Meditations on the Womb and the Tomb

by Micah Murphy       March 18, 2016

"She beheld her tender Child, Saw Him hang in desolation, Till His spirit forth He sent."

Stabat Mater Dolorosa, Traditional Catholic Hymn

Much has been said in centuries past, by theologians more qualified and more eloquent than I, about the sorrows of the Blessed Mother. It was she alone among the human race who best loved her Son, and though that may be readily said of most mothers, it was more true of her than of any other in all of history. Not only was she the mother of a uniquely lovable Son, she, the Immaculate Conception, unmarred by sin, was also uniquely capable of love. It would be sufficient to quote from any of dozens of saintly homilies on the sorrows and sufferings of the Blessed Mother, yet as, in a coincidence not to occur again until 2157, Good Friday of this year is also the Solemnity of the Annunciation, it seems best to say something relevant to both occasions.

Scripture is replete with examples that demonstrate how history repeats itself; similar events occur again and again, each time building up toward their final fulfillment. One meaningful example centers around the familiar concept of "three days." By way of punishment and wonders, Egypt was in darkness for three days; by way of foreshadowing, Jesus was lost to His Blessed Mother for three days in the temple; by way of fulfillment, we start next week the three days of the Sacred Triduum, during which Our Lord lay in the tomb. These parallels span thousands of years and many pages. Scholars have spent centuries drawing them out. Yet we have at our disposal, in prayer, the greatest scripture scholar of them all, the Blessed Mother who medidated on everything in the life of her Son. Here are some rich parallels Mary must surely have noticed, which I would like to suggest for your meditation this coming week, as Good Friday and the Annunciation coincide for the last time this century. (Below are compilations of the Infancy Narratives and the Entombment of Christ. If you're already familiar with the details, feel free to skip ahead.)

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. and Joseph named him Jesus. - Compilation of the Conception and Birth of Christ from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke

After this, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews courageously went to Pilate and, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and bound it with clean linen burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom.  Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb he had hewn in the rock, in which no one had yet been buried, then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb. The women who had come from Galilee with him followed behind, and when they had seen the tomb and the way in which his body was laid in it, they returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils. - Compilation of the Entombment of Christ from All Four Gospels

Even on the peripheries of both stories we find interesting parallels. Both feature supporting roles by virtuous men named Joseph, righteous men careful to follow Jewish custom, summoning the courage to do what was right. They follow in the footsteps of their namesake, Joseph, son of Jacob, a righteous man careful to follow God's will, put in a position to lead his people in his own time in the land of Egypt.

At the center of the connection, however, between the womb and the tomb - as at the center of all things - we find Jesus Christ. We also consider ourselves in light of these things, for we are also vessels of Christ, by His indwelling our souls and by our reception of His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

That both the womb and the tomb are connected to Him whom we also bear should be immediately apparent; it was Him they both held, and He that came forth from them both, filled with life. The womb was new, Mary never had a child in her womb before Jesus; likewise the tomb was newly hewn in the rock. These details reveal truth to us, especially when considered in parallel. Together they underscore the newness and absolute sanctity of Christ. Like the contents of the Ark of the Covenant - which symbolize and foreshadow Christ's role as priest, prophet, and king - Christ Himself is worthy of being held in a new, worthy vessel. In the Eucharist, we receive Him; are we careful to be worthy vessels?

Just as they were new and unused before Christ, so both the womb and the tomb were unused after Christ. The womb of Mary never bore Jesus any siblings and it is impossible to think that - especially given its early veneration - the tomb of Christ ever held another body. Do we also, as vessels that bear Christ to the world, dedicate ourselves totally to Him?

The womb of Mary was immaculate while the tomb of Christ was unsullied by the stench and decay of death. You and I cannot avoid physical death, but do we avoid spiritual death? Do we work to keep our souls clean? Do we form our consciences on the teachings of the Church, follow the examples of the saints, and act on faith, hope, and love?

Adam, the first man, was made in a garden in his innocence. Christ, the new man, was formed in the immaculate garden of His mother's womb. How can her womb have been a garden? "...and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus." Her womb was more filled with life than even Eden; from it, the Author of Life Himself was born. From the Tomb, He was reborn, and the new life of the Resurrection began in the garden where the tomb was carved into the rock. You and I have received the new life of grace. Have we watered and fertilized it as we would a garden, by prayer and study? Have we been careful to uproot weeds that might choke it out, by examination of conscience and making good confessions? Have we taken time to enjoy the fragrance of the Christian life, the beauty and richness of our faith? Do we spread the seed of the gospel, telling others of Our Resurrected Lord?

In the womb of Mary, it was the Holy Spirit who overshadowed her to make a body for Jesus Christ, and anointed Him from his first moment. In the tomb, it was Nicodemus who brought a tremendous quantity of myrrh and aloes to prepare Christ for burial. The spiritual life is not something we may simply produce in ourselves; it is the result of our being called and anointed by God. Do we live out our anointed life? Do we ask the Holy Spirit to overshadow us also, to bring about holiness in us, so that we may bear Christ to the world?

The tomb reminds us also of the Incarnation. In it, Jesus was wrapped in a clean linen burial cloth, just as in the womb He, the Word of God, assumed human nature in its perfection, clean from sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us four reasons for the Incarnation:

  1. "The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God." (CCC 457)
  2. "The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God's love." (CCC 458)
  3. "The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness." (CCC 459)
  4. "The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature." (CCC 460)

Do we faithfully work with Christ in bringing these four reasons to fruition? Do we seek reconciliation with God? Do we rest in confidence in God's love for us? Do we imitate Christ in our quest for holiness? Do we partake in the divine nature as sons and daughters of God?

Finally, when Christ was in the womb of the Blessed Mother, her cousin Elizabeth greeted her in anticipation of the birth of her Savior. Thirty-three years later, the holy women awaited His Resurrection, even without realizing it. In their faithful love, they sought Him out in His death, and when they found Him, they were witnesses of the Resurrection. We likewise are also witnesses, for we the Church have seen the works of the Resurrected Christ, we have seen the conversion He has caused in the lives of friends and loved ones, we have heard of miracles performed by His saints' intercession, and some of us have even witnessed miracles with our very eyes. Do we likewise anticipate Christ in our own lives and in His Second Coming? Conversely, do we, as Pope Francis has said, allow ourselves to be surprised by God?

I close with a passage from the 13th station of St. Josemaria Escriva's Way of the Cross:

Mary stands by the Cross, engulfed in grief. And John is beside her. But it is getting late, and the Jews press for Our Lord to be removed from there.

Having obtained from Pilate the permission required by Roman law for the burial of condemned prisoners, there comes to Calvary a councillor named Joseph, a good and upright man, a native of Arimathea. He has not consented to their counsel and their doings, but is himself one of those waiting for the kingdom of God (Luke 23:50-51). With him too comes Nicodemus, the same who earlier visited Jesus by night; he brings with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight (John 19:39).

These men were not known publicly as disciples of the Master. They had not been present at the great miracles, nor did they accompany him on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But now, when things have turned bad, when the others have fled, they are not afraid to stand up for their Lord.

Between the two of them they take down the body of Jesus and place it in the arms of his most holy Mother. Mary 's grief is renewed.

Where has thy Beloved gone, o fairest of women? Where has he whom thou lovest gone, and we will seek him with thee? (Cant 5:17).

The Blessed Virgin is our Mother, and we do not wish to, we cannot, leave her alone.

Holy Mother Mary, pray for us. Show us the depths of your Son's love for us and make us saints for Him.

 

 

 

Micah Murphy

ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Micah Murphy

Micah Murphy is the development manager of the OneFaith web platform. After discerning out of priestly formation for his native Omaha, he earned his BA in theology and catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville and worked for several years as a youth minister and theology teacher before coming to work for Third Millennium Media, parent company of OneFaith. Micah enjoys theological discussion, creative design, and cartooning. He lives in rural Louisiana with his wife, Jennie, and their four children.

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