I write these lines sitting in silence, contemplating the image of our Pieta. Only a short distance from me, Michelangelo’s sculpture quietly transports me to another world, to another time. It is a strange feeling: I am here, in our beloved parish, but gazing on sorrowful Mary takes me to a different place…takes me to the beginning of this story of admirable love, the cave in Bethlehem, where her son Jesus was born to save us.
During the time of Advent or Christmas, I would like to invite you to imagine the following scene: instead of the lifeless body of Christ in the original sculpture, make an effort to substitute Baby Jesus in your imagination. Suddenly, everything seems to make more sense: the youthfulness of our Lady, the position of her body, her facial expression – it all seems to fit in better into the scene of the Nativity than at the Crucifixion. Not only Mary’s expression is maternal, but her entire demeanor is that of a woman who has just given birth. We can see her sitting, rocking her baby, singing a lullaby to soothe him, or even feeding him from her own breast.
Sometimes I’ve asked myself if Michelangelo may have been really thinking more about Bethlehem than Calvary when he sculpted his magnificent piece. And I ask myself: could it be that the artist deliberately intended to evoke the Nativity scene in the sculpture of the Pieta? To me it makes sense to think that the sculptor genius tried to imply- by the way he placed the bodies of the lifeless Christ and sorrowful Mary- an intrinsic, theological relationship, between the scenes of the manger and of the cross.
Actually, Christmas and Passion are, somehow, the same event with identical players, though lived or split into two distinct moments: in fact, the recumbent body of Christ is the same that was embraced by Mary in the grotto of Bethlehem. The man resting serenely, in the arms of the Virgin, is the same man who in the Nativity scene slept peacefully to the lullabies of the Mother of God.
Between these two events, the life of the Son of God on Earth took place. According to the Prologue of the Gospel of John, “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” (Jn 1, 11) and this is applied with the same forcefulness in both the mystery of Christmas and the Passion of Christ.
Each event highlights the other. The saints have always seen in Bethlehem the beginning of the suffering of Jesus and Mary for our salvation. They have seen the offering of Jesus for the redemption of the world. They have seen the love of God the Father in the salvation of fallen humanity. St. Alphonsus Liguori, for example, expresses himself this way: “This is how He presented Himself before the Father, when He came to this world, from the beginning of this life; He presented Himself as the prisoner and debtor of all our sins, and as such He was condemned and cursed and turned unto death on a cross. Oh God, if the Eternal Father could have had pain, what sorrow would He have experienced from watching His beloved son, His innocent son, worthy of all His love, forced to be treated as a criminal, as the most evil criminal in the world. ‘Behold the man’, said Pilate when he showed Him to the Jews, scourged, so they would have compassion, as he saw this innocent man mistreated. ‘Behold the man’, it seems the Eternal Father is saying to us while showing us His Son in the cave of Bethlehem. Know that this poor babe you see here, oh, men!, placed in a manger of animals and laying on hay, is my dear Son who has come to take away your sins and your pain; love Him, then, for He is very worthy of your love”.
As we contemplate the Baby and His Mother in Bethlehem, let us reflect on the love behind this scene, thanking them for all they have endured for our salvation. Let us make up our minds to answer generously to God with love for all the love He has given us.