THE BELOW REFLECTION RAN LAST YEAR, AND IT IS THIS EDITOR’S FAVORITE ARTICLE OF ADVENT. WE INVITE YOU TO REREAD AND FIND YOUR “HOLY MOMENTS” IN THE MIDST OF TODAY’S UNCERTAINTY.
I want to share with you today an image that is deeply powerful for me in this season.
This is a fresco by Piero della Francesca painted in the 15th century on the wall of a small white chapel, about an hour and a half outside Florence, Italy. She is called the Madonna del Parto, or the Madonna in Labor.
For me, religious images can imprint spiritual truths with more meaning and emotion than any theological argument.
Can you see how her eyes glance downward in uncertainty, reflecting on the simultaneous blessing and burden of carrying the Christ-child? Can you see that her lovely blue dress has been let out at the front and the side seams to make room for her swelling belly? The artist decided to depict her as a peasant instead of as an affluent or elite member of society. Being a peasant girl, she probably only had one dress. Peasants wouldn’t have had a maternity wardrobe to change into as her body grew to accommodate the growing child within her, instead she had to let out the seams of the one dress she owned and literally “make space.”
Look at the way the crisp white of her undergarment radiates through the blue of her dress like a symbol of what’s to come.
The artist portrays her as true birth-giver of God. It is an image that for me makes very real the way her flesh and blood is bringing forth our God.
In Renaissance times, in that small white chapel where she is located, the priest would elevate the host just to the level of her full abdomen; alluding to the fact that the virgin herself is a tabernacle. A tabernacle is a place where the reserved sacrament is held.
In our church, it’s the small wooden box on the shelf as you walk into the ambry room. In more traditional churches, the tabernacle is located above the “re-altar,” which is the small altar behind the altar where the priest stands to celebrate the Eucharist. In this fresco, Mary is the place where Christ’s light is held.
This image has so much meaning for me because it is about her, as an individual, as an ordinary person, as a woman, literally making space for the holy. In many, if not most, illustrations of Mary, she is not the focus, nor is she alone. Like this icon of the theotokos, which means God-bearer, the Child Jesus is really as much as, if not more of, the focus than Mary.
But not here, not in the Madonna del Parto. Here, she is an autonomous person who in contemplation and in faith has followed where God has called. Mary has become transformed by her faith, and in this fresco we see it literally. Look again at the seams of her dress; her expanding body has physically had to make space for God. Hail Mary, full of grace!
As we see with the Madonna del Parto, Advent is a time of waiting, of preparation and expectation. This is true for Mary and for us. In fact, part of the power of the Christmas story is that God became one of us, as the lowly son of an ordinary peasant girl whose situation could have made her an outcast. Through this ordinary girl, God is doing something extraordinary. By faith Mary receives the child in her womb, and in faith she gives the Lamb to the world.
Mary was not divine or supernatural. She was not given this burden and blessing because she was anything more than a faithful servant of God. All she had to do was say “YES.”
Mary was not called to perfection, she was called to discipleship. Her discipleship came in the form of a child. She was called to a tangible thing, as we can see in the Madonna this morning. Mary was asked to physically birth God’s love into the world; to proclaim that God’s promises are fulfilled! Hail Mary, full of grace!
Like Mary, we too are called to discipleship. We are called into “holy moments” where we can perceive the possibility of something extraordinary in our ordinary lives. I think that is exactly what it means to be in a season of waiting, of expectation, of preparation. We are looking for moments when we, too, can be “full of grace.” This is how we create space for God to be born in our lives and in the world.
Incarnation is about flesh and spirit, it’s about voicing our stories and listening to one another’s, it’s about walking with each other through joy, through fear, through pain. And actually practicing it, making space for it is extraordinary.
German theologian and Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always in need of being born.”
We are like Mary, human beings of flesh and spirit called to bring God’s love into the world. For Mary, birthing God’s incarnate love in the world involved nurturing and loving, sharing and letting go, pain and sadness, difficulty and wonder, burden and blessing. Through this ordinary girl, God is doing something extraordinary.
But what does birthing God’s love in the world mean for us? For me, it’s about finding those holy moments, those ordinary times brimming with the possibility of extraordinary and making space for God.
Mary has become transformed by her faith, and in this fresco we see it literally. Look again at the seams of her dress and the way in which she has had to create space, in her dress, in her life, in her heart, for the birth of God’s love in this world.
Where do you see God doing something extraordinary? How can you make space for it?
Keep watch as we wait this Advent. Keep watch for those holy moments and make space for God’s love to be born among us.