Christ longs to be conceived in our heart and to be given birth in all we do, think, and say
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” — Matthew 1:21
Recently, I was shown an icon of the Nativity of Jesus that particularly struck me. Probably because of past health issues, I immediately recognized the image of a heart in the outline of the rock of the stable cave.
Also, the stark contrast between the cold gray color of the cave and the image of the heart called to mind the promise of God: “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts” (Ezekiel 36:26).
But what I like about this icon is that it reveals the transformation of the heart from a tomb to a womb.
St. Bonaventure offers a beautiful thought for us to carry throughout our Advent season as we prepare for our celebration of the birth of Christ:
“The soul devoted to God, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High God, can spiritually conceive the blessed Word and first born Son of the Father, bring Him forth, give Him a name, seek Him and adore Him with the Magi, and finally, happily present Him to God the Father in His temple.”
Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi says:
“We are mothers of Christ when we carry Him in our hearts and bodies through divine love and pure and sincere conscience; we bring Him forth through works, which must be a shining example to others.”
So let us reflect upon this icon with the wisdom of these saints that we might learn how to bring Christ into the world through our thoughts, words, and actions.
In contemplating this icon we notice how, against the grayness of the cave (which we naturally associate with death and the tomb), the bright colors of blue and red associated with Mary stand out. Color in icons communicate spiritual truths. So red, the color of blood, suggests life, humanity. Blue, the color associated with the sky and the heavens, suggests mystical life, divinity. As such, in the flowing blue mantle and robe of Mary we have a beautiful image of the living waters of the Holy Spirit of which she is infused.
And the red blanket or cushion that Mary lies atop is interpreted by some as representing the womb, the organ of conception and gestation.
With the Holy Spirit, our heart becomes a spiritual organ of new life, of a new beginning. No longer stone or hardened earth, it becomes receptive like good soil to the degree that we cooperate with the Holy Spirit. And also to the degree we die to ourselves—to selfishness and sin—we become more and more receptive to the seed of the Heavenly Sower (Matthew 13:3).
As a seed needs good soil and water to take root and grow, so, too, we need Mary and the Holy Spirit to help us to be a garden paradise that bears the Fruit of Life, Jesus.
We see Jesus in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, which also resemble burial wrappings, a foreshadowing of His passion and death.
Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen reminds us that whereas we are all born that we might live, Christ was born so that He might die and give us life anew. This foreshadowing is further imaged in the manger that resembles the temple and the altar of sacrifice. And upon the altar of every Mass, this mystery is renewed.
In the tradition of the East, St. Joseph is often depicted in the Nativity scene as almost brooding, struggling it seems to fathom a mystery beyond all understanding—the mystery of God become man. And in the outline of his clothing we see the image of cupped hands, which call to mind the words of Isaiah, “Fear not, I am with you; be not dismayed; I am your God. I will strengthen you, and help you, and uphold you with my right hand of justice” (41:10).
St. Athanasius says it best: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” In the Eastern tradition, the desire for holiness is the desire to be “divinized.”
Nativity scenes traditionally include stable animals, particularly the ox and the ass. The reason for their representation is found in Isaiah: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people has not understood” (1:3). We should all strive daily to know Christ better and better.
So the question of Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15), is one that we must answer with the heart of a lover who wants to know the Beloved more deeply every day.
With each Advent, we are invited to ponder anew the mystery of God become man, of Christ, who took on our flesh to be the Prince of Peace in us and through us.
And if there is no peace in our world and in our country, it is not because Christ has not come, but because so few can give the name “Jesus” to what is conceived in their hearts and expressed in their words and actions. To be the face, the hands, and the heart of Jesus, we must first be mothers of Christ.