During the Christmas season, it’s so easy to imagine Jesus as a baby. From there, we can imagine Mary, a young mother who assented to God’s holy will and held the baby so tenderly in the stable cave. Then, almost suddenly, the liturgy brings us to Jesus as a grown man being baptized by His cousin John. This year, with a new baby of my own, I’ve been considering those “hidden years,” the years when Jesus was physically the center of Mary’s life and during which theirs was the closest possible relationship.
Mary was without sin — filled with grace — all of Jesus’ life. Her state of grace must have made her most receptive to all the ways in which motherhood can shape our souls for the good. He came as a helpless infant, in part so that we would fall in love with a baby. He was the adorable Christ Child, humbled among the animals. For Mary, He was the baby who needed her constant attention. He demanded, as only newborns can, that she immerse herself in Him. She provided warmth and food and comfort for Him all day and night. Mary spent those early days, the weeks and months just after the Nativity, learning all about her baby. She learned to read His cues and to respond to Him. Our Lady of La Leche nursed the Holy Infant.
Since we know that Christ was fully human, we know that Mary spent long evenings with her Babe at her breast. She listened to the funny little noises He made; she relaxed her shoulders and closed her eyes as she drifted to the sound of His soft breathing; she tucked her little finger inside His closed baby fist. They were intimately connected for hours every day. His cry was her call to union with Him.
She learned to read His cues, to understand His subtleties. He shaped her, changed her, softened her, brought her ever closer to Him. Every baby changes his mother, but this baby was God Himself and the mother was already full of grace and able to receive every good gift that a baby is to a mother’s soul. Mary learned all that God intended to teach a woman through motherhood. She wasn’t stubborn or unyielding or resistant to the relinquishment of herself to the will of God. She was infinitely teachable.
He came as a baby for her. There is no experience like that of mothering an infant that so completely requires incessant self-giving, while at the same time filling and nurturing the one who gives. The first lesson in holiness that the Blessed Mother learned was to go to her God again and again and again, day and night. She learned to keep Him with her, probably right up against her chest, all the time. We know this to be the foundation of growing in sanctity as mothers: keep Him with us all the time. He taught her to love completely and fully and He filled her with Himself. And then, He was a 2-year-old.
Oh, but He was a sinless 2-year-old, so there were no terrible twos in that little house were there? Actually, my 2-year-old doesn’t sin either. Two-year-olds haven’t reached the age of reason. They misbehave, but it isn’t sin. They are especially good at shaping their parents. To parent a 2-year-old effectively, one must be just as attentive as she was with the infant, only it’s not so easy to quiet the toddler as it is the newborn. Instead of silent hours spent nursing, the mother of a toddler is active indeed.
And Jesus taught Mary perfectly to love Him through her activity. Every time she chased and lifted and carried Him, every time she fed Him lunch, or washed His clothes, or taught Him to make His bed, she was living a life of active prayer. She was serving and loving God Himself. Where the infant years taught Mary silent connection and adoration, she perfected active prayer in the toddler years.
And so it went in that home in Nazareth, Mary — full-grace being shaped by her child into a model of perfect holiness for women throughout the ages. In His wisdom, God even gives us a glimpse of Mary with the adolescent Jesus. Any mother who has been challenged by a child who knows He’s brighter than she is must smile a bit when the 12-year-old Jesus is indignant in His wondering why they wouldn’t know where He was when He was “lost” in the temple. She did it all, lived it all. But she did it perfectly. Her mothering experience offered her the same lessons that we are all offered and then it offered her more. It offered her intimate, daily, unceasing communion with God Himself.
Jesus was a grown man when He began His public ministry. After spending three decades hidden in the heart of the home in Nazareth, He spent only three years in public before His sacrifice on the cross. And just before He died, He gave us His mother. We can look to her for intercession and we can look to her for inspiration.
He provides for us all the opportunities He gave His mother to grow in holiness. Through the sacraments, we have ample opportunities to obtain grace. Frequent confession will pre-dispose our souls as much as possible to be receptive to Our Lord and His lessons. That grace opens us to all the moments when He will come to us as a child throughout our days. Like Mary, we can have intimate, physical communion with God. Many of us can have it every day if we make the effort. The Eucharist is there for us, so that we too, can experience a fullness of faith in our mothering experience. We will be granted quiet moments of contemplation and opportunities for active prayer.
The Word of God assures us that women are saved through childbearing. This means of salvation that God so graciously grants mothers isn’t limited to the time of birth. Throughout the lifetime of a mother, Christ presents Himself to her, just as He did to Mary. As she grows and changes, He shows her new dimensions of Himself. With every age and stage, He shapes her into a woman of holiness. The baby — sweet, and warm and new — is just the beginning of a lifetime of love.