Dear brothers and sisters, today, with this beautiful feast, we are honoring in a special way the girlhood of the Mother of God. The surpassingly holy childhood of Our Lady was unique, just as unique as her surpassingly holy adulthood. She is, as the poet Wordsworth famously put it: “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” However, we all share the same human nature as the Mother of God. We are, all of us, sons or daughters of our common first-parents, Adam and Eve. And this means, among other things, that the life of the Holy Virgin is not only an exalted inspiration for us, but also a model. And she is a model for us not only in her motherhood, but also in her childhood.
We’ll return to this subject in a moment, but right now, let’s listen again to a couple verses from today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews. From chapter 9:
Behind the second curtain stood the tabernacle called the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.
This passage gives us a fairly detailed list of all the sacred objects that were treasured up within that golden chest, called the Ark of the Covenant. All of these objects bore some connection to the Exodus from Egypt, when Israel was delivered from slavery and crossed the Red Sea. But for the Church of the New Israel — that’s us — all of these objects are also understood in one way or another as prefiguring the Holy Mother of God. They are foreshadowings or (to use the technical term) types, of the Holy Virgin, each of them revealing something special about her.
Thus the jar containing the manna shows that the Virgin contained in her womb the Bread of Life, our Lord Jesus Christ. The tablets of the Law are a figure of Our Lady who bore the eternal Word of God, not engraved on stone, but formed from her very flesh and blood. And the rod — Aaron’s rod that miraculously blossomed and produced almonds, is a symbol of our Lady’s virginal womb bearing the fruit of Christ (cf. Num. 17:8).
For our purposes today, however — and now we come back to the subject of the holy childhood of Mary — I’d like us to consider these three types or figures of the Virgin from a somewhat different vantage point. The manna, the tablets, the rod. Each of them shows us an indispensable characteristic of true and godly childhood, and, therefore, of true and godly parenthood.
First, the manna. Manna,as you will remember, was the miraculous bread that God sent down every day on his quite ungrateful people, as he led them through the desert. Despite their frequent complaining and grumbling, he nourished them. He lavished his love on them. He fed them with the finest wheat (Ps. 80:16). Our holy Lady, sojourning during the years of her girlhood in the Holy of Holies, was fed every day by an angel, who brought her heavenly bread. If you look closely at the festal icon in the middle of the Church, you’ll see this angel and this bread in the top-right corner. God nourished this holy girl, he lavished his love on her, and she received with gratitude and joy that which the Israel of old received with grumbling.
Parents: you have to love your kids, you have to show them affection, support, and warmth; and of course you have to feed your kids (every day!) whether they’re grateful or not. And kids: always thank your parents for everything. Every day, and for every meal, thank your parents. Because the food you eat did not come down miraculously from heaven. No, it was provided and prepared by the hard work of your parents.
Second, the tablets: the Commandments of God inscribed in stone by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). Here we see an image of the duty of parents to instruct their children: to teach them, to raise them in the fear of God.
From the depths of the sanctuary, Our Lady, throughout her childhood, listened attentively to the words of sacred Scripture being read to the people in the forecourt of the temple. God was instructing her; he was forming her. And when she heard these words, she kept them (cf. Lk. 11:28). St. Luke tells us, “she kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (cf. Lk. 2:19, 51).
Parents: you are your children’s first and most important teachers! In fact, many teachers your kids may encounter later in life will actively work to sabotage the Christian foundation you laid. So make it as firm and as stable as you can. And kids: when your parents teach you something, listen. Even when it’s annoying, listen, and don’t forget what they have said. Be like the Mother of God, and treasure their words in your memory and in your heart.
Thirdly, the rod — the rod of Aaron that budded. A rod is used to guide and to correct. Now Our Lady, as a girl just as an adult woman, was sinless. She never once wavered from the will of God, and so Saints Joachim and Ann never had occasion to correct her. But they did guide her. There’s a touching detail in the events we remember today: having arrived at the Temple to fulfill their vow to dedicate their daughter to God, Joachim and Ann are concerned that Mary, after taking her first steps towards the priest, might turn around and run back to her parents. After all, she was only three! So they arrange for her friends, young girls her age, to go before her, carrying lit candles and torches, in order to attract her by the beauty of the lights towards her new home in the temple. In other words, Joachim and Ann deliberately plan a way to encourage their daughter to walk towards God — and away from them!
And this is the kind of guidance that all parents are called on to give their children. Not that children should leave their parents by walking towards the world, not that they should show any dishonor to their parents and so break one of the Ten Commandments, but that they should walk towards God — towards the God to whom we owe the first place in our lives, whom we must love more than parents or children or friends. And whenever parents give such guidance, it always contains an element of self-denial. This is even more the case when it comes to offering correction or even punishment. We live in a culture characterized by over-indulgence in every area of life, so it can be really easy to feel guilty whenever we take steps to check the indulgence, the whims and desires, of our children, or indeed of anyone for whom we bear responsibility. Correction is always unpleasant, for the one receiving it, certainly, but also for the one dispensing it. Yet, like that rod of Aaron that budded, correction can blossom forth and bear the peaceful fruits of human maturity, discipline, and flourishing (cf. Heb. 12:11). And that is certainly a more worthwhile and lasting gift for our children than letting them be blown about their entire lives by every wind of passion, emotion, and instability.
Parents: guide your kids, and when necessary correct them and discipline them. This is your responsibility before God. And kids: when you do something wrong and your parents have to discipline you, accept the punishment with humility, because this is what will help you have a good life.
Accepting chastisement with humility isn’t just for kids. After all, our God, as a true Father, chastens all of us, throughout our whole lives, because he loves us and desires that each of us will come to share his holiness (Heb. 12:10).
This process can be difficult and painful. But we can take comfort in the fact that Our Lady, the most pure Mother of God, is praying for us all. She’s praying that when God corrects and disciplines us, we will not despise it but will take courage, accepting it with humility and even, if we can manage it, with gratitude (cf. Heb. 12:5; Prov. 3:11). And the Holy Virgin is praying for us also that when God, as our true teacher, gives us a word of instruction, we will “hold it fast in an honest and good heart,” not being distracted by “the cares and riches and pleasures of this life” (Lk. 8:15, 14). And, above all, she’s praying for us that when God lavishes upon us the great gifts of his love, his nourishment, and the delights of his grace, we will receive them with an open and soft heart, so that we too, like St. Mary, may bear abundant fruit: the fruit of Christ in our lives. Amen.