Seat of Wisdom

A Christmas Meditation

Mark Alessio



Gaudete, gaudete!
Christus est natus
Ex Maria Virgine:

(from Piae Cantiones, 1582)                             

“Round yon Virgin Mother and Child.” The image persists even today, as Advent (more commonly known as the “shopping season”) rolls around. Even the indifferent and the hostile tend to turn a blind eye when Silent Night is sung, for there is something disarming about the Madonna and Child. The image hits the heart in a rather direct way, bypassing all the intellectual, theological and philosophical constructions by which we explore and explain the things of God. A mother and her baby — we see them on subways, on park benches, in doctors’ offices, strolling along sidewalks. The Mother and Infant of Bethlehem are “different” from those other mothers and babies, as far as their place in the created order goes. Yet, as mother and child, they are so very much like all the others. When we contemplate them, when we imagine them, when we allow the lyrics of Silent Night to transport us back in time, we encounter something so familiar, so easily understood, and so fundamentally good and inspiring, that we cannot feel alienated from it:

…Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild...

This warmth and familiarity is no accident. Like all the details of God’s plan for the Redemption of mankind, it is vital and salvific. Yes, there exist intricate verbal constructs, woven out of imposing theological terms, used by scholars to describe what we encounter every year on any decent Christmas card. As rational beings, we require these constructs; we need this science that helps us to ponder and share the doctrinal niceties and distinctions of our holy Faith. Yet, though the Doctors and Theologians would come later — and thank God for them! — and make their contributions to the Church, there were others, no less important in the eyes of God, actually present when Christ was born. They were honest laborers, earning their keep in the fields around the city. They were the first ones to hear the Good News that the Redeemer had arrived, that He now breathed the same air they did and looked out upon the same stars.

The “Herald Angels” didn’t tell these shepherds to sit down and listen to a treatise on the Incarnation. They didn’t speak of hypostatis, the union of Divine and human natures, of the awesome meeting between Time and Eternity that had taken place in the Virgin’s womb at the Annunciation and was finally revealed to all in a nearby manger. After proclaiming the birth of the Savior, the Angels gave to the shepherds the simplest of instructions: “You shall find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” That was all the shepherds needed to know. Find the Infant! And where was this unique infant to be found? The Shepherds would find Him right where the Magi did: “They found the Child with Mary His mother.”

In this portrait of the Madonna and Child, God has given to the world a living icon of salvation—rich, serene, beautiful and complete. Nothing is lacking here. All the great theological treatises, all the most stupendous sacred art, all the nuances of our best religious poetry...all of it finds its basis, source, meaning and power in this living icon: God Incarnate and His Immaculate Mother. The vision is filled with the best paradoxes God has presented to his mortal creatures; it is breathtaking, but familiar...exquisite, yet ordinary...majestic and powerful, as well as humble and gentle. It is a lesson for both the shepherd and scholar. Before it, distinctions fade and anyone with sense in his head desires nothing more than to adore that Child and find protection in the Immaculate hands of His Mother.

This Mother has been hailed by countless generations as the Seat of Wisdom. This title has a particularly strong connection to Christmas:

Mary has this title in her litany because the Son of God, who is also called in Scripture the Word and Wisdom of God, once dwelt in her, and then, after His birth of her, was carried in her arms and seated on her lap in His first years. Thus, being, as it were, the human throne of Him who reigns in Heaven, she is called the Seat of Wisdom.   (Cardinal John Henry Newman)

God, in His mercy, has given the world an image to cherish that does not require prodigious learning or esoteric knowledge in order to be understood. The deepest Mystery of all creation has been chiseled into relief, and what is the result? What is placed before us for contemplation? Nothing other than a “Nativity scene,” Mary and her Son.

How many paintings by the great masters of the Renaissance depicted this very scene: The Divine Infant seated upon the lap of the Virgin! The image is reproduced still on Christmas cards, but how many people are aware of just what they are looking at? For what more perfect and fitting throne can be imagined for the Son of God than His Immaculate Mother? Mary loved Jesus with a mother’s love and gave to Him a heart that was attuned to His like no other before or since:

The mysterious harp of King David, mentioned in several passages of Sacred Scripture, is another symbolic picture of the Holy Heart of Mary.... He [Jesus] fashioned it with His own hands; He alone always possessed it. No other fingers but His ever evoked its melodies, because her virginal Heart never vibrated with sentiments, affections or impulses other than those inspired by the Holy Ghost.  (St. John Eudes)

Truly amazing — indeed, miraculous — things occurred in the sacred womb of the Seat of Wisdom. Yes, Our Lady was and remains, as St. Louis de Montfort wrote, “a mere creature fashioned by the hands of God,” and therefore, “compared to His infinite majesty, less than an atom.” However, when we consider her place in the created order, and the magnitude of the spiritual gifts bestowed upon her because of that place, we edge out into uncharted waters, for we set ourselves the task of imagining what manner of gifts God Himself can and will bestow on the Mother of His Son. Mary’s Immaculate Heart is one of those gifts. This is the Heart that poured out all its love upon the tiny Infant of Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes. This is the Heart that “never vibrated with sentiments, affections or impulses other than those inspired by the Holy Ghost.”

That the Holy Ghost took (and always will take) a special joy in the Blessed Virgin has been proven so clearly and eloquently by one simple fact: Mary’s Divine Maternity. By the power of the Holy Ghost, and with Our Lady’s full consent, God became man in the Virgin’s womb. Mary, the “Immaculate Conception,” is, really and truly, the Spouse of the Holy Ghost:

Among creatures made in God’s image, the union brought about by married love is the most intimate of all. In a much more precise, more interior, more essential manner, the Holy Ghost lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in the depths of her very being. He makes her fruitful from the very first instant of her existence, all during her life, and for all eternity.... The virginal womb of Mary’s body is kept sacred for Him; there He conceives in time — because everything that is material happens in time — the human life of the man-God. (St. Maximilian Kolbe)

By the power of her Divine Spouse, the “fruitful purity” of the Virgin brought forth the Incarnate Word. As Mother of the Church, this same virginal fecundity brings forth members of the Church, members of that Mystical Body whose Head she had given birth to at Bethlehem. To this day, and as long as the earth lasts, the Holy Ghost will cooperate with the Blessed Virgin in the salvation of souls redeemed by the Precious Blood, just as He chose to cooperate with her in the human generation of Christ:

God the Holy Ghost, who does not produce any divine person, became fruitful through Mary whom He espoused. It was with her, in her and of her that He produced His masterpiece, God-made-man, and that He produces every day until the end of the world the members of the Body of this adorable Head. (St. Louis de Montfort)

How much richer does our appreciation of Christmas become, when, after giving thanks for the coming of the God-man, we also stop to give thanks for our own “re-birth” as heirs of the Father, children of Mary, brethren of Jesus — i.e., as members of the Catholic Church. When we praise and render gratitude to God for Mary’s Divine Maternity (by which she bore Jesus), we implicitly offer our gratitude for her Spiritual Maternity (by which she continually “bears” members of the Church).

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost shine in the immaculate soul of Mary with a finely burnished glow, and one of those gifts is Wisdom. Through this gift, Our Lady could love God with an unfettered love. She could give her fiat to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation with a heart unfettered by doubt or scruple. She could truly become the Cause of Our Joy for the simple fact that her “yes” to Gabriel set in motion the great plan of Salvation ordained by the Blessed Trinity since the dawn of time. It is a thing well worth considering.

Our Lady would also become, in a sense, a repository for Divine Truth. Free from the disordered passions of original sin, Our Lady contemplated God like no one else ever did or could. And what of her thirty years spent in familial intimacy with Jesus? Who can number the times He spoke to her, taught her, explained to her? Who was, and remains, closer to Our Lord than His Own Mother, she whom Bl. Padre Pio called “the only worthy repository of His secrets”? There can be no doubt that the Apostles placed themselves under Mary’s protection and guidance, thereby setting an example for all to follow.

The Seat of Wisdom — a throne crafted by God for His Infant Son, a reservoir in which the Gifts of the Holy Ghost are gathered, a sure guide and protectress for those still making their uncertain way through this “valley of tears.” It is somewhat humbling to think that a simple title — three words — can convey such a wealth of doctrine, of poetry, of hope. It is humbling because it makes us think again of God’s mercy and generosity. His gifts are never inconsequential or ordinary. Outstanding among these is the gift of Himself, lying in a manger on the first Christmas night, and present upon Catholic altars during Mass. After this preeminent gift comes that of the Blessed Virgin, the Seat of Wisdom, a creature so exquisite in every way that we are forced into becoming poets if we wish to describe her. Christmas is indeed a good time to ponder these divine bestowals:

Whom earth and sea and sky proclaim
The Ruler of their triple frame,
He, unto whom their praises rise,
Within the womb of Mary lies.
Her womb, the seat of every grace,
Is now the Lord’s abiding place;
That Lord to whom the sun by day,
The moon by night, their homage pay.
O happy Mother that thou art,
Close underneath thy beating heart
Lies the Creator-God, who planned
The world he holds within his hand.
Blest by the herald-angel’s tongue,
O’er thee God’s shadowing Spirit hung
And filled thy womb — whence issued forth
The Long-desired of all the earth.

(Hymn from The Little Office of Our Lady, attributed to
Venantius Fortunatus, 6th-Century Bishop of Poitiers)