2006-12-25 ITALY

Br. Séan Sammon, S. G.

With the exception of the crucifixion, no scene in Christian tradition is more familiar to most of us than the image of the infant Jesus lying in a manger in Bethlehem. From the great artists of the Renaissance to the commercial Christmas card makers of today, this picture has been rendered again and again complete with a familiar casts of characters: visiting shepherds, wise men from afar, barnyard animals, and, of course, at the center of it all a young and newly married Jewish couple and their infant son.
And, among the many characters who make up any traditional Christmas crèche, Mary the mother of Jesus has always been easy to spot. With the wonder and trauma of childbirth diligently scrubbed away, she appears as a picture of springtime freshness?hands folded, head bowed, eyes downcast demurely. How very unlike the Mediterranean peasant woman who brought forth a son whose destiny was to be the Savior of his people.
And so we must ask ourselves this question: What would possess us to transform the scandal of the Incarnation into symbols and scenes at once banal and prosaic? To mute its message and make it nothing more than a comforting tale of babies and barns, cribs and crèches, shepherds and angels that sing?
We can find the answer to our question in Mary, for we have similarly domesticated her, rendering her safe and risk free, unable to upset us and our understanding about the demands of faith.
The reality of Mary?s life was stark. She lived in a world where the poor were worked to death. Cruelty was common as was swift and harsh reaction on the part of the Roman occupiers of Palestine to any sign of resistance. Mary lived in a world of intimidation and fear, extended families, and by today?s standards primitive living conditions.
It was within this setting–the economic, political, and cultural world of her time and place–that Mary encountered God and made her journey of faith. It was within this setting that God did great things in this woman who counted for nothing among the powers that be in our world. But Mary was no passive player in the events unfolding. No, she was an active participant in all that transpired and she was able to be that because she was in possession in abundance of that precious gift of God?s own self called grace. The unfathomable self-gift of God was the gift that Mary received at the time of her conception; from the outset of life she was enveloped by the love of Almighty. This is not to say that she did not suffer, was never troubled, or had no need for faith and hope. She had human passions. Everything authentically human was present in her.
Luke, in his story about the birth of Jesus as well as in his description of the Annunciation and tale of Mary?s visit to her cousin Elizabeth reminds us that she is a true disciple. She did not accompany Jesus during his public ministry but that is hardly the definition of discipleship. Rather, this woman whom God so totally wrapped in his love heard his word and did something about it. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that she merits the description disciple.
At the center of the story of the Annunciation, then, is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and this woman who lived in obscurity. Mary?s faith made God?s entrance into history possible. Having given God her decision, she set out in faith, and like Abraham before her, she was not completely sure where she was heading.
Likewise her Magnificat was a passionate, wild, even revolutionary Advent hymn. Absent is the Mary of Christmas card fame: gentle and dreamy. In her place we find the surrendered, proud, enthusiastic, defiantly obedient Mary speaking out. She sings not a sentimental song but rather a strong, hard, and relentless chant about kingdoms collapsing and the lords of this world being humbled. We come to understand the power of God and the powerlessness of the rest of us.
Mary?s Magnificat also gave us fair warning that Jesus in his coming would call for radical change. And he did just that. We have only to witness the Beatitudes: ?Happy are you poor, you who hunger now, you who weep. But woe to you rich, who are full now, who laugh and carry on.?
At the heart of the Christmas message, then, is an invitation to discipleship, but on the Lord?s terms, not ours. And where do we go to get an idea of how to live this call? Like Marcellin, look no further than Mary, that formidable woman of faith. Let us pray today for her courage, her faith, her generous heart. Let us also pray that we not be domesticated. A blessed Christmas.


Commitment for justice...