Arguably one of the most renowned artists of the 19th century was the American-born Englishman, James Whistler, whose portrait of his beloved mother, Anna McNeil Whistler, is a masterpiece of ingenuity and a symbol of maternal affection.

"Whistler's Mother" has earned the admiration of art historians and critics, not to mention the countless number of simple folk who, over the past 200 years, have gazed upon the ageless beauty depicted in the painting.

In painting a picture of his dear mother, the artist undoubtedly had in mind what she would look like before he ever gathered together his colors. Once, when complimented on the portrait, Whistler said, "Well, you know how it is. One tries to make one's mother as nice as one can." Indeed!

Mary of Nazareth was a mother unlike any other. Hers was the privilege to carry the Eternal Word within her womb. From all eternity, God prepared a worthy dwelling place for His Son. Jesus took His human nature from her. He was truly human, because He was born of Mary, a human mother.

In appreciation of this great mystery of our faith, we recall the words of praise uttered by Mary's cousin, Elizabeth: "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does it happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1:42,43).

In "The World's First Love," Venerable Fulton Sheen's classic work dedicated to Mary -- whom he called, "the woman I love" -- he writes that love begins with a dream. In Sheen's words, "There is, actually, only one person in all humanity of whom God has one picture, and in whom there is perfect conformity between what He wanted her to be and what she is, and that is His own mother."

Mary is all that was foreseen, planned and dreamed.

The Church's veneration of Mary offends many Christians, because it seems to them to smack of idolatry. But we would be wise to recognize that apart from her divine Son, Mary would not be worthy of the honors bestowed upon her, and would not have captured the imagination of many of the great writers, composers, artists and mystics over two millennia.

There is simply no other human being who has enjoyed as many encomiums as the Blessed Mother. Cardinal John Henry Newman once observed that it would be impossible to give Mary greater honors than the honor already bestowed upon her by God to be the mother of the Messiah.

We need to see Mary in the perspective of God's plan for humanity. In St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he writes that all men and women are called to be holy and blameless in God's sight, full of love"(Eph 1:4). Mary is the one who is "full of grace" and is, by virtue of her holiness, the mother of us all!

A little story may help: An enthusiastic Catholic boy engaged an unbelieving university professor in a conversation about the greatness of Mary. After hearing the boy's impassioned words, the bemused professor merely smiled and, in a patronizing tone, replied: "But, my dear boy, there is no difference between the mother of Jesus and my mother."

"You may think so," the boy stated, "but, let me tell you, there is an enormous difference between the sons."

In the joy of the Christmas season, let us not forget Mary of Nazareth, "whom all generations will call blessed" (Lk 1:48). At a key moment in history, she offered herself, body and soul, to God as a dwelling place.

In his profound reflections on the first joyful mystery of the Rosary, the annunciation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, "Mary tells us why church buildings exist: so that room may be made within us for the Word of God; so that within us and through us the Word may also be made flesh today."

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)