VIEW FROM THE PEW
It’s time to think about Christmas. Nooooo, you say? Time to get past it, you think? If you are a malingerer like me, the decorations may not have found their way back into the closet and some gifts and goodies are still heaped here and there unassimilated.
It’s time to cringe as we wait for the bills, accept that some leftovers are too far gone to be born again and be relieved that the little drummer boy has marched on off the airwaves.
But you know what, I think I’ve missed the holiday hangover, despite cold fronts and colder news. It’s all about this song, “Mary Did You Know.” I made a late acquaintance with the non-traditional Christmas song which fans of country music and Christian bands have known for years, apparently. The haunting song ponders and wonders about all that Jesus is, and what’s ahead for the Blessed Mother as she embraces her newborn child. A lyrical expression of Christian belief, it felt to me like the antidote to the political correctness of generic “happy holidays.”
I’ve been hearing it since Dec. 8 when Bishop Larry Silva used it as the theme of his homily on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was still a vivid meditation model on Jan. 1, the feast day of Mary the Mother of God which, thanks to the serendipity of the liturgical calendar, happened on a Sunday this year so we could all be at Mass to sing along to “Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing” or some other dear old Marian hymn. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hum out loud the new top tune on my hit parade but I was channeling it.
“It is most likely that Mary did not know all of these things the day the angel Gabriel appeared to her,” Bishop Silva told the congregation at the Dec. 8 Mass at St. Patrick Church. He took us through the lyrics, a litany of things that Mary came to know about her son, saying “Despite the fact she knew none of these things, she gave her Fiat, ‘may it be done to me according to your word.’ How could she have had the courage to make such a response except for the pure grace that filled her soul from the first moment of conception in her own mother’s womb.”
God “has given us the same grace in our Baptism. You are called, as Mary was, to open yourself to whatever may come.” The bishop’s words were addressed to Brother Jeremy Sabugo, of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, whom he ordained as a deacon at that Mass. But they seemed to be a call to arms for other listeners, too. “Like Mary, may you have the courage and the faith to submit yourself always to God’s will.”
Most years, Jan. 1 is on a weekday and most of us aren’t in church or particularly aware that the celebration of Christmas continues with the spotlight on the mother in the manger scene. “To celebrate the feast of the Holy Mother of God reminds us that we are not interchangeable items of merchandise or information processors. We are children, we are family, we are God’s people,” Pope Francis told the Jan. 1 crowd in St. Peter’s Square. “By her motherhood, Mary shows us that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong. She teaches us that we do not have to mistreat others in order to feel important,” the pope said.
What I love about the Christmas story, and this song, is how it sparks the imagination of the storyteller inside us. The manger scene is an invitation to put yourself in the Bethlehem stable. It stimulates a peek into the minds of the participants. Faithful and obedient though they were, what might Mary and Joseph be saying about this hardship place God had led them. What on earth were those shepherds thinking when they were jolted awake? And as a kid I know wondered, with the animals in there, how did it smell?
The story continues
The fantasizing continues as we marked Epiphany last week. We heard the Gospel account of the arrival of wise men seeking the newborn king foretold in their tradition. Political cartoonists and columnists have a heyday combining that scriptural story with modern events in the Middle East and widespread hostility toward immigrants “from the East.” How to tell the story today: an Iranian, a Syrian and an Iraqi mounted their camels and headed for Bethlehem but they had to make detours because Israel has built a wall separating it from the rest of the Holy Land.
This year, the Epiphany Gospel reading stopped short of the three short verses about the other holiday journey when “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt” after an angel warned him of Herod’s murderous intent to kill all little boys around Bethlehem to thwart the Magi’s prediction of a new king. Matthew tells us that they stayed away until Herod died, but I’d love to know more details. It’s the journalist in me, the storyteller. My imagination can weave a story, just as others have since the very first Christians. What threats did Joseph overcome to protect the family, find shelter and food and work to support them? How could Mary, who was just getting used to tending a newborn baby, cope with the hazards and discomfort and separation from her extended family?
We know the Scripture writers skipped past the little details in Chapter One because the rest of the story of Jesus’ life, teaching and resurrection was such an huge message to present. Stories from earliest Christians were set aside as apocryphal — of questionable authenticity — and theologians and scholars have wrangled down through the centuries about who got what right. But that hasn’t stopped writers and homilists and artists from letting their minds expand on the stories. Legends abound. Fiction flourishes. Mary has intrigued great artists forever. I am thankful that Christianity is not a religion that forbids imagination and imagery, even when it’s distasteful or negative, because after all, who created this human mind and its limitless horizons?
Some stories not accepted by other branches of Christianity are important to the Coptic Church, an early branch of Christianity based in Egypt. Many are about Christ Child miracles. There are churches and shrines marking places where the Holy Family allegedly stayed during their exile in Egypt, most notably a fourth century Cairo church known as Abu Serga which, tradition has it, was built on the place where the family lived. It’s actually named after two Christian martyrs, killed for their faith by Romans. They were Syrians, and that’s another story to look up.
Hawaii members of St. Mark Coptic Church in Alewa Heights will join in their denomination’s celebration of Mary, the Mother of God, on Jan. 16.
If you paused at Jan. 1 to think “wait, what?” you’re right. The Blessed Mother wasn’t always honored on this day. Before the Second Vatican Council and actually, ever since the 13th century, the church officially observed Jan. 1 as the feast of the circumcision of Jesus which, being a delicate topic plus the day after New Year revelries, may have led to some uneasiness of thoughts for homilists and meditative worshippers alike.
Give the Portuguese credit for establishing a feast day of the “Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” They set Oct. 11 as that feast in 1914, and Pope Pius XI extended it to the entire church in 1931. In 1969, the liturgical calendar was revised to commemorate the Blessed Mother on Jan. 1. Just to load up this paragraph with historical dates, may I point out that it was in 431 A.D. that the First Council of Ephesus adopted Mary’s motherhood of Jesus as dogma.
So, though the calendar page has flipped, I’m still lingering here on the edge of the manger scene. The namesake of Mary of Nazareth, I’m wishing I could hear her tell how her life unfolded as she realized the answers to questions in a song that applies for the whole year and isn’t just a Christmas carol at all.
Mary Did You Know
(Words by Mark Lowry and melody by Buddy Greene)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb.
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.