Mary, Mother of God – January 1st
Luke 2: 16-21
Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21
Scandals of the manger
The shepherds found “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Lk 2:16). For the shepherds, the manger was a joyful sign: it was the confirmation of the message they had heard from the angel (cf. v. 12), the place where they found the Saviour. It is also the proof of God’s closeness to them, for he was born in a manger, an object they know well, as a sign of his closeness and familiarity. The manger is also a joyful sign for us. Jesus touches our hearts by being born in littleness and poverty; he fills us with love, not fear. The manger foretells the One who makes himself food for us. His poverty is good news for everyone, especially the marginalized, the rejected and those who do not count in the eyes of the world. For that is how God comes: not on a fast track, and lacking even a cradle! That is what is beautiful about seeing him there, laid in a manger.
Yet such was not the case with Mary, the Holy Mother of God. She had to endure “the scandal of the manger”. She too, long before the shepherds, had received the message of an angel, who spoke to her solemnly about the throne of David: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Lk 1:31-32). And now, Mary has to lay him in a trough for animals. How can she hold together the throne of a king and the lowly manger? How can she reconcile the glory of the Most High and the bitter poverty of a stable? Let us think of the distress of the Mother of God. What can be more painful for a mother than to see her child suffering poverty? It is troubling indeed. We would not blame Mary, were she to complain of those unexpected troubles. Yet she does not lose heart. She does not complain, but keeps silent. Rather than complain, she chooses a different part: For her part, the Gospel tells us, Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (cf. Lk 2:19).
That is not what the shepherds and the people do. The shepherds tell everyone about what they had seen: the angel that appeared in the heart of the night, and his words concerning the Child. And the people, upon hearing these things, are amazed (cf. v. 18). Words and amazement. Mary, instead, is pensive; she keeps all these things, pondering them in her heart. We ourselves can have the same two different responses. The story told by the shepherds, and their own amazement, remind us of the beginnings of faith, when everything seems easy and straightforward. We rejoice in the newness of God who enters into our lives and fills us with wonder. Mary’s pensiveness, on the other hand, is the expression of a mature, adult faith, not a faith of beginners. Not a newborn faith, it is rather a faith that now gives birth. For spiritual fruitfulness is born of trials and testing. From the quiet of Nazareth and from the triumphant promises received by the Angel – the beginnings – Mary now finds herself in the dark stable of Bethlehem. Yet that is where she gives God to the world. Others, before the scandal of the manger, might feel deeply troubled. She does not: she keeps those things, pondering them in her heart.
Let us learn from the Mother of God how to have that same attitude: to keep and to ponder. Because we may well have to endure certain “scandals of the manger”. We hope that everything will be all right and then, like a bolt from the blue, an unexpected problem arises. Our expectations clash painfully with reality. That can also happen in the life of faith, when the joy of the Gospel is put to the test in troubling situations. Today the Mother of God teaches us to draw profit from this clash. She shows us that it is necessary: it is the narrow path to achieve the goal, the cross, without which there can be no resurrection. Like the pangs of childbirth, it begets a more mature faith.
I ask, brothers and sisters, how do we make this passage, how do we surmount this clash between the ideal and the real? By doing exactly what Mary did: by keeping and by pondering. First, Mary “keeps”, that is she holds on to what happens; she does not forget or reject it. She keeps in her heart everything that she saw and heard. The beautiful things, like those spoken to her by the angel and the shepherds, but also the troubling things: the danger of being found pregnant before marriage and, now, the lowly stable where she has had to give birth. That is what Mary does. She does not pick and choose; she keeps. She accepts life as it comes, without trying to camouflage or embellish it; she keeps those things in her heart.
Then, Mary’s second attitude is about how she keeps: she keeps and she ponders. The Gospel speaks of Mary “bringing together”, comparing, her different experiences and finding the hidden threads that connect them. In her heart, in her prayer, she does exactly that: she binds together the beautiful things and the unpleasant things. She does not keep them apart, but brings them together. It is for this reason that Mary is said to be the Mother of Catholicity. In this regard, we can dare to say that it is because of this that Mary is said to be Catholic, for she unites, she does not divide. And in this way she discerns their greater meaning, from God’s perspective. In her mother’s heart, Mary comes to realize that the glory of the Most High appears in humility; she welcomes the plan of salvation whereby God must lie in a manger. She sees the divine Child frail and shivering, and she accepts the wondrous divine interplay between grandeur and littleness. Mary keeps and ponders.
This inclusive way of seeing things, which transcends tensions by “keeping” and “pondering”, is the way of mothers, who, in moments of tension, do not divide, they keep, and in this way enable life to grow. It is the way so many mothers embrace the problems of their children. Their maternal “gaze” does not yield to stress; it is not paralyzed before those problems, but sees them in a wider perspective. And this is Mary’s attitude: she keeps and ponders right up to Calvary. We can think of the faces of all those mothers who care for a child who is ill or experiencing difficulties. What great love we see in their eyes! Even amid their tears, they are able to inspire hope. Theirs is a gaze that is conscious and realistic, but at the same time offering, beyond the pain and the problems, a bigger picture, one of care and love that gives birth to new hope. That is what mothers do: they know how to overcome obstacles and disagreements, and to instill peace. In this way, they transform problems into opportunities for rebirth and growth. They can do this because they know how to “keep”, to hold together the various threads of life. We need such people, capable of weaving the threads of communion in place of the barbed wire of conflict and division. Mothers know how to do this.
The New Year begins under the sign of the Holy Mother of God, under the sign of the Mother. A mother’s gaze is the path to rebirth and growth. We need mothers, women who look at the world not to exploit it, but so that it can have life. Women who, seeing with the heart, can combine dreams and aspirations with concrete reality, without drifting into abstraction and sterile pragmatism. And the Church is a Mother, this is what makes the Church feminine. For this reason, we cannot find a place for women in the Church without allowing the heart of the Woman and Mother to shine. This is the place of women in the Church, the great place, from which other places, more concrete and less important, are derived. But the Church is Mother, the Church is woman. And since mothers bestow life, and women “keep” the world, let us all make greater efforts to promote mothers and to protect women. How much violence is directed against women! Enough! To hurt a woman is to insult God, who from a woman took on our humanity. He did not do it through an angel; nor did he come directly; he did it through a woman. Like a woman, the Mother Church, takes the humanity of her sons and daughters.
At the beginning of the New Year, then, let us place ourselves under the protection of this woman, the Mother of God, who is also our mother. May she help us to keep and ponder all things, unafraid of trials and with the joyful certainty that the Lord is faithful and can transform every cross into a resurrection. Today too, let us call upon her as did the People of God at Ephesus. Let us stand and, facing Our Lady as did the people of God in Ephesus, let us together repeat three times her title of Mother of God: “Holy Mother of God, Holy Mother of God, Holy Mother of God”! Amen.
1st January 2022
Bless, don’t curse: it is the way of peace
Fr. Fernando Armellini
Gospel: Luke 2:16-21
Today’s Gospel is a continuation of the passage read during the Midnight Mass. Beside the manger of Jesus, the shepherds again appear. Following the news received from heaven, they go to Bethlehem and find Joseph, Mary, and the baby in a manger. One notes: they do not find anything extraordinary. They see only a baby with his father and his mother. Nevertheless, from that weak being, needing help and protection, they recognize the Savior. They do not need extraordinary signs; they do not verify miracles and prodigies. The shepherds represent all the poor, the excluded that, almost by instinct, acknowledge in the baby of Bethlehem the Messiah from heaven.
In the depictions, the shepherds appear in general to be on their knees before Jesus. But the Gospel does not say that they were prostrated in adoration, as the magi did (Mt 2:11). They simply observed—amazed in ecstasy—the marvelous work that God has done in their favor. Then they announced to others their joy and all were astonished at what they heard (v. 18).
In the first chapters of his Gospel, Luke often reveals the marvel and the immense joy of the persons who felt involved in the plan of God. Elizabeth, having discovered herself pregnant, repeats to all: “This for me is the Lord’s doing” (Lk 1:25). Simeon and prophetess Anna bless God who has granted them to see the salvation prepared for all the people (Lk 2:30-38); Mary and Joseph are also amazed and astonished (Lk 2:33,38).
All of them have eyes and heart of a baby that accompanies with a glance each gesture of the father. He remains raptured by his gesture and smiles. He smiles because in all that the father does he captures a sign of his love. “For the Kingdom of God belong to such as these—Jesus says one day—and whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mk 10:14-15).
The first worry of the shepherds is not of an ethical type: they do not ask what they must do, what corrections they need to bring to their not so exemplary moral lives, what sins they must undertake to avoid … . They stand to enjoy that which God has done. After only after feeling being loved, they are able to listen to advice, the proposals of a new life poured on them by the Father. Only in this way,will they come to find themselves in a right condition to trust him.
In the second part of the Gospel (v. 19), the reaction of Mary to the story of the shepherds was emphasized: “She treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart” (literally: she put them together).
Luke does not mean to say that Mary “had in mind” all that happened, without forgetting any detail. And he does not even want—as some have sustained—to indicate Mary as the source of information on the infancy of Jesus. The theological significance of his affirmation is far greater. He says that Mary “gathered together all the facts,” bound them and she captured the meaning; she discovered the connecting link; she contemplated the realization of God’s plan. Mary (a 12-13-year-old girl) was not superficial. She did not pride herself when things went well and did not lose heart before difficulties. She meditated, observed with an attentive eye each event in order not to be conditioned by ideas, convictions, and traditions of her people and be receptive to and prepared for God’s surprises.
A certain Marian devotion has distanced her from our world and from our human condition, anguishes, doubts, and uncertainties, and from our difficulty in believing. It wrapped her in a cloud of privileges that—according to cases—made her admired or envied but not loved. Luke presents her in a right perspective, as a sister who fulfilled a journey of faith, similar to ours.
Mary does not understand everything from the beginning: she marvels at what Simeon says of the child. She is almost taken by surprise (Lk 2:33). She was amazed as were the apostles and all the people before God’s works (Lk 9:43-45). She does not understand the words of her son who chose to commit himself to the Father’s affairs (Lk 2:50) as the Twelve had difficulty in understanding the words of the Teacher: “They could make nothing of this; the meaning of these words remained a mystery to them, and they did not understand what he said” (Lk 18:34).
Mary does not understand, but observes, meditates, reflects and after Easter (not before), she will understand everything; she will clearly see the meaning of that which happened.
Luke will present her, for the last time, at the beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. He will put her in her place, in the community of believers: “All of these together gave themselves to constant prayer. With them were some women and also Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). She was blessed because she believed (Lk 1:45).
Today’s Gospel concludes with the report on the circumcision. With this rite, Jesus officially enters to be part of the people of Israel. But this is not the principal reason for Luke to recall this fact. He is interested in another detail, the name given to the child, a name that was not chosen by the parents but was indicated directly from heaven.
For the people of Ancient Orient, the name was not only to indicate the person, to distinguish the animals or to identify the objects. It was more than that. It expressed the very nature of things; it formed one with the bearer. Abigail tells of her husband: “He is just what his name says. He is called Nabal (literally “a fool”) and his is a fool” (1 Sam 25:25). To be called with a name of the other meant to impersonate him, to make him present, having his very own authority, to call on his protection (Dt 28:10).
Keeping in mind this cultural context, we are able to understand the importance that Luke attributes to the name given to the child. He is called Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.” Matthew explains: he was called such because he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21).
In the commentary on the First Reading, we said, that the name of God—JHWH—could not be pronounced. But without a name, he remains anonymous. If one does not know our name, only a superficial relationship is possible.
If God wants to enter into dialogue with a person he must tell that person how he would like to be called; he must indicate his name and reveal his identity. He did. Choosing the name of His Son, God said who He is.
Here is His identity: He who saves, He who does nothing but saves. In the Gospels, this name is repeated 566 times, almost to remind us that God’s images that are not compatible with this name must be deleted. Now we understand the reason why in the Old Testament God did not allow his name to be pronounced because only in Jesus he would have told us who he was.
It is interesting to note those, in Luke’s Gospel, who called Jesus by name. They are not the just, the perfect, but only the marginalized, those at the mercy of the forces of evil. They are the possessed (Lk 4:34), the lepers: “Jesus, teacher, have mercy on us” (Lk 17:13), the blind: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” (Lk 18:38) and the criminal who dies on the cross beside him: “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
Peter will remind the religious leaders of his people: “No other name in fact under heaven is given to people, through whom they are saved” (Acts 4:12).
To be amazed
“All who heard were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Lk 2:18).
To be amazed: this is what is asked of us today, at the conclusion of the Octave of Christmas, as we continue to contemplate the Child born for us, lacking everything yet abounding in love. Amazement is what we should feel at the beginning of each year, for life is a gift that constantly gives us a chance to make a new start, even from the most lowly of circumstances.
Today is also a day to be amazed by the Mother of God. God appears as a little child, held in the arms of a woman who feeds her Creator. The statue before our eyes depicts the Mother and Child so close as to appear as one. That is the mystery we celebrate today, which gives rise to boundless amazement: God has become one with humanity forever. God and man, always together, that is the good news of this new year. God is no distant lord, dwelling in splendid isolation above the heavens, but love incarnate, born like us of a mother, in order to be a brother to each of us, to be close to us: the God of closeness. He rests on the lap of his mother, who is also our mother, and from there he pours out upon humanity a new tenderness. Thus we come to understand more fully
God’s love, which is both paternal and maternal, like that of a mother who never stops believing in her children and never abandons them. God-with-us, Emmanuel, loves us despite our mistakes, our sins, and the way we treat our world. God believes in mankind, because its first and preeminent member is his own Mother.
At the beginning of the year, let us implore from Mary the grace to be amazed at the God of surprises. Let us renew the amazement we felt when faith was first born in us. The Mother of God helps us: the Mother who gave birth to the Lord, now presents us, reborn, to the Lord. She is a mother who generates in her children the amazement of faith, because faith is an encounter, not a religion. Without amazement, life becomes dull and routine, and so it is with faith. The Church too needs to renew her amazement at being the dwelling place of the living God, the Bride of the Lord, a Mother who gives birth to her children. Otherwise, she risks turning into a beautiful museum of the past. A “Church museum”. Our Lady instead gives the Church the feel of a home, a home in which the God of newness dwells. Let us receive with amazement the mystery of the Mother of God, as the inhabitants of Ephesus did at the time of the Council. Like them, let us acclaim her “Holy Mother of God”. From her, let us allow ourselves to be gazed upon, to be embraced, to be taken by the hand.
Let us allow ourselves to be gazed upon. Especially in times of need, when we are entangled in life’s knots, we rightly lift our eyes to Our Lady, to Our Mother. Yet first, we should let ourselves be gazed upon by Our Lady. When she gazes upon us, she does not see sinners but children. It is said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul; the eyes of Mary, full of grace, reflect the beauty of God, they show us a reflection of heaven. Jesus himself said that the eye is “the lamp of the body” (Mt 6:22): the eyes of Our Lady are able to bring light to every dark corner; everywhere they rekindle hope. As she gazes upon us, she says: “Take heart, dear children; here I am, your Mother!”
This maternal gaze, which instils confidence and trust, helps us to grow in faith. Faith is a bond with God that engages the whole person; to be preserved, it needs the Mother of God. Her maternal gaze helps us see ourselves as beloved children in God’s faithful people, and to love one another regardless of our individual limitations and approaches. Our Lady keeps us rooted in the Church, where unity counts more than diversity; she encourages us to care for one another. Mary’s gaze reminds us that faith demands a tenderness that can save us from becoming lukewarm. Tenderness: the Church of tenderness. Tenderness is a word that today many want to remove from the dictionary. When faith makes a place for the Mother of God, we never lose sight of the centre: the Lord, for Mary never points to herself but to Jesus; and our brothers and sisters, for Mary is mother.
The gaze of the Mother, and the gaze of every mother. A world that looks to the future without a mother’s gaze is shortsighted. It may well increase its profits, but it will no longer see others as children. It will make money, but not for everyone. We will all dwell in the same house, but not as brothers and sisters. The human family is built upon mothers. A world in which maternal tenderness is dismissed as mere sentiment may be rich materially, but poor where the future is concerned. Mother of God, teach us to see life as you do. Turn your gaze upon us, upon our misery, our poverty. Turn to us thine eyes of mercy.
Let us allow ourselves to be embraced. From Mary’s gaze, we now turn to her heart, in which, as today’s Gospel recounts, she “treasured all these things and pondered them” (Lk 2:19). Our Lady, in other words, took everything to heart; she embraced everything, events both good and bad. And she pondered all these things; she brought them before God. This was her secret. In the same way, she now takes to heart the life of each of us: she wants to embrace our every situation and to present it to God.
In today’s fragmented world, where we risk losing our bearings, a Mother’s embrace is essential. How much dispersion and solitude there is all around us! The world is completely connected, yet seems increasingly disjointed. We need to entrust ourselves to our Mother. In the Scriptures, Our Lady embraces any number of concrete situations; she is present wherever she is needed. She visits her cousin Elizabeth; she comes to the aid of the newlyweds in Cana; she encourages the disciples in the Upper Room… Mary is a cure for solitude and dispersion. She is the Mother of con-solation: she stands “with” those who are “alone”. She knows that words are not enough to console; presence is needed, and she is present as a mother. Let us allow her to embrace our lives. In the Salve Regina, we call her “our life”. This may seem exaggerated, for Christ himself is “life” (cf. Jn 14:6), yet Mary is so closely united to him, and so close to us, that we can do no better than to put our hands in hers and to acknowledge her as “our life, our sweetness and our hope.”
And in the journey of life, let us allow ourselves to be taken by the hand. Mothers take their children by the hand and lovingly introduce them to life. But how many children today wander off on their own and lose their way. Thinking they are strong, they get lost; thinking they are free, they become slaves. How many, forgetting a mother’s affection, live in anger with themselves and indifference to everything! How many, sad to say, react to everything and everyone with bitterness and malice! Life is such. Showing oneself “malicious” even seems at times to be a sign of strength. Yet it is nothing more than weakness. We need to learn from mothers that heroism is shown in self-giving, strength in compassion, wisdom in meekness.
God himself needed a Mother: how much more so do we! Jesus himself gave her to us, from the cross: “Behold your mother!” (Jn 19:27). He said this to the beloved disciple and to every disciple. Our Lady is not an optional accessory: she has to be welcomed into our life. She is the Queen of peace, who triumphs over evil and leads us along paths of goodness, who restores unity to her children, who teaches us compassion.
Mary, take us by the hand. Clinging to you, we will pass safely through the straits of history. Lead us by the hand to rediscover the bonds that unite us. Gather us beneath your mantle, in the tenderness of true love, where the human family is reborn: “We fly to thy protection, O Holy Mother of God”. Let us together pray these words to Our Lady: “We fly to thy protection, O Holy Mother of God”.
1st January 2019