The fourth Sunday of Advent often has its candle designated as the “Candle of Love.” Various historical characters have been assigned to this week, but I like to think of it as Mary’s week.
Mary is one of the most celebrated and yet enigmatic figures of human history. We have a great deal of tradition about her, yet most of it is fanciful and comes from much later than the New Testament era. In particular, Mary is associated with two of the authors of the books we call the Gospels.
Luke has the most intimate portrait of Mary in the days of Jesus’ birth. A pervasive tradition is that Luke was an artist and painted a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus (or several of them). Various religious shrines claim to hold such a painting, and they are often the object of great love and veneration. One is the Salus Populi Romani, a Byzantine-style icon now housed in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome. The legend of this portrait contends that it was painted by Luke on the tabletop of the family table used by the household of Mary in Nazareth, having been built by Joseph and Jesus himself. It was supposedly found in Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Constantine, and eventually made its way to Rome.
Another is the original Hodegetria (Greek for “Waymaker”) in Constantinople (Istanbul). This designation is now given to a certain style of icon which presents Mary with an alert Jesus on her lap (looking like a miniature adult rather than a baby). Although there are doubts as to whether or not this original has been lost, legend holds that it was found in Jerusalem and sent back to the imperial city by the Empress Eudoxia. Eudoxia is a fascinating figure from Byzantine history, the wife of the Emperor Arcadius. I am inserting images of a Eudoxia coin from my own collection that shows, on the reverse, an angel figure painting a Chi-Rho insignia (the Christogram) on an oval object, perhaps a shield. This is interesting because it highlights Eudoxia as
someone interested in painting and artwork. It is not surprising, then, to find both Helena and Eudoxia, two of the most powerful and famous women of the early Byzantines, interested in preserving a portrait of Mary.
The other Gospel author closely associated with Mary is John. John does not tell a conventional story of Jesus’ birth, but gives details about Mary in his story of the Wedding at Cana and his account of the last hours at the Cross. In the latter, Jesus is presented as entrusting the care for his mother to the author of the book, presumably John. Much later tradition is built on this presentation, with some even claiming that John brought Mary to Ephesus, and this was where she died. Today, tourists visit the “House of the Virgin” in this area, supposedly the last residence of the Mother of Jesus.
For us, in this season of advent, Mary holds a special place. It was in her that the miracle and mystery of the incarnation took place. The ability of women to grow babies in their bodies is mysterious enough for men like me, but the idea of a baby implanted miraculously by God himself is still beyond my comprehension. I cannot fully understand it, only believe it. But how else could this have happened? Would the Savior of the World been as credible if he has appeared fully grown, age 30? Then he would have truly been the “New Adam,” without mother or father. Or would it have been better if we did not know about the mother and father of Jesus, keeping his ancestry and family background in mystery? This would not have allowed for him to be the heir of David and the fulfillment of the prophecies of Messiah.
God, in his infinite and mighty wisdom, chose a humble peasant girl to be the mother of the Christ. Jesus was not born in a palace, to be immediately taken away by nurses and attendants. He was born to be nurtured by a young woman who loved him more than life itself, who endured the pain of childbirth for the joy of a newborn son. O Mary, we wish we knew you better, for what insights you would bring! But may we admire you, two thousand years after your great day, and may we repeat your words now, “Lord, I am your servant. Do with me what you will.”
Nebraska Christian College