Not that the classical depiction of Our Lady kneeling before the manger with her hands folded and her eyes gazing upon the infant child is wrong. It beautifully captures the Blessed Mother’s ardent devotion to her newborn Son.
But if we read the Bible carefully, we can see there was a lot more going on in Mary’s life in those days, and some of it would be been quite troubling for her.
Think about her situation: Suddenly, in what was probably the last trimester of her pregnancy, she had to move to Bethlehem with Joseph who needed to be counted there in a Roman census. The four-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not an easy one, especially for a late-term pregnant woman!
And then, when she gets to the town, she is not given royal treatment by the people. She’s the mother of Israel’s long-awaited messiah, yet no hospitality team comes out to welcome her; no one offers her a place to have the baby. Instead, she delivers her child among the animals in conditions of poverty and humility and rejection, putting the baby in a manger. As St. John Paul II said, Mary could not give even the basics of what a mother would want to give a newborn. Instead, she has to lay him in a manger, “an improvised cradle which contrasts with the dignity of the Son of the Most High.”
Think about how perplexing this must have been for Mary. Nine months earlier, the angel Gabriel had announced that her child was to be the great messiah-king—the one who would reign over the house of Jacob forever and who would have a never-ending kingdom. But now, this child enters the world with such humble and poor conditions, and his birth escapes the notice of almost everyone in Israel. How could this be the Messiah-king? Could Gabriel’s words really be true? This is not how the messiah was expected to be treated.
To Keep and Ponder
Mary at the Nativity challenges us to consider, how do we respond when life takes an unexpected turn? When things don’t work out as we had planned and our life is suddenly turned upside down? Some of us complain and grumble. Others might get discouraged and gloomy with life. Still others among us might rush to fix our problems, desperately doing all we can to get our life back to how it was before.
Mary at the Nativity, however, offers us a better way forward. Notice how she responds to the unanticipated events in her life. She doesn’t get angry, complain or caught up in her own troubles. The one response we get from Mary in Luke’s Gospel is exemplary: Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
This expression in the Bible often describes someone reflecting on the significance of profound events or teachings from God (Gen 37:9-11; Dan 7:28; Ps 119:11). They experience something mysterious and want to understand what it means for their lives. The mull it over prayerfully, pondering how it applies to their lives. So when the Bible says Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart,” it’s as if she were asking God, “What are you trying to show me through all this? What are you trying to teach me?”
And that’s an important lesson for all of us. No matter what may be happening on the outside of our lives, we should always have the confidence that God can be working some good on the inside. We may not be able to control situations at work and in the parish, how others treat us, or the health or behavior of a loved one. But we should trust that, whatever crosses we may be facing, God is always trying to teach us something, providing us with opportunities to grow spiritually. Maybe He wants us to grow in patience. Maybe he allow us to experience some failure or hardship so that we grow in humility. Maybe He’s just is calling us to greater trust and surrender or allowing us to experience some suffering so we will grow in compassion for others who suffer. Whatever the case may be, we should learn to imitate Mary and keep all these things and ponder them in our hearts.
So the next time we feel we are being treated unfairly or our lives take an unexpected turn and we left are wondering, “Where is God in all this?,” let’s turn to God and ask him, “Lord, what are you treating to teach me in all this?”
What Mary Discovered in Bethlehem
That’s what Mary did at the Nativity. As she kept and pondered, she would have discovered what Luke’s Gospel subtly suggests: that Jesus was born with such poverty and humility to foreshadow how he would end his life on Calvary.
When Luke’s Gospel reports Christ’s birth, it says Mary “wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). These same two verbs were used back-to-back one other time in Luke: at the end of Christ’s life when his body was taken down from the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus’ body was wrapped in a linen shroud and laid in the tomb (Luke 23:53). The point Luke is making is that Bethlehem foreshadows the Cross. Christmas anticipates Calvary. The point for Mary is that, yes, Jesus is the messiah-king as Gabriel told her. But his kingship is not of this world. God shows Mary—and all of us—that Christ’s kingship will be based on humility, suffering and sacrificial love. It, ultimately, will take him to the cross. “Right at the beginning of her maternal mission Mary gets a taste of the affliction and rejection her son will endure. The message of the Nativity foreshadows the message of the cross. It is this message that Mary keeps and ponders and will come to understand more fully over time” (Walking with Mary, p. 92).
This article is from Edward Sri’s reflections during his “Walking with Mary” Holy Land Pilgrimage and is based on his book Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross (Image Books).The photo is from a cave outside Bethlehem, an example of the kind of cave in which Jesus probably was born. For photos of the Holy Land sites where the Mysteries of the Rosary took place, you can follow Dr. Sri’s “Walking with Mary” annual Holy Land pilgrimage on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Edward-Sri/191543877686509.
 John Paul II, General Audience, November 20, 1996.