The 12 Marys of Christmas (and Advent)
Advent and Christmas are all about Jesus — but there is another figure who looms rather large in the holiday season.
Today is the first day of what I like to call the 12 Marys of Christmas. For those with a devotion to the Blessed Virgin, it is impossible to miss how often she is celebrated in the lead-up to Christmas and in the Christmas season.
Mary is a pattern for all Christians, and this feast highlights that truth, because it’s the celebration of her as conceived without original sin. In the Our Father we pray that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Mary did just that — and we want to also.
The humble Indian peasant is a pattern for those who follow Mary. He is a simple man, without erudition or special talents that we know of. But he trusted Mary, and that made all the difference. He told her she should pick someone else to do her will. She answered: “You are the one I have chosen.”
This feast shows the strange juxtaposition of Mary in her glory and in her ordinariness. She is clothed with the sun and crowned with stars — but with a humble, downcast Aztec face. Our Christian calling is the same: If we give God our humility and obedience he will return his glory.
The much celebrated “O antiphons” are the introductory prayers to the great Magnificat prayer of Mary each night in the Church’s divine office. In the prayers we beg for heaven to save us and, thanks to Mary, it does.
We meet Mary, the humble servant not just of God, but of Elizabeth, her pregnant cousin, too. The final Sunday in Advent switches from John, the one crying out the Gospel, to Mary, the one quietly doing the Gospel, rushing to Elizabeth’s side to serve her.
Lest we think that Mary was all action and no talk, on the day before Christmas, the Gospel presents her giving her Magnificat, proclaiming what Jesus will do for the poor and humble — and warning the rich and proud what will happen to them.
It is probably true that most images of Mary depict her holding the Christ child in her arms. But it is also probably true that Christ is depicted in his mother’s arms many times more than any other single image of him besides the crucifix. This is why we love Mary: She is the one who brings us Christ.
On the cross, Jesus gave Mary to us — but he also specifically assigned her to John the Evangelist. Theologians have argued that his Gospel has the greatest depth of insight into Jesus in part because he had Mary at his side in the years after Christ’s death. We, too, can learn wisdom from her.
But when we think of Mary all alone reaching out to us, this is a bit of a distortion. She was not a lone servant of God — she was in a family, the Holy Family. She knows firsthand the kind of humility and generosity we each need.
Today we celebrate the greatest title of Mary. What it tells is not so much about Mary as about Jesus: He was God even as an embryo. But it also teaches us to trust her intercession. The great and powerful do wonders when they listen to their mothers!
The Epiphany shows how even kings see the importance of Jesus: King Herod, who wants him dead, and the magi, whom legends call “kings.” “They saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” Mary still inspires adoration of her son — in us.
This feast used to close out the Christmas season. It celebrates Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the law — in a story that includes Simeon’s prophecy that a sword will piece Mary’s heart. This is a day to thank Mary for her fidelity and pray for all those who, like her, are consecrated to Jesus Christ, her son.