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The Wolf, the Bird, and the Immaculate Conception

December 6, 2013


Preparations for the celebration of Christmas begin (much to the chagrin of many) in the United States with the end of the festivities associated with Halloween and conclude abruptly on December 25th. Because of the hegemony of American culture and the shortness of historical memory, this current practice might leave the impression that the Christmas Season has always followed this pattern. However, this is not the case. 

The commemoration of the Nativity of Christ actually begins liturgically with the Season of Advent, in which the faithful are encouraged to prepare themselves through penitential and other pious practices for the coming of the Lord and the celebration of his birth. Therefore, two realities are being stressed as the Church prepares for Christmas—the revelation of his Incarnation as an event that takes place in real history, and the anticipation that this revelation will happen mysteriously again as Christ, who as the Eternal God and therefore Lord of History, brings all the events and circumstances of time and space to their proper fulfillment.

This elevated theology has given way culturally to a kind of fantasia on winter themes, gift giving, and celebration of child-like wonder. The commemoration of the Nativity of Christ is situated somewhere in the midst of all this with the profound theological and eschatological revelations giving way to a birthday party for “baby Jesus.”

The Season of Advent is also a kind of umbrella that shelters a host of saints’ feast days and solemnities, which used to receive a great deal more attention and became over time intimately associated with the celebration of Christmas (even though many of these personages were centuries removed from the Nativity of Christ). Saint Nicholas and Saint Lucy come to mind in this regard, two saints for whom special customs still endure, though in attenuated forms. The feast of St. Stephen and the cruel deaths of the Holy Innocents are both remembered in carols (“Good King Wenceslas,” “The Coventry Carol”) associated with the Christmas season, though these references are likely lost to many who would hear these songs today.

The recent influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States has enlivened the cultural commemoration of Christmas with the vivid piety and celebratory events associated with the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, providing public displays of Catholicism that have not been seen in the United States since the last great wave of Catholic immigration in the late nineteenth century.

Celebrations of the Christmas season differ in terms of their beginning and their emphasis on particular saints. Though the official start of preparation for the universal Church commences with the first Sunday of Advent, popular piety may mark other days as proper for the beginning and the end of the Holy Season. Spain offers one example of this, as preparations for Christmas begin with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and end with January 6th, the day that liturgically commemorates the visit of the Magi.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was formally defined as an article of the Catholic Faith in a rare exercise of the charism of papal infallibility by Pope Pius IX in 1854. This dogma professes that Christ’s Mother was exempt from the deleterious effects of original sin from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother. Popular belief in the Immaculate Conception precedes its formal definition by centuries, which is evident in a Spanish villancico that originates in the sixteenth century:

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank protects it
God kept our lamb
From the wolf
God kept our lamb
From the wolf
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God knew
How to defend her
He decided to make her
Impervious to sin
Even original sin
This the Virgin did not have.

Riu, riu, chiu…

The lamb is a stand-in for the Mother of Christ while the wolf is the devil. The river that lies between them represents the manner that Christ’s Mother has been set aside by God for her mission in such a way that neither the evil one nor sin will have any claim over her. The song is meant as a kind of popularized catechesis on the meaning of the Immaculate Conception. As if to place the song in the context of the seasonal celebration leading up to Christmas, the lyrics shift their focus from the Immaculate Conception to the Incarnation:

The one who is born
Is the grand monarch
The patriarch Christ
Dressed in human flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Although he is infinite
He made himself finite

He comes to give life
To those who were dead
And to repair
The fall of all
This Child is the light
Of the day
He is the lamb…

Riu, riu, chiu…

In the poetic imagery of the song, the lamb, Mary, begets another Lamb, Christ, who is the King of Kings—the Lord God. In his birth, the Lord makes himself “small,” meaning that he comes into the world as a child and in doing so effects what should be impossible—the infinite becoming finite, God becomes a man! It is interesting, the song does not isolate the Immaculate Conception from the proper reference point that reveals the full impact of its marvelous truth—the Incarnation of God in Christ. The Immaculate Conception, though about Christ’s Mother, is really about Christ, and consideration of its mystery inevitably leads us to him:

Now we have
What we desired
Let us go together
To present Him gifts
Let each give
His will to him
Because He became
Equal to us.

Riu, riu, chiu…

The odd vocalization “riu, riu, chiu” is meant to evoke the call of the nightingale—a bird whose call is traditionally associated with a lament and who serves as a muse to poets. Yet here the song of the nightingale gives way to exultation, and the “muse of the poets” provokes the faithful to sing out the poetry of God’s Incarnation in Christ, a divine poem that has as one of its most important stanzas the mysterious revelation of the Immaculate Conception of Christ’s Mother.