As we are told nothing about the actual beginning of the Public Life of our Lord, whether He left the home at Nazareth abruptly, or after warning and preparation of some kind, we are sometimes inclined to think that our Lady was suddenly left alone, as she had been when our Lord tarried in Jerusalem. It is probable, however, that if there had been any such abruptness on this occasion, there would have been some notice of it, if not in the Gospels, at least in Christian tradition. For such an incident would have furnished devout souls with another subject for their contemplations of the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin. It seems most reasonable to think that our Lord's departure from Nazareth was not abrupt. There is great probability in the contemplation that, for some time before the actual commencement of the Public Life, He had not only prepared His Mother for it, but that He had also done many things which might have prepared the minds of others in His immediate neighbourhood for the beginning of His preaching. It is very likely that He gradually went more into public as the time drew nigh, and that He might have held many conversations, such as that which He is supposed by some to have held in the Temple on the last-named occasion, when He engaged the Scribes in discussion about the coming of the Messias, or about the signs of His Person. This is all the more probable when we consider that our Lord did not go forth from Nazareth to join St. John Baptist on the Jordan till the ministry of His Precursor had attained great notoriety and influence. We can hardly think that less than four or five months would have sufficed to give the preaching of St. John this great fame, which drew to him on the banks of the Jordan so large a portion of the population. But our Lord and our Lady must have been aware of this preaching from the very first, even if St. John did not, as we are told by some, give them some formal intelligence before he began to preach, begging our Lord's blessing and our Lady's prayers.
In any case, the beginning of the preaching of St. John must have set before our Blessed Lady a new and most important subject for her constant intercessions. A great movement was now to begin, great streams of grace were to be shed down from Heaven, a great saint was commissioned to preach the Word of God for a special purpose, no less a purpose than that of introducing to the chosen people the long-promised Kingdom of Heaven. The messenger had long been prepared for his task, and no doubt during his preparation he had been the object of much tender solicitude and earnest prayer on the part of the Blessed Mother. Now he would need strengthening, enlightening, encouraging, the powerful guidance and support of the Holy Ghost for his great work, and for his continual perseverance and advance in the interior perfection which was his best qualification for his mission, his humility, his disinterestedness, his fervent zeal, his boldness, his tender consideration for souls.
The people who were to come to him would also need fervent prayer that they might be enabled to correspond interiorly to the great external grace of his preaching, and by means of a true conversion be made fit for the reception of our Lord. It was the first great Christian missionary enterprise, and our Lady now began that mighty work of intercession for its success which is the continual occupation of a number of chosen souls in the Church whose names are unknown to men, but whose prayers bring down on the unconscious missioner the grace which makes his words powerful, and on the listening throngs the ineffable blessing of a faithful reception of the Word of God. It is often the characteristic of such souls, that these desires and petitions increase in compass and in intensity, and the prayer that begins for a single holy work of this kind extends itself till it enfolds the whole missionary enterprise of the Church in all time, whether among her own children or those outside her frontiers. Such we may suppose to have been the prayer of Mary on this occasion. And the mission of St. John in itself would present to her thoughtful mind many considerations as to the wisdom and gentle methods of God, Who did not send His Son at once without preparing the people for Him, and Who so largely uses ministrations which do not directly belong to the system of the Church, as auxiliary and subordinate to her own workings upon souls.
After a certain number of months had passed from the beginning of St. John's mission, the time arrived for our Lord Himself to begin His work in a different way. He was to go to the Jordan where St. John was baptizing 1 There He was to receive in the utmost humility the Baptism of the Precursor, sanctioning and sanctifying it thereby, and in the mystery of His own Baptism the great manifestation of the Ever Blessed Trinity was to take place, in which the Holy Ghost was to descend on Him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was to be heard from Heaven, declaring Him to be His Beloved and only-Begotten Son. We do not dwell here on the theological meaning of this mystery, of its connection with the Christian sacrament of Baptism which is founded upon it, and which, as so founded, confers on us the grace of the adoption of sons. But we can see in this part of the story the great occasions which were furnished to our Blessed Lady of the most heroic and beautiful virtue. In the first place, she now gave up, formally and solemnly and willingly, her own most dear Son, the companion of her life, the only support of her bereavement, for the work which was now the "business of His Father." That our Lady knew Who He was so perfectly, and why He had been given her as her Son, did not in any way blunt the tenderness of her most intense love for His Person, or make the wound of separation less sensible to her heart. Her great and even joyful sacrifice must have been of boundless merit in the sight of God, and have brought down on her a fresh increase of her mighty graces. And in her office of intercessor for the children of the Church, she may well be thought to have prayed for the blessing of absolute resignation and joyful cooperation in all such decrees of Providence, by which parents surrender their dearest children for the service of the great Father and Master of all, acknowledging therein His supreme dominion, His infinite consideration for His creatures, and the immense rewards in this life and in the next which He has prepared for those who thus give up to Him what belongs to Him indeed, but what He has lent to them.
Moreover, our Lady must have learnt from our Lord in His conversations with her, the importance and necessity of a conversion of heart and contrition for sin, as the foundations of all spiritual life, and also from what He had told her concerning the Christian sacraments, the value and efficacy of that one of them which is particularly connected with the sacred mystery which had now been consummated on the banks of the Jordan. Although it is not quite certain at what time Christian Baptism was actually and formally instituted, it is certain that it is founded on the Baptism of our Lord, Who then, as the Fathers say, consecrated the element of water for its use in His own sacrament, and that the manifestation of the Ever Blessed Trinity on that occasion, as well as the special declaration that our Lord in His Human Nature was the Beloved Son of God, had reference to the blessings which are conferred on the baptized. Thus the Baptism of our Lord would bring before the mind of His Mother the Divine boon which was to be offered to the whole race of mankind, superseding the holy rite of circumcision, which did not of itself confer grace, and the rite, whatever it was, by which the female sex was admitted to privileges like those of circumcision, and conferring the grace of cleansing from all sin, original and actual, as well as all the other positive spiritual gifts with which the soul is then endowed, making it a child of God by adoption, and sealing it with a Divine and indelible character. All these things would be subjects of most devout praise and thanksgiving to the Blessed Mother, who was, as is generally believed, herself to receive this great sacrament from our Lord at the time of their next meeting. But she would expand her heart and stretch her thanksgiving, so as to include all that God intended to be conveyed when He determined to institute this great sacrament of regeneration and adoption, all its effects on souls in time and in eternity. She would thank Him not only for those whom it was actually to reach, but for all those also for whom the gift was intended, though by human misery and negligence they may have been deprived of its inestimable blessings.
Immediately on the mystery of the Baptism followed that of the Fasting and Temptation of our Lord in the desert. 2 It does not seem reasonable to suppose that our Blessed Lady was not made aware of all that was passing amid those lonely rocks of Quarantana, either by warning beforehand from our Lord, or by some interior communication at the time. This mystery was altogether hidden from the world, and it might have been thought that the Christ had suddenly vanished from the public sight as soon as He had been proclaimed so solemnly. In truth, the work wrought and the victory won by our Lord in those forty days were of incalculable greatness and importance, more than if He had gone half over the world, and converted a score of nations. For the work and the victory of the Fasting and Temptation could have been performed and achieved by no one but Himself, and their effects last on through all time, and are powerful in thousands of souls every day and every hour. It was then that exterior mortifications were consecrated by His touch, and endowed with the wonderful powers, especially for the subjugation of the lower man, the expiation of former faults, the impetration of graces and virtues and strength against the enemy of souls, which they have ever since possessed, and which are constantly in play in Christian conflicts everywhere. It was then, especially, that the power of Satan for the seduction and perversion and destruction of souls was enormously weakened, and the triumphs over him of the weakest children of the Church amply secured. This was the subject, then, of the contemplations and intercessions of Mary at this time, of her thanksgivings to God for the ineffable magnitude of the gift to us in this mystery, as in the previous boon of the Baptism, and of most ardent prayer for our faithfulness in the use and exercise of these mighty boons. Our Lord had shown Himself, moreover, under new circumstances in this mystery, for He had condescended to allow Himself to be tempted, and He left behind Him, in the record of His dealings with the enemy of souls, the most perfect pattern and instruction for all His children under similar trials. Here was something new for the thanksgivings of His Blessed Mother.
We are told by some contemplatives that our Lady now began to exercise her office of Mother and refuge of the afflicted, especially of the afflicted by the temptations and molestations of the Evil One. She had herself great experience of the assaults of the devils, although it is true that the attacks which they were allowed to make on her, which seem to have been very violent and furious, were not like those from which we suffer, inasmuch as her soul, having always been entirely free from original sin, had in it none of the inherent weakness and disorder which enables the evil spirits to stir us up against ourselves, and bring on that interior conflict of which St. Paul draws the picture in the Epistle to the Romans. And the great conflict which her Divine Son now undertook, and His victory over Satan, would make it natural for our Lady to pray most earnestly that the strength which He then won for us might be faithfully used in our own struggles against the same malignant foe, who was indefinitely weakened and humiliated by the calm dignity and ease with which our Lord baffled all his wiles and put him to flight.
We are also told that this was one of the occasions on which our Lady kept company with our Lord in the actions He was performing, besides discharging her office as intercessor and giver of thanks. For she shut herself up during these forty days, to spend them in her own way in mortification and prayer, inasmuch as these great weapons of Christian warfare were now specially consecrated by our Lord. Thus she handed on His example to the Church, which was to bear these practices in eternal honour, not only for the conquest of the disorders which are bred in our souls by their innate weakness and by the too ready indulgence which they have yielded to the lower parts of our nature, indulgence which renders mortification absolutely necessary both for virtue and for interior peace, but also a most powerful instrument of expiation for past faults, of progress in virtue, of multiplication of good works, and as the condition of a life of prayer, intercession, impetration, and above all, of imitation of our Blessed Lord. All these truths our Lady perfectly understood, and the penance now done by our Lord afforded her the natural occasion for imitation of Him therein.
During the time of the forty days spent by our Lord in the desert, it seems that His Blessed Precursor was visited by the deputation from the ecclesiastical authorities in Jerusalem of which his namesake the Evangelist tells us. 3 This marks an important point in the history of the movement, as we should say, which had been set on foot by the Baptist. For it was now that it became finally plain and certain that his mission would not be accepted by the Chief Priests and Scribes. They sat in the seat of Moses, and held immense influence over the minds of the people. They were afraid to oppose St. John openly, for they feared the great power which he wielded among the multitudes. But his preaching was distasteful to them, both because it was a shock to their pride that any one should teach with so much authority and success without their sanction, and also because their lives were too corrupt, from ambition, avarice, and sensuality, to relish so plain a call to repentance and amendment of life. St. John had already had some of the Pharisees among his hearers, and had spoken to them with characteristic boldness, putting his finger on the very danger of spiritual pride which we find in them at a much later time, during the preaching of our Lord. 4
The formal mission to St. John was a half measure, and they might have acted more openly against him if they had dared. The blessed Baptist spoke of him self with the utmost humility, and took the opportunity to utter his solemn witness to our Lord, Whom he had lately baptized, and Whom he declared to be the true baptizer in the Holy Ghost. There were many things which would suggest the intercessions of our Lady, whether for the perfect faithfulness of the witness whom God had chosen, or for the poor deluded souls of these Chief Priests and Scribes, who were now entering decidedly on the path of resistance to God's Providential designs which was to lead them within so short a time to the most determined opposition to our Lord Himself. The greatest evils in the Church may be the work of some among her chief ministers, who have in their hands, in consequence of their position, so much power, either for the furtherance or the hindrance of the good works which God desires to see carried out. The purity of intention, the personal disinterestedness, and reluctance to accept for himself the slightest honour, which were displayed by St. John, must have furnished our Lady with subjects of ardent thanks giving, contrasting so beautifully as they did with the self-seeking of the Chief Priests.
After this witness of St. John, we find him pointing out our Lord to a few of his own chosen disciples. 5 Our Lord returned from the desert after the Temptation to the scene of St. John's baptizing, and then it was that the beautiful and significant name of the Lamb of God was first applied to Him by His Precursor. It was then that He spent a few days in gathering around Him the first of His Apostles, St. Andrew and St. Peter, possibly St. James and St. John, with St. Philip and St. Bartholomew or Nathanael. The manner in which each soul was brought to Him, and in which He dealt with each, was different, and we have thus a first glimpse of the peculiar tenderness, gentleness, and discrimination with which He ordinarily dealt and deals with souls. This careful and delicate method was to pass on from Him to all who were to have in the Church the function of attracting, converting, and forming souls one by one, whether as directors or superiors, and we can hardly be wrong in thinking that our Blessed Lady was enabled to follow it and delight herself in it, while her appreciation of it would lead her to pray most fervently for those who were to exercise this branch of the pastoral or quasi-pastoral office in the Church, as well as those who were to be the objects of their labours. Here is a whole world of wonderful beauties of grace, into which we can never enter fully until the time of the manifestation of all things. It came into being under the hands of our Lord Himself, and the Apostles, as we can see in their Epistles, followed Him in their careful administration of the power and influence committed to them. It must last on in the Church till the end of time, as the subject of much earnest intercession for all those who fill the office which our Lady was now discharging, by her prayers for the success of this work in souls.
Thus, within a few days of His great but unseen triumphs over Satan, our Lord was surrounded by a little group of the souls which, as He afterwards said, were given Him by His Father. He could know their future labours and crowns, and rejoice in all the work which His grace was to produce in them. He could tell Simon that he was to be called Peter, He could declare Nathanael to be an Israelite without guile, and to promise to him and his companions that they should see the heavens opened and the Angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Everything, in these first days of the Public Life, is full of hope, promise, brightness, joy, although there could not have been wanting, to our Lord's Heart, and to some extent to that of our Lady, presages of the days of trial and ill-success which were to be the issue of the coldness and hostility of the very class who had it in their power to help on the work of the Gospel the most efficaciously. We need not think it necessary to suppose that our Lady had, except partially and occasionally, that prevision of the details of the future which was possessed by our Lord—her office was that of continual prayer, suggested by the incidents as they arose of which she had so full an intelligence. .But now the time of separation, which had lasted for seven or eight weeks, was at an end, and she was to meet her Blessed Son, with His little handful of disciples, at the marriage feast at Cana, which was to witness an immense advance in the manifestation of His power.
1 Story of the Gospels, § 17
2 Story of the Gospels, § 18
3 St. John i. 19, 28; Story of the Gospels, § 19.
4 Compare St. Matthew iii. 7, with St. John viii. 33—39.
5 Story of tie Gospels, §§ 20, 21.