1st Sunday of Advent: The Birth of Mary

Opening Prayer

Heavenly Father,

In your wisdom you chose your servant Mary to be the bearer of your son Jesus Christ. In choosing Mary you have exalted the lowly and stuck down the proud. Send to us your Holy Spirit so that we may mirror Mary’s life of service to you, to be open to your call for us to receive Christ, and to share Christ with the world.


Scripture Reading

Isaiah 7:10-14

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel, that is, God is with us.”

Simeone and Machilone of Spoleto, The Virgin Enthroned 1270-75
Simeone and Machilone of Spoleto, The Virgin Enthroned
Tempera on wood, 32⅙ x 47¼ (79.2 x 120 cm.)
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp Source: Web Gallery of Art

Simeone and Machilone of Spoleto, The Virgin Enthroned
Tempera on wood, 32⅙ x 47¼ (79.2 x 120 cm.)
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp Source: Web Gallery of Art

On the Birth of the Virgin Mary

Little is known authoritatively about the Virgin Mary’s early childhood and family. However, an ancient text from the year 145, called The Protoevangelium of James, has provided a narrative that many saints turned to when wanting to learn more about the Virgin Mary.

Neither scripture nor apocryphal literature provides any details about the Virgin Mary’s actual birth. Given this silence, medieval and renaissance images of the birth adopt the conventions of the earliest images of the nativity of Jesus.

This painting of tempera on wood is titled “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin.” The artist was unknown for centuries. However, in 1949 from a faint inscription found beneath Mary’s feet, the painting was identified as the work of Simeone and Machilone of Spoleto. It is held by Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.

Dossals such as this developed after the first quarter of the 13th century.

They were painted on a single wood panel with a tall portrait in the center flanked by painted “columns” that separate it from the vertical array of smaller images. Sometimes, although not in this case, there will also be a small image above or below the central portrait.

Here the Virgin Mary sits in the center of a throne and holds on to the Christ Child, who raises his right hand in blessing. There is a naturalistic feel with this section of the painting where Mary’s feet are not aligned, and there is something of a squirm in the way that Jesus is posed on her lap.

The birth of Mary in the upper left quadrant is echoed by the birth of Jesus in the lower right.

Each mother is similarly posed in the left center of the image, on a white bed with vertical stripes and each child is being bathed by midwives. The differences, however, are somewhat telling. St Anne is on a tall bed before a background of elegant urban structures and empty sky while Mary lies on a blanket in a cave while in the background shepherds gaze at the angel in the heavens.

There is a similar chiasmic relation before the Annunciation and Assumption images also included in the painting. Again, an urban location in one is contrasted with angels and sky in the other, and the dark mantle that Mary wears in the Annunciation image differs dramatically from the brighter blue one in which she rises to heaven.

An Oblate’s Pondering
By Fr Daniel Szewc, OMI

Upon founding of a missionary community in 1816 St Eugene de Mazenod and his companions called themselves Missionaries of Provence. Their evangelizing identity was defined by the Southern region of France where they lived and missioned.

Nine years later when they expanded beyond the boundaries of Provence, they changed their name to Oblates of St Charles. The renowned Italian saint, Cardinal Charles Borromeo, who committed his life and energy to renewing the Church in the sixteenth century, resonated with their aspirations of bringing renewal to, not just rebuilding, the Church after the French Revolution.

However, the name was short lived as a few months later, while in Rome to seek the Pope’s approval, St Eugene changed the name to the Congregation to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. By naming the Congregation after Mary, St Eugene expressed his profound discovery of Mary as the person who can inspire and nurture the missionary identity of the Congregation.

Furthermore, by choosing the Immaculate Conception as the focus from Mary’s life, St Eugene pointed to Mary’s whole existence as an inspiration for the Missionary Oblate. Mary’s beginning of life, free of the original sin, permeated her life on earth and her glory in heaven. St Eugene realized that Mary was the person most committed to the Redemptive mission of Christ because she benefited from it most.

St Eugene admitted that he always loved Mary, but it was a life changing moment when he discovered Mary’s role in the mission of Jesus. Her role was not defined by what she did but by who she was: the mother and a disciple of Christ walking faithfully in the footsteps of her Son and Master Jesus Christ.
The thirteenth century wooden dossel of the Virgin and the Child Enthroned with scenes from the life of the Virgin offers us an opportunity to contemplate Mary’s life in its entirety.

From her Nativity (left upper corner) through the Annunciation below, to the Nativity of Jesus (lower right corner) and her Assumption in the right upper corner, the four scenes of her life are not simply four separate events but an insight into how Jesus’ salvation permeated her entire life, bringing unity and integrity. The central depiction of Mary holding the Child Jesus strikingly manifests that Salvation is not an abstract idea, but it is all about having Jesus in one’s life. Thus, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which inspired St Eugene so much, is the lifestyle of Mary defined by her commitment to Jesus and his mission.

Reflection Questions

Feel free to share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

  1. Do you have an image of Mary that speaks especially to you? What is your favorite aspect of this image?
  2. Looking to Mary as the first disciple, how important is her example to you as a friend or co-missionary of the family of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate?
  3. When St Eugene de Mazenod named the congregation after Mary, he expressed his profound discovery of Mary as the person who can inspire and nurture the missionary identity of the Oblates. How can Mary be an inspiration to you as a lay missionary?

Reflection Activities for the Week Ahead

Reflect on the reasons why Mary is an inspiring role model. Write the list and place it somewhere you see it often so you can continue to be inspired by the life of Mary.

Spend some time in prayer with Mary as your focus. You could start with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a starting point if you need some guidance.

Closing Prayer

Holy Father,

We come to you because Jesus asked us to pray that you send workers into your harvest. Therefore, send us generous men and women, passionate for Jesus, willing to make their whole life a total oblation to You, to become close to the poorest and most abandoned, and to proclaim the Gospel.

Send us, Lord, people willing to share the charism of our founder, St Eugene de Mazenod, conscious of the call of God to be a friend and co-missionary of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and serve the poor and most abandoned.

Under the inspiration and protection of Mary Immaculate, help us as we encounter our brothers and sisters and offer them Jesus, the source of our hope, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.


P.S. During this reflective season, we would be honored to light an Advent Candle for you each week of Advent at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.