Let the Mother of God accompany you into the New Year

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Mary, Mother of God: January 1, 2010
Num 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3, 5-6, 8; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Seventy years ago, in the year 1939, as the year was drawing to a close in England, things were not looking good. Nazi Germany had invaded Poland just a few months earlier, and Britain and France and others had declared war, and thus had begun World War II. At that point, the U.S. had declared that it was neutral. And already, one British battleship had been sunk by a German U-Boat, and another one had been struck by a German mine. And so, as that year went into its closing days, no one knew for sure what was ahead. Would France fall? Would Britain itself be attacked? What was coming?

King George VI, in his radio message on that Christmas Day, quoted from a poem that had been written about 30 years earlier [“Gate of the Year” by Minnie Louise Haskins]—lines that would later be set to music, and which I sang in my choir in college. The king read that day:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

Today is the eighth and final day of the Christmas Octave, and in some past centuries the Church has celebrated it as “the Circumcision of the Lord” or “the Holy Name of Jesus”—since, as we heard in the gospel reading, our Lord Jesus was circumcised and received his name when eight days were completed. But for about the past forty years, the Church has returned to the more ancient practice of the church in Rome of celebrating this day as the feast of Mary, Mother of God.

And how fitting for us that, as we conclude one year and look ahead into a new year that has just begun; as we conclude a year and a decade that has included terrorism, and war, and recession, and many events for each of us, both good and bad, and as we look ahead past the gate of the new year into the unknown beyond it, how fitting that we should turn to our Blessed Mother and hear her encourage us to put our hand into the hand of God.

That Mary is the Mother of God is the first of four dogmas about her that the Church firmly teaches. The other three dogmas are

  • that she remained ever-virgin;
  • that she was conceived immaculate—that is, free from the stain of original sin;
  • and that, at the end of her earthly life, she was assumed—taken up—body and soul, into heaven.

But it is very appropriate that her Divine Motherhood was declared first. This came about in the year 431, at the ecumenical council held at Ephesus in what is now Turkey. A hundred years earlier, the Council of Nicea had declared that Jesus Christ really is true God and true man, not some sort of super-angel, as Arius had been saying. And now the question had arisen: the Christians in Egypt had begun calling Mary the Mother of God; was this appropriate? The question, of course, turned on the nature of Christ himself. And the Bishop of Constantinople of the time, named Nestorius, had said that the Son of God had taken on humanity as simply a “dwelling”; like a sort of appearance that he had worn; and, sure, he got this dwelling from Mary; but as a Divine Person he had never really changed; he wasn’t really born of her. We might say that Nestorius thought that Mary wasn’t the Mother of God, but sort of God’s tent-manufacturer.

The Council of Ephesus, of course, declared that Nestorius was wrong. And later Councils would reaffirm that the Divine Person of the Word really did take on human nature; not just as some sort of external dwelling, but truly assuming it; and that he who was eternally begotten of the Father as to his divinity—in these last days, for us men and for our salvation, was born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, as to his humanity [from the Confession of the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451]. And so Mary truly is the Theotokos, in Greek, the God-bearer, the one who gave birth to God. For she gave birth to Christ, and he truly was God. She gave birth in time to the Divine Person of the Word; she is the Mother of God.

Now all of that is from the objective side, telling us who and what Christ is, and thus what Mary is. But we may also ask, from the subjective and experiential side, what did it mean to her, in her life, to be the Mother of God? What was it like? What did she experience and feel as she lived this out? And this question can be meaningful to us because our Lady is an image of the Church as a whole; and to each of us she is an example of what it looks like to follow Christ with faith and love. And this may be an especially important question to consider as we begin a new year.

It is said that our Lord Jesus made St. Peter, as the first Pope, infallible in matters of faith and morals; but not sinless. And that he made Mary sinless; but not infallible. From the first moment that we see her in the Scriptures, incredible things are happening to her; incredible things are being said to her; and we see that she is constantly asking, “What does this mean?”

  • When the archangel Gabriel first appeared to her and hailed her as “Full of Grace,” the Scripture says that she pondered what sort of greeting this might be [Luke 1:28-29].
  • When Gabriel said that she would “conceive in her womb and bear a son, and he would be called Son of the Most High,” and his kingdom would never end, she believed him but she didn’t understand how it could happen; and so she asked, “How can this be?”
  • And then when she said, Yes, let it be done to me according to your word; and she thereby became the Mother of God, she didn’t know exactly, in every detail, what this would mean for her through the rest of her life. So much of that life at that moment was still shrouded in the darkness of the unknown.
  • Surely she knew that it was possible that her betrothed, Joseph, when he found out that she was pregnant would divorce her; in fact, we read in Scripture, he almost did until Gabriel came and appeared to him.
  • And then, in the final days of her pregnancy, could she have ever expected that they would have to get up and make a journey to Bethlehem; and that when they got there, there was no room for them in the inn?—so that, when she gave birth to her firstborn son—to God—she would lay him in a manger?
  • And soon after that, as we heard in today’s gospel reading, a group of complete strangers, shepherds, came to find them, and to tell them about how angels had appeared to them and had told them that this Son would be Messiah and Lord. What did it all mean? And Luke tells us: Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

In the face of the darkness of the unknown, as truths began to be revealed to her, little by little, she kept these things, and she reflected upon them: to fully take them in, in faith and in love; as she lived out what it meant to be Mother of God.

Forty days after his birth at the Temple, the old man Simeon holding Jesus in his arms would say things about him that would amaze her. And to her he said, “you yourself a sword will pierce.” Imagine that: being told that a sword would pierce you; believing this was true; and having no idea what it was going to mean; that, somewhere out ahead of you, some sort of sword was going to pierce you. This was the sort of darkness of the unknown that she faced.

There were the Magi from the East. They had to flee to Egypt for safety. And then, of course, as we heard last Sunday, there was the time when they went to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12, and when they lost and found him, and they didn’t understand his answer. But Luke tells us again: his mother kept all these things in her heart.

This then is what it was like for her to be the Mother of God. Yes, it did mean having all generations call her blessed; and surely having her hand held by the hand of God, if we may use the phrase from that poem, more tightly than anyone else’s ever has been. But still, it did mean walking into that darkness of the unknown. It was a life full of surprises and dangers, of inconvenient journeys, and of pain at different times that came from being united to the one who was Son of God, and who eventually would be crucified as he saved the world. And as Mary went, day by day, holding that hand, she kept pondering, she kept reflecting on all these things, carefully guarding them in her heart and mind.

And now she stands at your shoulder, as you stand at the gate of the year—Mary, the Mother of God, who gave Jesus to us, and whom Jesus gave to us as our mother, at the cross.

It might be a good New Year’s resolution to make her your traveling companion as you tread into the unknown. We all know that it is possible to make someone else, who is not with you physically, a part of your life—if you read what they write, watch them on television, listen to them on the radio; or, with recent technological changes, if you watch them on reality television, or follow them on a blog or Facebook or Twitter. Well, the Church for centuries has offered a tool that allows us to bring our Mother Mary into our everyday life, even though she doesn’t walk with us physically; and that tool is the rosary. In praying the rosary, while your lips stay busy with the prayers, you join our Lady in meditating upon these mysteries that she lived through as Mother of God. You join her in her pondering and reflecting upon all these rich events—joyful, luminous, sorrowful, glorious—in her life and the life of Jesus—that she meditated upon. And so all that she pondered can begin to enter our life. And so she can be our companion, as we walk into the unknown.

What does the future hold for you? What will this year hold? At this point, you might be hopeful about it, or you might be fearful about it, or maybe you might be a little of both. You don’t know what the future holds for you; but our Mother Mary knows Who holds your future. And she says to you: Put your hand into the hand of God.

  • Tell him, Let it be done to me according to your word.
  • All things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose [Rom 8:28].
  • God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength [1 Cor 10:13].
  • He has predestined you to be conformed to the image of his Son [Rom 8:29].
  • And above all, the Mother of God says to us: Do whatever he tells you [John 2:5].

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Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 10:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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