Thursday, December 29, 2016

Column: Holy Family: Pondering God-within

Illustration of the Holy Family from the
15th century Besancon Book of Hours. 
I encountered this illustration on Twitter, then tracked down the source.  I love not only that Mary is reading in bed and St. Joseph is cradling a sleeping infant Christ, but I also adore the cow ass munching on St. Joseph's halo.  The whole scene feels like a lesson in lectio divina, where the ancient monks advised chewing on scripture as cows on their cud.

And my mother was much on my mind this Christmas, though it's been more than a decade since she died.

I'm two books into those Christmas gifts...and shipped Crash what didn't fit into his carry-on.

A version of this column appeared at

“…his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Luke 2:51b-52

The day after Christmas, Christopher Howse, who writes on religion for Britain’s The Telegraph tweeted a picture of his favorite Nativity scene — Mary in bed reading a book while Joseph cradles a sleeping Jesus in his arms — taken from a 15th century French Book of Hours. Thinking of the Gospel for the Mass on Christmas Day, the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, I retweeted the image with the comment, “We take our Christmas cues from John’s Gospel - in the beginning was the Word.  Book, books, everywhere…”

It’s true, we all got books. History, fiction, science-fiction and fantasy, math. Once we’d opened gifts on Christmas afternoon, everyone settled down with a new book. My mother loved to read, so it’s not a surprise that her children or grandchildren share her passion for the written word.  But the line my mother loved best from all those books was from Luke’s Gospel, where it appears not once, but twice, in the second chapter: “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

As I listened to the Gospel on Christmas, I thought of my mother and this verse.  What do I treasure? What do I hold close in my heart, turning it round and round?  Like Mary, joys and sorrows both. Family. God, surely.

But in the depths of my heart?  Every Friday, in the psalms set out for Morning Prayer, the Church prays this verse, “Indeed you love truth in the heart, then in the secret of my heart, teach me wisdom.”

Christmas brings me face to face with God revealed, God who has arrived, God who had pitched his tent among us.  It nudges me to look outside myself, to notice God loose in the world, God in the everyday — in line at the post office, knocking on my office door and huddling in the rain on the corner of Lancaster and Morris, waiting for the bus.

But Luke’s portrait of Mary reminds me that God-with-us is also God-within-us. That as much as we are called to kneel in adoration at the manger, or to trumpet “Joy to the world!” we are also called to quietly cradle God in the secret recesses of our hearts, to open the book in which God resides, to relish it, and ponder the Word in our hearts. It is a reminder that we are all called contemplative prayer, to sit quietly with a few or no words, to rest in God.

So over these next few days I’m sneaking out each night for a short walk amid the beautiful lights in my neighborhood, taking some quiet time to hold God-within, to ponder the words of the psalm, “teach me wisdom,” that in this new year I, too, might find favor before God.


  1. I love this image! Thanks for pointing out all the details. Beautiful reflection.

    1. Thanks, Doris! All the thanks go to Christopher Howse, who pointed it out on Twitter.

  2. Katherine2:20 PM

    What a marvelous image! I'll have to hunt down the particulars of the MS ...
    And a wonderful reflection for the beginning of the year (and semester soon to begin). Thank you ...

    1. Semester??? Semester?? Surely not soon! (Yes, I'm in denial!)

      The source is the Besancon Book of Hours, housed in the Fitzwilliam. (

    2. Katherine3:32 PM

      I've run out of denial space - classes start tomorrow here.

      Thanks for the MS information -- I wonder if the artist has any other interesting variations on the usual themes?