The teachings about Mary are ultimately about her Son, Jesus, and December is a great month, full of feasts, to bring our hearts and our minds to the utterly awesome — but difficult — teaching on the Incarnation. And, once we are thinking about the Christian claim that God became Man, there are derivative claims that require some more thinking. The relationship between Jesus and Mary is right at the top of that list. For Marian doctrines often point to the mystery of Jesus: that he is True God and True Man, that he has two natures, that he has two wills, and so much more.
So, let’s just be reminded of some important dates on the Christian calendar in the month of December:
- Immaculate Conception – December 8
- Our Lady of Guadalupe – December 12
- The O Antiphons – December 17-23
- The Nativity of Our Lord – December 25
- Holy Family – Sunday after the Nativity
- Holy Innocents – December 28
In the opening words of the Gospel of John, we read that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John’s gospel is known for its high Christology, which is another way of saying John keeps his listeners and readers aware of Jesus as truly God even as he recounts the stories of his human ministry. It is hard to read John’s gospel and not understand that Jesus is divine. And he makes sure of that right from the very first lines.
In the Creed we recite at Mass, we say, “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This statement of belief, for that’s what a Creed is, says and says again that Jesus was a human person and at the same time a divine person. The incarnation is the word we see describing that reality. Sometimes you will see the word “enfleshment” used as a synonym for incarnation. They mean the same thing.
In the great Christological hymn from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians we have quoted many times already, we read, “[He] emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
These three quotations show us a couple of things. They show us how Scripture and Tradition cooperate in communicating the good news of Jesus Christ. They show us how challenging this doctrine of the incarnation is, and how one might expect the faithful to struggle to understand what it is they are professing in the Creed.
In the passage from St. John, what do we mean by “the Word” and what do we mean by “became flesh?” In the passage from St. Paul, what do we mean by the phrase “being born in the likeness of men?” These terms can mean only one things, right? And yet we remember from the familiar passage in Genesis that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” So, one can fairly ask the question, “If we are made in the image and likeness of God and yet are clearly not God, then why would the same relationship not apply when we use the same phrasing about Jesus being born in the likeness of men?”
These are very good theological questions. They are truly “faith seeking understanding.” Different smart Christian thinkers around the Christian world came up with different understandings. This is not uncommon in scriptural study. We all read books from our subjective understanding of things, right? What is the book “Moby Dick” really about? And that is just a novel. How much more powerful, how much more dangerous, is subjective reading of Holy Scripture. That is why we as the Church find ourselves back with the Ethiopian official, needing someone to interpret the scriptures with true authority. And that is the job of the Church.
Remember that the first few hundred years of the early Church they were routinely persecuted and harassed, sometimes by banishment, sometimes by pogroms, sometimes sporadically, and there were different levels of oppression in different areas of the world. After the Emperor Constantine made Christianity lawful, there was time and room to come together in an ecumenical (worldwide) council to be guided by the Holy Spirit and determine the answers to these questions.
As we have mentioned in the past, these councils were called in response to one or more issues. The first councils really dealt with errors around the nature of Jesus. And Marian doctrines almost always relate to doctrines about Christ.
We know that the right answer about Jesus is what we say in the Creed. He is fully God and he is fully Man. But it is understandable that faithful Christians tended to pick one of those as dominant in order to make sense of things. Even those we declare these truths of the faith to be mysteries, we are always struggling with them and sometimes go too far and insist they fit in a mental box of our own construction. That is basically what happened, and the early Councils responded to those limitations set by certain factions of believers in the Church.
Docetism was the belief that Jesus was not fully human, but seemed to be so. It was promoted by Serapion, Patron of Antioch at the end of the 2nd century, based on a non-canonical book called the Gospel of Peter. We can see that this line of thinking makes Jesus fully God but not fully human. It was rejected at the Council of Nicea in 325.
Arianism basically takes the other side, as it claims Jesus was not fully God, but distinct from the Father and begotten in time by the Father. The summary quote attributed to Arians is “there was a time when he was not.” Jesus was perhaps some kind of demigod — a term familiar to that Greek world from the writings of Plato — but he was not actually God. He was not of exactly the same substance as the Father. And the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 insisted that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. There was an effort to smooth the rough edges by saying “a similar substance” but the Fathers of the Council rejected that accommodation and insisted on the orthodox formulation. The creed we recite at Sunday Mass is the creed developed through these two councils.
Teachings on Jesus have a ripple effect, and they really affect teachings on Mary. The next serious issue faced by the Church was one of Mary’s titles. Remember that at this time, Greek is the universal language, so all our early councils were conducted in Greek and those Greek terms are still with us today.
There was a man from Antioch who was made patriarch of Constantinople, and his name was Nestorius. The Bishop of Constantinople was the court Bishop, since the seat of the Roman Empire at that time was Constantinople, not Rome. He brought with him from Antioch some ideas that did not resonate with the teachings familiar to the people of the capital city. Specifically, Nestorius was accused of teaching that Mary gave birth to the Christ, who then somehow grew into being God. Just as Moses was a man born of a woman before he was made by God the great lawgiver, Mary gave birth to the messiah, (the Christ), not to God (theotokos).
The Council of Ephesus soundly rejected this idea. Mary was truly the bearer of God, she was the Mother of God. And I suppose if we could hear the emphasis in English we would say Mother of GOD.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Our Lady of Guadalupe is Patroness of the Americas, so she is not just for Mexicans. But she appeared in Mexico fairly early in the Spanish period. She appeared to a Mexican native and spoke to him in the Aztec language.
The Virgin Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego and once more to his uncle, Juan Bernardino. The first apparition occurred at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac, which later became part of Villa de Guadalupe, in a suburb of Mexico City. The woman, speaking to Juan Diego in his native language, identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “mother of the very true deity”. She asked for a church to be erected at that site in her honor. Based on her words, Juan Diego then sought the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to tell him what had happened. Not unexpectedly, the Archbishop did not believe Diego. Later the same day, Juan Diego again saw the young woman (the second apparition), and she asked him to continue insisting.
The next day, Sunday, December 10, Juan Diego spoke to the Archbishop a second time. The latter instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill and to ask the woman for a truly acceptable, miraculous sign to prove her identity. Later that day, the third apparition occurred when Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac; encountering the same woman, he reported to her the Archbishop’s request for a sign, which she consented to provide on the next day (December 11).
By Monday, December 11, however, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, became ill, which obligated Juan Diego to attend to him. In the very early hours of Tuesday, December 12, Juan Bernardino’s condition having deteriorated overnight, Juan Diego journeyed to Tlatelolco to get a Catholic priest to hear Juan Bernardino’s confession and help minister to him on his deathbed.
To avoid being delayed by the Virgin and ashamed at having failed to meet her on Monday as agreed, Juan Diego chose another route around Tepeyac Hill, yet the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he was going (fourth apparition); Juan Diego explained what had happened and the Virgin gently chided him for not having asked her for her intercession. She assured him that Juan Bernardino had now recovered and told him to gather flowers from the summit of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in the cold of December. Juan Diego obeyed her instruction and he found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming there.
The Virgin arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak, and when Juan Diego opened his cloak later that day before Archbishop Zumárraga, the flowers fell to the floor, revealing on the fabric the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The next day, December 13, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered as the Virgin had assured him, and Juan Bernardino recounted that he also had seen her, at his bedside; that she had instructed him to inform the Archbishop of this apparition and of his miraculous cure; and that she had told him she desired to be known under the title of ‘Guadalupe’.
The Archbishop kept Juan Diego’s mantle, first in his private chapel and then in the church on public display, where it attracted great attention. On December 26, 1531, a procession formed to transfer the miraculous image back to Tepeyac Hill where it was installed in a small, hastily erected chapel. During this procession, the first miracle was performed when a native was mortally wounded in the neck by an arrow shot by accident during some stylized martial displays performed in honor of the Virgin. In great distress, the natives carried him before the Virgin’s image and pleaded for his life. Upon the arrow being withdrawn, the victim fully and immediately recovered.
You can really enter into the Mary and Jesus connection of December if Evening Prayer is part of your prayer life. Evening Prayer is one of the two hinges of the Daily Office, and at Evening Prayer every night we recite Mary’s great hymn which is known by its first Latin word, the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel tells her she will be the mother of God.
When we recite the Magnificat, we have a little phrase we say before it, and that little phrase is called an “antiphon.” At Evening Prayer on the last seven days of Advent, we use a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in the Old Testament.
We should be familiar with these titles, since we have been singing the English hymn based on them all month: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is those antiphons set to music and in English.
O Sapientia (Wisdom)
O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence.
O Adonai (Lord)
O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him Your Law. Come and with an outstretched arm redeem us!
O Radix Iesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay.
O clavis David (O Key of David)
O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and no one closes; You close and no one opens. Come, and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Oriens (O Rising Dawn)
O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Rex gentium (O King of the Gentiles)
O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save poor Man whom You fashioned out of clay.
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Saviour: Come, and save us, O Lord our God!
On the Sunday after Christmas — so we are in the Octave of Christmas — we celebrate the Holy Family. It is good for us to pray on the family existence Jeus had. He was fully human, like us, and he had an earthly Father and Mother who had the job every Father and Mother have: to take care of their children and raise them in the faith.
The stories we have from Scripture that relate to the Holy Family touch on these two obligations. They do what they are supposed to do to raise the child in the faith, just as today Moms and Dads work to have their children baptized and confirmed. And they learned things about their son along the way, just as we learn about our children and our parents as we move through family life.
That week of the Christmas Octave also touches on the cost of being associated with Jesus Christ: the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.
The Magi visit Jerusalem to seek guidance as to where the king of the Jews has been born; King Herod directs them to Bethlehem and asks them to return to him and report, but they are warned in a dream and do not do so. The massacre is reported in Gospel of Matthew:
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.Matthew 2:16
This is followed by a reference to and quotation from the Book of Jeremiah: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18).