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The crèche and the gap

The messiness of history is a caution against letting sentimentality take over Christmas; so are some challenging truths about Mary, Joseph, and their place in what theologians calls the “economy of salvation.”

(Image: Ben White @benwhitephotography/Unsplash.com)

For the past decade or so, I’ve been assembling a mid-sized Judean village of Fontanini crèche figures, including artisans, herders (with sheep), farmers (with chickens and an ahistorical turkey), vintners, blacksmiths, musicians, weavers, and a fisherman or two (one awake, another sleeping). Like the colossal Neapolitan crèche at the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, it’s a reminder that the Lord Jesus was born in the midst of humanity and its messy history: the history that the Child has come to set back on its truest course, which is toward God. The messiness of history is a caution against letting sentimentality take over Christmas; so are some challenging truths about Mary, Joseph, and their place in what theologians calls the “economy of salvation.”

Why challenging? Because Mary and Joseph were called to both form their son in the faith of Israel and then give up, even renounce, their human claims on him, so that he might be what God the Father intended and the world needed.

When Luke tells us that Mary kept all that had happened to her and to her boy “in her heart” (Luke 2.52), we may imagine that she was pondering what the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once described as a great detachment: at his birth, Jesus “detached himself from her in order to tread his way back to the Father through the world.” Some will welcome the message he will preach along that messianic pilgrimage; others will be resistant. And that resistance (in which the Evil One will play no small part) will eventually lead to Calvary, where the sword of sorrow promised by ancient Simeon in Luke 2.35 will pierce Mary’s soul. Then, in the tableau at the foot of the Cross, as captured by Michelangelo in the Pietà, Mary will offer the silent affirmation of God’s will to which she once vocal assent at the Annunciation: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1.38).

The last recorded words of Mary in the New Testament – “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5) – underscore that the role of Mary, who receives the Incarnate Word of God at the Annunciation and gives birth to him in the Nativity, is always to give her Son away: to point beyond herself to him, and to call others to obedience to him. Thus what Balthasar described as a “detachment” applies to Mary as well as to Jesus: Mary detaches herself from whatever her own life-plans might be, and from whatever her maternal instincts to keep her Son close might be, in order to fulfill the vocation planned for her from the beginning – to be the model of all Christian discipleship, which is the abandonment of my will to God’s will for my life.

Then there is Joseph, another model of self-gift and self-renunciation. Hans Urs von Balthasar again: “In the background of this scene of birth there also stands Joseph, who renounces his own fatherhood and assumes the role of foster father assigned to him. He provides a particularly impressive example of Christian obedience, which can be…very difficult…to accept, especially in the physical sphere. For one can be poor by having given everything away once and for all, but one can be chaste only by a daily renunciation of something which is inalienable to man.” And that makes Joseph a model for those who struggle daily to live, by grace, the truths they affirm about human love.

“Mind the gap” is the ubiquitous instruction found on the London Underground, cautioning passengers against stepping between the train and the platform. It’s also a pithy but accurate description of the drama of the Christian life. For we all live, daily, in the “gap” between the person I am and the person I was called to be at baptism. The quotidian effort to minimize that “gap,” which means cooperating with God’s grace, is the warp and woof of the spiritual life. So the complement to the Fontanini characters surrounding our family crèche – each of whom represents a personal and unique “life in the gap” – is a small “Mind the Gap” Christmas ornament on our tree. For the Child born in Bethlehem is the bridge across the gap, and the angels atop the tree announce his birth.

A blessed Christmas to all.


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About George Weigel 238 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform was published by Basic Books on September 17.

4 Comments

  1. It’s true that Mary practiced detachment but not precisely as Von Balthasar and the author describe. It appears the greater Filial detachment was opposite, that of Christ from his mother. Evidenced when the young Jesus left the family and taught the elders in the Jerusalem Temple. It was Mary who anguished imploring “Why have you done this to us?”. It was Jesus who answered in a form of mild rebuke. At Cana there is a different dynamic. Mary first appeals to her Son expecting He could do something. What? There was no wine. He refuses her request. She does not comply with his refusal and commands the waiters follow His instructions. It clearly shows a maternal suzerainty. He obeys her. That is an important parallel message. Mary speaking her last recorded words also indicates the real bond between Mother and Son that will carry over into the Heavenly Kingdom where she resides as Queen. She retains that special, unique maternal relationship with her Son which is why devotion to Mary is so efficacious for the Christian in acquiring knowledge of her Son and His favor. The detachment theme highlighted by author Weigel is certainly vital and definitely revealed at the Cross when He says, Woman. There is your son.

      • This seems to be more of the same Church politicking/brown-nosing by using the rhetoric of a one of the most evil pontificates in the history of the Church to focus on “mammon” rather than God. Weigel’s focus on “messy history” (see the Pope Francis buzzword?) is an apparent subtle attempt at downplaying the evils of the present pontificate and say, “yeah, well its always been this way!” Sorry, no it hasn’t. The “New Evangelization”, which is in most cases really an attempt at manipulation-through-false-gospels, has gravely harmed the Church and caused much of the present situation inside and outside of the pontificate, and Weigel is a big part of that harm.

        The above piece is like many of the heretical homilies of late; it focuses on “messy history” (mammon) rather than the mystery of the God being born Man; it focuses on the worldly rather than God.

  2. Dr. Edward Sri has a DVD series on Mary titled “Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother” He covers the Miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana. He also has videos on the Internet covering this subject. Christ is a king in the line of David. In the Davidic kingdom there was the role of the gebirah, the Queen Mother. One of her duties was that of intercessor between the king and the people. At Cana Mary was performing the duty of that of Queen Mother. Christ’s conversation with Mary at Cana refers to His hour. The implication is that if Christ performs the miracle of changing water into wine that that starts the countdown clock towards the hour of His Passion and Death. Christ calls Mary woman both at Cana and on the Cross when He entrusts Mary to the beloved disciple shortly before His death. Adam called Eve woman after her creation. Mary is the new Eve.

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