Image: The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto by Giovanni Battista Tiepol (detail) | Public Domain Getty Center via Wikimedia Commons
“If we were in charge of the birth of Our Lord, it would have happened differently.”
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Loreto. If you don’t remember celebrating that feast most of your life, it’s because chances are, you have not. Pope Francis placed it on the universal calendar as an optional memorial in 2019. But we have honored Our Lady with this title since the Middle Ages.
The Holy House of Loreto, named for the city in Italy in which it now stands, originally stood in the small city of Nazareth. Tradition tells us that it is the home where Mary grew up and received the visit of the angel Gabriel. The three walls stood against a cave which can be visited in Nazareth today. Under mysterious circumstances, those three walls made their way from Nazareth to Italy in the 13th century.
Historical record shows that that the house disappeared from Nazareth after Christians were driven out of the Holy Land in 1291. The house showed up in Croatia for a few years, before then arriving in Italy. The feast of the Translation of the Holy House of Mary, Mother of God has been celebrated locally on December 10 since 1624.
ANGELS OR ANGELI?
Tradition says this “translation” of the Holy House was the work of angels, who carried the house through the air from place to place to protect it from destruction. Modern scholars say it was brought by a wealthy family, the Angeli. Given the circumstances, both “translations” seem to require a bit of faith! Yet everything points to the fact that the walls that now stand in a small city on the Adriatic once stood in Palestine.
The measurements and shape of the Holy House are identical to the foundations that remain in Nazareth. Scientific studies have shown that both the bricks and the mortar between the bricks come from a composite found only in Palestine. The walls that now rest in Loreto inexplicably do not rest on a foundation. (And interestingly enough, the home’s final resting place after a few trips around Italy was in the middle of a road. An odd place for a wealthy family to decide to reconstruct a home…)
While the dating of the feast is connected to the arrival of the house in Italy the evening of December 9-10, its celebration provides a fitting meditation for us at this moment in Advent. Those walls, which protected Mary during important moments of her life, would not witness the first Christmas.
OUR PLANS VS GOD’S PLAN
If we were in charge of the birth of Our Lord, it would have happened differently, would it not? That humble home in Nazareth, which sheltered Mary during the moment that changed her life forever – the Annunciation – would have been the humble but comforting place where she gave birth to Jesus. If we were in charge, there would be no cross-country donkey ride, no caravan down to Bethlehem. There would be no stranger’s cave or manger. (Although I will point out, at the time, a cave was probably a much nicer place to give birth than a public room in a crowded inn.) If we were in charge of Christmas, Mary would have given birth in the “Holy House” of Loreto, albeit in Nazareth. But she didn’t. That was not in the plan of God. And mysteriously, His plan is always superior to ours.
The decree establishing the universal feast says, “This celebration will help all people, especially families, youth and religious to imitate the virtues of that perfect disciple of the Gospel, the Virgin Mother, who, in conceiving the Head of the Church also accepted us as her own.” One of those virtues is docility to the plan of God.
When Mary uttered those words – “Let it be to me according to your word” – it was a fiat that surpassed the Annunciation. It was a docility to the mysterious plan of God that would last her lifetime. That is why she is the perfect disciple. She knows that as strange and mysterious the will of God might be, it is the best plan. Even if it means he dies on a Cross while she watches.
The feast day, in the midst of our preparations for Christmas, is a reminder to us of Mary and Joseph’s docility and surrender. The weeks before the birth of her son should have been a time for Mary to prepare to give birth in Galilee. Instead, she’s preparing for a trip. On a human level, it makes sense for Mary to give birth in Nazareth. But she did not.
THE DOCILITY OF DISCIPLESHIP
God’s way are often not our ways. And sometimes, they do not make sense to our human eyes. The world would have expected Christmas to look differently. But we don’t live for the world; we live for him. Are we ready to set aside our ideas and be open to what God has planned? Can we silence the voices of the world’s expectations to hear God’s expectations?
In his letter on St. Joseph, Pope Francis pointed out, “Joseph set aside his own ideas in order to accept the course of events and, mysterious as they seemed, to embrace them, take responsibility for them and make them part of his own history.” God asked Joseph to accept a plan quite different from the one he had discerned. Instead of being attached to his own plans or even his own discernment, he walked forward in humility.
As we celebrate this feast day, let us ask for the same docility, surrender, humility and courage of those first disciples, Mary and Joseph. Let us not be afraid to leave the walls we’ve built – the walls of our comfort zone, our plans and expectations – to follow the daily will of God.