At a recent retreat at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, we spent time reflecting on the Blessed Virgin Mary and especially the ways in which she held onto her Son. During meal times, we listened to readings about the long tradition within the Church of thinking through what it meant that the Son of God had dwelt in Mary’s womb for nine months. Her womb was like the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple insofar as the presence of God was contained therein. That fact has provided the Church — her mysticism, poetry, and hymnody — with a rich vein to mine over the centuries. And it was well that we should have dwelt on it as we prepared ourselves for Christmas.
During my meditations, two ideas struck me in a particular way. The first one arose from one of the mealtime readings that pointed out that Mary experienced two conceptions: the first in her mind when she first thought about her Son, and the second in her womb when she physically conceived Jesus. I like that idea very much — the two conceptions, one unique to her and one we all share. Only she conceived and bore Christ as a mother; but we all have had Christ conceived in our minds and in our souls. In that sense, Mary serves as our model. We are spiritually Christ-bearers, bearing the Son whom we encounter in our minds conceptually to others.
So far so good. But I must confess that my other reflection ran against the current of much of the week’s theme. What hit me strongly was that she who conceived the Son of God faced the trials of letting him go. An ark and temple she may have been, but unlike the Ark and the Temple she was never meant to be a permanent place for God’s presence. Her fiat resulted in a life of continually letting go of him who was most dear to her.
Three of her lettings-go are obvious.
The first was Christ’s birth, which we now celebrate. She like all mothers would have felt both the relief of no longer bearing a child in her womb, but also his separation from her body and the exposure of his vulnerable body to a threatening world. John Donne captures this vulnerability well in his 1626 Epiphany sermon:
Christ found a Golgotha even in Bethlem, where he was born; For to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the Manger as uneasy at first as his Cross at the last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas-day and his Good Friday, are but an evening and a morning of one and the same day.
The second, again like all mothers, was Mary’s surrender of him to adulthood. Her conduct at the Wedding at Cana, when she ignored his reluctance to perform his first miracle, suggests she didn’t find this so easy. But she had to let him go so he could be about his Father’s business.
The third letting-go was unquestionably her hardest: at the foot of the cross, watching her beloved son die in a horrible way. In committing her to his Beloved Disciple, Jesus also, in a sense, let go of his mother. In the bleakness of Calvary, we encounter the familiar absence: Once again the ark stands empty, the temple desolate. The womb becomes the tomb.
But a fourth and less obvious letting-go struck me most powerfully. It’s a letting-go that ties into the first idea I mentioned: the two conceptions. For the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb eclipsed his initial conception in her mind. The second conception was perfect and inviolate. But the first conception in her mind was not. Yes, it sprang from an angel’s announcement; yes, it marked the implanting of the eternal Word, but for all that, the Son she conceived in her mind was not real. It was a phantasm, and was subject to all the hopes, fears, and anxieties of an adolescent girl. And like all parents, after her child was born, she would gradually have to let go of that imagined child as she grew to know the actual one.
It’s precisely here where we then connect with Our Lady. As the author of the mealtime meditations noted, while we can’t share in Mary’s actual motherhood, we can like her encounter the Word conceived in our minds. That’s true and a powerful notion. As I said to a friend afterwards, That’ll preach. But I don’t think we can stop there. Because the Christ whom we encounter in our mind’s conception isn’t the actual or whole Christ. He’s an imaginary stand-in for him, one marred by the fallenness of our minds and altered by our hopes, fears, and temperament. To put it bluntly, the Christ conceived in each of your minds is different from the Christ conceived in mine.
Like Mary, we have to let go of that Christ, however well sound doctrine and good practice may have informed that imagined person in our mind’s eye.
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That’s not an easy thing to do. I have found that most of us err in two possible directions. The first is to take a hint from Depeche Mode and embrace our “Personal Jesus,” rejecting any and all doctrines about how we should conceive him. But the second way isn’t much better — that is, to cling so hard to the doctrines of the creeds that Christ becomes nothing more than what they declare. The first embraces Christ merely as a fond thought, while the second turns him into a character in a book.
There’s a vein of mysticism within the Church that continually reminds us that we must go beyond the stated claims about Christ, to reach out to him constantly in love, so that we can encounter him in his own reality. Pseudo-Dionysius and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing encourage us to let go of that comprehended Christ and stretch beyond our minds to find the incomprehensible Christ. The 14th-century Augustinian mystic, Walter Hilton, likewise warns us not to worship the Jesus we imagine, for that is just a subtle form of idolatry.
So, my late Christmas prayer for you, dear reader, is that God will give you the grace to share in Mary’s letting-go. Let go of the imagined Christ who has been shaped by what you hope he is like; let go of the imagined Christ who has been shaped by your fear that he’s more like what other people think he’s like; let go of the imagined Christ who has been defined by your temperament: Christ the pessimist, Christ the optimist, Christ the moralist, Christ the cynic, Christ the sop. Let go of the comfortable, comprehended Christ so that you may grow in mind, heart, and soul towards the Christ who was, is, and ever shall be.
That Jesus is the one who has called you; that Jesus is the one who has saved you; that Jesus is the one who has allowed himself to be conceived even in the narrow confines of our fallen minds, just as he allowed himself to be conceived in the cramped space of Mary’s womb; that is the true Christ whose Christmas we now celebrate.