We serve a sovereign Creator. He is the Alpha and the Omega: the beginning and the end. He set us upon our course and knows the number of hairs on our head. Our Lord, blessed be He, made us in His image.
It was His choice, in His omnipotence and with great love, to choose Mary as the mother of Jesus. Mary, in that one moment of acceptance became Mary, our Jewish mother; Mary, the mother of our Savior. In her willingness to be God's handmaiden she served humankind like no other human being has ever done. She became the vessel of our salvation and pivotal to the salvation history of mankind.
What do we know about her? What did it really mean to be Jewish in the years leading up the Christ's birth? What was Mary's life like as a young child? What would she have been taught, and then subsequently teach her most beloved son? What would have been His place as a young man in the household?
I grew up in a predominately Jewish city in Michigan and loved the traditions of the Jewish people. Many of my formative years were spent in synagogues surrounded by friends calling out to Adonai to write their names in the book of life. Yom Kippur fasting and praying were some of the most impressive experiences I had ever had. While baptized and confirmed and having received communion made me a Catholic by church standards, my heart was drawn to the Jewish families with which I spent my time. This call was made all the easier due to the fact that my family did not practice our Catholic faith. We did not attend church, nor did we honor the high holy days as anything other than a time for bonnets, shiny shoes, and tight curls in our hair. As an adult falling in love, head over heels, with her Catholic faith, I brought with me all my youthful experiences.
I often think of Mary as a Jewish wife and mother. I think of Christ, a Jewish boy and then man and am transported back to my own experiences at the Passover table. I think of the questions that Mary would have heard as she grew up in the blessed home of Anne and Joachim. Mary would have sat at Pesach dinners, listening to her father answer the questions, completely unaware of how she would, one day, be giving birth to the Son of Man who would, Himself, become the lamb of the Passover dinner.
1. Why do we eat only Matzoh, and not any other kinds of bread, on Pesach?
2. Why do we eat bitter herbs, or Maror, at our Seder?
3. At our Seder, why do we dip the parsley in salt water and the bitter herbs in Charoset?
4. Why do we lean on a pillow while eating tonight and do not sit straight like other nights?
Mary would have heard that they ate Matzoh to remind themselves of the time that their ancestors had to flee, in a hurry, from Pharaoh. There wasn't time to let their dough rise and so they baked their dough into hard matzoh, which became a symbol of their hurried flight from Egypt.
She would have been told that the bitter herbs were a reminder of the bitterness of slavery and the cruel ways in which the Jews were treated by Pharaoh and that salt water represented tears of Hebrew slaves while parsley represented new life. It was from the tears and hardships of their ancestors that new life sprung for the Jewish people. Charoset, made from apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and red wine, had the texture of clay and was to be a reminder of the bricks that the Hebrew slaves were forced to make.
Finally, the leaning on a pillow was a reminder of freedom. In the days of slavery, only the free had the luxury of leaning on a pillow, or somehow reclining, as they ate. To make a statement of freedom, Jews will lean on a pillow during the Passover dinner.
Along with the yearly Passover celebrations, Mary would have celebrated the Sabbath on a weekly basis. These traditions would have been brought into the home of our Savior as well. He would have witnessed, every week, His mother ushering in the Sabbath as an anointed family time. The Jewish Sabbath celebration typically would have consisted of two candles being lit before sunset on Friday evening. One candle would have represented God's command to remember the Sabbath and the second candle would have represented God's command to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:11). Jews are called to bring God's light into the world and that is the overriding principal of the candles. Jesus would have listened as His mother made the beautiful hand gestures above the flames as she spoke the blessings, "Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Ruling Presence of the Universe, Who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this mitzvah of kindling the Sabbath lights."
The Sabbath, now ushered in, would have been followed with rituals that Joseph would have led. Joseph would probably have blessed his son, our Savior and Lord, and may have honored his wife, the Virgin Mary, by reading from Proverbs 31:10-31 which starts, "When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize. She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life…" The wine then would be blessed which sanctifies the Sabbath and Mary would have been, once again, witnessing a foreshadowing of a time where her son's own blood would be shed for our salvation. Like the Passover dinner, where Jesus' blood literally became the blood that covers us, every Sabbath has a way of reiterating that fact because for us. Every Sabbath is a celebration of His resurrection. His was the body and blood given over for our salvation.
Sabbath itself would have been celebrated from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Friday's meal would have been the most indicative of the celebration. Although Sabbath meals vary according to household, it would have been a kosher meal. Mary's home would have observed the dietary and ritualistic laws, as given in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. There would have been foods that were acceptable (chicken, salmon, soft cheeses) and foods that were trayf, or forbidden (mixing meat with dairy, pork, shellfish). Most assuredly, Mary would have raised Jesus honoring the laws, customs, and rituals put forth in the Torah as given to Moses from Adonai.
Jews of Mary's time also celebrated other occasions like Sukkot and Shavuot, both festivals, like Passover, that often involved pilgrimages to the temple. Purim, like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, was not a pilgrimage festival.
Sukkot, often called the Feast of Booths, is based upon Leviticus 23:34b-36: "The fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Lord's feast of Booths, which shall continue for seven days. On the first day there shall be a sacred assembly, and you shall do no sort of work. For seven days you shall offer an oblation to the Lord, and on the eight day you shall again hold a sacred assembly and offer an oblation to the Lord. On that solemn closing you shall do no sort of work." Sukkot is a celebration of the fall harvest and is truly a joyous celebration of the exodus from Egypt, given unto the Lord as He said to Moses, "That your descendants may realize that, when I led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, I made them dwell in booth. I, the Lord, am your God" Leviticus 23:43.
While Sukkot was a fall festival, Shavuot and Passover were spring festivals. Shavuot, also called Pentecost, was a bringing of the first fruits to Adonai. Hence, it was a pilgrimage festival in which the Hebrews would bring to Jerusalem offerings of fruit and grain. Sukkot is a very significant event in the history of Christianity as we trace it, from its original instructions in Exodus and then Leviticus through Ruth and to our own redemption as a people outside of the covenant. It is in Leviticus 23:22 that we read, "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you glean the stray ears of your grains. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien. I, the Lord, am your God." The great Adonai is already making a way for us to be redeemed through the laws He has set in motion because it is these same laws that Boaz, our kinsmen-redeemer, follows when he leaves enough grain for Ruth to glean. Ruth, daughter-in-law of Naomi, became the great grandmother of King David, from whose lineage Christ was born! When we say that God sees the whole picture, we aren't just mouthing esoteric words. We see, through connections such as these, that the Lord has a plan which we are all part of, in which we are all participants with purposes to our lives. We see the plan of salvation history as it unfolds.
So, in raising the Christ-child in a household replete with Hebrew tradition, Mary most certainly pleased God. Not only did she create a household that upheld the traditions of the faith but she would have upheld the morals and values of the Jews as well. So, along with celebrations that included weekly Sabbath and yearly events like Yom Kippur, Passover, Sukkot, and Purim, Mary would have been brought up honoring such values as Shalom bayit which literally means peace of the house. Of course, we know that she gave birth to the Prince of Peace and that one of the great gifts we are given by Christ is His peace. Having been taught, by His mother, the grace of peace, it would have been quite fitting when He said to His disciples, "Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave. As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you" (Matthew 10:11-13). As His mother honored the concepts of peace, so, too, would He have honored them.
While this isn't to say He "learned" in the strict sense of the word, from His mother, it is to say He was born of a woman who was given many graces from the Father. She was a woman who worshipped, honored, and obeyed the Creator in a way that surrounded Jesus with His Jewish faith. She shaped a house where, according to Jewish tradition, Jesus would have been exposed to prayer at an early age and his more formal home education of studying Torah would have started around age five. If we know, as Christians, that Jesus took on a human form so that we could literally "look and see" from His examples, it would make sense that He also took on human form so that His early years would have reflected what God wanted shown as well: the study of the sacred texts, the promulgation of His Word throughout all generations.
Remember that Mary presenting Jesus at the temple was a Jewish tradition. This would have been the second temple (destroyed in 70 A.D.) and was where Simeon, a righteous and devout Jew, came in the Spirit to the temple to see the baby Jesus. Simeon, holding the baby, said to an amazed Joseph and Mary, "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel" Luke 2:29-32.
When Mary gave birth to Christ, she became, in that instant, our spiritual mother. Her devotion to each and every one of us is far greater than anything we could comprehend. Her love, prayers, and interest in our well-being transcends time and space. She can never let us down because of her commitment to her Son. She now must certainly know that in her heartache was our chance at salvation. Had she not been willing to serve the greater good of mankind, she would have denied God's will. In accepting God's will, she accepted her role as our spiritual mother until we see her in heaven.
Mary, through the grace of God, was able to accept her role as mother of the Christ-child, himself being Divine Grace. It is only through God's grace that we live and move and have our being.
Mary gives us, through her acceptance of God's will in her life, a perfect example of answering God's call to holiness. She is holy in her perfection of charity, for it is through her that Christ's birth allows for our rebirth in Him. Let her call to holiness remind us of ours as well.