This life-sized creche was my favorite place on my university's campus - just sitting there in front of the Holy Family, pondering the beauty of that moment - the moment of the birth of our Lord. Gazing into the face of the Blessed Mother - so at peace. So humble. So loving. Examining the life of Saint Joseph - so strong. So courageous. And looking at that precious baby laying so innocently in the hay. I used to sit there, in the company of that Most Holy Family, and beg God to bless me with a family of my own. It was my life's dream. My heart's desire. The Virgin Mary was (and is) what and who I wanted to be. I've often said that what I want for my life is to "be" Mary to my own Joseph. To my own baby Jesus.
Perhaps if you're not a person of faith, this seems odd to you. It could seem odd even if you ARE one.
I don't know who designed this particular creche. I don't know if it was intentional or accidental. I don't know if others have seen in it what still strikes me. But on the back wall of the stable there is a beam that holds up the roof with a structural cross-beam attached. So when you sit there and gaze upon that sweet baby Jesus laying in the hay at the beginning of his earthly life you are instantly confronted with what will happen to him at the end of it. How powerful to gaze upon that sweet baby and SEE HIM up there on that cross - that precious baby who was born so that He could die.
I don't often think of Jesus in his child form. My Lord, my friend who I have come to know is Jesus the adult. Jesus the preacher. Jesus the friend. Jesus the story teller with the sarcastic flare and sharp wit. Jesus who healed the blind man. Jesus who wept at the death of his friends. Jesus the miracle worker. Jesus the forgiver. Jesus the prophet. Jesus the priest. Jesus the king.
Jesus the victim. Jesus the sacrifice.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Catholics the world over have been walking around all day with big black smudges on their foreheads and non-Catholics have been looking at them quizzically trying to figure out why we can't all just wash our faces already. I love this day. I love the looks. I love the humility of it all. I love approaching the priest and having him say to me,
"Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."
I use this season for the purpose of preparing my heart for the death of my friend and what that means for my soul. The thing is that now, and for the past three years, it is no longer just my soul that needs to be prepared. I now have three little souls whose (very heavy) weight rests on my shoulders. Today as I approached our priest for the blessing of these ashes, I carried my darling newly baptized baby in my arms. Perfect. Pure. Sinless.
"Nathaniel, Love Jesus with all of your heart."
And as we walked back to our pew, I wasn't the only one with that big black cross on my forehead. I find that right now, as I type this, words fail me. (Not good, I realize, as I'm putting this all in writing...but let's face it. If I don't write it tonight it won't get written.) My eyes welled up with tears. My heart broke a little because, just as I would gaze upon that creche and see the dichotomy of that little baby resting in front of the instrument of his death, there in my arms was my little Innocent marked with the reality of his sinful fallen nature.
I don't know why it is that Lent has always been such a powerful season for me. I don't know why I can't make it through a reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday without tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Part of it, of course, is that in my heart there has always been this deep abiding love for the person of Jesus and gratitude for his tremendous sacrifice that I so clearly, each and every day, do not deserve.
But you know what? Holding my Little Precious today? I made a discovery. Now, as a mother to my own boys, I walk through this season in the Mary's sandals. I hold in my heart those things that she pondered. Every night in my prayers I thank God for the gift of my children. I ask him to give me the graces to choose the right for them and the courage to raise them well for the time that he has entrusted them to my care, knowing that he chose to give them to me at a specific time and for a specific time. And that realization opens my heart even more to what it is that Mary experienced as she watched her own sweet baby endure the weight and the ramifications of my sin. Then my heart breaks a little more, as it ponders my role not only in the suffering of Jesus, but in that of Mary as well.
So this Lenten season, I will endure my chosen sacrifices. I will persevere in my added devotions. And as I walk hand-in-hand with my Lord on his journey to the cross, I will open my other hand to that of his mother and ask her to show me how all of this looked through her eyes.