Monday of the First Week of Advent
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While serving in the French army in 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and playwright, was captured by Germans and placed in a prisoner of war camp. Before Christmas, a fellow-prisoner named Paul Feller who was a Jesuit, persuaded Sartre to write a Christmas play for the Christians imprisoned with them. By 1940, Sartre—who had been baptized a Catholic—was a declared atheist, but he agreed to the request out of a sense of solidarity with the other prisoners. The following is a brief excerpt from the resulting play, called “Bar-Jona,” in which Sartre offers a moving reflection on the Virgin Mother and her newborn son, Jesus.
The Virgin is pale, and she looks at the baby. What I would paint on her face is an anxious wonderment, such as has never before been seen on a human face. For Christ is her baby, flesh of her flesh, and the fruit of her womb. She has carried him for nine months, and she will give him her breast, and her milk will become the blood of God. There are moments when the temptation is so strong that she forgets that he is God. She folds him in her arms and says: My little one.
But at other moments she feels a stranger, and she thinks: God is there — and she finds herself caught by a religious awe before this speechless God, this terrifying infant. All mothers at times are brought up sharp in this way before this fragment of themselves, their baby. They feel themselves in exile at two paces from this new life that they have created from their life, and which is now peopled by another’s thoughts. But no other baby has been so cruelly and suddenly snatched from his mother, for he is God, and he surpasses in every way anything that she can imagine. It is a hard trial for a mother to be ashamed of herself and her human condition before her son.
But I think that there are other rapid, fleeting moments when she realizes at once that Christ is her son, her very own baby, and that he is God. She looks at him and thinks: This God is my baby. This divine flesh is my flesh. He is made from me. He has my eyes, and the curve of his mouth is the curve of mine. He is like me. He is God and he is like me.
No other woman has been lucky enough to have a God for herself alone, a tiny little God whom she can take in her arms and cover with kisses, a warm-bodied God who smiles and breathes, a God that she can touch, who is alive. And it is in these moments that I would paint Mary, if I was a painter, and I would try to capture the air of radiant tenderness and timidity with which she lifts her finger to touch the sweet skin of her baby-God, whose warm weight she feels on her knees, and who smiles.
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