The Mystery of the Nativity

Today we look at the third Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.

Every December 1, my mind fleets back to 1986 and a small bedroom in a small apartment in Seattle. Jan and I had just opened the first window in the Advent calendar when she announced I had better call the doctor because it looked like it was “time.”

Each minute of that graced evening stays with me. I remember a hauntingly beautiful moment as we passed in the dead of night over the Evergreen Point Bridge, which spans Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue. The fog off the lake curled up and over the bridge—and our car—like the palm of God’s hand enclosing us as we drove. I remember holding Jan’s hand through the labor, cracking jokes with her and the nurses, praying and wishing there were something more I could do as Jan’s labor intensified. But most of all, I remember the birth of our first son, Luke Patrick Shea, and the amazement of seeing him with my mortal eyes. It was a sacred moment. My beloved was mine and I was hers to such a degree that a new soul had sprung into being like a laugh out of God’s heart.

Returning home with Jan and Luke a few days later, we tucked him into his new crib, swaddled against the cold and sung to sleep with lullabies. Then we found the Advent calendar and opened the windows we had neglected during the past three day’s ruckus. December 2—Luke’s birthday—had the Scripture from the prophet Isaiah: “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.”

Such divine whimsy.

And such solemnity.

When I read that verse now I can’t help but wonder how our Lady felt at the birth of her Son. One wonderful children’s story called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells of a family of rowdy toughs who muscle in on the Church Christmas pageant and find themselves confronting the gospel story for the very first time in their little pagan lives. At one point somebody cites this passage from Isaiah and the raucous little cuss who grabbed the role of Mary retorts: “Unto me a child is born!”

In a certain sense, the reaction is understandable. What would it be like to have a Son who is, quite literally, destined to be given to the whole world? What would it be like to think that this precious little boy I hold on my lap is the Son, not just of me, but of Man, whose very body and blood (body and blood he received from me) is to be the food and drink of the whole groaning, crying, clamoring, miserable, selfish, ungrateful world?

Could I offer my son to such a world?

The question is more than speculation. For the reality is that, in Christ, we must offer our sons and daughters to such a world, as surely as Mary did. Our children are not our property. They belong to God and exist to be chosen, blessed, broken, and given by him in Christ just as Jesus was. For we are members of Christ and, in him, of one another. Where he goes and what he does we—and our little ones—must also go and do.

This is one of the reasons some Catholics have used honorifics like “Mediatrix” and even “Mediatrix of All Graces” to refer to Mary. It’s not that they think Mary died for our sins, or that Jesus won’t listen to your prayer unless your first make an appointment with his secretary, Mary, in the front office. Rather, these titles (like all Marian titles) are about Jesus and the way he works through us. They point out that God has gratuitously chosen to associate us with his saving work to the shocking degree that our choices, our prayers, and our actions really matter. C. S. Lewis writes:

Can we believe that God ever modifies his action in response to the suggestions of man? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if he chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, he allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of his will. ‘God,’ says Pascal, ‘instituted prayer in order to lend to his creatures the dignity of causality.’ But it is not only prayer; whenever we act at all, he lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, his over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of his creatures.

For he seems to do nothing of himself which he can possibly delegate to his creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what he could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what he would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods—out of nothing.[1]

In ordinary life, everybody realizes our choices matter. Indeed, as Christians, we know that our choices can have eternal consequences. Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter if I drive drunk or sober. God, in his sovereignty, will see to it that I don’t kill anybody.” Nobody says, “It doesn’t matter whether I work or not. If I don’t bring home the bacon, God will find somebody else to take care of my family.” Nobody says, “It’s no matter if I don’t get my kids vaccinated: God will take care of them.” But for some mysterious reason, we Evangelicals concluded that the most important choice any mortal ever made—the choice to be the Mother of Jesus Christ—didn’t matter at all and that the one who made the choice is of no consequence to us. “If she had said no, God would have found somebody else,” we’d say.

Yet the reality is that Mary’s yes truly was a free cooperation with grace, not the act of an automaton. Mary was, by the specifically-willed grace of God, granted the dignity of being a cause of the Incarnation. Mary had a choice—a terrifying choice. She could have said no to the Incarnation. If she had, we do not know what would have happened. But she chose to say yes. She kept saying yes even when the prophet warned of the sword that would pierce her soul. She could have pulled a Jonah and begged Joseph to let them stay in Egypt or flee to some distant land where her Son would be safe. But she remained faithful to God and made yes the permanent choice of her life. And it was therefore truly through her that all grace was mediated to us—because Jesus is all grace.

That’s the pattern of life for every disciple. For it turns out that when Scripture refers to Jesus as the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5), the term “one” (Greek, heis) need not necessarily mean “sole.” It can also mean “unique.” This fits far better the rest of revelation, because Christ the one supreme mediator makes us sharers in his mediation of grace. In a similar way, Scripture describes Jesus as the one Son of God. Yet his whole purpose is to make us sons and daughters of God as well. So we participate in mediating his grace to the world in imitation of his greatest disciple, Mary. In a similar but secondary way, we, too, are, so to speak, mediators and mediatrices of Grace. It’s through us that our children encounter God’s love, and our neighbors find the love of Christ. As the old saying goes, “You are the only Jesus some people will ever see.”

[1] C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, n.d.), 8–9.


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