Mother and Child
By Miriam Hogan, O.C.D.
Christmas is a time that beckons us home. When I was younger and in school, I used to travel halfway across the country from California to Texas, to be with Southern relatives for Christmas week. Now that I am in the monastery, I also feel drawn to return to a deeper understanding of the meaning of this Feast as I first experienced it and as I continue to experience it in the present time. Somehow this desire, or pull on my heartstrings, to return to a place of home in the midst of varied concerns, was made all the more clear this year as we worked on our community Christmas cards.
One of the cards is a picture of a stained glass window that is situated above the organ in the old Bettendorf chapel.1 It depicts a traditional image of Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel, which was modeled on the artistic tradition of the tenderness icons that show affection between mother and child. The main theological theme of these images is the Incarnation.2
She Had An Artistic Eye
As we were growing up, it was my mother in particular that taught us to center on the Incarnational aspects of Christmas. One way that she did this was by her choice of our Christmas card. She had an “artistic eye” and somehow always managed to find a card of unusual beauty. Of course she began her search in January. It was never an expensive card but it was always one that depicted both Our Blessed Mother and the Christ Child.
In elementary school, we often brought home images of the Christ Child or of Our Lady alone but that was not what was preferred for Christmas. As, I look back on these things today, I can perhaps better understand what my mother was trying to express without words.
The Christmas event (the coming of Christ) is indeed about the person of Christ. However, it is also about the person of Mary. Instinctively, my mother recognized the dignity and sacredness of her own motherhood and she deeply appreciated the symbolic tribute to Our Blessed Mother.
The traditional (Bettendorf) picture of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel shows Mary wearing both a crown and a halo. The child is with a halo but without a crown.3 Perhaps what the artists are trying to express symbolically is that, Mary was forever changed and elevated by giving birth to Jesus. Of all women, she is the best one to encourage us in the art of motherhood both physical and spiritual. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is stated clearly, “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian Faith.”4 What I believe the artists are trying to show with the crown is that because Christ became human, we, and first of all Mary, can share in Christ’s divinity. (2 Pet 1:4)
“O wondrous exchange!”5 The gentle maid from Nazareth wears a crown and the solemn ruler of all of creation takes the form of a newborn baby.6
St. John of the Cross, in Romance 9. The Birth, poetically describes this totally new and awesome revelation. Referring to the baby in the manger he wrote:
As I reflected further upon our card, it strikes me how much we need leadership today, but how much more we also need the example of good mothers. We need women who are committed to fostering life and nurturing others. Jackie Kennedy remarked that, “If you bungle raising your children, nothing else matters in life.” On the other hand, contemporary society has made all too common talk about stem cell research, abortions and the abuse of children. Our young women need to be affirmed in their vocations of motherhood today, just as religious need to be affirmed in their spiritual motherhood. By the Incarnation, we are all children of God and called to serve each other.
That Gentle Beckoning Within
As we study the political “signs of the times” this year, it is perhaps also helpful to listen to that gentle beckoning within that calls us to see once again the religious/social significance of the Incarnation in our own times. Perhaps it is helpful to wonder also about our own mother who had authority in our lives and the Blessed Mother to whom even the Christ child was obedient. Can we even begin to imagine her prayer?
Finally, in our own day as in the days of Herod, political leaders think that they control history. Yet, as we hear the story told again, we see that simple, gentle acts of love contain a power for good that even the forces of politics cannot control. No, we cannot go home every Christmas but we can cherish the values that endure in our lives because of our experience of home.
1The chapel itself was first erected in Davenport, Iowa, in 1911. Later it was rebuilt on a bluff that was located overlooking the Mississippi River, in Bettendorf Iowa, adjoining the monastery. In 1975, the Bettendorf Monastery and Chapel were sold, and the Community of Carmelite Sisters moved to Eldridge, Iowa, were we are presently located. In 1993, a new Chapel was added to the Monastery in Eldridge.
2Conception Abbey (The Printery House) http://www.printeryhouse.org/mall/Icons/Mother_of_God/c12.asp presents a good brief article explaining some of the theology and symbolism connected with the traditional icons of Mary and the Christ Child . “They are the principle images of the Incarnation (God became man), and of the Church, representing communion of the Divine (the Child/Word of God) and the human (Mary).”
3Carmelnet (OLMC Gallery) http://carmelnet.org/galleries/OLMC_Main/olmc_main.htm provides a wonderful collection of various images of Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel. With just with a quick glance at this collection, one can see that Our Lady is depicted with a crown in a number of modern images as well as in the more ancient ones.
4Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994, Liberia Editrice Vaticana) p. 116. Further, on page 117, we note that the Incarnation is a “unique and altogether singular event.”
5cf: http://www.dailycatholic.org/issue/archives/apr2000/66apr3,vol.11,no.66txt/apr3van.htm St. Augustine refers to this exchange as the “commerce of love,” and St. Leo the Great, as the “commerce of salvation”. From the spiritual exercises that Retreat Master Archbishop Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan preached to the Holy Father and Curia the week just before the Pope's "Jubilee Journey" to the Holy Land.
6Today, there are those who would object to the symbolism of a crown. Perhaps it is good to linger a moment to consider the kind of sovereignty it implies. My own mother knew what it meant to get up in the middle of the night to comfort or to feed a baby. In the gospels the life of Our Lady is described as one of tender care and loving service. In a letter, St. Therese once observed that Mary is “more mother than queen.” Yet, even in today’s world, who would want to deny their own mother the reverence due a queen, much less the Mother of God.
7Lynch, John W, A Woman Wrapped In Silence (New York, N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1968) p. 45.
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