Common Wisdom: What Child Is This?

Three of my children were born in December, so three times I have entered Advent awaiting, like Mary, the birth of a child. It is a wonderful thing to have the Incarnation brought home so solidly, so inescapably. I think of Mary exchanging remedies for morning sickness or sharing with Nazarean friends the news of her baby’s first stirrings in the womb. I am sure she had to listen to neighbors relating stories of their labors. And I imagine she gazed with a new wonder upon other women’s infants, as she prepared for the birth of our Savior by pondering many things in her heart.

Sometimes guilt over my contribution to Our Lord’s sufferings prevents me from feeling welcome in His mother’s presence. I know how mothers can feel towards those who harm their children. Yet, I also know how a mother can love and forgive one of her children when he hurts another. And since I have become a mother, I have found it easy to entrust my children to Mary, to share with her the anxieties any mother must experience, and to share also the special joy of seeing the tiny child who lay cocooned within me for nine months grow and reach out and beyond me. It is easier for me to believe in her love for my children than in her love for me.

Perhaps the most mysterious event of Our Lady’s motherhood was her search for her missing son when He was 12. What parent has not suddenly discovered—in a mall or a crowded playground or a movie theater—that his child has suddenly gone astray? But what could it have meant to Mary and Joseph to have lost the Lord of the Universe, the omnipresent God? What form did the fears of Mary and Joseph take over the course of those three days of searching?

We are taught that Jesus did not have to be condemned to death and crucified in order to redeem us—that any human act, perhaps a single moment of human existence, would have sufficed to save us. His public life and His abjectly painful and humiliating death were to teach us how to live and to prepare us and perhaps console us for our own sufferings and deaths. A dear friend, a parent, or a spouse will see his loved one suffer and wish to share that suffering not through a masochistic impulse but through a desire to remain close to the beloved. Jesus’ love brought Him from paradise to a miserable death—and through that death, to millions of other deathbeds.

Mary and Joseph could not have known every detail of God’s plan of salvation, and the broad outline that they did know or intuit must have left room for many a groundless fear on the long road to Calvary. I think it is possible that the two feared that Jesus had been kidnapped or injured or at least lost and frightened. Could they have also feared His death?

Perhaps nothing so definite as that, though Mary’s thoughts may have returned to Simeon’s prophecy of 12 years earlier: “And a sword shall pierce your heart.” Perhaps the unnamed dread that battened on their minds was worse than a specific fear, because it could not be squarely faced and argued away or else accepted. The counterpoint to three days of anxious searching and questioning was the trust in God that Mary and Joseph had reached for and relied upon throughout many troubles and perplexities: “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” “He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.”

I think of Joseph’s torment: He was a good man, a just man, but he was, like us and unlike his wife, a fallen creature, who would have to battle against willfulness and internal rebellion. He could not share Mary’s serene certainty that he was always doing the Lord’s will, since there must have been occasions in his life, as in that of all the other saints, when Adam’s legacy won out, however virtuously disguised or ruthlessly repented. He may have reproached himself with guilt for some cosmic catastrophe, because he had fleetingly relaxed his vigilance over the family entrusted to his care. Joseph, “a just man,” must have suffered terribly before the reunion in the temple.

Such anxieties and self-castigation are inseparable from parenthood, even parenthood of the Incarnate God. When I recall Mary’s answer to the angel of the Annunciation, that fateful answer which ushered in our salvation, yes, but also all the shameful and searing events leading up to it, I can recognize what is common to us and to other parents. Once our first child is born, none of us is ever again free of the anxious, at times impatient, and always loving care of that son or daughter already growing out of reach. Our happiness will for a lifetime be contingent upon the happiness and well-being of each child.

To be a creature is to be contingent: to depend upon God, ultimately, for life, love, and happiness, but to depend upon other creatures intermediately for all of these. Surely among all the profoundly human emotions Our Lord experienced during His life on earth—including his pain at his relatives’ skepticism, Peter’s defection, the betrayal of Judas—among these and multitudinous other lacerations of His Sacred Heart must have been His compassionate pity for the pain His mother bore for Him. Long before the thrust of the centurion’s lance, a sword pierced His heart, too.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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