Transfiguration of the Lord

Schiffer-TRANSFIGURATION-full(Raphael, “The Transfiguration”, 1516-1520)

The Story of the Transfiguration of the Lord

All three Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36). With remarkable agreement, all three place the event shortly after Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death. Peter’s eagerness to erect tents or booths on the spot suggests it occurred during the week-long Jewish Feast of Booths in the fall.

According to Scripture scholars, in spite of the texts’ agreement it is difficult to reconstruct the disciples’ experience, because the Gospels draw heavily on Old Testament descriptions of the Sinai encounter with God, and prophetic visions of the Son of Man. Certainly Peter, James, and John had a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity strong enough to strike fear into their hearts. Such an experience defies description, so they drew on familiar religious language to describe it. And certainly Jesus warned them that his glory and his suffering were to be inextricably connected—a theme John highlights throughout his Gospel.

Tradition names Mount Tabor as the site of the revelation. A church first raised there in the fourth century was dedicated on August 6. A feast in honor of the Transfiguration was celebrated in the Eastern Church from about that time. Western observance began in some localities about the eighth century.

On July 22, 1456, Crusaders defeated the Turks at Belgrade. News of the victory reached Rome on August 6, and Pope Callistus III placed the feast on the Roman calendar the following year.


Reflection

One of the Transfiguration accounts is read on the second Sunday of Lent each year, proclaiming Christ’s divinity to the Elect and baptized alike. The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, by contrast, is the story of the temptation in the desert—affirmation of Jesus’ humanity. The two distinct but inseparable natures of the Lord were a subject of much theological argument at the beginning of the Church’s history; it remains hard for believers to grasp.

from franciscanmedia.com

Two scenes from the Gospel of Matthew are depicted in Raphael’s Transfiguration:

  • At the top, Christ has climbed Mount Tabor with the Apostles, and there he is transfigured—appearing in his glorified body, flanked by Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets).
  • But in the lower part of the painting, the Apostles are struggling to heal a sick child. Only when the transfigured Christ appears in their midst is the child healed.
From National Catholic Register

Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles

Apostle of the Apostles

“Apostle of the Apostles” is the title given Mary Magdalene by St Thomas Aquinas. Her name comes from her home town of Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of Lake Tiberias. St Luke the Evangelist tells us, in Chapter 8 of his Gospel, how Jesus went from town to town announcing the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and how the Twelve Apostles were with Him together with some women who had been healed of evil spirits or infirmities, and were serving them. Among these was a certain “Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons came out.”

Misconceptions about her identity: she was not a prostitute

As Biblical exegesis teaches, the expression ‘seven demons’ could indicate a serious physical or moral malady that had struck the woman and from which Jesus had freed her. But, until now, tradition has claimed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. This is only because in Chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel we read of the conversion of an anonymous “known sinner in that city” who, when Jesus was a guest in the house of a notable Pharisee, bathed His feet with perfume and her tears and dried them with her hair.”  Without any real textual connection, Mary of Magdala was identified with that unnamed prostitute. But, according to Cardinal Ravasi, there is a further misunderstanding: anointing with perfumed oil is a gesture that was also performed by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, on a different occasion, as reported by the Evangelist, St John. And so, in some popular traditions, Mary Magdalene has come to be identified with this Mary of Bethany, after being confused with the prostitute of Galilee.

At the foot of the cross

Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospels in the most dramatic moment of Jesus’ life, when she accompanies Him to Calvary and, along with other women, observes Him from afar. She is still there when Joseph of Arimathea places the body of Jesus in the sepulcher, which is closed with a stone. And on the morning of the first day of the week, she returns to the tomb, finds the stone rolled away, and runs to warn Peter and John. They in turn hurry to the empty tomb and discover that the body of the Lord is missing.

Meeting with the Risen Lord

The two disciples return home but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb in tears. Her initial disbelief gradually turns to faith when she sees two angels and asks them if they know where Jesus’ body has been taken. Then she sees Jesus Himself, but fails to recognize Him. She thinks He is the gardener, and when He asks why she is crying and who she is looking for, she replies: “Sir, if you have taken Him away, tell me where you have put Him and I will go and remove Him.” But Jesus says her name, “Mary” – and she recognizes Him at once: “Rabbuni!”, she says, which in Hebrew means “Master!”. Jesus then tells her: “Do not cling to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go and find the brothers and to tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So Mary Magdalene goes to the disciples and tells them she has seen the Lord and that He said these things to her. (cf. John 20).

She announces Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead.

Mary Magdalene is the first among the women following Jesus to proclaim Him as having overcome death. She is the first to announce the joyful message of Easter. But she also proved she was among those who loved Him most when she stood at the foot of the Cross on Mount Calvary together with Mary, His Mother, and the disciple, St. John. She did not deny him or run away in fear as the other disciples did, but remained close to Him every moment, up to and including the tomb.

The Feast of Mary Magdalene

Pope Francis elevated the memory of Mary Magdalene to the status of Festivity on July 22nd, 2016 in order to stress the importance of this faithful disciple of Christ.

Novena to Saint Anthony

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Saint Anthony of Padua

1195 – 1231

“Saint Anthony, please come around, there’s something lost that must be found.”

Doctor of the Church

Feast Day: June 13

Patron of: Lisbon, Portugal, Padua, amputees, barren women, domestic animals, draftees, oppressed people, orphans, paupers, the poor, pregnant women, prisoners, sailors

Wonder and miracles are infused with every story of Saint Anthony. Though he has been dead for almost 800 years, he is still the most popular saint in the world and his statue is found in every Catholic Church.  Saint Anthony is best known as the patron saint of lost articles but he is invoked for help in all life situations. In his own day he was called the “Wonder Worker’ and credited with the ability to stop the rain, raise the dead and reattach severed limbs. He was such a charismatic preacher that when a crowd of heretics in Rimini refused to listen to his preaching, the fish raised themselves out of the water to hear him. 

Born Fernando de Bulhes in Lisbon, Portugal, he disappointed his noble family by rejecting his luxurious life and joining the Augustinian religious order. A scholar by nature, he read every book in the monastery, devoting his time to contemplative prayer. Eventually, he befriended a group of itinerant Franciscan monks and became fascinated with this new religious order. Much impressed by their dedication to simplicity, poverty and their belief in returning to the original words of  Christ, he joined their ranks, changing his name to Anthony in honor of Saint Anthony of the Desert, the patron of their little church. Returning home from a failed missionary venture in Morocco, his ship was blown off course and he wound up in Messina, Sicily. A group of Franciscan friars insisted he go north with them for a great gathering of all Franciscans, with their founder Francis of Assisi. 

Anthony remained in Italy and discovered his great gift of preaching when a superior ordered him to speak at an ordination, telling him to say whatever the holy spirit had infused into him. He astonished his audience, not only by his skills as an orator but by the depth of his knowledge. He was sent throughout northern Italy and southern France on evangelical preaching missions which gathered crowds in the tens of thousands. His popularity among the people increased as he used his position to get real changes enacted for their protection. While based in Padua, he observed the crushing power of debt upon the common people. At Anthony’s insistence, the local municipality enacted a law protecting those who could not pay their debts that is still enforced today. 

Anthony exhausted himself preaching out in fields and in piazzas as there was not cathedral large enough to hold all who came to hear him. At the age of thirty six, his health began to fail him and a local Count donated a woodland retreat for his recovery. One morning the Count heard the sounds of a baby giggling and he looked out to see Anthony surrounded in light, playing with the baby Jesus. That Christ would choose to appear to one of his saints in such a vulnerable state is a testament to the loving and kind nature of Saint Anthony. Because he is depicted holding a baby, women having trouble conceiving invoke his aid. Being of Portuguese descent, Anthony’s feast day is very auspicious for marriages in Portugal and Brazil and in those cultures, he is known to assist women seeking a husband.

According to legend, Saint Anthony earned the title patron saint of lost articles when a novice borrowed his psalter and failed to return it. Saint Anthony prayed to get  it back and the novice was visited by terrifying visions that sent him running back to Anthony with the book. In iconography, Anthony always holds the baby Jesus and a lily for purity. Many times the returned book of the gospels is included. 

Novena to Saint Anthony of Padua

Holy Saint Anthony, gentle and powerful in your help, Your love for God and charity for His creatures, made you worthy when on earth, to possess miraculous powers. Miracles waited on your word, which you were always ready to request for those in trouble or anxiety. Encouraged by this thought, I implore you to obtain for me (mention your request here). The answer to my prayer may require a miracle. Even so, you are the saint of miracles. Gentle and loving Saint Anthony, whose heart is ever full of human sympathy, take my petition to the Infant Savior for whom you have such a great love, and the gratitude of my heart will be ever yours.

Amen

It is customary to donate to Saint Anthony’s Bread, a charity started in Saint Anthony’s lifetime, in gratitude to answred novena prayers.e

13 Day Novena to Saint Anthony

Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of The Church

69647-0019-hPope Francis has decreed that the ancient devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Mother of the Church, be inserted into the Roman Calendar.

The liturgical celebration, B. Mariæ Virginis, Ecclesiæ Matris, will be celebrated annually as a Memorial on the day after Pentecost.

Mary, Mother of the Church
By issuing the Decree on the celebration of the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, Pope Francis wishes to promote this devotion in order to “encourage the growth of the maternal sense of the Church in the pastors, religious and faithful, as well as a growth of genuine Marian piety”.

The decree reflects on the history of Marian theology in the Church’s liturgical tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers.

It says Saint Augustine and Pope Saint Leo the Great both reflected on the Virgin Mary’s importance in the mystery of Christ.

“In fact the former [St. Augustine] says that Mary is the mother of the members of Christ, because with charity she cooperated in the rebirth of the faithful into the Church, while the latter [St. Leo the Great] says that the birth of the Head is also the birth of the body, thus indicating that Mary is at once Mother of Christ, the Son of God, and mother of the members of his Mystical Body, which is the Church.”

The decree says these reflections are a result of the “divine motherhood of Mary and from her intimate union in the work of the Redeemer.”

Scripture, the decree says, depicts Mary at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn 19:25). There she became the Mother of the Church when she “accepted her Son’s testament of love and welcomed all people in the person of the beloved disciple as sons and daughters to be reborn unto life eternal.”

In 1964, the decree says, Pope Paul VI “declared the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all Christian people, the faithful as well as the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother’ and established that ‘the Mother of God should be further honoured and invoked by the entire Christian people by this tenderest of titles.’”

Pentecost Sunday

Maino Pentecostés, 1620-1625. Museo del Prado

.- Here is the full text of Pope Francis’ Pentecost Sunday homily, delivered May 31, 2020, at the Basilica of St. Peter, and checked against delivery.

“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4), as the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians. He continues: “There are different forms of service, but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (vv. 5- 6). Diversity and unity: St. Paul puts together two words that seem contradictory. He wants to tell us that the Holy Spirit is the one who brings together the many; and that the Church was born this way: we are all different, yet united by the same Holy Spirit.

Let us go back to the origin of the Church, to the day of Pentecost. Let us look at the Apostles: some of them were fishermen, simple people accustomed to living by the work of their hands, but there were also others, like Matthew, who was an educated tax collector. They were from different backgrounds and social contexts, and they had Hebrew and Greek names. In terms of character, some were meek and others were excitable; they all had different ideas and sensibilities. They were all different. Jesus did not change them; he did not make them into a set of pre-packaged models. He left their differences and now he unites them by anointing them with the Holy Spirit. The union comes with the anointing. At Pentecost, the Apostles understand the unifying power of the Spirit. They see it with their own eyes when everyone, though speaking in different languages, comes together as one people: the people of God, shaped by the Spirit, who weaves unity from diversity and bestows harmony because there is harmony in the Spirit. He himself is harmony.

Let us now focus on ourselves, the Church of today. We can ask ourselves: “What is it that unites us, what is the basis of our unity?” We too have our differences, for example: of opinions, choices, sensibilities. But the temptation is always fiercely to defend our ideas, believing them to be good for everybody and agreeing only with those who think as we do. And that’s a bad temptation that divides. But this is a faith created in our own image; it is not what the Spirit wants. We might think that what unite us are our beliefs and our morality. But there is much more: our principle of unity is the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that first of all we are God’s beloved children, all the same, in this, and all different. The Spirit comes to us, in our differences and difficulties, to tell us that we have one Lord — Jesus — and one Father, and that for this reason we are brothers and sisters! Let us begin anew from here; let us look at the Church with the eyes of the Spirit and not as the world does. The world sees us only as on the right or left, with this ideology, with that one; the Spirit sees us as sons and daughters of the Father and brothers and sisters of Jesus. The world sees conservatives and progressives; the Spirit sees children of God. A worldly gaze sees structures to be made more efficient; a spiritual gaze sees brothers and sisters pleading for mercy. The Spirit loves us and knows everyone’s place in the grand scheme of things: for him, we are not bits of confetti blown about by the wind, rather we are irreplaceable fragments in his mosaic.

If we go back to the day of Pentecost, we discover that the first task of the Church is proclamation. Yet we see that the Apostles do not prepare a strategy; when they were shut in there, in the Upper Room, they did not make a strategy, no, they do not prepare a pastoral plan. They could have divided people into groups according to their roots, speaking first to those close by and then to those far away… They could have also waited a while before beginning their preaching in order to understand more deeply the teachings of Jesus, so as to avoid risks… No. The Spirit does not want the memory of the Master to be cultivated in small groups locked in upper rooms where it is easy to “nest.” And this is a bad disease that can come to the Church: the Church not as a community, not as a family, not as a mother, but as a nest. He opens doors and pushes us to press beyond what has already been said and done, beyond the precincts of a timid and wary faith. In the world, unless there is tight organization and a clear strategy, things fall apart. In the Church, however, the Spirit guarantees unity to those who proclaim the message. The Apostles set off: unprepared, yet putting their lives on the line. One thing kept them going: the desire to give what they received. The beginning of the First Letter of John is beautiful: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you” (1 John 1:3).

Here we come to understand what the secret of unity is, the secret of the Spirit. It is gift. For the Spirit himself is gift: he lives by giving himself and in this way he keeps us together, making us sharers in the same gift. It is important to believe that God is gift, that he acts not by taking away, but by giving. Why is this important? Because our way of being believers depends on how we understand God. If we have in mind a God who takes away and imposes himself, we too will want to take away and impose ourselves: occupying spaces, demanding recognition, seeking power. But if we have in our hearts a God who is gift, everything changes. If we realize that what we are is his gift, free and unmerited, then we too will want to make our lives a gift. By loving humbly, serving freely and joyfully, we will offer to the world the true image of God. The Spirit, the living memory of the Church, reminds us that we are born from a gift and that we grow by giving: not by holding on but by giving of ourselves.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look within and ask ourselves what prevents us from giving ourselves. There are, let us say, three enemies of the gift — the main ones, three — always lurking at the door of our hearts: narcissism, victimhood and pessimism. Narcissism makes us idolize ourselves, to be concerned only with what is good for us. The narcissist thinks: “Life is good if I profit from it.” So he or she ends up saying: “Why should I give myself to others?” In this time of pandemic, how wrong narcissism is: the tendency to think only of our own needs, to be indifferent to those of others, and not to admit our own frailties and mistakes. But the second enemy, victimhood, is equally dangerous. Victims complain every day about their neighbour: “No one understands me, no one helps me, no one loves me, everyone has it in for me!” The victim’s heart is closed, as he or she asks, “Why aren’t others concerned about me?” In the crisis we are experiencing, how ugly victimhood is! Thinking that no one understands us and experiences what we experience. Finally, there is pessimism. Here the unending complaint is: “Nothing is going well, society, politics, the Church…” The pessimist gets angry with the world, but sits back and does nothing, thinking: “What good is giving? That is useless.” At this moment, in the great effort of beginning anew, how damaging is pessimism, the tendency to see everything in the worst light and to keep saying that nothing will return as before! When someone thinks this way, the one thing that certainly does not return is hope. In these three — the narcissistic idol of the mirror, the ‘mirror-god;’ ‘I feel like a person with grievances;’ and the ‘god-negativity,’ ‘everything is black, everything is dark’ — we find ourselves in the famine of hope and we need to appreciate the gift of life, the gift that each of us is. Therefore we need the Holy Spirit, God’s gift that heals us from narcissism, victimhood and pessimism, heals us from the mirror, from grievances and darkness.

Brothers and sister, let us pray to him: Holy Spirit, memory of God, revive in us the memory of the gift received. Free us from the paralysis of selfishness and awaken in us the desire to serve, to do good. Even worse than this crisis is the tragedy of squandering it by closing in on ourselves. Come, Holy Spirit: you are harmony; make us builders of unity. You always give yourself; grant us the courage to go out of ourselves, to love and help each other, in order to become one family. Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day

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Far Angelico, The Madonna of Humility (ca. 1430)

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

Todays Readings, Friday, May 9

IMG_0234Reading 1, Acts 13:26-33

26 ‘My brothers, sons of Abraham’s race, and all you godfearers, this message of salvation is meant for you.

27 What the people of Jerusalem and their rulers did, though they did not realise it, was in fact to fulfil the prophecies read on every Sabbath.

28 Though they found nothing to justify his execution, they condemned him and asked Pilate to have him put to death.

29 When they had carried out everything that scripture foretells about him they took him down from the tree and buried him in a tomb.

30 But God raised him from the dead,

31 and for many days he appeared to those who had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem: and it is these same companions of his who are now his witnesses before our people.

32 ‘We have come here to tell you the good news that the promise made to our ancestors has come about.

33 God has fulfilled it to their children by raising Jesus from the dead. As scripture says in the psalms: You are my son: today I have fathered you.

 

Responsorial Psalm, Psalms 2:6-7, 8-9, 10-11

6 ‘I myself have anointed my king on Zion my holy mountain.’

7 I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today have I fathered you.

8 Ask of me, and I shall give you the nations as your birthright, the whole wide world as your possession.

9 With an iron sceptre you will break them, shatter them like so many pots.’

10 So now, you kings, come to your senses, you earthly rulers, learn your lesson!

11 In fear be submissive to Yahweh;

Gospel, John 14:1-6

1 Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God, trust also in me.

2 In my Father’s house there are many places to live in; otherwise I would have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you,

3 and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you to myself, so that you may be with me where I am.

4 You know the way to the place where I am going.

5 Thomas said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

6 Jesus said: I am the Way; I am Truth and Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.

Thursday, May 7, readings

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Reading 1, Acts 13:13-25

13 Paul and his companions went by sea from Paphos to Perga in Pamphylia where John left them to go back to Jerusalem.

14 The others carried on from Perga till they reached Antioch in Pisidia. Here they went to synagogue on the Sabbath and took their seats.

15 After the passages from the Law and the Prophets had been read, the presidents of the synagogue sent them a message, ‘Brothers, if you would like to address some words of encouragement to the congregation, please do so.’

16 Paul stood up, raised his hand for silence and began to speak: ‘Men of Israel, and fearers of God, listen!

17 The God of our nation Israel chose our ancestors and made our people great when they were living in Egypt, a land not their own; then by divine power he led them out

18 and for about forty years took care of them in the desert.

19 When he had destroyed seven nations in Canaan, he put them in possession of their land

20 for about four hundred and fifty years. After this he gave them judges, down to the prophet Samuel.

21 Then they demanded a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin. After forty years,

22 he deposed him and raised up David to be king, whom he attested in these words, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart, who will perform my entire will.”

23 To keep his promise, God has raised up for Israel one of David’s descendants, Jesus, as Saviour,

24 whose coming was heralded by John when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the whole people of Israel.

25 Before John ended his course he said, “I am not the one you imagine me to be; there is someone coming after me whose sandal I am not fit to undo.”

 

Responsorial Psalm, Psalms 89:2-3, 21-22, 25, 27

2 for you have said: love is built to last for ever, you have fixed your constancy firm in the heavens.

3 ‘I have made a covenant with my Chosen One, sworn an oath to my servant David:

21 My hand will always be with him, my arm will make him strong.

22 ‘No enemy will be able to outwit him, no wicked man overcome him;

25 I shall establish his power over the sea, his dominion over the rivers.

27 So I shall make him my first-born, the highest of earthly kings.

Gospel, John 13:16-20

16 ‘In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him.

17 ‘Now that you know this, blessed are you if you behave accordingly.

18 I am not speaking about all of you: I know the ones I have chosen; but what scripture says must be fulfilled: ‘He who shares my table takes advantage of me.

19 I tell you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you may believe that I am He.

20 In all truth I tell you, whoever welcomes the one I send, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.’

 

Mary, The Mother of Jesus

What do we really know about the woman we call Mother of God and Mother of the Church, the first of all the saints, the model believer? What do contemporary Scripture studies, archaeological research and analysis of the literature of her time reveal to us about Mary? I invite the reader to reflect with me on the “historical Mary,” whose life is so intertwined with the mystery of Jesus. Focusing on Mary’s Jewish roots, writers like Raymond E. Brown, S.S., in The Birth of the Messiah, John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew and Elizabeth A. Johnson in Truly Our Sister have carefully examined the religious, economic, cultural and political circumstances of her daily life. The scene they reconstruct is quite different from the idyllic portraits of medieval artists and the serene rhapsodies of musicians and poets.

Mary was actually called Miriam, after the sister of Moses. Most likely she was born in Nazareth, a tiny Galilean town of about 1,600 people, during the reign of Herod the Great, a violent puppet-king propped up by Roman military might. Nazareth was of little consequence for most Jews: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor in the Talmud. Mary spoke Aramaic, with a Galilean accent (see Matt 26:73), but she also had contact with a multilingual world. She heard Latin as it slipped from the tongues of Roman soldiers, Greek as it was used in commerce and educated circles and Hebrew as the Torah was proclaimed in the synagogue.

She belonged to the peasant class, which eked out its living through agriculture and small commercial ventures like carpentry, the profession of both Joseph and Jesus. This group made up 90 percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the state and the small privileged class. Their life was grinding, with a triple tax burden: to Rome, to Herod the Great and to the temple (to which, traditionally, they owed 10 percent of the harvest). Artisans, who made up about 5 percent of the population, had an even lower median income than those who worked the land full time. Consequently, in order to have a steady supply of food, they usually combined their craft with farming.

The picture of the Holy Family as a tiny group of three living in a tranquil, monastic-like carpenter’s shop is highly improbable. Like most people at that time, they probably lived in an extended family unit, where three or four houses of one or two rooms each were built around an open courtyard, in which relatives shared an oven, a cistern and a millstone for grinding grain, and where domestic animals also lived. Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent, on the average, 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.

Who were the members of this extended household? Mark’s Gospel speaks of Jesus, “the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here among us?” (Mark 6:3). Were these “brothers and sisters” children of Jesus’ aunt (see John 19:25) and therefore cousins? Were they Joseph’s children by a previous marriage? We do not know their precise relationship to Jesus and Mary, but it is probable that they all lived in close proximity within the same compound.

In Palestine at that time, women ordinarily married at about 13 years of age in order to maximize childbearing and to guarantee their virginity, so it is likely that Mary’s espousal to Joseph (Matt 1:18) and the birth of Jesus occurred when she was very young. Luke indicates that Mary gave birth to Jesus during a census required by the Romans around 6 B.C., in a cave or stall where animals were stabled. A feeding trough served as his crib, as today poor refugees use cardboard boxes and other homemade artifacts as makeshift beds for newborn infants.

It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13. As a peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea while pregnant, of giving birth in a stable, of making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years. We also err when we picture her as Fra Lippo Lippi’s gorgeously dressed, blue-eyed, blond-haired Madonna, who often adorns Christmas cards. Whether she was beautiful or not, she would have had features like those of Jewish and Palestinian women today, most likely with dark hair and dark eyes.

It is doubtful that she knew how to read or write, since literacy was extremely rare among women of the time. The culture was highly oral, with public reading of the Scriptures, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and the singing of songs.

A Jewish culture permeated Mary’s life. One might legitimately ask: Did she keep a kosher kitchen? Was there a mezuzah on the doorpost of her family’s modest home in Nazareth?

Her husband, Joseph, seems to have died before Jesus’ public ministry began. We know that Mary herself, however, lived through the time of that ministry (Mark 3:31, John 2:1-12). Her separation from Jesus as he went out to preach was undoubtedly painful for her. In a passage that has always embarrassed Mariologists, Mark tells us that Jesus’ family thought him mad (Mark 3:21); but what mother, upon seeing her son challenge Roman authority rather dauntlessly (this often meant death), might not have said to him, “Are you crazy?”

John tells us that Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:25-27), though the other evangelists are silent about this. At that time she was probably close to 50 years old, well beyond the age at which most women in that era died. She lived on at least into the early days of the church. Luke states that she was in the upper room in Jerusalem with the 11 remaining apostles “who devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women…and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). The lovely paintings and icons of Pentecost that picture the Spirit descending on Mary and the 11 apostles hardly do justice to Luke’s text, which indicates that she was there with a community of 120 persons.

After Pentecost, Mary disappears from history. The rest of her life is shrouded in legend. As Elizabeth Johnson points out, an active imagination easily wonders: What memories, hopes and strategies did she share with the men and women of the new, Spirit-filled Jerusalem community? Did she live on peacefully in Jerusalem as an old woman, revered as the mother of the Messiah? Was she quiet or outspoken? Did others come to her for advice? Did she express her views about the inclusion of the Gentiles? We do not know. It would seem that she died as a member of the Jerusalem community, though a later tradition portrays her as moving to Ephesus in the company of the apostle John.

Why focus on the historical Mary in Advent? There are three reasons. First, her history brings her nearer to us. While there is an alluring quality to the gorgeous Madonnas depicted by medieval artists, this first-century Jewish woman living in a peasant village was much more like billions of people today than the women in those beautiful paintings. Though her culture was quite different from that of our 21st-century post-industrial society, it was not unlike that of women in thousands of villages as they exist today in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Her daily life and labor were hard. With Joseph, she raised Jesus in oppressive circumstances, struggling to pay the taxes by which the rich became richer at the expense of the poor. As with the vast majority of people in world history, most of Mary’s difficult life went unrecorded.

Second, her holiness lies in persistent, faithful listening to God’s word. Even though in canonizing saints the church has customarily emphasized martyrdom, asceticism, renunciation of family and worldly possessions, or lifelong dedication to the poor, today we recognize more and more that holiness consists mainly in persevering fidelity in the midst of everyday life. This is what the “historical Mary” exemplifies. As events unfolded around her, often to her surprise, she had to figure out continually what God was asking of her. She looked for the word of God in people and events, listened to that word, pondered it and then acted on it. She doubtless repeated again and again what she said to Gabriel, “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Day by day she lived a “pilgrimage of faith,” to use the words of Vatican II. She found energy in her trust in the God of Israel and in her solidarity with the growing community of Christians who experienced the promise of life in the death and resurrection of her son.

Third, today we recognize Mary’s Magnificat as a rousing freedom song of the poor. Mary, the lead singer, epitomizes the lowly of Israel, those marginalized by society, for whom there is “no room in the inn” (Luke 2:7). God is her only hope, and she sings the divine praises with exuberant confidence. While it may be difficult to imagine this revolutionary hymn coming from the mouth of a Madonna painted by Caravaggio, it is easy to envision it issuing from the lips of the historical Mary. Galilee was the spawning ground for first-century revolts against a repressive occupying power and its taxes. The Christians of Jerusalem, who with Mary were the nucleus of the post-resurrection church, suffered from real hunger and poverty (see Gal 2:10; 1 Cor 16:1-4; Rom 15:25-26). With the members of this community, Mary believed that God can turn the world upside down; that the last are first and the first last; the humble are exalted, the exalted humbled; those who save their life lose it, those who lose their life save it; those who mourn will rejoice, those who laugh will cry; the mighty are cast down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up. She and they were convinced that in God’s kingdom the poor are first, and the prostitutes, publicans and outcasts of society eat at the table of the Lord.

The historical Mary experienced poverty, oppression, violence and the execution of her son. Her faith is deeply rooted in that context. Before the omnipotent God, she recognizes her own “lowly estate.” She is not among the world’s powerful. She is simply God’s “maidservant.” But she believes that nothing is impossible for God. In the Magnificat she sings confidently that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is that passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.

Christians throughout the world will join with Mary in singing her vibrant song this Advent. May it be both praise of God’s power and a prophecy of a world to come.

The Canticle of Mary

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Luke 1:46-55