Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27;  Gal 4:4-7;  Lk 2:16-21                               

When St. Paul began preaching in the city of Ephesus, he stirred up the anger of citizens devoted to their Greek goddess, Artemis.  He told them that gods made by human hands are not gods at all. Enraged, the people shouted for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”  But the seed of Christianity was now planted in their hearts. 

Four hundred years later, Bishop Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, began preaching that Mary was only the mother of Jesus, a human person, not God.  But the Council of Ephesus refuted him and affirmed that Jesus is God, a divine Person, so Mary truly is the Mother of God. Enthusiastic crowds surged through the streets as they did four hundred years earlier, but now shouting, “Holy Mary, Mother of God!”  And to this day, every time we pray the Rosary we join them by saying, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

At the beginning of every New Year we celebrate this feast of the Mother of God.  Mary is not only the mother of Jesus who is God, but also of his whole body, the Church, because she gives birth to our sharing in God’s own divine nature.  And like every good mother, she teaches us the way to God by her example, especially love of the Eucharist.  

As a child I was greatly influenced by my mother’s faith and devotion.  She taught me to love the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, and frequent Communion.  So also, in the years after Jesus ascended into heaven, Mary taught the Church love of the Eucharist. She must have received Holy Communion many times before her Assumption into heaven. She would have had a “First Communion” like all of us.  Mary, the Mother of God and of the Church teaches us to live by faith, hope and love until the day when she will embrace us with the same love with which she embraces Jesus.    

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

[Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21]

Whenever a baby is born and enters our world, the same question that occurs in the Infancy Narratives is repeated:“What then shall this child be?” We are in wonder at what gift to our world might emerge from this new life, what potential will be unfolded in the course of time. So much depends on how the child is received and welcomed, on the alternative moves of care and discipline, of freedom and structure, of presence and withdrawal. But as much depends on how the child receives and accepts a place in the world, on its capacities, willingness, acceptance, and choices. Identical twins can develop in very different ways.

When we stand before a new year, the same question comes to our minds: “What then shall this new year be?” What are the possibilities and potentials it brings? What challenges will it bring into our lives? Who, then, will we be? The easy answer is that this coming year will be pretty much like last year: same old, same old. Our efforts will be directed to keeping as much order and continuity as possible. We will keep working out of the same scripts, follow the same patterns and routines. Only the dates on the calendars are new. We accept being confined, being slaves to laws of repetition, not really interested in being ransomed from the law.

With this mentality, we risk missing the newness that Christ and His Gospel have implanted in the world. Pope Francis has reminded us that “Jesus can also break through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the sources and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today's world. Every authentic form of evangelization is always “new.” (The Gospel of Joy).

The shepherds of today's gospel are good models of those who have really listened to the message of God. “Let us go over to Bethlehem to see this word which the Lord has made known to us.” The first result of hearing the word is to move from the beginning of comprehension to its realization in external reality. The inner hearing and word has opened a capacity to see the outer word manifesting itself in reality. The translation used in our texts can lose the connection conveyed by the same word (rhema) being used to indicate the “word/proclamation” the Lord has revealed, the “message” the shepherds make known to all who heard it, and ” all these things” Mary kept and reflected upon in her heart.
It is a word, a proclamation, an event. For the shepherds, the word awakened an inner impulse to go in pursuit of its fuller realization in the Christ. They left their flocks unattended and moved into a new space. Pope Francis has referred to time as being more important than space. Time is the horizon of the future which draws us out of the boundaries of what is familiar to us, what we can enclose in our sight.

The shepherds “made known the message” told them about the child. The same impulse of the Word which brought them to Bethlehem had the power to create a community and communion of praise, centered on this word. The part and partial comes to a wholeness in being shared, understood, and accepted. Joy comes to its fullness in surpassing the boundaries that simple possession of knowledge can give. This is a joy for all peoples.

Mary is again a hearer of the word brought to her by these shepherds. She kept the word (rhema) and turned it over in her heart. The Greek word for “ponder” is the same as the word “sym-bol”, to bring together, to throw together, to integrate and interiorize the continuing revelation being made about the Word she had borne. She continues to incarnate this Word in her heart and her womb. The Spirt is at work in her heart, creating unimaginable harmonies and working out the unity and peace at the heart of the child of her womb.

The Cistercian fathers were very convinced of the fact that, through Mary, Christ continues to be born in our lives and the Church. I will close with a section of Guerric's Second Sermon for the Annunication:

“Now that you may know more fully that the Virgin's conception has not only a mystical but also a moral sense, what is a mystery for your redemption is also an example for your imitation, so that you clearly frustrate the grace of the mystery in you if you do not imitate the virtue of the example. For she who conceived God by faith promises you the same if you have faith; if you will faithfully receive the Word from the mouth of the heavenly messenger you too may conceive the God whom the whole world cannot contain, conceive him in your heart , not in your body….Behold the unspeakable condescension of God and at the same time the power of the mystery which passes all understanding. He who created you is created in you, and as if it were too little that you should possess the Father, he wishes also that you should become a mother to himself. “Whoever, he says, does the will of my Father he is my brother and sister and mother.” O faithful soul, open wide your bosom, expand your affections, admit not constraint in your heart, conceive him whom creation cannot contain. Open to the Word of God an ear that will listen. This is the way to the womb of your heart for the Spirit who brings about conception.”

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

[Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21 ]

We all remember how, on Wednesday evening March 13, of last year, countless televisions all over the world displayed the same picture; one single unusual image quite unlike any pop-star or celebrity you're used to seeing on T.V. It was a balcony. For several long minutes, everyone in the world was gazing at the balcony high up on the facade of St. Peter's basilica an empty balcony; where no one was standing because we were all awaiting the appearance of the man who had just been elected the new pope. There wasn't much to look at during those few minutes, but you would be mistaken to think we were looking at nothing. That magnificent stone balcony, draped in resplendent gold and crimson was an eloquent testimony to centuries of Catholic faith and worship. As a witness to the genius of Baroque masters, and the whole age of faith, that balcony was actually delivering to us a sermon. It spoke to us of a centuries old drama of religious faith, preached, celebrated, persecuted, triumphant, and beset again by adversity—an ancient faith resplendent with the artistic triumphs of some of the worlds most inspired artists, all working in one concerted song of praise inspired by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. It was a sermon; and a captivating one we were attending to during those several minutes we all gazed at that stone carved balcony and when the man in white finally stepped into camera range and we learned at last his name and were able to study his face . . . the balcony disappeared. Did you notice? The moment Pope Francis came into view, the balcony was gone. Cameras carefully mounted on balustrade seemed to place us beside the new pope, standing level with him, even looking down on him as we watched enthralled his request for our blessing. The balcony had become invisible, and its unique elevated position quite forgotten. To return to consideration of it in those moments after Pope Francis appeared would have been considered so brazen an indiscretion as to be an insult to God himself.

These reflections came to me in light of a question about today's solemn Feast: “Is this Mary's day—this “Solemnity of the Mother of God”? Ever since the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, it has been emphasized that all major Solemnities are to be understood as Feasts of the Lord. The Annunciation is properly designated: “The Annunciation of the Lord.” Even the Immaculate Conception is spoken of as a miracle vouchsafed to Mary in anticipation of the surpassing merits of Christ her son. And so, today, the feast of “Mary the Mother of God” calls to mind the mediation by which we are all brought home to God. God, is the last word of the title of today's Feast, as if to keep our focus set on God. We do not proclaim this day: “God the child of Mary”.

One might ask: “Is there something wrong with placing Mary front and center for a day? What's the harm in it?” St. Paul, the church's first theologian, is as good an authority as any to consult on this question. Listen again to the first reading for today's feast from St. Paul, and draw your own conclusions regarding Paul's view of Mary's place on today's feast. “But when the time had fully come” he writes, “God sent his son
born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba—Father. So you are no longer a slave but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”

Did you notice how Paul, after the briefest mention of “a woman” (he doesn't even mention her name!) by whom Jesus was born, walks right past her to deliver his primary message: humanity's liberation from the slavery of sin. It is as if Paul were telling us to think of today's feast as that of Mary the balcony of Christ; the balcony whose beauty and ancient virtue mesmerizes and fascinates, right up till the moment the Savior arrives . . . and then disappears; disappears as if it was never there.

Brothers and sisters, the church has not invited us to this Feast of Mary the Mother of God that we might realize she is nothing. But it can be baffling to try to identify exactly the honor accorded to a woman when you call her “the Mother of God.” How to bestow this honor on Mary without causing her to instantly vanish into thin air under the sheer force of God's infinite majesty. My own suggestion is this: that we consider prayerfully for a moment how Mary, having been offered this unique vocation as the balcony of Christ, saw and understood exactly what was being asked of her; saw her vocation to radical invisibility as the balcony of Christ, and said “Yes.” Mary the mother of God is the balcony who stoops down as if gathering us up in its arms and raises us to the dignity of Christ himself; a woman all ages call blessed because, looking straight into the face of God, and anticipating that her motherhood of the God man would mean her “disappearance” into the mystery of God's inscrutable and majestic plan of salvation, gave her consent; said “Yes” to God, to obscurity to lowliness and so opened to us the means to be delivered from sin and death. May her name be blessed in all ages to come as it has been by all the ages preceding ours.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

[Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21]

Let us begin this morning by placing ourselves in the Gospel scene we have just heard. We can join the shepherds as they come down from the hills and we can enter the stable with them and kneel before the Christ child. Now listen to them as they repeat the words of the angel to Mary and Joseph: “Do not be afraid, I proclaim to you Good News of Great Joy that will be for all the people.” These words open up to eternity if we ponder them. But, not only the words speak to us the very scene itself has a message for us, one of great joy. Look around. Everything speaks of poverty and yet there is great contentment and stillness here; there is no place for restless seeking and ambition. Enter the stillness, dwell in contentment. The shepherds are the first evangelist at the beginning of salvation. Shepherds, the poorest of the poor, have been God’s chosen messengers. Let us go further in our imagination and take in the whole scene. Mary and Joseph are homeless for this night; the new born infant has no where to lay his head except a poor manger.

Why all this poverty? There is a message here for us to ponder. Yes, we are assured the Child is the Messiah, a King in the royal line of David. But, contrary to all expectations his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus did not come to establish us in an earthy kingdom but to save us not for this life but for the next. Jesus comes in weakness and poverty to free us from the pursuit of excessive wealth and the desire for unlimited power, two drives that if not checked can become insatiable. Living a simple life can reveal, disclose, and open us to the true desires of our heart. When we follow the path of Jesus we set aside worldly ambitions and desires and behold, we can fmd our true heart’s desire. What is our true heart’s desire? It can be described in many ways, one I like comes from Jesus himself when he says before and after his resurrection, “peace be with you.” Peace is the message of the Incarnation and of the Resurrection, a peace the world cannot give.

We hunger and thirst for this peace, no one can take it from us. The path leading to it is our awareness of its absence. St. Bernard writes that because of original sin our natural simplicity has been covered over with duplicity and the confrontation of these two within us causes us great confusion. St. James describes this situation graphically when he writes about us, “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water?(James, 3:10-11). The gift of peace Christ brings into the world does not mean the absence of struggle but that the battle has been won for us. No one can take this peace from us. Sin and the divisions in our heart have been healed even if we are not fully aware of it.

God’s plan unfolds in time for us but not for God. In her contemplation, in her pondering, did Mary enter into God’s time and perceive herself as the Mother of God? Mary existed in the mind of God from all eternity. Did she enter that eternity as she pondered her son? We are told by St. Paul to put on the mind of Christ and by St.Ambrose to have the soul of Mary within us. There has to be a profound depth to the human heart that we are capable of putting on the mind of Christ and the soul of Mary.

During this New Year let us ponder often with Mary and enter into the eternity of God, the mind of Christ and the soul of Mary and there in that inner chamber of our heart find peace, peace beyond all telling, peace that can never be taken from us. May this year, 2010, be a year of deep contemplative peace for each of you.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

[Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21]

One of the most striking images in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel is of Mary pondering and treasuring the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in her heart. What relevance does this image have for our modern world, more specifically for the first day of the New Year?

Traditionally people celebrate the New Year with a party. I entered the monastery at the age of 20 so I don’t have a lot of New Year’s Eve parties to draw from. However, I vaguely recall people going out on their porches at midnight and setting off firecrackers and blowing horns—making a racket seemed to be the idea. I suppose more sophisticated people were at dances in downtown hotels having confetti floating from the ceiling at midnight and toasting the new year with champagne. Put it all together and there seems to be a lot of wildness surrounding New Year’s Eve. What is behind this rather bazaar behavior? I get a sense of desperation. Is that the right word? People are having a lot of fun but what is it about midnight on New Year’s Eve that calls for such out of character behavior? As you know, I am not against parties but still there seems to be a sense of desperation in the way we ring in the New Year. Maybe desperation is too strong a word, defiance might be better.

The Biblical archetype for this could be the time the Israelites were waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain. They got tired of waiting and had Aaron build them a golden calf. When Joshua and Moses approached the camp, they heard what Joshua thought were battle cries but Moses knew differently. They were cries of revelry. As they drew nearer, they saw the calf and the dancing (Ex. 32).

The root meaning of revel is rebel and this is what the people were doing against Moses, not only Moses but against there whole existential situation. What the Cloud of Unknowing defines as, “not what you are but that you are.” Underneath all the blowing of horns and shouting and drinking in the New Year is a rebellion against death. We made it through another year and we are still alive, bring on the New Year, we are not afraid, we spit in the eye of the grim reaper! Maybe this is overloading it but there is some truth to it. Wise people shy away from over the top revelry.

What role does today’s feast play in all this? I think our society needs to be reminded that the feeling of insecurity occasioned by the turning of the year is not quenched by champagne. The desert community had a collective need for a tangible form to worship. Yahweh was a hidden God. Faith in the unseen was not enough in their time of crisis. They brought peace offerings to the calf, “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to revel“—a familiar enough pattern (Ex. 32:8).

So, here we are at the turning of the year looking to the Mother of God for help. When we experience the loneliness of our species, the incompleteness of our life, the floating anxiety that sometimes afflicts us, the insecurity of it all, the winter of our being, what should we do, to whom do we turn, where are the answers? The answer we are given today is the image of Mary pondering in her heart the mystery of her life. Imagine her gazing on her sleeping infant—any mother will tell you for that brief moment nothing else exits. Nothing is spoken, there is no noise, no blowing of horns but the love exchanged contains our life, our sweetness and our hope. Through Mary, her infant is given to each of us to hold and cherish, not in our arms but in our heart where time does not exist. Anxiety has no place here, insecurity does not exist, and we are completed, made whole by this exchange of love.

There will be many things happening in 2008 that we do not understand or even accept and yet we have to take them into our heart and ponder where is salvation is all this, where is God, where is the promise of God with us? As the New Year unfolds day by day may Mary, who treasured and pondered in her heart the mystery of her son, guide us and teach us to contemplate our life with Jesus, God with us.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

[Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21]

Fr. Brendan January is named after the Roman god, Janus. Janus is depicted with opposing faces as if looking back to the past with one and into the future with the other. If we think of the year as a circle, Jan.1 is the point where the circle ends and begins.

The idea of someone having two faces is not too far fetched. We know what it means to be called “two faced”. In fact, we have more than two faces, we have many faces. We have a happy face, a sad face, an anxious face, an angry face—once I received an e-mail from the abbot’s secretary from another monastery, he broke off the letter with the words, “I have to go now the abbot just came in wearing his angry face!”.

Today we are celebrating the feast of Mary as Mother of God. Since it is the beginning and ending of the year I think we could say this feast includes all of Mary’s titles. What we might call the many faces of Mary. If we search the Gospels we can find them. At the Annunciation she shows a concerned questioning face, at the Visitation a joyful, ecstatic face, at the Birth of Jesus a contemplative, wonder struck face; the finding in the temple reveals an anxious worried face and at the foot of the cross a sorrowful, suffering face. We can identify with all of these faces and we can even have a favorite one that draws us into the mystery of Mary.

Mary, Mother of God
A person’s face reveals what is going on in their heart. In today’s Gospel Simeon prophesies that Mary’s heart will be pierced with a sword and the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. How does the piercing of Mary’s heart reveal the thoughts of the heart? Thoughts are hidden, especially the deep thoughts of the heart. I take the piercing of the heart to be hidden also. Mary is the first of the redeemed to journey through life. Every human experience she had, every face she shows us, has a human and a spiritual dimension. She is the first Christian and as such is a model for all others. We were redeemed at Baptism but still must live our life is such a way as to quicken the graces of Baptism.

The Liturgy and popular devotion has given Mary many names. None is sweeter than “motherTheotokos—Mother of God. This truly is a mystery beyond us, but, we can all identify with the title “mother“. Mary acts on our behalf like a loving mother to her child. Mary is most approachable with her motherly face. Popular devotion has given Mary many other names. We will encounter them as we journey back to next January. This encounter will reveal the thoughts of our hearts. It will reveal who we really are. Mary is called “Health of the Sick“, “Refuge of Sinners,” and “Comfort of the Afflicted.” Each of these has a face we are familiar with because they are ours. No doubt, some of us will be sick in the coming year, perhaps seriously ill; all of us will be tempted to sin, and face some kind of affliction. How we deal with these sufferings reveals who we are. The thoughts of the heart show on the face of a sick person. Mary is deeply involved with our cause. She is the health of the sick soul, the refuge of the failed soul, the comfort of the afflicted soul. You see, we face life on two levels, the physical and the spiritual. Mary is present to us on the soul level. Her face reflects the suffering of all of us. She has been there and knows from experience how everything leads to her Son, Jesus.

Mary, the Mystical Rose
The face we see in today’s Gospel is a contemplative face. The Gospel says Mary pondered in her heart, or treasured, which means to hold close to the heart. We treasure life’s great moments. We ponder when life is not self evident and we want to go deeper in our understanding of the mystery of the soul. How can we best describe Mary’s contemplative face? Here, poetic words work best. One title above all others speaks to us of the depths of her heart. She is known as the “Mystical Rose“. The rose is the cherished symbol of love. Love and suffering. The dark center of the rose is inaccessible; to get there you would have to destroy the rose. The rose must be intuited not analyzed. A mystical rose is one of a kind, unique on the earth. Just so is Mary. We come to know Mary more through intuition than analysis, more through prayer than study. The thoughts of her heart are beyond us but not foreign to us. She is the swan we are the paddlers. We are in the same lake learning from her.

As we circle the sun this year we will meet the many faces of Mary. Underneath the face is the heart, the mystical heart of Mary revealing the mystery of her Son present in our life. The many faces we wear in the year ahead, the many experiences we have, the many thoughts of our heart can only be fully known in prayer. Like Mary we must treasure all these things in our heart. There the mystical rose grows as in a garden of the soul.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

[Scripture Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21]

Fr. BrendanThe second reading today is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, (4:4-7). Paul is concerned that after hearing about Jesus, the Galatians will fall back with their old ways, or what he calls, their bankrupt belief. It is going from a child of God to a slave, going back to the pagan practices of “keeping special days, and months, and seasons and years,” (Gal 4:11). Someone might point out that we are doing the same thing in keeping special days and seasons. The big difference is that our special days are coming from historical events. They commemorate the seasons of Christ’s life on earth, and not some movements of the heavens. Yet there is a tendency today to drift away from the true meaning of our special days.

I wonder what Paul would say about how our society celebrates Christmas? Would he think that we have missed the point? Would he have come up with the slogan, “keep Christ in Christmas“? Who knows? I recently read a new twist to the question. The author said that we have had enough campaign against the world’s Christmas. “It is more important to ask: why do we keep it with such vigor?” (Gordon Lothrop, Christmas – A Christian Sourcebook, 4).

It is a good question. The customs surrounding the celebration of Christmas are a huge affirmation of life. The green Christmas tree, the lights, the feasting, the fellowship, the gift-giving, even the consumer over-spending. All of this and more calls for an enormous outpouring of energy. Some people just can’t face this demand and go on vacation at Christmas time. I suppose the most demanding is the gift giving. In the monastery we don’t have this practice but it is good to reflect on its true meaning.

Moses and AaronYesterday at the First Vespers of the Solemnity, we sang the words: “O wonderful exchange.” It is the antiphon we use to commemorate Mary everyday during the Christmas season. In Latin, the phrase is “admirabile commercium.” The wonderful exchange refers to the exchange between God’s divine nature and our human nature in the Incarnation. It is our exchange of gifts. This exchange is a principle in Scripture. It is a way of understanding how God acts in our life. When I read over the first reading from the book of Numbers the famous Aaronic Blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” (Num 6:24), I thought it was chosen as a good way to begin the new year. It is to begin with a blessing. But this blessing is prefaced by the words, “God spoke to Moses and said, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and say…” (Num 6:22).

Why doesn’t God speak directly to Aaron? Why does He have to go through Moses? There is surely a principle to use here. Moses is chosen — a special one. He gives a human voice to God’s thoughts so that we can comprehend the mystery. There is an exchange taking place here: an “admirabile commercium.

Mary, The Mother of GodMoses prefigures Mary in this regard. She gave not only her words but her whole body to God. She conceived through the Holy Spirit. She gave to God our human nature. She became the Mother of God. What a wondrous exchange! Where do we fit into the picture? There is a prayer from the Orthodox Liturgy that goes like this:

What shall we present unto thee, O Christ,

For thy coming to earth for us?

Each of the creatures brings thee a thank offering.

The angels – singing; the heavens – a star;

The Wise Men – treasures; the shepherds – devotion;

The earth – a cave; the desert – a manger;

But we offer thee the Virgin Mother.

O Eternal God, have mercy on us.

(Christian Sourcebook, p. 97)

This is our gift to God. It is the best of our human nature. The chosen of God yet still one of us. Humble in her magnificence, motherly in her godliness.

The Gospel today (Lk 2:16-21) leaves us with two images of Mary that we can carry with us into the new year 2005. One is of Mary pondering in her heart what the shepherds are saying. This speaks to me of the unfinished future—the mystery of what lies ahead. We can learn from Mary how to ponder in our hearts the unfinished life we will carry into the new year.

The second image is the naming. The last line of today’s Gospel says that they named the infant, Jesus (Lk 2: 21). Mary will help us discern this name in our life. She will help us put the name Jesus on what happens to us in this new year. Everything has a name. The name beyond all names is JESUS. To say his name is to bring his presence into our life.