Mary and the Innocents

“In my struggles with these questions, I found it surprising and somewhat reassuring to discover how many theologians believe Mary had it tougher than the rest of us, because her sinless nature made living in our sinful world especially painful. Like Jesus, Mary probably approached the world with acute sensitivity, alert to both the tiniest whispers of God’s voice and the slightest suffering in the lives of others. The casual cruelties and everyday injustices we inflict without thinking probably disturbed Mary more than they would someone with a calloused, sin-hardened soul. And the torture and Crucifixion of her innocent son must have ripped her heart in two. Luke alludes to Mary’s sorrow in his story of Jesus’s presentation at the temple, where the prophet Simeon holds the infant Jesus aloft and warns Mary that her son is destined “to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own heart too” (Luke 2:34–35).” (from “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” by Colleen Carroll Campbell)

Today we commemorated possibly the most horrendous feast of the Church, at least from a natural point of view: the Slaughter of the Innocents. As a child the story horrified me, and now as a mother I’m possibly even more horrified. If you’ve never wrestled with the question of why God permits evil, then you’ve never spent much time reflecting on this story (cf. Matthew 2:16-18). It’s like a demonic parody of the celebrations befitting a royal birth: the King of the world is born and the local powers that be mark it by a massacre of babies – and not even just the newborn babies, but all boys up to the age of two. The mere thought is enough to make me feel physically ill.

One of my favourite passages from Colleen Carroll Campbell’s excellent book is the quotation given above, which affirms something I’ve come to understand better as I’ve grown in my faith and devotion: namely, that the closer one is to God, the more sensitive one becomes to evil, and it naturally follows that Our Lady, preserved from sin since her very conception, would have been highly sensitive to even the slightest offences that she both witnessed and endured.

It seems to me quite possible Mary learned of Herod’s response to her Son’s birth. If the news did not follow the Holy Family to Egypt, would she not have learnt of it upon her return to Galilee? And what would have been her reaction? What went through Mary’s mind and heart? Her empathy and love was beyond that of most people; if she learnt of it soon after the deed, she was newly postpartum and experiencing the extraordinarily acute feelings that hormones tend to foster; moreover, she held in her arms just such a one: an innocent, feeble, utterly vulnerable and fragile baby, making the horror of child-slaughter all the more vivid. Simeon had warned her that a sword would pierce her heart – surely this was a sword, whatever other swords might follow. Did the thought flit across her mind, as only great compassion could entertain, an almost-wish that her Child might have been sacrificed in the place of the babies killed for His sake, that they and their mothers and families might have been spared? Did she remember this inclination at the foot of the Cross, some thirty-three years later?

This is all speculation. Scripture does not mention that Mary knew of the slaughter, only that Joseph was told that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and that they had to travel as far as Egypt to escape. I sometimes think, however, that the Lord may have prepared Mary’s heart over the years to offer her Son’s Sacrifice in full communion with Him, something we try to do ourselves, especially when we participate in the Mass. Any mother knows that Christ’s Sacrifice was as much His mother’s insofar as her suffering would surely have been as great as His had He not been God taking on the sins of the world, for what brings greater pain than to watch someone we love with all our heart suffering? There are, I gather, many wonderful reflections out there on Mary’s participation in Calvary, but I haven’t read them yet myself. I base my suppositions on my experience as a mother, and on my having experienced divine preparation for great suffering in my life.

In any case, let us remember the innocent and seemingly insignificant souls whose sacrifice history would have forgotten, save for Matthew’s testimony. And let us consider with how much love and patience and trust in God Our Lady would have endured this horror, just as she endured the Crucifixion of her baby boy, no less innocent than the day He was born.

The Forgotten Verses of Christmas Carols

Do you remember the Christmas carol “We Three Kings”? Could you sing it all? For a few years growing up, carolling was a little family tradition, and in high school I sang as part of the choir; thus, Christmas Carols and I became intimately acquainted – and I love them. However, I have a complaint: almost everywhere carols are enjoyed – radio, choirs, and even church – they are enjoyed incompletely. Some discretely drop a verse or two; others are thoroughly bowdlerized. If we’re talking mere Christmas songs, such as “Jingle Bells,” my disappointment is somewhat nostalgic: oh, how sad, we’ve jilted poor Miss Fanny Bright once again. But when it comes to sacred Christmas carols, the disappointment goes much deeper, for we are cutting out beautifully articulated theology that ought to form us as Christians. Take “We Three Kings,” for instance:

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Refrain:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Refrain

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him God Most High.

Refrain

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Refrain

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Earth to Heaven replies.

Refrain

The monologues of each of the magi remind us of the significance of the gifts brought to the Christ Child. My personal favourite verse has always been that of Myrrh; this verse does not allow us to forget the tiny Infant’s fate, it does not allow us to mistakenly think of Christmas as joyful celebration that conveniently forgets the truth of our human existence: that it is one of suffering, that we need a Saviour. Of course, it would be anticlimactic without the next verse of triumph, summarizing the entire carol, and reminding us that Christmas is nothing without Easter.

Here’s another forgotten verse. Do you know which carol it’s from? You’ll probably know by the end:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Yes! “Joy to the World”! It’s the apparently discomforting third verse, using words like “infest” and “curse” and, well, alongside such imagery, even “sin” starts to sound a little undesirable! Couldn’t we just leave it at joy and love, Mr Watts? This third verse renders only too vivid our wretched state (another idea we like to exorcise from a hymn, by the way, namely “Amazing Grace”) and total dependence on Christ for more than cozy feelings – for our redemption!

In any case, even abbreviated carols are still lovely and it’s important to remember that we have been given a reason to rejoice and be merry, but the joy will remain shallow if we forget the cost it came at. Moreover, those who are suffering at Christmas may think this holiday has nothing to offer them, since “it’s all happiness and joy.” On the contrary, the Catholic Church always has Christ’s suffering and death at the forefront of her mind, along with His resurrection. And Christmas Mass is still the Mass: the commemoration of the Last Supper. Perhaps today we ought to be all the more aware of the extent to which He entered into our suffering and abject lowliness: a Child, born in less than favourable circumstances, born with a destiny like ours to suffer and die, but a destiny unlike ours inasmuch as, being perfect, His suffering was all the more acute and totally undeserved. One wonders what the various visitors to the stable saw in that Baby’s eyes. What did the eyes of God look like as a baby? Did He know?

Nurturing Christ Within

“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart.

“This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.

“We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in the hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in a martyr spirit or with that worse spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.

“We shall do it just for one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world.”  The Reed of God (by Caryll Houselander)

In this chapter on Advent, Caryll Houselander begins to unfold her reflections, through Mary, on the primacy of Christ in our lives and the gentleness of the workings of the Holy Spirit within us, noting as Teresa of Avila more famously preached that Christ has no body on earth now but ours. She observes that often our circumstances do not seem extraordinarily holy, but that like pregnant Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, it is enough that we are present, bringing with us the silent presence of Christ within our souls.

Caryll’s writing (you must forgive me for taking liberties in referring to her by her first name, but she is too intimate an author to be referred to coldly by her surname) reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the experiences of a mother. She herself never had children, yet she understands the experience of a mother stunningly well. She clearly had a remarkable gift for empathy.

The extraordinary act of Our Lady visiting her cousin immediately following the Annunciation has won my admiration all the more after three of my own pregnancies. It’s possible Mary was spared many of the pains of pregnancy, but the growth of another human being is an enormous undertaking. I have yet to meet a mother who is not completely wiped out in her first trimester, yet it is in these first three months that Mary runs to assist her cousin, a time when most of us would prefer to be waited upon ourselves! In my first two pregnancies, the exhaustion was such that I remember excusing myself from charitable deeds. It was only through the example of others going out of their way to help me during a very difficult time that I learned to shift my perspective from self-absorbed to self-giving. And not only self-giving, but Christ-bearing. Yes, we necessarily are preoccupied with an awareness of a secret life within, but while we nurture that life, it directs our life: we do everything for our child, and we must to everything for our Christ.

I was impressed with Caryll’s identification of that “worse spirit of self-congratulation.” We have often been reminded not to act as martyrs (“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Matthew 6:16), but the spirit of self-congratulation is subtler and certainly more insidious because it is more prideful. I am no stranger to this temptation! It is easy enough to reprimand oneself for desiring the acclamation of others, but to route out from one’s heart the desire of one’s own self-affirmation? When you are battling this, you have levelled up in your fight to live for Christ alone! For it is complete poverty when you renounce even your own evaluation of your deeds — the complete poverty of total freedom, I would add.