Fourth Sunday of Advent
Readings: 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Psalm 88(89): 2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1: 26-38
20 December 2020
“I am the handmaid of the Lord.” – Luke 1:38
From early on, we learn that there are two kinds of people: the selfish and the selfless. Alarmed by this neat division, we try our best to think, not of ourselves, but only of others. Unfortunately though, the task proves impossible.
Your sixth-grade teacher asks for help, and you volunteer, only to wonder, “Did I just do that for the candy reward?” The chaplain asks you to run a mission trip, and you agree, only to worry, “Did I just want to appear holy?”
The experience of our own mixed motivations is maddening. Despite our best efforts, we continue to prove desperately self-absorbed. And, try as we may, we cannot think ourselves out of the conundrum.
Consider, then, the response of the Blessed Mother. The Lord asks of her a great generosity. At first she seems taken aback: “She was deeply disturbed by these words.” But rather than delay with thoughts of selfish or selfless, she simply turns to him. In search of clarity, she thinks of God.
We will probably have mixed motivations for some time yet. The good news is that it doesn’t matter terribly much. What matters is God, who makes his grace to shine on selfish and selfless alike. If he asks great things of you, as he did of Mary, it may give you pause: “Is this prideful, vainglorious, ambitious?” Perhaps. But who cares? In the end, it remains for us only to say, “Let it be done to me.” He’ll take care of the rest.
Lord Jesus Christ, whether selfish or selfless, I am yours. Give me to respond generously to your own generous self-offering. Amen.
Fr Gregory Pine OP
The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) – Alessandro Di Mariano Di Vanni Filipepi (Known As Sandro Botticelli) (1445–1510)
The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book), c. 1480–83. Tempera on panel, 58 x 39.5 cm. Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan. Public Domain.
In his recently published work, A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar muses: “Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” Sandro Botticelli’s The Madonna of the Book is one of his most beautiful paintings. It was recently included in an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. entitled Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea.
So, gazing at this picture will not only lead us into the intimacy of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, it will tell us something of the mind of Botticelli himself. “Gazing” presupposes more than a superficial glance. One gazes at something in the hope that it will eventually “gaze” back.
What has Botticelli put into this composition so that it will talk to us? His exquisite use of gold filigree in the two haloes and the edging of Our Lady’s veil, and lapis lazuli (made from crushing a very precious stone) for the blue of her cloak, show us the care with which he executed this work.
Botticelli has portrayed Mary as a paragon of beauty. She has the tenderness of a mother and the decorum of a queen. She is a paradox, and perhaps Botticelli is thinking of Dante’s Hymn to the Virgin in his Paradiso. We still sing it today: “Maiden yet a mother, daughter of thy Son, high beyond all other, lowlier is none; thou the consummation, planned by God’s decree, when our lost creation, nobler rose in thee!”
We can place so many interpretations on this Madonna’s face. Firstly, what is Our Lady actually doing? She is reading from a Book of the Hours (the name given to the Divine Office)—in this case, experts tell us, the Hours of Our Lady, a shorter version of the Office and common amongst laypeople at the time (St Thomas More prayed Our Lady’s Office daily.) So, she is basically in an attitude of adoration, for the Office is mainly composed of the psalms.
But Botticelli hints that she has come across a prediction of the Passion—the Child holds the crown of thorns and the three nails, and the fruits in the bowl to the left of the Child have symbolic meaning: the cherries allude to the blood of Christ, the plums to the love between Mother and Child (they would both share in the Passion), and the figs to the resurrection. And perhaps the Child’s look is actually one of comfort, for a certain wistful sorrow is etched in Mary’s expression. The open window looks on a landscape at twilight, the hour of the Burial.
The focal point of the painting is, of course, the reciprocal gaze between Christ and Mary. It draws us into the love between them and invites us to enter that love. The Child is making a deliberate gesture, beyond that which the average child is capable. The Child is God, and he seems to be reading his mother, as he does us. It reminds me of Psalm 149: “For the Lord takes delight in his people” (Ps 149:4). We forget sometimes how close God wants to come to us. And, we forget sometimes that Mary represents humanity. In his book The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander wrote: “It is in Our Lady that God fell in love with Humanity”—me. And, it was in our name that she said “yes” to God.
Born probably in 1445 in the city of Florence, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (known as Sandro Botticelli) was initially trained as a goldsmith. At the age of 15 or 16, he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the top Florentine painters of the day, and one patronised by the powerful Medici family. Botticelli would certainly have been influenced by Lippi’s Madonnas, but I feel he surpassed his master. He lived all his life in the same neighbourhood of Florence except for the two short periods he spent painting in Pisa and then the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
His best-known works are The Birth of Venus and Primavera, both in the Uffizi Museum in Florence which also houses his impressive Madonna of the Magnificat. On the same street where he lived were the Vespucci family, including Amerigo Vespucci after whom the Americas were named. Botticelli actually means “little barrel”, a cruel nickname given to him by one of his brothers. The name stuck. In a document dated 1470, the painter refers to himself as Sandro Mariano Botticelli.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer
Fr Gregory Pine OP is the assistant director for campus outreach with the Thomistic Institute in Washington, DC, USA. He served previously as an associate pastor at St Louis Bertrand Catholic Church in Louisville, KY, where he also taught as an adjunct professor at Bellarmine University. Raised in Philadelphia, PA, he attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Upon graduating, he entered the Order of Preachers in 2010 and was ordained a priest in 2016. He holds an STL from the Dominican House of Studies. He is a regular presenter on the podcasts: Pints with Aquinas, Godsplaining, and The Matt Fradd Show. He, with his colleagues at the Thomistic Institute have released project called Aquinas 101 (www.aquinas101.thomisticinstitute.org): a series of free video courses to help you engage life’s most urgent philosophical and theological questions with the wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.