Say Yes to God in this New Year

Listen to mp3 file
Mary Mother of God: January 1, 2011
Num 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3, 5-6, 8; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Today is the Octave Day of Christmas. The Church has long had the practice of celebrating the octaves of certain important feast days: that is, after celebrating the day itself, of then coming back on the 8th day and, in a way, celebrating it again, sort of like an echo or a reprise in music. Because the person, and the mystery, celebrated on those days is just too important to let it just fade away into our memories and into the past so quickly; so it seems important to bring it back again. Now there were many of those days for which the Church would celebrate the octaves in past centuries. And sometimes it wasn’t just to celebrate the 8th day again; it was to celebrate all 8 days. And that is how we celebrate the Octave of Christmas: all 8 days. And today we reach the 8th day.

And this is especially natural with Christmas, because, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, something significant happened on the 8th day after Christ’s birth: he was circumcised, and he received his name, the name of Jesus. And these were very important events in Christ’s life because they showed his identification with his People, his conformity with the Law of Moses. And it was the first time that he shed his blood; and how important Christ’s shedding of his blood would be in his salvation for all of us. And indeed, at that same time that he shed his blood the first time, was when received the name of Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.”

Now some of you probably remember that the Catholic Church used to celebrate this day as the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, for many centuries up until about 1960. But now it is a Marian feast. Why is that? Well, it turns out that an even older practice in Rome, for many centuries, earlier than that, had been to celebrate this Octave Day of Christmas as a feast of the maternity of Mary. And so our replacing of the feast of the Circumcision with this feast of Mary Mother of God was an act of returning to that older and more original practice.

And it has been restored precisely as a celebration of that title “Mother of God,” and of that truth that that title names. This title—in the original Greek, “Theotokos,” meaning God-bearer, the one who gave birth to God, or Mother of God—this title was a matter of great controversy in the early 400s AD. And you probably know that some people today, especially many of our separated Protestant brothers and sisters, who still object to this title. And there is some similarity between why people objected to it then and why they object to it now, so it is important to understand better why this title is appropriate and true. Because a true understanding of the Blessed Virgin Mary is very much tied to a true understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Back in the early 400s, a priest named Nestorius, and others who followed along with him, were objecting to the use of the title Theotokos or Mother of God because they believed, in effect, that Christ was two persons in one. They had gotten a little beyond the idea that he was simply God in disguise—and don’t a lot of people believe that today?—but they hadn’t gotten very far. They came to believe that he was a Divine Person dwelling inside of a human person: two persons. And so they said that Mary was obviously the mother of the human person, the man, but not of the divine person.

And because they misunderstood Christ, they misunderstood Mary. They misunderstood that Christ is one Person; and the wonder is that this one Divine Person, the Son of God, actually had two nativities, two births. He was born from eternity, eternally begotten of the Father. And then he was born in time of the Virgin Mary, taking on human nature. The wonderful truth is that the Divine Person of God the Son really, truly was born as man, with Mary truly as his mother. She truly is the mother of the Person of Christ, who is God; and so Mary truly is the Mother of God. And the third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, defined this clearly in the year 431.

Because understanding the two go together. If we are going to understand Christ, we are also going to have to understand Mary. The feast of the Mother of God really is a fitting completion to this entire Octave of Christmas.

And similarly, if we are going to know how to relate to Christ, and to love him and to respond to him, then we are going to need to learn this from Mary as well.

Today is the first day of the New Year. The old year of 2010 is now past and completed; and 2011, all 365 days of it, stretches out before us, full of possibilities, full of potential, perhaps also full of anxieties or fears. What is going to happen? We don’t know completely, do we?

So as we look out upon this New Year and embark upon it, who better to take the hand of than the Virgin Mary? For even before the archangel Gabriel came to her to ask her to become the Mother of God, she was already completely receptive to whatever God might ask of her. Whatever it was! She had signed a blank check to him, so to speak; she was already saying Yes to him, Yes, before she even knew what the invitation was. This is what she expressed in her answer to the angel [Luke 1:38]: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She already knew what her answer was; she just had to find out what that question was, what the invitation was, what God was asking of her. But whatever that was, her answer was Yes, always Yes.

And so that day when she was asked to become the Mother of God, well it had to make her head spin. How could it not? We have a hard time comprehending the reality looking back on it with lots of theological reflection! How could she have comprehended in the moment what she was being asked to agree to and to do? But she said Yes. Of course she said Yes. It was who she was; it was who she always had been. Her whole being said Yes to God, Yes to whatever he asked of her. Because she trusted in God completely and utterly, and she responded to his will with her whole being.

And it was that same thing that she recommended to those servants at the Wedding at Cana, in the last words we hear quoted from her in Scripture, when she tells them [John 2:5]: “Do whatever he tells you.” Say Yes. It was an invitation to them to become like her, and to relate to the Lord like she did. And it is her invitation to us as well, as we stand on the threshold of this New Year: “Do whatever he tells you.” Say Yes to him even before you know exactly what he is asking. Trust him completely.

So let us put our hand into the hand of God. Let us respond to him with our whole being, and step out in faith—that same faith that the Mother of God exudes with every fiber of her being. Let us step out with him into this New Year.

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