Mary, Mother of God: Contemplation amidst Chaos
By Br John Bernard Church, O.P. | Our nativity scenes tend to tell an incomplete story. The reality of Mary’s motherhood was likely far messier, as she contemplated an Omnipotent Creator who cries because he’s hungry.
This great Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God brings us to one of Christmas’ most intimate and personal themes: motherhood. At the end of the Octave we are carried to the very heart of the Incarnation, the Word become flesh, as we contemplate the relationship between the Creator of all that is, and she who bore Him into our world.
Motherhood is an aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation that is perhaps at risk of being overly-sanitised. The conventional nativity scene that dominates the imagery of this season is indeed immensely varied in its setting, or surrounding scenery, or cast of supporting characters. However, much like the Lorenzo Costa painting below, the one moment captured is always the same: Mary and Joseph look down in humble adoration at their baby lying peacefully before them.
It is entirely to be expected for a family with a newborn, as the parents gaze in awe at their new creation. It is indeed expected, except perhaps the word ‘peacefully’. Our saturation in nativity scenes that show only peace and stillness in the baby risks obscuring an important reality of the feast we celebrate today: being mother to a newborn. A recent attempt to take a family photo with three babies under 9 months made it clear just how a-typical the manger-scene we’re used to must have been for the Holy Family.
The messy everyday of motherhood is never depicted at the forefront of the nativity: struggling to feed when baby Jesus won’t take, constantly changing and washing soiled clothes, the sleep deprivation of endless nights awake, and the sheer intensity of what it means to nurture new life into this world.
Gazing at a crucifix often brings to mind the apparent paradox at the heart of the Incarnation: to conceive of God, the source of all existence and the reason for everything that is, as suffering and dying on a cross. Yet in some ways this is even more the case when considering God in a form as needy and vulnerable as a newborn baby: how to make sense of an omnipotent Creator who cries because he’s hungry.
This must be in part what St Luke is referring to in today’s Gospel when he says “She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Each tear or smile, or sleepless night or extended yawn, was a moment for Mary to treasure and gradually penetrate deeper into the inexhaustible mystery of a God who would choose to take on human flesh.
Here we find a second and crucially complementary aspect of Mary’s motherhood: the messy reality of life feeds the depth of her contemplation. This is wonderfully captured in Andrea Mantegna’s Virgin and Child, an invitation into a profoundly intimate moment. The two figures are wrapped up together, as mother, oblivious to the world and absorbed in her infant’s sleep, ponders the life of the babe in her arms. Her expression is one of melancholy, betraying her knowledge of the fate that her child will meet, foreshadowed in swaddling that resembles a burial shroud. Mary doesn’t want to do anything that will wake Jesus from his slumber, seeking to hold this moment with her son for an eternity.
At some point he will wake, and it will be back to the messy reality, time to feed, change the carefully wrapped swaddling, or simply to gaze in awe together with her husband at her dear child. But in this moment, this singular moment, we see Mary as the archetype of the contemplative life, completely imbued with the word of God. It is in this complementarity of Mary’s motherhood that we can best understand her relationship with her son, the mutual dependence between vulnerable child and the mother yearning for His salvation.
It is also in this complementarity that Mary acts as mother to us, nurturing the infancy of our Christian journey. The challenge in our life of faith is to incorporate the apparent banality of the every day into the defining feature of our existence, to situate our ordinary pressing needs within the radical self-gift demanded by the gospel. In Mary we can learn how to be shaped by the working of God within and around us: to see God through that apparent banality or the ordinary pressing needs, so that every moment becomes one to treasure and ponder, to slowly absorb oneself in the reality of the Incarnation.
There’s an old cliche about the ability of mothers to multitask. When it comes to the mother of Our Lord and God it is not so much her ability to do many different things at one time, but rather to do one thing in many different ways: to pray. Her life is a seamless act of prayer, as contemplation of the Word of God permeates through the banal and the profound, the peaceful and the chaotic. With her help, such may be our life too.