“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.”
Suddenly the shepherds hear the voice of an angel. Struck with awe they listen to the angel say, “Behold, I proclaim to you good news”.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
(Luke 2: 11-12)
The shepherds turn to each other and said, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)
The shepherds make their way to the little town of Bethlehem. Days before their journey, Mary and St. Joseph travel to this place to take part in the census, even though the timing was not convenient for the expectant mother. The time for her to have her child was drawing near.
The Virgin consented to the impossible. An angel had visited her too. She gave her “fiat” to be the “handmaid of the Lord” and so the savior of the world was conceived. “The most sublime work of God’s mercy was accomplished: one Person of the Blessed Trinity, the second, came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Behold the Word, God’s only-begotten Son, “who for us men and for our salvation, descended from heaven and became incarnate” (Credo).” (Divine Intimacy #26, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdelen)
The shepherds hurry along prodding the sheep with them. What will they see?
Joseph and Mary arrive in the village, swarming with other pilgrims. It is night, cold and the time for the child’s birth is fast approaching. Joseph’s poverty as the head of the family is palpable. He must trust in God. St. Joseph trusts with “creative courage”. He arrived “in Bethlehem and finding no lodging where Mary could give birth, Joseph took a stable at hand, as best he could, turned it into a welcoming home for the Son of God come into the world.” (Patris Corde, Pope Francis)
With tender care and attention, Mary wrapped the infant Jesus tightly in cloth as any loving mother would do. Swaddling Him in strips of cloth so that He would be warm, snug and safely protected from the outside world now that He has left the womb. Swaddling infants is still something mothers do today. In past years, narrow stripes of cloth wrapped around a newborn helped to restrain a baby’s movement and quieten him to sleep more contently and prevent him from accidentally scratching his soft, fine skin.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem reminds us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger, and was poor, vulnerable, dependent, and cold. The swaddling cloths foreshadowed the burial cloths. However, at His next coming, Jesus will be glorious – wrapped in light!
“For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.”
The Lord’s binding as an infant was one of love. He submitted to Mary’s love and attention to his tender, fragile needs as an infant. As a matter of fact, all of His bindings were bonds of love. He was bound and taken by his enemies as His hands were tied and He was led away from the Garden of Gethsemane out of love for us. He was wrapped in bands of cloth for His funeral, but at the resurrection – glorified, He removed the cloths that bound Him.
Now the shepherds have their personal encounter with Jesus, led to this encounter by the Star to a poor manger with a little baby. A baby who will “bring peace on earth”. They behold the infant, a poor infant lying in the poverty of a manger, sleeping, resting. Together with the shepherds, we move from this sight of Jesus with faith to follow Him along His way of sorrows with the Cross.
This Christmas may we welcome the Savior. May Jesus find our hearts empty and poor with the poverty of the manger where He can come and find his rest. Seeing that only a poor heart can truly receive God, let us make room for Grace.
Shortly before her death, in a letter to her friend, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote:
“I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them go out of themselves to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within that will allow God to communicate Himself to them and transform them into Himself.” (Letter 335)
Here we have laid out by the saint herself what her mission in heaven was going to be. Where St. Therese’s said her mission was “to make God loved [and that she] … will spend [her] heaven doing good on earth”, St. Elizabeth’s mission will be to draw us out of ourselves so that we can remain devoted to God. She even explains how we will do this – by a “simple and loving movement”. As we will see, her emphasis will be on keeping silent within in order to allow God to communicate Himself. From this Divine communication, a transformation will take place in our souls.
Key to understanding St. Elizabeth’s mission is her devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Carmel is Our Lady’s Order, and as a Carmelite St. Elizabeth honored the Blessed Mother with a special devotion to her dignity as the Mother of God and in her sovereignty as Queen of Heaven and Earth. In St. Elizabeth’s devotion to Mary, she finds the perfect realization of her interior ideal. St. Elizabeth sees the Word hidden in Mary’s womb, and in her communion with the Word, a mother and flowing from her loving kindness and humility. But most of all St. Elizabeth was attracted to Mary’s silence and recollection.
As a child St. Elizabeth’s piety towards Mary was typical of a young girl at that time. It has been noted that she asked Mary to guard her purity, and the saint kept a childhood diary filled with the thoughts of Mary. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was given to her as a child, and St. Elizabeth asked her mother for it towards the end of her life so that Our Lady “might watch over her departure”. She received the Carmelite habit on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Later in a letter to Canon Angles near the end of her life, she wrote, “ It is she, the Immaculate Conception, who gave me the habit of Carmel. And I am asking her to clothe me again in that robe of one linen in which the bride is decked to present herself at the marriage feast of the Lamb.”
The attitudes of the Virgin greatly attracted St. Elizabeth. She says that Mary’s example during the time from the Annunciation to the Nativity is a “model for interior souls”. Since God had chosen to live within her, Mary was at peace and wholly recollected in “everything she did” and “even the most trivial things were divinized by her!”. In her writing, Heaven in Faith, we see that what attracted St. Elizabeth most was Mary as Our Lady of the Incarnation. Mary was the living tabernacle of the Incarnate Word, a pure temple for God. What must it have been like for Mary to have within her the Incarnate Word? Recollected and in silent adoration, Mary embraced this great mystery within her. The Blessed Mother’s prayer included loving service to Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist, as “the servant of the Lord” – humble and always forgetful of self.
In a letter to her sister, St. Elizabeth writes, “I do not need to make any effort to enter into this mystery of the Divine Indwelling in the Blessed Virgin. I seem to find in it the habitual movement of my own soul which was also that of hers: to adore God hidden within me.” St. Elizabeth had as her ideal a life of silent adoration of God hidden within the depths of her soul, in imitation of Mary.
Then there was Mary’s station at the foot of the cross, which also impressed upon St. Elizabeth’s devotion. Mary associated herself with her Son in the “work of redemption”. The Co-Redemptirx was “full of strength and courage” at the foot of the cross. Of Our Lady of Sorrows, she wrote, “Those last songs of His soul which no one else but she, His Mother, could overhear”. St. Elizabeth attests that the Blessed Virgin teaches her to suffer.
“No one has penetrated the depths of the master of Christ except the Blessed Virgin.”
(Last Retreat, First Day, 2)
It is in the fifteenth day of her Last Retreat that we can find the connection between Mary and St. Elizabeth’s mission. Our saint writes, “Her soul is so simple. Its movements are so profound”. It is obvious that she sees Mary as one she can imitate. As a Carmelite, she would want to, like the Virgin, to keep “all these things in her heart”. After-all “it was within her heart that she lived… a depth that no human eye can follow her.”
Mary has a unique role in the work of our salvation. She is the Mother of God and of all the redeemed. As a mother, Mary cares for our eternal welfare. Mary’s soul was pure, detached, and transparent. Even though she had this great mystery within her, it did not in any way diminished her charity. Through it all Mary remained humble and adored of the gift of God.
St. Elizabeth wanted to live as Mary did corresponding her life to Mary’s by keeping all these things in her heart. Then bringing all these things into the depth of her soul, in order to lose herself in the Trinity which dwells there, so that her soul will be transformed into the Trinity Itself. During her Last Retreat, and confident in Mary’s intercession, on the first day her entry reads, “This Mother of grace will form my soul so that her little child may be a living, striking image of her first-born, the Son of the Eternal, He who was the perfect, praise of His Father’s glory”.
Throughout St. Elizabeth’s writing she refers to Mary from the many titles found in the Litany of Loretto: Mirror of Justice, Faithful Virgin, Mother of Grace, Gate of Heaven. Mary is the Faithful Virgin “who kept all these things in her heart”. Mary remained little and so recollected, to “draw down … the Holy Trinity”, and “unaware of her own beauty”, Mary lived in peace and recollection. In all her actions Mary constantly adored God. On the fifteenth day of her Last Retreat, St. Elizabeth wrote, “It is Our Lady, that luminous being, all pure with God’s purity, who will take me by the hand to lead me into heaven, that dazzling heaven.” Having placed her last retreat under the protection of Janua Coeli, Mary the Gate of Heaven, St. Elizabeth entered through this gate on November 9, 1906.
“by a wholly simple and loving movement”
St. Elizabeth’s writings show us how to enter into this simple and loving movement of our soul. Essential to implementing this movement of the soul is exterior and interior silence. Exterior silence means more solitude. Solitude in Carmel is everything and what solitude there was in the soul of Mary. In the solitude of her cell, St. Elizabeth, like Our Lady, was lost in recollection under the influence of the Trinity. For St. Elizabeth the solitude of her cell was a little paradise full of Him.
To live an interior life we must also strive for interior peace even while living among the unrest of the world and our daily occupations. Interior silence, that alone, will make our contact with God continuous. The Blessed Mother is our teacher of the silence necessary for the interior life because “the interior life, which in a very special way, is Mary’s life”. (Divine Intimacy, #378 by Fr. Gabriel Mary) To imitate and resemble Mary’s soul we need to live a life of recollection. Prayer should be foremost in our day, and an uninterrupted giving of ourselves to God should be our activity, like Mary. Keeping constant contact with God in an intimate union with Him is accomplished by reserving our soul as a sanctuary for God alone.
What disturbs our interior peace? Our passions, sins and attachments -these make noise and interrupt our intimate conversation with God. Silence the memory and imagination when we find ourselves spending our time daydreaming, mulling over past events or feelings, or fantasying about the future. These occupy the soul and prevent our conversation with God.
St. Elizabeth has this to say about interior disturbances, “It includes our feelings, memories, impressions, and so forth. In a word, it is self.”We are to be like Mary detached and in control of our emotions and desires.
Likewise, we are to seek solitude and silence where God can find his delights or “rest” in us. We can ask Mary for these graces – for she is the Mistress of our interior life. Additionally, the writings of St. Elizabeth of the Trinty are filled with food for nourishing the spiritual life.
“I shall unite myself to the soul of the Blessed Virgin when the Father overshadowed her with His power, while the Word became incarnate within her, and the Holy Ghost came upon her to work the great mystery It is the whole Trinity in action, God yielding, giving Himself. And ought not the life of a Carmelite be lived under this divine action?” (Letter to Mme. de Sourdon)
There is One God, a Trinity of Persons and Unity of Nature. Each is equal and each is owed glory as to the one and same God.
Psalms and hymns used in the prayers of the Church conclude with a doxology to the Blessed Trinity. A doxology is a formula of praise to God used in liturgical worship. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are also invoked in blessings, various sacred rites, and sacraments.
There is also this short, but beautiful prayer to the Three Divine Persons that is so familiar to Catholics:
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning,
and ever shall be,
world without end.
The Eucharistic Prayer ends with “through Him, with Him, and in Him” and this was foreshadowed by the Apostle in the following words:
“For of Him, and by Him, and in Him, are all things: to Him be glory for ever” (Rom. 11: 36)
These words “signifying both the Trinity of Persons and the Unity of Nature: for as this is one and the same in each of the Persons, so to each is equally owing supreme glory, as to one and the same God. St. Augustine commenting upon this testimony writes: “The words of the Apostle, of Him, and by Him, and in Him are not to be taken indiscriminately; of Him refers to the Father, by Him to the Son, in Him to the Holy Ghost”. (Divinum Illud Munus)
“Today’s feast draws us to praise and glorify the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, not only because of the great mercy They have shown to men, but also and especially in Themselves and for Themselves; first by reason of Their supreme essence which had no beginning and will never have an end; next, because of Their infinite perfections, Their majesty, essential beauty and goodness. Equally worthy of our adoration is the sublime fruitfulness of life by which the Father continually generates the Word, while from the Father and the Word proceeds the Holy Spirit. The Father is not prior to, or superior to the Word; nor are the Father and the Word prior to or greater than the Holy Spirit. The three divine Persons are all co-eternal and equal among Themselves: the divinity and all the divine perfections and attributes are one and the same in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. What can man say in the presence of such a sublime mystery? What can he understand of it? Nothing!”
(Divine Intimacy, #196 by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.)
The Incarnation is the greatest work of God accomplished in time. This great work was accomplished in silence and obscurity. Its ultimate purpose is for the glory of God.
The Incarnation leads us again to the Trinity. In the beginning the Trinity, when creating man said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen 1:26) Let us make man in our image; however, sin entered and destroyed this image. Christ comes in to restore it. Because of the Incarnation the Trinity comes to our souls at baptism so that we may come to share in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)
St. Teresa in her Spiritual Testimonies #51, bears witness to this presence within her soul. “Once while with this presence of the three Persons that I carry about in my soul…” Our saint bears witness that we are never alone since God dwells with us.
The purpose of the Incarnation was beautifully described by Pope Benedict XVI in a homily given at Loreto,Italy (October 4, 2012):
“The purpose of the Incarnation and Redemption was to unite in a real fashion heaven and earth. That unity could only take place if there were in the universe beings who were free, who could know and act. We sometimes think of heaven and earth as antagonistic to each other. We know they can be….The Incarnation tells us that we are never alone, that God has come to humanity and that he accompanies us.”
A dry sponge does not have any water, but put it in a bucket of water, and the water will enter the sponge. Water will seep into the large holes and will then fill the tiny spaces until it has penetrated throughout the sponge completely saturating it. In addition, the sponge will also expand a little in its size.
The soul is like this sponge. God is represented by the water. Most souls are dry like a sponge, but after spending time with God, drinking in His Presence, His Divinity will gradually fill up the soul until it is saturated and will even expand it a little.
The soul has a capacity for being filled with God. However, this depends on the soul’s capacity to absorb the Trinity. Meditation initiates this union. The more the soul spends time meditating on God allowing itself to be transformed, the more intimate and tender will the daily conversation become even in the midst of daily duties and activities. Drinking daily of His fullness allowing itself to be permeated by Him, like this sponge by water, the soul will be filled with God.
The Lord told St. Teresa to “Labour thou not to hold Me within thyself enclosed, but enclose thou thyself within Me”. This can only be accomplished by meditation and growth in self-knowledge. And this is why daily intimate conversation with God is so necessary to the Carmelite.
Through her communion with God, St. Teresa also felt a communion with all creation. “It seemed to me that I saw the Three Persons within my soul, and communicating Themselves to all creatures abundantly without ceasing to be with me.” Through our communion with God, we also know His presence within the bonds of friendship, which is why the community is important. We are called to live a trinitarian life in the Church, with Christ, under the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.
“I, being accustomed to the presence of Jesus Christ only, always thought that the vision of the Three Persons was in some degree a hindrance, though I know the Three Persons are but One God. Today, while thinking of this, our Lord said to me ‘that I was wrong in imagining that those things which are peculiar to the soul can be represented by those of the body; I was to understand that they were very different, and thatthe soul had a capacity for great fruition.’ It seemed to me as if this were shown to me thus: as water penetrates and is drunk in by the sponge, so, it seemed to me, did the Divinity fill my soul, which in a certain sense had the fruition and possession of the Three Persons. And I heard Him say also:‘Labour thou not to hold Me within thyself enclosed, but enclose thou thyself within Me.’ It seemed to me that I saw the Three Persons within my soul, and communicating Themselves to all creatures abundantly without ceasing to be with me.” (St. Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies no. 14)
Marriage, is a communion of love between a man and a woman. It is also the image of the love and communion that exists between the three divine persons. Marriage is, therefore, not only a human institution but, more importantly, a sacred institution because it is made in the image of God Himself.
Think about the community of persons that is formed by this sacrament. It is meant to a reflection of the community of persons that is the Most Holy Trinity!
From the beginning man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. The book of Genesis states: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). This should lead us to see every individual person as possessing an infinite dignity. Additionally, male and female are in the image and likeness of God not only in their individual existence, but also as they exist together.
Much of the poetry of Saint John of the Cross is centered on the theme of the bridal relationship. He uses nuptial language in his poems referring to the bride and bridegroom. His poetry could guide us back to a much needed correct understanding of human love and marriage.
While the The Spiritual Canticle, The Dark Night and The Living Flame, speak this bridal language, there is another one of St. John’s poems that develops this view of human love as also being an image of God’s love. The poem is titled Romance on the Gospel Text In Principio Erat Verbum regarding the Blessed Trinity In it St. John of the Cross is speaking of the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity.
Thus it is a boundless
Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
and the more love is one
the more it is love.
His poem, The Dark Night, is the expression of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection – that is, union with God. If we unknowingly ran into this poem, we would hardly think of it as a religious poem. The title is most certainly misleading. At first glance it is a love poem, like the many other love poems that have been written. Yet, St. John of the Cross, states that it is a description of the union of the soul with God. This union that he is describing is a mystical experience. Why does he use sexual images to describe such a spiritual matter? How then can poetry, especially poetry about the mystical union of the soul with God, be related to the love of a man and a woman?
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved.
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
Perhaps Saint John of the Cross uses these images to describe divine love because human love is meant to be an image of divine love. Human love is analogous to divine love. Therefore, Divine love is, the model which human love must imitate.
The image of human love and marriage has been so distorted. St. John of the Cross could help to restore that image. In addition, his poetry could provide us with a better knowledge of God.