I wonder what emotions filled the heart of our Blessed Mother Mary as she awaited the birth of her son in that first Advent. And it was Advent, to be sure. Oh, I know, there were no Advent wreaths or purple vestments. No one sang "O come, o come, Emmanuel." And certainly the tiny shops of Bethlehem weren't filled with shoppers looking at glitzy Christmas things while "Jingle Bell Rock" played in the background. But for Mary it was Advent, the first Advent, the best of Advents.
Without a doubt Mary's Advent was a time of special grace and blessing as she contemplated the meaning of God's intervention in her life. Pope John Paul offered a beautiful reflection on this theme:
No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the months that followed she began to sense his presence and picture his features. When at last she gave birth to him in Bethlehem, her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son, as she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. Thereafter Mary's gaze, ever filled with adoration and wonder, would never leave him.
But I wonder, was it quite as simple as that?
I wonder if Mary had any doubts, fears or even regrets about God's sudden intrusion into her life. Did she know that she would have to give birth in the meanest of conditions, in a place intended for animals? Did she know that after the birth of Jesus, the young family would have to flee to Egypt because an evil king was trying to kill him? Did she know that her son would grow to be a controversial and divisive figure, that she would see him ridiculed and rejected, and that eventually she would accompany him to foot of his cross? Did she regret that all of her plans for a long, happy and peaceful life with her beloved Joseph were interrupted in favor of God's mysterious, if holy, design? What we know is that Mary dealt with all this and in the end trusted in the Lord.
I wonder if Mary experienced the typical excitement of a young woman expecting her first child. Did she dream about her son and the things she and her son would do together? Did she confide in her parents and her teenage friends? Certainly her meeting with her cousin Elizabeth was an exciting and joyful reunion. We can just imagine the rapid, breathless exchange between the two women, expecting their first children, both in the strangest of circumstances. Elizabeth: "Most blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.... And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me ... Blessed are you who believed...." And Mary: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior." The excitement of the moment was palpable, for reasons both human and divine.
I wonder if Mary turned to faith in God for consolation and direction as she awaited the birth of her son. Did she discuss her situation with venerable and wise spiritual counselors? Did she read the prophecies of the Old Testament, trying to find her place in God's plan? Did she spend quiet time in prayer and reflection, struggling to piece together all that was happening to her? Apparently she did, according to St. Luke's Gospel. "And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." It seems clear that during her Advent, Mary drew closer to God, strengthening her faith, a faith already strong and real.
I wonder if Mary realized the historical significance of what she was doing. Certainly she didn't know theological terms such as "Immaculate Conception", "Perpetual Virginity", and "Assumption." But in her prayer and reflection, and precisely because of her personal relationship with God, she must have had some awareness of the special nature of this moment. Otherwise, how could she have responded to the Angel Gabriel, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word."? And how else can we explain her hymn of triumph, "Behold, from now on all ages will call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me." Is there any doubt that Mary was aware of, at least in some seminal way, the unfolding drama and the leading role she was about to play?
O Mary, as we await the birth of Jesus in this Advent Season, help us to share your trust, your excitement, your faith and your awareness of God's presence in our lives. Help us to carry Jesus within us and give birth to him in our world once again.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)