Virginia Barton

Mother and Child: “Glory to God in the highest!”

THE EAGLE, December 2010


It’s not easy to find something new to say about Christmas. For a writer, it is a particularly daunting task because the Evangelists have already said it all, and in the most simple, unforgettable phrases.

The great Feast has been rhymed and written, filmed, sculpted, carol’d, and painted – even danced and cartooned. Two millennia of artists and craftsmen have presented a view from every angle, and we all have a favorite image, be it Old Master, Modern, Abstract, or Kitsch. The number of images is legion; possibly because the Nativity is easier to represent than the Resurrection.

Even hard-bitten adults find a reassuring comfort in the familiar Nativity scenes, and children, perhaps relating to an Infant only a little smaller than themselves, delight in cribs, angels, and the inevitable donkey. The tenderness of Mary, the gentle strength of Joseph, and the friendliness of the animals create a magical world for a child so often adrift in the real one.



Being pregnant can be an introspective experience, especially for the first-time mother. But the Christmas season is extra-special as she finds she shares the same apprehensiveness that Our Lady must have felt: the excitement and the fear, the physical awareness, and the hope-against-hope for a safe delivery. These are universal, timeless feelings. Although today’s mother would be horrified at the stark conditions of the stable birthplace, with its lack of hygiene and piercing cold, she may well envy the simplicity and absence of a modern hospital’s glare, lack of privacy, and endless noise.

One has some sympathy for Joseph, the foster-father. Pictured in the average Christmas card he is rarely prominent and gives way to the Madonna and Child, quite correctly, or is left out altogether. Joseph merits barely a dozen references in the New Testament but his role is key. Totally obedient to his visions and dreams, he brings Mary, no doubt through a hostile landscape, to Bethlehem, a town with no rooms to let, not even for a woman about to give birth. We are told that at last a kindly innkeeper allows them to stay in his stable and Mary “gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.”

Perhaps there was an hour or two afterwards, to rest and to wonder. To thank with a full heart for the miracle that has happened, to count the fingers and toes, to marvel at the smallness and completeness – as every parent has done since time immemorial.

Then come shepherds to gaze and wonder, shyly nudging each other, whispering and pointing. Later kings, incredulous but thankful to have made it at last.

Amid all these comings and goings, one likes to think of Joseph, undaunted by the dazzle and heavenly din. He copes with angels, alleluias, shepherds, sheep, kings, and courtiers alike, probably with an enviable calm. One imagines him quietly smiling to himself at a job well done.

Everyone who has been lucky enough to have had a good father or stepfather must empathize with Joseph. Role-model, instructor, and protector; that kindly male presence essential to a balanced family life. We know nothing about him after the first decade of the Rosary, as it were, not even how long he lived. Naturally, he has been adopted as patron of house-hunters – after all, he knocked on all the doors ‘til he found one that opened to him! Amongst many others, he is also patron of cabinet-makers, confectioners, doubters, unborn children, and immigrants.

Then in 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph to be Patron and Protector of the Church. The humble carpenter from Nazareth, the frequently marginalized figure in our traditional Nativity card, assumes his rightful place.

Shall we envy the shepherds, or pity the kings? The shepherds who heard the Word of God and believed on trust without question? Despite their fright, they hastened as fast as they could to worship the Babe in the manger. Too often it is assumed that such people are uneducated or half-witted.

There are many such happy “shepherds,” and they are neither stupid nor slow. They are profoundly lucky. Their faith is a straightforward gift without strings or provisos. Unlike the poor kings who have to puzzle and question, agonize, and examine the problem from every angle, then come to a “scientific,” intellectual conclusion. They have to convince themselves by themselves, these “kings.”

As life goes by, shepherds and kings alike are bound to come up against tough decision-making. Happy those who find a kindly guide through Pilgrim’s slough of despond.

Today’s Bethlehem seems to be at risk of losing many more of its Palestinian Christians, be they “shepherds” or “kings.” The Franciscans have been raising the alarm for years. The Christian population in the Middle East as a whole has shrunk, from about 20 percent in the 1940’s to about 5.77 percent today. That is indeed an alarming statistic and it may be that in the near future the Holy Places will be reduced to mere tourist attractions.

Spare a prayer for those brave people who stay for the rest of us in Bethlehem and elsewhere. Especially at Christmas, for here is something courageous, simple, and true.

A Mother with her newborn Child. There can be nothing really new to say about that, however hard one tries – it has all been said before, and we can only repeat with the angels:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy His favor.”


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