Friday, December 17, 2010

Infant of Prague

 I made a pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers last week.  It’s a yearly trek, part of my “buy Catholic” campaign.  My groom needs to give professional gifts at this time of year, so we send Monk Fudge.  For the record, the Trappists at Gethsemane make awesome cheese and the Carmelites in Wyoming roast amazing coffee....

Anyway, visiting the monastery is never a brief proposition.  There’s always a need to spend time in the beautiful, austere Gothic chapel, and no matter the season and the weather, my groom can always find  a hundred things to photograph.  I, on the other hand, gravitate to the bookshop.  Finding  a place to lay hands on Catholic books in Chattanooga is something of a challenge, so I am apt to go a bit overboard.  And the shop also has a fine collection of statuary.....

Having discovered the utility of images, prayer cards and other such paraphernalia in focusing and enriching my devotional life, I have acquired quite a collection, my version of visual gluttony, I guess.  I’m not quite of the opinion that it is not possible to have too much statuary, but I do tend to fall on the side of the argument that holds that anywhere one’s eye might fall really should hold something that helps raise one’s mind to God.   Hence, it is a dangerous thing indeed to leave me unattended in a monastery gift shop.

I have to give myself credit this time for a modicum of restraint.  Most of what I bought will go for gifts to others, but I treated myself to two small images: a nice statue of St. Patrick, who has been dear to me since I read his Confessions and found in him a kindred soul and a tiny, ornate statue of the Infant of Prague.  It seems to me that the Infant King is particularly appropriate at this time of year.

A friend of mine, who entered the Church last Easter was initially put off by a state of the Infant that is in one of our local parishes, a traditional statue with elaborate satin gowns that are changed with the seasons.  For an Evangelical Protestant who was having trouble with the whole concept of saints and statuary, this was almost too much to manage.   

For me, the Infant of Prague led me to a new and deeper understanding of Advent , of Christ Himself and of the journey of faith.  Not because of the history of the statue, which is impressive in itself, but because of the image itself: a child, dressed in elaborate robes, holding the world in his hand and crowned as a king.  I always gave intellectual assent to Christ as King, and of course, I was familiar with the  songs and sentiments that celebrated the infant Jesus as king, though I never really gave it much thought.   Protestants tend to skip over the first thirty-three years of Jesus’ life, except for the seasonal nod at Christmas.

No such perspective for me as a Catholic.  Every time I go to mass in the chapel at our parish, I see the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, with both Mother and Child elaborately crowned and the cross ominous in the background.  When I visit another parish, there is the Infant of Prague, Child-King holding the world in His hands.  Jesus certainly grew into His human manhood and undertook His ministry, but He was just as much the Word, and our Creator, and our Savior in the manger as on the cross, and just as worthy of worship and obedience.  The fact that He chose to come to earth in  a form which we could literally embrace, nurture and protect has some significance to our journey,  God wants to enter the very center of our lives and goes to every extent—even that of becoming not just human but a newborn—to see that happen.

And this brings me to Advent.  Once I began to wrap my mind around the fact that Christ is Christ whenever and however I encounter Him, eternally present and eternally unchanging in essence, I began to understand how fitting—and how wonderful—it is that He chose to come to us in the form of an infant.  I begin to understand that all of His human life leads us to relationship with God—not just the last three years, days or hours.  All of Christ’s life on earth was preparation for and direction to the work of salvation, even those early years about which we can only guess.

But the guesses are informed ones.  Most of us have had the experience, if not of having children, of watching others go through the experience.  There is the great and anxiety-filled period of waiting, preparing the house and the heart to receive a new life, without really knowing what that life will be.  All parents—mothers especially—relate the undercurrent of worry that comes with pregnancy.  My own experience with adoption was just the same.  After our baby was born but not yet in our arms,  we went through nine months of anxiety in one restless night.  I woke from restless sleep and asked my husband, What if he flunks the first grade?  A little later, he shook me awake asking, What if he can’t get a date for the senior prom?  There’s something about letting new life in, life over which one ultimately has little control, that surfaces our vulnerabilities ., that makes us know that we are destined to change in ways we can neither foresee nor control.

And so it is when we let Christ into our lives.  What if I cannot run the race?  What if He asks me to do something I don’t want to do?  What if...what if...what if...In following Christ, it is needful  to let go of those anxieties, and let Him shape and lead us where He wants us to go.  Difficult for headstrong, competent, independent people.  There’s an inherent resistance to following another’s lead, even when it makes sense to do so.  We’d just rather do it ourselves.

Ah, but watch the transformation in a household that receives a baby!  Ordinary, established and cherished  routines go out the window, and life begins to revolve around this helpless new being that communicates only by coos and wails, who has no concept of schedule and expects that life will revolve around him, and his simple, intractable, infant will.  And it does.  

Initially, the transformation of the household is difficult.  There’s no arguing with an infant, and the only way to have peace in the house is to yield to the infant’s demands whenever and however they are made.  It doesn’t take long for the parents, head over heels in love with their new baby, to begin to take the most extraordinary activity as completely normal.  Tired mothers find comfort in nursing their babies even in the small hours of the morning and on a brutal schedule.  Tired fathers suddenly don’t mind dragging their protesting frames out of bed to fetch the baby, the bottle or both.  Fastidious adults find themselves changing diapers and exchanging stories with other of the initiated about the trials of doing so.  Travel slows, and life centers on baby’s comfort, baby’s safety, baby’s nap, baby’s schedule.  Soon enough, the tiny infant will become a surly adolescent, but even those trials—in prospect and in retrospect—gain perspective when remembering the baby who arrived helpless and took over the house.

 If Advent does its job and we receive Christ as the vulnerable infant King, in the same way we receive our own children, then we have prepared our hearts to change, for God will always come to us in a way we can receive.  We have acknowledged all those anxieties that spoil our present moments, but we have a sweet Infant in our arms, and that is enough.  

Tomorrow will take care of itself, and no matter what it brings, here is this Baby who fills our hearts and stills, at least for the moment, our concerns.  And like all good parents, we almost unaware begin to arrange our lives, happily and as completely as we can, around that Infant.  Later, we will resist His demands as He articulates them to us, for we are fallen and imperfect.  But for now, even we poor sinners know how to care for a baby.

But He is King on the throne and King on the cross and King in the manger, and we must recognize him wherever He is.  And if in the hard, demanding days of summer when we encounter Christ on the way to the cross, we can  remember the lessons we learned when we welcomed Him into our hearts and into a cradle in the middle of winter, perhaps we can do then as we seek to do now: let His presence fill our hearts and homes, arrange our lives around Him without questioning, and serve Him as He asks. 

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