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Starting Point

Mary message charged with mystery


This year I don’t see the wooden crib at the front of our church in quite the way I used to. Of course, I still know it’s a reminder of Christ’s humanity, a practice inspired by St. Francis. But now I’ve heard about a new crib for today’s babies that’

The crib comes with a painted-in landscape, like the rolling hills and trees behind Mary in many Renaissance nativity scenes. This new product for lucky babies moves gently at all times and provides a soundtrack underneath, like the gently rolling ocean punctuated with soft heartbeats. Apparently it rests the baby safely and comfortingly with far fewer outbreaks of crying.

Looking at an ad for this crib made me think about Mary, who provided just such a comforting place for the Christ child. Because she is also our mother as well, this helped me understand Flannery O’Connor’s remark that Mary is our rest -- the deep, safe sleep from which we awake refreshed, newly created.

But because she is the Mother of God as well as of the baby Jesus, her actions remind me that in our deepest physical and psychological being we are all held in God’s womb. God is our mother as well as our father, the source of our creation and re-creation after each night’s sleep, including the last of death.

Like so many other realizations about Mary, this one mysteriously transforms my understanding. It forces me to feel how mysterious our lives themselves are, how little we know. At the same time it begs me to trust, to be open and faithful to life as Mary was.

What we can learn, meditating on Mary -- whether through art, liturgy, pilgrimage or scripture -- is never merely inert data. It is charged communication, asking for a response from the whole person. Her role seems ever to be one that leads us to face the mystery of that mighty God who passionately craves to be with the lowly -- not only with his mother, but all of us.

The crib in particular tells us that this desire is not just to be with our adult selves, but with the child in us, with the vulnerable physical beings we are, imperfect and searching. Now as always, Mary is the sign of new creation, the model of faith and our mentor. She continues to sing the Magnificat throughout the ages.

Her words in that prayer echo what Rabbi Sandy Sasso of Indianapolis said of the reactions of her women students when asked to summarize God’s relation to them. It is not what he did to them or for them that was significant, they said, but what they could do because of him.

That great song of Mary’s, which we do not hear nearly often enough, sums up the complexity of the powerful yet compassionate God who continues to ask us to care for the poor, the hungry and the powerless. Who among us is not lowly at birth or death? The Magnificat reminds us God is with us, but it also insists that the God who needed Mary’s assent to become human wants our help while we can give it.

Shortly before he died, the poet Yeats wrote: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it. I must embody it in the completion of my life.” Mary and her crib embody truth as well. We cannot quite grasp the idea of the Incarnation; we can only believe in it. We can show our thanks by trying harder to embody it in our lives, made new now and every day because of the divine-human interaction that places her at the crib.

Sally Cunneen writes from West Nyack, N.Y. She is the wife of NCR movie critic Joseph Cunneen.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998