How many Christmas cards portray an image of the Holy Family as the snow falls gently at Jesus’ Nativity? And there we see Mary, the Mother of God, nestled right in the middle beside the manger and St. Joseph. One way to grow in our understanding of Mary this Advent and year-round is reading the spiritual classic “The Reed of God” by Caryll Houselander. While the book has become a popular Advent devotional, Houselander wants to remind us that Mary is not merely a Christmas season character. Besides being a saint, she was a lay person and a woman who teaches us how to trust and how to love.
Part one — Begin with emptiness
Houselander begins her book by speaking of the emptiness and silence we experience in our human condition. So often we want to be distracted from the mundane of our existence, the washing of the fork, the sweeping of the floor, or the changing of the diaper. But it is in these everyday moments that we are invited to enter into union with God. Houselander describes the virginal emptiness of Mary as a reed pipe. She writes, “Whatever we are gives form to the emptiness in us which can only be filled by God.” A reed is quite simple, but it has the potential to sound beautiful music. But before this music can be heard, the reed must be cut by a knife, whittled and punctured. Then, only when the wind blows through it, can it live up to its potential as a wind instrument. Mary was a woman of simplicity and humility, but she endured much, and she did this by receiving what the Lord willed. She allowed the Holy Spirit to move through her like the wind.
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Advent, Houselander writes, is a time of “humility, silence, and growth.” Over the course of nine months, Mary gave herself to Jesus as he was formed within her. Then when he was born, “washing, weaving, kneading, sweeping, her hands prepared his hands for the nails.” Sometimes our own “washing and weaving” makes us feel purposeless, but wherever God places us we are called to be a beacon of Christ’s light. Yes, God allows suffering, and yes, it can be painful, but Advent provides us with a great opportunity to grow in patience. As Houselander writes, “There must be a period of gestation before anything can flower.” As she points out, you can’t have an apple pie if you cut down on the baking time! In times of darkness, the Blessed Mother wants to wait with you in the silence: “In the seasons of our Advent — waking, working, eating, sleeping, being — each breath is a breathing of Christ into the world.”
Part two — Embrace our circumstances
While Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she held him safely in her womb. His birth brought him one step closer to his passion and death. Mary’s fiat was necessary so that Jesus could bring salvation to humanity, and Jesus freely chose to sacrifice his life the way he did. So, Houselander says, “when we resent our circumstances or try to spare ourselves what we should undergo, we are being like Peter when he tried to dissuade Our Lord from the Passion.” Learning from this, we must pray for the acceptance to embrace our circumstances, despite our questioning, and receive the salvation Jesus granted us.
Through giving birth to God himself, Mary gave us to God. “She wed God to the human race and made the whole world pregnant with the life of Christ,” Houselander writes. Our job, then, is to use the key that Mary gave us to open up the door to Christ, to be a bearer of Christ, because he can shine only through us. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and while we are not perfect, we are created in such a way that we can reflect beauty wherever we are, whatever our circumstance. Let us beam with joy in the knowledge that Christ loves us deeply, for “Christ on earth was a Man in love … with his body he united himself to the world.” All that we offer to him, whether our joy or our sorrows, can be turned into a praise offering giving glory to the Lord.
Part three — Seek satisfaction in God
Writing in the early 20th century, Houselander begins this section by describing how England was losing its sense of Christ, how remnants of the Faith had replaced certainty. The English longed to believe, but lacked the will to obey the law of God. In England, Christmas had largely become a holiday intended for large meals and drunkenness, and Good Friday was the day when alcohol was most consumed. She writes, “the fair on Hampstead Heath on Good Friday makes Hampstead Heath Calvary, a Calvary where Christ is mocked while he dies.” Yet even then, Jesus continues to pour out his mercy and forgives our ignorance, knowing that we are seeking for truth. She says that it is a mercy that when our vanity and our passions are satisfied, we are not. We can only be satisfied by God, and hence we go on seeking when we cannot fill our desires on our own. God sometimes chooses to make himself less apparent, but it is in this that our longing for him increases. Our emptiness is necessary, because through it, we call upon him to fill us up: “Seek and you will find” (Mt 7:7).
Part four — Recognize Christ in others
Houselander gives us a beautiful picture of Mary searching for Jesus, before finding him in the temple. She writes about how Mary must have searched for Jesus’ face in every boy she passed. This time of looking for her son preludes the reality that “the day would come when the Mother of God would really find her son in every boy and every boy would be able to give Christ back to her.” As she searched for him, she searched among the crowds, the same place she was at the beginning and end of his life. She was in the crowd as she sought a place to deliver him in Bethlehem, and she accompanied him during his passion, as she joined him at Calvary.
Mary loves us, and has proved her love for us by entering into our experience. She did so while she walked the Earth, and she does so today. She knew that her son was dying for you and me, and when he died on the cross, “she saw Christ in all Christians.” We too must look for Christ in all. While we may not always sense his presence in others, Houselander tells us that our faith teaches us to “treat one another with the reverence that we give to the Host,” regardless of how we think Christ should be acting in them.
She speaks about how year after year pilgrims travel to the Holy Sepulchre to kiss the stone where Jesus was laid, a stone that is now empty. But “in sinners we can kneel at the tomb in which the dead Christ lies.” We, too, if we live mindfully, will find the faces of Christ, among the faces in the crowd we pass through every day, and are faced with a choice. Will we show honor and reverence to them as Mary would?