Bringing Jesus to birth


A distinguished psychologist and former clinical director of the Notre Dame Centre in Glasgow reflects on Giovanni Bellini’s beautiful painting of the Virgin and Child in the Burrell Collection, which appears on the front of this month’s Open House.

I was immediately struck by the image of Jesus at play in the safety of his mother’s arms. Mary’s right hand lies gently on the balustrade while her left hand has a firm grip on her son ensuring that he does not topple. Feeling securely held, Jesus is fully occupied in play. With his right hand he dangles a fine thread at the end of which is a small bunch of flowers. No doubt Mary prepared this plaything for him. Jesus experiments with his ‘toy’, using it to connect him to his mother. The connection between mother and child is almost palpable, each lost in the moment.

Play is the medium through which children expand their curiosity, their physical and social skills. They do not need expensive toys, but rather the opportunity and encouragement to play with any safe material available. Here in the West we often provide more than is wise in the way of toys for our children, especially at Christmas time. Manufacturers use TV adverts to ensure that children use pester-power on their parents. Parents, grandparents, doting aunts and uncles often spend more than they can afford. Parents don’t want their children to be singled out from the rest of their peer group if they haven’t got the latest items. This often results in a spiralling debt problem. In a way the simplicity of this portrayal of Jesus by Bellini illustrates that playthings need not be over elaborate nor cause families to go into debt. Perhaps we can all learn from Mary!

Looking now to Mary, we see a young pensive mother. I wonder what is going on in her head. She appears quietly reflective which makes me wonder if she is thinking ahead, imagining what her boy will become and silently praying that he will have a peaceful life. Mary was rearing her child in turbulent times with little security, given Roman domination. Our TV screens are filled with heartbreaking images of mothers in Syria and in the camps to which they have fled. They cry in despair for their children – what future will they have? Will they have a future at all? It is hard to imagine the emotional suffering a mother goes through as she faces the effect that personal, family, national or world tragedy may have on her child’s future.

As we contemplate Bellini’s work, it is hard not to wonder where Joseph is. Perhaps he is busy in his carpentry workshop. Many fathers in the past would have been in a similar position, missing out in so much of their child’s early years. Yet when the Westminster government introduced the right of fathers to have paternity leave, a recent survey indicated that many took only a fraction of the time available to them. Various reasons were put forward to explain the results, such as difficulty with financial loss. Now the same government is proposing that after two weeks for the mother to recover from giving birth, a further fifty weeks can be shared by mother and father as their respective situations demand. It will be interesting to see how this works out in practice. An important point not mentioned in this proposal is the fact that many women are rearing children on their own. The reasons are numerous. Not all women are as fortunate as Mary who had Joseph standing by her.

I work with other retired psychologists in a walk-in centre for parents. Parentsetc is situated in Partick and draws parents from a wide geographical area, thanks to an excellent transport system. Over 80% of the mothers who come to share their concerns are rearing their children on their own. Life is particularly difficult when their sons are reaching their teenage years. Mary would have understood the dilemma this situation creates; she had to cope with all the anxiety she experienced when Jesus went missing for three days. We can only imagine what Mary really said to Jesus when she found him teaching in the temple! Many are the concerns expressed by the parents who come to meet with us – drink, drugs, sexual activity, unemployment. Many of these mothers don’t have a Joseph to help them with these worries. Some mothers cannot keep their babies or young children. Foster carers or adopters step in to raise them. They and the birth mothers need much support to cope with the emotions that arise from these situations.

Bellini’s painting can be viewed as quite bold in that Jesus is completely naked. This may unnerve some because in many paintings of Jesus in his infancy and at the end of his life, his nakedness is covered. We say we believe that Jesus came into our world taking on human form. None of us was born wearing a nappy! Mary does not look abashed here, nor should we. If we are abashed we lend grist to the mill of those who say our church is obsessed by sex. In these trying times for our church in Scotland we should not want to rub even more salt in the wounds.

We all owe so much to our mothers who ‘housed’ us within their wombs for nine months, suffered the pangs of birth to bring us forth into this world and nourished us at the breast or by the bottle. This intimacy provided the grounding for forging an attachment bond which, where possible, can be shared with the father. This is the foundation stone of strong emotional and social ties which later in life enable us to do as Mary did – bring Christ into the life of others. Whether we are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, we can approach Christmas asking ourselves how we can bring Jesus to birth in our world. We can pledge ourselves to be there for the mothers who are struggling to raise their children. The Christmas story is one of generous maternal love.

Dr Mary Ross SND was awarded an MBE for her services to children and families in Glasgow.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.