God to “make of my heart a home.” It is my Eucharistic vocation to share the grace of mercy that I have received, to go forth and practice mercy, to offer myself in love.806cbaf6-5233-45db-bdad-2681fc7ce7ef

One day, when I heard the priest announce they were in need of people to take the Eucharist to those members of the parish community who were unable to attend mass, I felt a pull within me to respond. If I am to become that which I receive, if I am to be transformed into Eucharist for the world, and I take that seriously, it troubles me that there are those unable to participate in the Eucharistic celebration, those homebound due to illness or infirmity.

I contacted the priest and was paired with an older couple who had been long-time parishioners, but with the wife’s recent diagnosis and decline was no longer able to leave the house for mass. Due to the seriousness of her illness, there was a chance that her condition would quickly deteriorate, and that I may only be visiting with them for a short time. My Eucharistic vocation to share the mercy I received lead me to the corporal work of mercy of “visiting the sick.”

7d5ba0f5-757d-4d1e-bef9-68e98f47ab5aIn my parish, at the end of the communion rite the priest places the host in the pyx, and those ministering to the homebound come forward. Each week I would stand with the pyx on my open hand as the priest sent us forth with a blessing. I would take hold of the pyx, grasping it in my hand throughout the final blessing, the concluding rites and closing song. Then I would head straight out to my car for the five-minute drive to their house.

My visits usually consisted of a few minutes of conversation about Notre Dame football with her husband, and she would join in if she felt up to it. But often her energy level was very low, so we would move into a simplified rite in continuity with the celebration of the liturgy just concluded.

? Peace be with this house and with all who live here.

 Lord Jesus, you healed the sick: Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, you forgave sinners: Christ, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, you give us yourself to heal us and bring us strength: Lord, have mercy.

I held aloft the body of our crucified savior, whose wounds are transfigured in the glory of the resurrection.

 The Body of Christ.


As I placed the host in her mouth I prayed, not for healing – which was unlikely at that point – but for wholeness. For a sense of peace and solidarity in the midst of suffering and pain.

 All-powerful God, we thank you for the nourishment you give us through your holy gift. Pour out your Spirit upon us and in the strength of this food from heaven, keep us single minded in your service. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.

As I left each Sunday, I sat in my car for a few moments before driving away to say a short prayer of thanksgiving for the movement of God’s mercy in my life that brought me to that moment, that couple, that grace.14d26c54-a76a-4dd5-8cfe-bdd1da67a379

One Sunday as I prepared to drive over after mass, I checked my phone to find a voicemail from her husband saying I didn’t need to come over as she was not doing well, and they were preparing for her death. Two days later I received word that she had passed away.

We had not spoken much during my visits due to her health, but were able to communicate about the most essential truth – the merciful love of God. She made the final journey through suffering nourished by his Body and comforted by the hope of the resurrection.

When I attended her funeral, God wasn’t finished teaching me about the boundless expanse of mercy. Due to the number of people present, I was asked to serve as an Eucharistic Minister, sharing once more the Bread of Life, this time with her friends and family gathered to say farewell. As I looked into her husband’s eyes, I witnessed the depths of his grief, but also the hope of the resurrection. What began as sharing the Eucharist at mass lead me to enter her home with the gift of Christ’s Body from the family gathered at the parish and ultimately to accompany her on her journey to her final home. My Eucharistic vocation to share the mercy I received led me to corporal work of mercy of “burying the dead.”

God’s mercy continues to work within me. God “makes of my heart a home,” a home of mercy and love that goes forth into the world. In my brokenness I am a vessel transmitting the gift I have received through concrete actions in response to the needs of the world. And in the action, the practice of mercy, I become merciful.

Make of our hands a throne

to hold the Bread of heaven,

make of our hearts a home

to hold the very wine of life.

In this myst’ry, Lord, make us one with you.

Our Guadalupe

unnamedAustin Cruz

University of Notre Dame, ’16

Master of Theological Studies (History of Christianity)

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Given both my Mexican-American descent and my strong devotion to Mary, it may come as a shock to some when I say that I have not always loved Our Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, there was a time when her image was nothing more to me than a pious painting, an image that had been taken up ad nauseam by my ancestral people. It probably goes without saying that the Mexican people have a great love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They hang her image on the walls of their churches and place her in their homes and businesses. They light candles, which bear her image, and place decals of her image on the back of their trucks. A great number of men and women have even gotten tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe placed somewhere on their bodies. And just to give one recent example of how inextricable she is from Mexican culture, her image was briefly used a few times in last year’s animated film The Book of Life, a film that is centered on the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. yet makes no reference to God or Christianity throughout. All of this is to say that the Mexican people have a special love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she herself is inseparably linked to Mexican religious and cultural identity.Granted, it is easy to understand why they love her. In December of 1531, she appeared to the humble, Nahuatl Indian, Juan Diego, at Tepeyac, a hill right outside of what is today Mexico City. Her mission to him was rather simple; she wanted him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a hermitage dedicated to her right there at Tepeyac. She wanted it built so that all people could come to it and receive her love, compassion, help and protection. Being only a lowly Indian, Juan Diego knew that his task would be difficult, but at the Virgin’s request he took up her mission. After he had twice failed to convince the bishop of the truth of the Virgin’s request, Our Lady of Guadalupe sought to aid him through the provision of a sign: Juan Diego was to go up the hill and pick the Spanish flowers, which had miraculously grown there in the middle of winter, place them in his tilma, in order to carry and to show them to the bishop. He did as was told. And when he had showed them to the bishop she provided him with another miracle as a sign of the abundance of her love: as he released the flowers, her image miraculously appeared on his tilma. The fact that she herself had provided her own image (that is to say, that it was not painted by human hands) and that the image has miraculously been preserved to this day has led the Mexican people to exclaim: “She has not done so for any other nation.”
It is a beautiful story, to be sure. And even though I heard that story many times in my life, (for several years my older brother had played Juan Diego in our parish play), I could not bring myself to embrace Our Lady of Guadalupe in any particular way.

OLofGuad5Perhaps it was because she was so uniquely tied to one particular people, even if it was a people that I am descendant from, that I felt that she lacked a universal quality that I imagined  Our Lady of Lourdes or an Our Lady of Fatima had. How can a devotion that seemed so limited, so incarnated within a very distinct culture be considered so great?

Or perhaps my aversion to her was more precisely based on the fact that, even though I am of Mexican descent, I do not speak Spanish, have no rhythm, and do not identify with many characteristics of popular Latino culture, and thus, felt that I could not connect with such a figure as Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought that to claim her would be to claim for myself an identity that I struggled to fully own.

So, what changed? Why is it that in the past year and a half I have probably talked more about Our Lady of Guadalupe than any other image of Mary?

I do not know that I can describe it any other way than to say that she began to call out to me. I began to feel compelled to look at her image, an image that had so many times before left me unimpressed. The more I beheld her image, the more I found myself drawn to contemplation of it. And thus, I began to realize that what I had taken to be a simple rendition of the Virgin Mary within a primitive culture was in reality an icon of the universal mystery of a mother’s love.

Struck by this realization, I desired to return to the narrative of the Guadalupan events, to see if there was anything within the story itself that I had dismissed as unsophisticated. And, of course once again I had found so much beauty and depth in what appeared to be a simple text, much more than the purposes of this post would allow me to reflect on. But there is one thing that I wish to share, something which each time I read it moves me to my core, and it is Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mission as stated in her own words. She says:

“I very much want and ardently desire that my hermitage be erected in this place. In it I will show and give to all people all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection, because I am your merciful mother and the mother of all nations that live on this earth who would love me, who would speak with me, who would search for me, and who would place their confidence in me. Their I will hear their laments and remedy and cure all their miseries, misfortunes, and sorrows.”[1] (emphasis mine)

It is particularly this message that makes Our Lady of Guadalupe so special. It is a message that could perhaps more simply be restated in the form of a question: “Will you let me be your mother?” It is a question she asks to all people, to all nations. She places no restrictions and she makes no conditions. Despite her appearance within a particular culture and within a particular time, it is a question that requests a universal response.

If perhaps, like me, you have ever had trouble growing close to Our Lady of Guadalupe because she came incarnated within a particular culture you do not recognize as your own, I encourage you to spend time with her in prayer this advent season. Though she may have done for the Mexican people what had not been done for any other nation, take comfort in the fact she did this as a sign of the depth of her love for her children of all nations. Join in the celebrations at your parish, contemplate her image, which she left on Juan Diego’s tilma. And rejoice in the fact that we have a mother who, like her Son, is no stranger to our own particular needs.

[1] This quotation is taken from verses 23-25 of the Nican Mopohua, the foundational text for the traditional Guadalupan events written in the native Nahuatl. For more an English translation and more on this text, see Mother of the New Creation by Fr. Virgilio Elizondo.