Advent recalls the period of anticipation leading up to the adventus, the arrival or coming of Jesus—the Jewish Messiah-Saviour, born as a God-man in a town named Bethlehem.
|Mosaic of the Journey to Bethlehem from the The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora,|
Tracing the Longing
|John the Baptist, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.|
In a general sense, Advent recalls this long anticipation of Israel over the course of millennia. A longing captured in the voice of the Prophets, finding its crescendo in John the Baptist, who likened Israel as the bride, Jesus as the bridegroom, and himself as “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, and rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice” to such a profound degree that John says, “this joy of mine is now full” (Jn 3:29).
Such bridal imagery beautifully expresses the extent of the longing of the people of Israel for their Messiah, and it was one of their own, a young Jewish virgin woman, who completed this longing—desiring so fiercely for the advent of the Messiah, that He came. And marvel of marvels, the Holy Spirit wedded Himself to this virgin named Mary, irrevocably tying Himself to Her as His Bride, and consummating this loving virginal bond, He conceived in her womb the Messiah.
Yet this spiritual marriage, binding Mary to the Holy Spirit, was not without its sacramental, its visible and human element. For in the person of Joseph, the greatest saint second only to Mary herself, God had contracted a virginal marriage, from which the Messiah was to spring forth as a sapling, growing and living beneath their shelter until the age of thirty. Concerning this the same Holy Spirit speaks through the Psalmist: “Loving kindness and faithfulness have embraced; righteousness and peace have kissed [and] truth from the earth shall spring forth and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Ps 85:10-11). Which is to say, “Joseph and Mary have embraced in the togetherness of betrothal, they have been sealed in perpetual virginal wedlock, and the Messiah, coming down from heaven, has sprung up in their midst.”
The First Advent
It’s on this tiny pixel of history, the Holy Family before Christmas Day, that Advent really focuses in on, whilst simultaneously reaching out into the past-longing of Israel and the ongoing longing of the Church for the eschaton—the second coming.
Joseph and Mary, and Jesus in Mary’s womb, gestating and on the way! Ordinary pregnancies are tremendous enough in their strange magnificence—a new being with an immortal soul sprouted into existence; a little person ‘baking away’ inside a woman. A life packed with potential squashed in a womb and nourished inside the mother, wholly and totally dependent—directly on the mother, and indirectly on the father through his protecting support of his wife. Yet here we have a man and a woman, chosen out of everyone else, from all generations, cultures and individuals, to raise God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, as their son.
It’s easy to get swept up in the pious cliché of the Holy Family—forgetting the real humanness of these figures, and the whole profundity of it all. It’s also easy to get so swept up in practical preparations for Christmas before it even comes, that Advent as a time to spiritually prepare is glossed over, unless we make a concerted effort. Meanwhile, even if we embrace Advent in the spirit of renewal, charity and prayerful longing, we tend to forget the personal and universal significance of the first Advent that ever was. For what Advent liturgically recalls now, Mary and Joseph concretely lived in the past, two thousand years ago in Ancient Palestine.
Anyway, back to the Holy Family. Here are Joseph and Mary, before the birth, and they are faced with the bewildering reality that God is dwelling inside Mary’s womb: transcendent Creator God, and immanently one of us. No nine months could compare to these nine months. Experienced uniquely by Mary as mother, aware all along, and experienced uniquely by Joseph as ordained father, made aware shortly into the pregnancy (as the consensus of tradition relates).
The Sudden Parentage
The context of their parentage mustn’t be forgotten: they remained virgins in wedlock—unparalleled, and unusual enough, especially for Mary as a biological mother! —but before they were married they both made vows of virginity, vows which they made in their youth, and maintained until their death. This is attested by figures such as Ss. Peter Damian and Thomas Aquinas. So, until Jesus came along, never for one instant did either Mary or Joseph consider the fact that they would be parents. Sure, Mary likely knew she’d be compelled to marry according to custom, but she would have trusted in God’s Providence that He’d sort this out, someway, somehow. The same goes for Joseph, but maybe he thought he might never get married.
So, one can hardly imagine the gratitude and joy of Mary, who in the mirror of her virginity pondered in her heart the sublime gift of her motherhood. Placing her own hand reverently upon her belly as she woke, and during the day, and before she slept, as though to caress the little Messiah—her Maker, made in her.
Joseph too, never expecting he’d have a son, would have been struck by a supreme tenderness in the face of the dignity confronting him: to be called the father to God; marvelling also at Mary, whose dignity he knew was spotless beyond measure. It was in his apprehension of this dual wonder, that led Joseph to seek to hiddenly separate from Mary, for he could not believe that he was chosen from amongst men to be the custodian of such a woman and such a child. Reassured that this was his call by angelic visitation, the blessedness of his vocation to be wed to such a woman and to be the father of the Messiah-God in flesh, would never have escaped his mind. To consider the ecstasies that would have inundated his heart at the sheer thought he was spouse to the greatest saint, most lovely, kind, and beautiful of all women, and father to God Himself, is enough to chase one’s own heart into loving awe.
What Happened During this First Advent?
So what did Mary and Joseph do during their first Advent? Besides the ordinary proceedings of life, and a few key moments, if we consult the Scriptures we see that this first Advent was marked by at least two great journeys. Firstly, the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to the Judean village of Ein Karem, where John the Baptist is traditionally believed to have been born. Secondly, the 80-mile journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth.
Both journeys are no less than three days each way, possibly even four days, and perhaps almost a week when one considers Mary’s condition on the way to Bethlehem, and so during this first Advent, give or take, around two-weeks were spent in travel. This is when we factor in the return from Judea to Nazareth. Now, depending on how one dates Jesus’ birth in the calendar year, it is possible that Mary and Joseph travelled even more than this during Mary’s pregnancy. For example, it’s possible they travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, and/or made other smaller journeys to Jerusalem when in Ein Karem, if their three-month stay (Lk 1:56, “approximately”) happened to synchronise with other Jewish festivals. Nevertheless, we know for certain that at least two journeys were made.
Visitation—Off to Ein Karem
After she receives the angelic message and conceives Jesus in her womb, Mary doesn’t delay, but μετὰ σπουδῆς—she went “with haste” or, literally, “with speedy diligence” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Archangel Gabriel never conveyed God’s Will directly, saying that she must visit her cousin, but simply revealed to her the fact that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. Yet this was enough for Mary—without getting wrapped up in a pious individualism, admiring the fact that she has just been made the Mother of God, Mary’s thoughts are totally selfless, other-focused, and so “with speedy diligence” (within two or three days, is the opinion of Cornelius a Lapide) she goes to Judea to help her cousin, practically, yet above all, morally, by offering a sisterly presence and support.
Joseph’s accompaniment in the visitation isn’t mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. There is a view which takes this to mean that Joseph stayed at Nazareth and Mary went off without him, although as consensus holds, likely travelling with at least someone else, a matron or group, because a young woman travelling alone was deemed unfitting and dangerous. This view that Joseph did not accompany Mary to Ein Karem is commonly held today, and is reflected in various articles one might read on the subject.
Yet, if Joseph is to be excluded [from the visitation] simply because Scripture does not name him, so also must the supposed matron [or group] be excluded, of whom not a word is said in the sacred text; and when it becomes a question of supposing who might have been Mary’s companion, certainly it is only reasonable to conclude that Joseph was the person. True, the Evangelist does not say that he went, but neither did he say that he did not go; nor, again, does he say that Mary went by herself. Not to mention a circumstance is, assuredly, not the same thing as to deny it; and this applies peculiarly to the Gospel narratives. Clearly they do mot record everything, often leaving what they omit to be supplied by tradition, and even by reason and common sense.
Yet here, tradition supplies, and supplies generously, weighing heavier than speculations divorced from tradition, that Joseph was indeed with Mary in this journey and visit.
St. Bernadine of Siena and St. Bernard are entirely agreed upon this point, and the latter enlarges upon the blessedness of the house which contained such holy persons, and on the joy which Joseph, in particular, must have experienced in accompanying Mary on this journey. Isolano goes so far as to say no rational person, or possessed of Catholic feeling, could admit for a moment that Our Lady at that tender age, went unattended, or that Joseph, for any cause whatever, could have allowed his virgin spouse to make so long a journey without accompanying her [(De Donis S. Joseph, p. ii. c. vi.)]. [Furthermore,] St. Francis de Sales… alludes to Joseph being Mary’s companion on the road as an unquestionable fact.
The Plod to Bethlehem
We then come to consider the second and final journey that marked the first Advent: the 80-mile trek to Bethlehem. It is this journey that has (at least until now) captured the imagination of modern Western culture, as it preludes the fantastic event of the birth of God into the human world—not in the grandness of a palace, but in a stable as an outcast.
By a stroke of divine providence, working through the Roman decree to issue an Empire-wide census—the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was fulfilled (Mic 5:2). Joseph had to go with Mary to Bethlehem, his ancestral town, in order to enrol in the census.
Hundreds, if not thousands of Jews of the house of David would have had to have made the journey to Bethlehem. Mary being pregnant, would have led to their journey taking much longer. It is no surprise then, that on arrival Joseph is unable to find accommodation, since everywhere is full. These most holy of persons, with God Himself, about-to-be-born, among them—the first in dignity and sanctity, find themselves placed last. Compelled to take up lodgings in a stable—specifically, as tradition asserts, a stable-cave.
If we consider that this pilgrimage to Bethlehem would have taken between five days and a week, it is interesting to correlate our final week of Advent as a time in which we ourselves might concentrate on making an interior pilgrimage to the stable of humility and simplicity, wherein we shall encounter afresh the infant Christ. Adoring Him then, and even now, in the Bethlehem, meaning the House of Bread, which is ever before us: the churches and chapels wherein our Eucharistic Lord abides. Yet having received Him, we mustn’t forget that this infant, baked in the womb of Mary by the heat of her love conjoined to the Holy Spirit through the person of Joseph, abides in our very own hearts. Laying on the straw of our imperfections, and desiring the homage of our love.
Lessons from the Two Journeys
The fact that two journeys constitute the most significant events to take place during the first Advent, says a lot. Clearly, Advent is revealed in this way to be a microcosm of a journey, reflective of the journey of the Advent of this life.
This journey of Christian life, like the journeys of Mary and Joseph, is hard, is supposed to be made for the sake of others in mind, and all from a motive of obeying God’s Will, which doesn’t come to us by voice in angelic visitation or dream, but by means of God’s voice speaking through the Church, Her Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium, and our consciences informed by the angelic teaching of the faith.
Yet, as Mary shows us in the visitation, obeying God’s Will which means living out the faith of the Church, doesn’t mean cocooning ourselves away in selfish and private piety, but it means going out of ourselves to love and serve others, reaching out from a place of interior peace and contemplation—which is Eucharistic in focus. In this way, imitating Mary, we go forth into the world as people whose souls are pregnant with the divine life of God’s Presence—Emmanuel, God-with-us—sharing the joy of this God with those we encounter.
Advent as a Real Participation in the First
We’ve reflected a little on the first Advent. A time of surprise and wonder for Mary and Joseph, where they grapple with the profound vocation of their new parenthood—all in the face of the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming man, and specifically, becoming their son. A time synonymous with Mary’s pregnancy itself; and a time marked by two journeys.
The liturgical season of Advent, drawing to a close, recalls this time. Yet more than a mere recalling it is an opportunity to spiritually unite and re-live the first Advent experienced by Mary and Joseph over two-thousand years ago. It is an invitation to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation itself, perpetuated in the Eucharist, and alive in our hearts.
True Devotion to the Holy Family - The Means
It is a time in the year to especially emphasise this spiritual reality, but in fact it applies to our whole Christian life—an Advent in itself, tied to the first Advent that was. For by our baptism the life of Jesus was conceived in our souls, as it was in Mary’s flesh. The Eucharist nourishes and increases this life of Jesus within us: both by reception, and Adoration which magnifies in us, Him whom we receive.
Our devotion to Mary, involving the Rosary and such devotions for sure, but alive and living as an actual Marian disposition of the soul, is the ideal means of carrying and nurturing this divine life of Jesus, and by default, the Trinity, in us, and of giving birth, delivering it, into the sphere of our households, and the lives of others. Hence through Mary, ourselves and everywhere we are, turns into a living nativity.
Our devotion to Joseph fortifies this Marian devotion, and brings it to fruition, defending it from imperfection; as he protects the divine life within us from our own weakness, the world and the devil. Silently accompanying us in our daily journey—never forsaking us for one instant, being as He is, the human mediator of the Father, following that of Jesus.
It is in this threefold way—a Christocentrism culminating in a Eucharistic spirituality which is deeply Marian and Josephine, that is, by a true devotion to the Holy Family, that we accompany the Holy Family as a fellow member, a fellow traveler, in their first Advent which is our first Advent too—not merely recalled, but re-lived.
So that although Christ was born once in birth, once in resurrection from the dead, and that we ourselves have been reborn once in baptism into the life of Christ—our deeper immersion, hand in hand with Mary and Joseph, into this single rebirth, will be as though we are being reborn time and time again; and each time, getting a little bit closer in likeness to that meek child wrapped in swaddling clothes. Whose birth into the world marks our rebirth into the paradise of the pre-existent, eternal and beatific nativity scene of the Holy Trinity (where the Father eternally begets the Son within the exchange of the Holy Spirit, Their Mutual Love), given flesh in the Holy Family on Christmas Day - the abiding means to this blessed end that smiles in invitation in the face of the infant who lies on straw.