Circular Letter: Advent 1997
In Search of Christmas Joy
The Spiritual Pilgrimage
Union with God is the goal of the spiritual life. With the help of God’s grace man must dispose himself for this union. This is an important lesson and exercise of the Christmas cycle. “What is more astonishing” St. Peter Chrysologus exclaimed, “that God should give Himself to the earth, or that He should give heaven to you? that He should Himself enter into communion with us in the flesh, or that He should draw you into communion with Himself in His Divinity? that He was born in the form of a slave, or that He beget you as free children? that He accept poverty, or that He make you His heirs and co-heirs with His Only Begotten? Verily, it is more wonderful that the earth be set in heaven, that man be transformed through the Divinity and that servanthood receive the rights of sovereignty” (Serm. 67). Again in another sermon: “So great is the divine condescension, that a creature knows not whether it should be more astonished by the fact, that He has descended into our state of servanthood, or that He has raised us with awesome power to the divinity of His Divinity” (Serm. 72).
Christmas joy is completely contingent upon our appreciation of the Gift and the Giver. If this seems to be fading in our lives as it has in society as a whole, then let us take to heart this warning signal and turn away from the creeping worldliness and sensuality that surround us. Let us turn to the Lord with our whole heart and find our delight in the Divine Life offered us in the Christ Child.
An episode from St. Augustine’s Confessions may help us. He tells the story of two young courtesans who were dedicating their lives and every possible effort at the imperial court to rise in the favor of the emperor. On one occasion, after assisting at the circus games with the emperor in Trier, the pair, in the course of an afternoon walk, entered a Christian household. There on the table lay a copy of the life of St. Anthony of the Desert, which one of them began and continued to read with ever greater zeal. The great spiritual battles, the triumphs, the great miracles performed by the saint with the grace of God unfolded before his mind’s eye and he saw what a great thing it is to be on intimate terms with Christ. Moved by an extraordinary grace which flamed up in love for Christ, the young man exclaimed to his companion: “Tell me, I implore you, what are we trying to gain with all our labors, what are we really seeking? Why are we in the imperial service at all? Can we expect at court anything greater than the friendship of the emperor? And is that not all very contingent and surrounded by dangers? And every danger surmounted, is it not followed by another still greater? How long do we have to await till we attain our [fleeting] goal? But this very moment, if I wish, I can become a friend of GOD!” (Confessions. Bk.VIII.6). Scarcely imagined, it was accomplished. The two young courtesans resolved to live in and for the friendship of God before all else. They abandoned the imperial court and gave themselves over wholeheartedly to Christ. So inflaming was this their new love, that they even won over the hearts of their fiancées, who also turned to Christ and consecrated their lives in Holy Virginity.
St. Augustine confesses that the story haunted him with its divine loveliness and the reproach he felt at the young courtesan’s spontaneous, yet persevering devotion to Christ. Already some twelve years before he had “resolved” to pursue wisdom, but had never found the strength and the resolve to give up the world and the flesh.
In those years he had prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not so soon!” And he explains: I feared namely, O God, that you might hear my prayer too speedily, and might heal me from the sickness of my wicked passions, which I would rather have satisfied than seen extinguished…I had convinced myself, that I only delayed from day to day the termination of my worldly hopes, because I had not yet found something sure and solid, upon which I could establish my further course [of life]. But now the day had come, where I stood stripped and naked before myself, my conscience crying to me as it were: “Where are you now, [noble] discourse? You claimed that you did not want to cast aside the burden of vanity for some uncertain truth. Behold, now you have certainty, and still that [vain] burden weighs you down, while others, who did not exhaust themselves pondering philosophical problems for ten and more years [like you], have extended their wings to a freer flight.” “The episode ate me up interiorly,” Augustine continues, “and overwhelmed me with a terrifying sense of shame… What all did I not say to myself. How I flailed my soul with rational arguments, that it ought to follow me, when I tried to follow you, O Lord. Still, it resisted and brought forth contentions, but no excuses; all the arguments of the defense had been defeated. Only a mute anxiety remained, and my soul feared like death to have to surrender the stream of its passionate habits upon which it was hastening to death” (Confessions, Bk.VIII.7).
Christmas joy is offered to all who make the spiritual pilgrimage from the clamor of the world to the silent cave and the manger where the Christ Child lies and receives shepherds and kings alike, in short, all who have been longing for His coming. Those who seek Him with a pure and humble heart will rejoice in His consolations.
As a testimony and example of this truth God raised up Bl. Faustina. She describes her Christmas grace of 1937, and then explains why some souls fail to find consolation: “When I arrived at Midnight Mass, from the very beginning I steeped myself in deep recollection, during which time I saw the stable in Bethlehem filled with great radiance. The Blessed Virgin, all lost in the deepest love, was wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes,…after a while I was left alone with the Infant Jesus Who stretched out His little hands to me, and I understood that I was to take Him in my arms. Jesus pressed His head against my heart and gave me to know, by His profound gaze, how good He found it to be next to my heart. At that moment Jesus disappeared and the bell was ringing for Holy Communion. My soul was languishing with joy. …My joy throughout the whole Christmas Season was immense, because my soul was unceasingly united with the Lord. I have come to know that every soul would like to have divine comforts, but is by no means willing to forsake human comforts, whereas these two things cannot be reconciled” (Diary, 1442f).
The goal, of course, is not to receive extraordinary visions – which may or may not contribute to growth in holiness – but that we grow in the love of God. Neither joy nor peace can be practiced directly, since they are not virtues, but rather the first two fruits of Divine Charity. It is by practicing and growing in charity, that our peace and joy in Christ will be increased.
Let us also advert to this basic truth: it is not a vision which unites a soul to God but the theological virtues and the sacraments. That is why Faustina’s vision of the Christ Child was a preparation for Holy Communion, Holy Communion being intrinsically greater and a greater means of sanctification. Our Lord explained this spiritual principle to Faustina earlier that same Advent, on an occasion when she was not able to participate in Eucharistic adoration. In her room she united her prayers with those in the chapel: “When I steeped myself in prayer, I was transported in spirit to the chapel, where I saw the Lord Jesus exposed in the monstrance. In place of the monstrance, I saw the glorious face of the Lord, and He said to me, What you see in reality, these souls see through faith. Oh, how pleasing to Me is their great faith! You see, although there appears to be no trace of life in Me, in reality it is present in its fullness in each and every Host. But for Me to be able to act upon a soul, the soul must have faith. O how pleasing to Me is living faith!” (Diary,1420).
Remember, a deep, living faith that is growing in charity is the very best gift a soul can offer to the Christ Child! For both, our disposition through detachment from creatures and the grace of living faith, Our Lady is the best model and help.
The Dignity of Mary: Her Divine Motherhood
“God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son,…” and He gave Him to us through the Virgin Mary. She is the Mother of God. Without ceasing to be a creature, she is elevated incomparably beyond any other creature. Lumen Gentium teaches: “Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy Mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ.” (nr.66). It is not simply that Mary, “gratia plena” (“full of grace”), has more grace than any other angel or saint, but that she also stands in a unique relationship to the principle and plan for grace.
Christ’s humanity “received” (if we may so express it) the absolutely gratuitous grace of the Hypostatic Union, and from this union of natures, the plenitude of grace issued in His soul. Similarly, the Blessed Virgin “received” the grace of her Immaculate Conception as a purely free gift from God. Why? In order to “prepare a worthy Mother for His Son” (Missale, Dec.8). Thus, Mary’s sanctifying grace and freedom from sin follows upon her election to be the Mother of God. As Pope Pius IX insisted in the Bull promulgating the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the election of the Blessed Virgin Mary was inseparable from the Mystery of the Incarnation in the Divine Plan.
Now, since her relationship of Motherhood over Christ is permanent, so too is her grace. “Since she communicated to the Son of God His human nature, she has, as no other creature could, a right to a participation in his divine nature through grace.” Christ is filled with grace because He is personally the Son of God; Mary is “full of grace” because she is personally the Mother of God. It is this personal attribute or characteristic which constitutes her in holiness.
This bond of motherhood linking Mary and Jesus may not be understood merely in physiological terms. Rather, as Scheeben explains, it entails “a spiritual, supernatural union of the person of Mary with the divine Person of her Son that was brought about by the divine will and power.” “This is a ‘connubium Verbi’ (wedlock of the Word) in the strictest sense of the word, namely, a relationship which represents the highest and most manifold association of a created person with Him, just as matrimony is the highest and most manifold bond between two human persons. Understood in this fashion, the spiritual bond of Mary and Jesus – still reflecting the nature of the marriage bond – implies their mutual and reciprocal belonging together of both persons into an organic whole, in which they are permanently joined together.”
This union is a relationship and points not only to Mary’s singular relationship with Christ the Son, but also points to her unique relationship of association with the Father. She alone among all creatures has been called to share with the Father in the begetting of the Son of God: The Father virginally before all time in the Divinity; she virginally in the fullness of time in her humanity. It is for this reason that she is called the Daughter of the Father and the Sacred Vessel of Election.
What then is said of Christ, namely, that by the Incarnation He espoused humanity, and that He is the Bridegroom of the Church, are both accomplished in Mary in a singular fashion. For He participated in our nature through Mary, and supernaturally joined her to Himself as the very first of the redeemed and the mother of the rest in the order of grace. The declaration of Vatican II is most eloquent in this matter: “The predestination of the Blessed Virgin as Mother of God was associated with the Incarnation of the Divine Word: in the designs of Divine Providence she was the gracious mother of the Divine Redeemer here on earth, and above all others and in a singular way the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord. She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ, she presented Him to the Father in the temple, she shared in her Son’s sufferings as He died on the Cross. Thus, in a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (LG, 61)
Mary: Mother of the Church
“By reason of the gift and role of her divine motherhood, by which she is united with her Son, the Redeemer, and with her unique graces and functions, the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united to the Church” (LG,63). St. Ambrose had pointed out that Mary is the type of the Church in the order of the theological virtues and with respect to the perfect union with Christ. The Church herself is rightly called mother and virgin.
Now these maternal prerogatives of Mary in grace are evidently not exhausted on Christ the Head, but are also intended for us, Christ’s members, her spiritual children. This is why, the Council affirmed, that the Blessed Mother is invoked under so many titles that express both her benevolent love and efficacious help: Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix (LG,62).
Focusing a bit on her role as the Mediatrix of grace, we need to have present her role in the economy of grace departing from her Divine Motherhood. Through the Word, God created all things; through the Word, God beholds all things. But through Mary – namely as her Child – God beholds the Word-Incarnate. Therefore, through Mary He beholds the world with eyes of mercy. Hence, her many titles: Daughter of the Father, Temple of the Holy Spirit, Mother of Mercy.
God created the world for Christ; He redeemed the world through Christ. Through Mary, though, God created Christ (His physical humanity). Thus God entered the world in a new and supernatural way through Mary. In virtue of this same maternal gift and office the world shall enter into God through Mary.
All grace comes through Christ. But Christ came through Mary. Hence, in giving us Christ she dispenses all graces, for in giving us the spring, we receive all the water that issues forth from it. The sacraments of grace are sacraments of the humanity of Christ. Again, Christ has come through Mary. The sacraments of graces also fall under the spiritual influence of Mary, for how else could she be called the Mother in the order of grace – since we are born into the Church by the waters of Baptism – unless she also exercises some spiritual function with respect to the sacraments. Hence, her title: Mother of Divine Grace.
The Church is Christ’s Body. Christ has come through Mary. She is mother of both the Head and the Body. We all received life from the same mother. Hence, she is Mother of the Church.
The Holy Angels are ministers of grace and light. But all grace comes from Christ the Light. Christ has come through Mary. Thus, the ministry of the Angels is also under the maternal administration of Mary; hence her title: Queen of the Angels.
Jesus Christ, God and man, redeemed mankind on the Cross. Jesus Christ, of course, is not a created person, but God Himself. Hence, even in its accomplishment on the Cross, the Work, the Covenant of Redemption needed to be accepted by a created person in order to be consummated and ratified. Mary, in her office as mother, accepted at the foot of the Cross the work of redemption in the name of all creation.
“This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace,” teaches the Council, “continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the Cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation” (LG, 62). Indeed, she was singularly and most intimately united with Christ in His sacrifice, such that she was like a single victim with Him before the Father. Here again, Vatican II is explicit: “Rightly, therefore, the Fathers [of the Church] see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience. For as Irenaeus says, she ‘being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race'” (LG, 57).
The whole essence of Mary and her mission can be expressed in two words. She is total openness and pure receptivity before God, and so she, the Virgin, receives and conceives God Himself. She is motherly openness and donation towards us, and thus, the Mother of God, gives us the God of grace, made Flesh, so that through them, we might become children of God. The whole mystery of Mary, therefore, is contained in the Christmas cycle, wherein she, the Virgin Handmaid, becomes the Mother of God. May she always be our way to Him.
An Old Christmas Story
The fame of the old Church at Bingle is, as all know, due to its belfry, or rather to the ringing of the bells at the Midnight Mass on Christmas. They say that in former times the pealing of the Christmas bells was rather frequent. Young Peter had never heard them ring, but his heart was filled with longing to hear them as his mother recalled the heavenly joy she experienced as a child when the bells mysteriously began to peal out their “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Peter was most certain that it must indeed have been heavenly, for his mother’s face glowed with devotion and joy whenever she recalled this experience to her children, as indeed, each Advent.
It was said that the Angels rang the bells. This may have been true for besides the three major bells, which were consecrated to the Christ Child, to the Virgin Mother and Joseph, all the many remaining bells were all dedicated to the Angels under various titles. The ringing of the bells was associated with the local practice of the annual Christmas collection for the Church and the Poor that was taken up at the Midnight Mass. It was literally taken up, that is, individually and in procession, starting with the prince, and followed by the noblemen, and the rest of the faithful according to their rank and state.
There was much speculation as to the cause for the silence of the bells, and further speculation as to what kind and how great of gift was needed to renew their Christmas Song. All were concerned, not only being eager for the phenomenon, which so easily appeals to the human heart, but also because tradition had always held that the pealing of the bells was the harbinger of a blessed and prosperous year to come, and that tradition, they say had generations of witnesses to vouch for its accuracy.
Peter, for his part, did not engage in these reflections; he had his own convictions about the bells, which were really simply a conclusion drawn from the family-practice of preparing the manger for the Baby Jesus. For every good little work and extra prayer the children would offer with a pure intention, they were allowed to add a small piece of hay as bedding for the manger. Peter had long since learned that the good will and sincerity of intention were the secret to a successful Advent, for a heart so inclined perceives innumerable little gestures and acts of love which it can offer the Baby Jesus through the Virgin Mary.
For his part, Peter was convinced that this was the secret behind the bells, both as to their ringing and as to their silence. Just as for years Peter had sought to fill the manger with hay, so that the Little Lord Jesus rest softly, so too had he desired the ringing of the bells, not for his own sake, but he desired to please the Baby Jesus and His Mother, that the Angels should ring the bells to joyfully announce the birth of the Savior.
Now that he was 14 years old, he felt in a position to implement his desire. After chores, his parents gave him leave to earn a few coppers by cutting wood or cleaning the stalls for neighbors. By Advent his coppers had added up to a small silver coin. This he would offer to the Christ Child.
On Christmas Eve, with the snow falling, he set out for midnight mass with his younger brother Mark and sister Elizabeth (his mother had to stay home with their father who had come down with a bad cold). When they had gone nearly half the distance of the several miles to town, they came upon a traveler who was, from the testimony of his shoes and clothing, very much down on his luck, and from his wheezing and fever flushed face, similarly down in health. Peter thought quickly, but could find no other solution than that he take the traveler back home to his mother, who was a true friend of the poor. Elizabeth and Mark protested, as they knew he had been saving up his earnings all fall to make this present to the Baby Jesus. But Peter answered, saying, “If I take him home, only one of us will miss mass. Besides, you already see the lights in the town, so the two of you can’t get lost continuing on to Church, whereas the path home is much darker and the way is now covered with snow. In any case, Jesus will know that I did it all for Him, so His joy will not be diminished. And after I take care of this man, then I will come back to Church and get you.”
And so Mark and Elizabeth continued on their way, while Peter conducted the stranger to the welcome and warmth of his parent’s home. Upon arriving at church, the children took up their accustomed place; the Church was packed. The mass was most solemn, what with all the candles, the singing and the incense. After the sermon the traditional procession for presenting the gift began, lead by the prince and the noblemen and the influential citizenry. Many and generous were the gifts, for it was both a Christian and prosperous realm. After each gift there was a hopeful (but not too hopeful) pause, since the bells had not rung for many years. Finally, Mark and Elizabeth approached with Peter’s little silver coin. Rather than putting it in the basket before the manger, Elizabeth placed it in Mary’s hand, and Mark said, “Mary, Peter couldn’t come, but he wanted you to have this, so that the Baby Jesus can hear the ringing of the bells!”
At that moment the bells began to ring and peal out the Christmas joy! Great was the jubilation of all in the Church, and not merely for the beauty of the bells. Tears of joy ran down their cheeks, the light of grace had penetrated every heart with a deep understanding of the goodness of God: “Behold this day, a Savior is born unto you in Bethlehem, you will find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will on earth.”
Mass was over and the crowd had largely dispersed before Peter arrived at the Church. Mark and Elizabeth could scarcely express themselves, in their great exuberance and joy, as they explained how the Blessed Mother had caused the Angels to ring the bells after she had received Peter’s gift. Only they felt sorely disappointed that Peter had not been there to hear the bells and share in the great gladness. “Oh but I did,” returned Peter, “for I had just made it to the top of the hill, and could plainly see the Church lit up, when the bells began to peal. I could scarcely contain my joy, because I just knew that Mary and the Child Jesus were smiling for sheer delight.” And surely they were, but of course, less for the pure tone of the bells, than for the pure, selfless love in Peter’s heart that rang out up to the heavens and touched the heart of God.
Fr. William Wagner, ORC
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