Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Year A
January 1, 2014
Num 6:22-27, Ps 67, Gal 4:4-7, Lk 2:16-21
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The written text that guided this homily is as follows:
Mary and the Reason for the Season of Christmas
Last Sunday, we pondered together what the “reason for the season” of Christmas is. It’s not simply “Jesus” or “Jesus’ birth,” but it’s what Jesus wants to do in us by his incarnation and the entire mission the Son of God came to earth to accomplish. The Opening Prayer of the Mass of Christmas Day eloquently told us the reason for this season: “O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant… that we may share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The Son of God assumed our humanity so that he could not bring us back to the dignity we had in the beginning, but lift us beyond it, to divinize us, to make us truly holy, to help us to unite ourselves to the divine life of him who loved us so much as to empty himself to take on our humanity so as to share our human life.
If that is true for each one of us, that Christ took on our nature so that he may help us to take on his likeness, then how much more are we able to ponder this mystery in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today as we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — the liturgical exclamation point of the Christmas octave! — we recognize that in her case, Jesus didn’t merely take on “humanity” in general but took on her humanity. And no one shows us better how to cooperate with Jesus’ work of making us sharers in his divine life than Mary.
The connection between Mary’s humanity and Christ’s divinity
In the early Church, this connection between Jesus’ sharing Mary’s humanity and integrating it within his divine person was emphasized in the great ecumenical Council of Ephesus (Turkey) in 431. An Archbishop of Constantinople named Nestorius claimed basically that Jesus was the union of a divine person and a human person — rather than a divine person with two natures, human and divine — and for that reason said that Mary was only the Christotokos, or bearer of the human person Jesus Christ, rather than the Theotokos or the Mother of God. The other bishops of the world got together in Ephesus and condemned Nestorius’ teaching saying that since Jesus is the Eternal Son of God who took on our humanity and since Mary is his Mother, she is therefore the Mother of God.
But this wasn’t just a conclusion of sound bishops and theologians. As Pope Francis said this morning in his homily in St. Peter’s Basilica, while the bishops were meeting the Christians of Ephesus gathered at the doors of the basilica and repeatedly chanted, “Theotokos! Theotokos! Theotokos!” “Mother of God, Mother of God, Mother of God!” Out of their adoration for Christ grew their super-veneration of his Mother, who shared in his divine life to a remarkable degree not just through her umbilical physical connections to him in the womb, not just in her nursing him, but as Jesus himself would say during his public ministry, through her faith in him, who heard the word of God and put it into practice. Today is a day in which the whole Church through the world chants in loving unison, “Mother of God!,” “Mother of God!.”
Mary’s uniting her whole life to Christ’s work of sanctification
From the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel when she was just a teenager, Mary’s mission in life was to share in the mission of her Son. Her work was not only to raise him but — after he on the Cross told us to behold her as our Mother and for her to behold us as her sons and daughters — to raise us to cooperate with God’s work not only in becoming sharers of his divine life but in helping others to become sharers of that Christmas gift that is meant to keep on giving all the days of our life into eternity. To celebrate the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, means to enter more deeply into this mystery of how she wants to mother us much more deeply into the divine life her son came to give, the divine life in which she participated in life to an extraordinary degree, the divine life that she and the saints now rejoice in forever.
As we begin today a new civil year, Mary wants to teach us how to let Christ share all aspects of our human life so that through them he can unite us to his life. As we approach this year, not having any idea what the year will bring us, she gives us confidence in faith that whatever comes, both seemingly good or bad, Christ wants to incorporate into his saving mission.
Little did Mary know what would await her after Christ took on her flesh in her womb. First, there would be a great crisis with St. Joseph’s tremendous shock at her pregnancy and obvious initial doubts about her virtue and fidelity. There was the journey to Bethlehem at the very end of her pregnancy and Jesus’ being born in poverty after suffering rejection from most of the Bethlehem inn-keepers. These hardships she integrated within the mission of her Son who helped through them to grow in the holy likeness of his divine life.
There were the surprise visits of the shepherds with their stories of angels and the wise men with their stories of the star and their long adventure to come to offer their gifts and homage to the newborn long-awaited king.
There were Simeon’s words at Jesus’ presentation that he was the “light of the nations” and would cause the rise and ruin of many, and that Mary’s cooperation in his mission would lead to her own heart being pierced with sorrow. One of those swords came almost immediately thereafter when the Holy Family had to escape through the desert to Egypt as Herod slaughtered the Holy Innocents. Another lance was the traumatic experience of losing Jesus for three days. Most parents would be freaking out if they lost their own child in a mall for ten minutes. Imagine losing the Son whom God had entrusted to you for three days!
Other heart-piercing experiences were when she saw her fellow Nazarenes forming a mob to try to throw him off the precipice on which Nazareth was built, when her relatives tried to get Jesus committed for being out of his mind, when the crowds in Pontius Pilates’ praetorium were clamoring for his execution, when she saw him mangled and tortured, crucified, laid in her arms dead, buried in a man’s grave and the stone rolled to cover the entrance and the days that seemed like decades as he lay in the tomb.
Mary went through it all. She experienced the most incredible highs and the most gut-wrenching lows any human being could. And yet through it all, she said fiat, “let it be done to me” according to God’s plans. She allowed each of these joys and sorrows to help her become more and more united to her Son in his humanity and divinity, more cooperative in his life and mission.
How Mary helps us to cooperate through our highs and lows with Christ’s work of divinization
As we begin 2014, without any clue of what the year will bring — tremendous happiness or sadness, births of new loved ones or unexpected deaths, our thriving or even our own death — we turn to Mary to help us to learn how to walk by faith, to help us to learn how to say “fiat” no matter what comes, to assist us to unite all the ups and downs to her Son who came to share our ups and downs and use both of them to sanctify and save us.
The great hymn the Church sings to her through Advent and Christmas is the Alma Redemptoris Mater. It communicates to us how Mary mercifully and urgently wants to help us to receive her Son’s sanctifying gifts: “Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli porta manes, et stella maris, sucurre cadenti, Surgere qui curat populo: tu quae genuisti, Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem, Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere. “Hail, Mother of the Redeemer, you who are the gate to enter heaven and star of the sea, run to your fallen people who are trying to rise once more. You who to the wonder of nature bore your holy Son, yet remain a Virgin both before and after, taking up that ‘Ave,’ that ‘Rejoice,’ from the lips of Gabriel, be merciful to us sinners.”
By this hymn, the Christian people for centuries have asked her every Advent and Christmas to hasten to lift us up after the falls of the past year, to help us to experience in our fallen humanity how to allow her Son to raise us up in his divinity in this new year. If 2014 is going to be a year in which we really allow the mystery of the Lord to grow in us, we need Mary’s help. She wants to teach us to relive her mystery in Christ. That involves two essential stages.
Piecing together and treasuring God’s action
The first is found in the words St. Luke mentions about her in today’s Gospel about the nativity as well as in the scenes of the Annunciation and Presentation: “Mary kept all of these things, pondering them in her heart.” These words describe something that characterized her whole spiritual life. They mean more than obviously that she prayed about all the events that were taking place. The Greek means that she “pieced them all together,” like the pieces of a mosaic, and “treasured” them. She related what was coming then to what had come before, like the tesserae of a mosaic masterpiece, and sought to see how each new piece fit into the whole.
When she saw Jesus crucified, for example, she related that event to what the Angel Gabriel had said in the Annunciation, that he would be great, be given the throne of David his Father and his kingdom would have no end. In the prayerful meditation of her heart, she connected the dots so that she could begin understand everything within the “big picture” of God’s plan of salvation.
And it was because of that big picture that she learned how to “treasure” everything in her heart. We see this in her famous prayer, the Magnificat, where she pieced together various passages of the Old Testament concerning heroines, saw how they applied to her, and rejoiced. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior because he has looked with favor on his lowly handmaid; all generations will call me blessed because the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name!” Mary took everything and applied it to her own being chosen to be the Mother of God and held on to this truth in all the vicissitudes that would come. She was able to see in each of them how God was calling her to share in her Son’s human life so that she could share in her Son’s divinity
Mary wants to help us to develop a similar contemplative heart. One way we can do that is to see how God wants to build “grace upon grace.” Both on Christmas morning as well as yesterday in the Gospel for the last day of the year, the Church has us ponder the prologue to St. John’s Gospel in which St. John tells us “Of His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). The graces God wants us to receive and respond to in 2014 are building on the graces he gave us in 2013, and 2012. Many of them will be building on the graces he has given to our parents and grandparents, as well as graces he has given to fellow parishioners here, to the clergy here, to Pope Francis, and to so many others through whom God seeks to bless us in the new year.
This means that the events of the past year and the events of the new year aren’t random. Every year is like a new chapter in a book, but it’s not a new book. It’s building on what God has been trying to do in our life up until now, what he’s done for the world in Christ, what he did all the way back to creation. In order to live well the new chapter, we need to see how what will fill the at-present blank pages of the new chapter is related to what has already come. Every gift this year — including the caress of the Cross — is building upon so many gifts that God has already given. But we need a contemplative heart, a heart that connects the dots and treasures everything God gives, in order to perceive it. That’s the first thing Mary wants to mother us to learn.
Becoming God’s “Mother”
The second thing Mary wants to help us to learn is how to let Christ grow in us. She wants to help us to become, similar to her, a mother of God. How we become a mother of God is one of the most important things we need to grasp as we celebrate the solemnity of her maternity. St. Ambrose, the great doctor of the Church who died in 397, once said that what happened in Mary is meant to happen in every Christian believer. We are called to conceive the word we hear interiorly and let that word gestate and grow to be so big that eventually we need to give birth to the word, together with our flesh, in the midst of the world. St. Ambrose said, that even though there is only one Mother of God in the flesh, in the faith Jesus is the progeny of us all. Thus, what took place for Mary can take place in each of us each day of the year, as we hear, piece together and treasure the word of God, as we celebrate the sacraments, and as we seek to integrate everything that happens in daily life to the Lord we encounter each day who wants to help us unite all aspects of our day to him.
Pope Francis talked about this connection back in October as he celebrated during the Year of Faith a special day dedicated to Mary. He said that Mary gave “human flesh to Jesus” not merely by her bodily connection to him but by her faith. “This was a point on which the Fathers of the Church greatly insisted,” Pope Francis said: “Mary first conceived Jesus in faith and then in the flesh, when she said ‘yes’ to the message God gave her through the angel. … But what took place most singularly in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us, spiritually, when we receive the word of God with a good and sincere heart and put it into practice. It is as if God takes flesh within us; he comes to dwell in us, for he dwells in all who love him and keep his word. It is not easy to understand this, but really, it is easy to feel it in our heart.” Do we think that Jesus’ incarnation is simply a past event which has nothing to do with us personally? Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst.”
Blessed John Paul II pondered very deeply this connection between of Mary’s maternity and our spiritually becoming mothers of God. He said that all of us can learn a great deal from looking at her faith in the Christmas mystery to help us improve the way we receive or “conceive” her Son in Holy Communion. “Is not the enraptured gaze of Mary as she contemplated the face of the newborn Christ and cradled him in her arms that unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every time we receive Eucharistic communion?,” he asked in his beautiful encyclical letter “The Church Lives off the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucaristia).
We should dwell on that image for a while. Think about Mary lovingly and tenderly holding Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, kissing him, embracing him, almost not being able to believe that she is so fortunate as to hold in her arms the Savior of the world: that’s the way we should approach the very same Jesus in Holy Communion! We should embrace him, hold live, love him, with the same maternal tenderness and amazement.
John Paul II continued, “Mary lived her Eucharistic faith even before the institution of the Eucharist, by the very fact that she offered her virginal womb for the Incarnation of God’s Word. The Eucharist, while commemorating the passion and resurrection, is also in continuity with the incarnation [and nativity]. At the Annunciation Mary conceived the Son of God in the physical reality of his body and blood, thus anticipating within herself what to some degree happens sacramentally in every believer who receives, under the signs of bread and wine, the Lord’s body and blood. As a result, there is a profound analogy between the Fiat [the “let it be done to me”] that Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen [the ‘I believe,’ the ‘I will let this be the foundation or support of my life’] that every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord. Mary was asked to believe that the One whom she conceived ‘through the Holy Spirit’ was ‘the Son of God’ (Lk 1:30-35). In continuity with the Virgin’s faith, in the Eucharistic mystery we are asked to believe that the same Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, becomes present in his full humanity and divinity under the signs of bread and wine.”
Her faith with regard to the baby Jesus helps us to have a similar faith in the Eucharistic Jesus, who under the appearances of bread and wine rather than swaddling clothes, not only continues to share our humanity, but just as he did with Mary, he wants to make us sharers in his divinity, not only from the “outside,” but from the inside. As his body and blood get digested within us and become part of our own body and blood, we are made capable body and soul of uniting ourselves with his divinity. That’s the mission of every Christmas and every Mass, where the priest prays at the mixing of the water and wine the very prayer the whole Church prays on Christmas morning.
Mary’s Help to Make 2014 a true Annus Domini
So as we prepare to say that prayer, we turn to our Alma Redemptoris Mater, our sweet mother of the Redeemer, the mother Jesus gave each of us as he offering our humanity on the Cross to help redeem and divinize us, asking her to help us develop a contemplative heart like hers to connect and to treasure not only this mystery of the Eucharist but all the events of the past and of the year to come. We ask her to teach us how to allow her Son to grow in us to the extent that we can’t but help give birth to him in all our actions. We beg her to guide us step by step to give our whole human lives to her Son so that he unite all parts of our life to his divine life, both in this world and forever. O Mother of God, Mother of the Church, and our Mother, pray for us throughout this New Year so that it might be a true “year of the Lord,” in which, through all the ups and downs, we experience “grace upon grace” and become, like her, full of grace in this world and forever!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them.”
PS 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R/ May God bless us in his mercy.
May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R/ May God bless us in his mercy.
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you!
May God bless us,
and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
R/ May God bless us in his mercy.
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
to ransom those under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as sons.
As proof that you are sons,
God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying out, “Abba, Father!”
So you are no longer a slave but a son,
and if a son then also an heir, through God.
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.