In five days’ time the Church will once again take up the joy and festivity that is characteristic of her annual celebration of the Lord’s first coming in his nativity. After four weeks of intense spiritual preparation, we will have the chance to recognize the advent of our Messiah—Christ, the true God and true Man—and to keep festival with our brothers and sisters across the world, and indeed throughout the ages, as we mark once more that birth which is at once like any other, and yet unlike any other at all. At the threshold of so great a feast, the Church pauses one last time to catch her breath that, arriving at the manger, our hearts may be truly ready to offer the worship and adoration that is due our incarnate God, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. As she comes to rest on this fourth Sunday of our Advent journey, the Church’s liturgical texts present us with the person of Our Blessed Lady, she who embodies—in a most literal way—the journey to the nativity of the Lord; she who did not simply prepare for this moment by the nine months of her pregnancy, but was prepared before time for this noble task, by God himself. As the seventeenth-century divine, Thomas Ken, put it: “The Holy Ghost His temple in her built, / Cleansed from congenial, kept from mortal guilt; /And from the moment that her blood was fired, / Into her heart Celestial Love inspired.”
That we find ourselves with the Virgin Mother of God on the eve of the celebration of Christmas is both inevitable and surprising. Inevitable, because we know the birth of Christ could not have occurred without the physical childbearing of his Blessed Mother. Surprising, because in this feast so focussed on the person of Christ, it may seem odd at first, perhaps even a distraction from “the main event”—to be presented with Our Lady, rather than to continue to home in on that babe in the manger, our Saviour, the Word made Flesh.
Obviously this is a false dichotomy. We cannot at once recognize the singular importance and dignity of Our Lady, yet displace her from her rightful place of honour. So intimately is she connected with the very event of the nativity of the Lord, that Our Lady cannot be anything other than at the heart, not just of the scene of the Christmas crib, but the entire narrative of the incarnation itself. Here, then, we might reflect on the role of Our Blessed Lady in this; not simply as the Mother of Christ in that very physical sense, but as a very real embodiment of the mystery of the incarnation which, in the coming days, will once more unfold before us.
To begin we must recall that, in the words of Monsignor Ronald Knox, “Christmas is a return to our origins.” The feast of the Nativity of the Lord brings us back not simply to the events of his birth some two thousand years ago, but to the very start of the human story. This past week the lectionary provided us with the genealogy of Christ from the first chapter of the gospel according to Saint Matthew, and yesterday we proclaimed that magnificent text, O Radix Iesse: “O Root of Jesse which standest for an ensign of the peoples . . . come and deliver us, and tarry not.” That root, as those familiar with the Jesse Tree will know, goes back to the very first chapter of the very first book of the bible; to Genesis; to the creation of the world, and to the Garden of Eden. Here we find Adam, the first man, and Eve, the first woman, living in union with God and thus in perfect adoration.
Since her earliest days, the Church has seen in these two figures of Adam and Eve, types or characters that prefigure Christ and Our Lady. Just as we see in Adam the first man, so we identify Christ as “the first-born of all creation” (Col. 1: 15). As Saint Paul writes, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15: 47). And elsewhere, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15: 22). And as we see in Eve the first woman, so we identify Our Lady as the first who, from the moment of her conception, partook “in the salvific and sanctifying grace and in that love which has its beginning in the ‘Beloved,’ the Son of the Eternal Father.”
Let us dwell for a moment on that second parallel, between Eve and Our Lady. Eve was the one whose disobedience led to the casting from paradise—what Saint Irenaeus calls “the cause of death both to herself and to the whole human race.” Our Lady, conversely, is the one whose obedience opened once more the gate of paradise, of heaven—the cause of salvation “both to herself and to the whole human race”. Eve was the one seduced a fallen Angel; Our Lady the one who received the message of the good news of Christ’s birth from Gabriel, an Archangel of God. Eve was the one tempted by a serpent; Our Lady is the one who tramples the serpent under her foot. “Since through Eve, a virgin, came death,” writes Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, “it behoved, that through a Virgin, or rather from a Virgin, should life appear.” Or Saint Ephrem: “Through Eve, the beautiful and desirable glory of men was extinguished; but it has revived through Mary.” Eve’s first offspring, Cain, brought death to his brother Abel; Christ, the offspring of the Blessed Virgin, came that we might have life, and that we might be called his brethren (Jn 10: 10; Heb. 2: 11). And as we may say that Eve is, according to the Book of Genesis, the “Mother of all living,” so we may say that Our Lady is—more so—the Mother of all Life, for all the fullness of life flows through her from her beloved Son.
In this knowledge we surely cannot be surprised that, at the doorway to the feast of the incarnation, of the Lord’s first coming in his nativity, it is the figure of Our Blessed Lady whom we find waiting to show us in; she who is so intimately connected with the very fact and event of Christ’s birth that Pope Saint John Paul II described her as “indissolubly joined” to her beloved Son. In her life, and by the fruit of her action, the Church sees how the original sin of our race has paradoxically become, as the Paschal Exsultet proclaims: a “wonderful providence”, a “blessed iniquity.” As Christ is the one who comes to deliver us, who in the image of the antiphon for today is the Key of David that brings “the prisoner out of the prison-house,” so his Blessed Mother is the first to be liberated from the bonds of sin and death, and thus the perfect model to herald the gravity and splendour of what, in the tiny infant in the manger of a stable, will come to pass.
So may these final days of the season of Advent be marked by a certain spiritual closeness to the Mother of Christ, whose maternal care extends to all those who by baptism share in his mystical body. May our hearts be truly enlarged by the example of her generous obedience to the will of the Father, that we may make ample room in them for his only-begotten Son. And may we, “who through our ancient bondage are held beneath the yoke of sin,” by her heavenly intercession come to the release of all that keeps us from her Son, that united to him in his first coming, we may be found ready and waiting—truly prepared to receive him at his last.