Mary, the Mother of God

Today’s readings

My mother has a lot of stories about me as I was growing up.  Some of them are funny or interesting, others are just a little painful or embarrassing.  I suspect your mother has or had stories like that about you too.  Maybe they are funny or maybe they are sad, but these are the stories that make us cringe a little bit when we hear them.

I wonder how Jesus felt about the stories Mary remembered about him.  Probably they didn’t make him cringe!  Luke tells us of all the amazing things that were observed and said about Jesus, even in his infancy, and all these things are what Mary kept and reflected on in her heart.  I think it’s fair to say that she probably didn’t understand all of them at the time, or at least she didn’t know where they were leading, although she certainly knew that her son was someone very special, the Son of God.  And so she keeps all these things and reflects on them in her heart.  She is the first, really, to receive the Gospel – observing it, as it were, while it was happening and unfolding.  And so she is the model for all of us hearers of the Word; we too catch little phrases or episodes that we later reflect on in our hearts.  When we first hear them, it might well be that we don’t understand them.  But we know that we can later reflect on them in our hearts, and the Holy Spirit will reveal their meaning.

The Church gives us this wonderful feast of Mary on this, the octave day of Christmas.  In a very real way, the Church still celebrates this day as Christmas day – that’s one of the wonderful things about being Catholic.  We don’t have to cast off Christmas with the wrapping paper; we get to celebrate for many days.  But to celebrate the eighth day of Christmas as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God is a wonderful and appropriate thing to do.  We all know that if Mary hadn’t said “yes” to God’s invitation and cooperated with his plan for her, that salvation history might have gone rather poorly, to say the least.  We are indebted to Mary’s faith, a faith which made possible the salvation of the whole world and everyone ever to live in it.

More than that, Mary’s faith is a model for us.  We often do not know where God is leading us, but in faith we are called to say “yes” anyway.  How willing are we to do that?  We are often called upon to take a leap of faith, make a fiat, and cooperate with God’s saving plan for us and for others.  Just like Mary, we have no way of knowing where that might lead us; just like Mary, that might lead to heartache and sorrow; but just like Mary, it may lead to redemption beyond belief, beyond anything we can imagine.

And so, yes, Mary is the Mother of God.  And let me tell you, this was a doctrine that didn’t come without a price.  People fought over whether a human woman could ever be the mother of God.  How would that be possible?  But the alternative, really, would be to say that Jesus was not God, because we clearly know that Mary was his mother.  So to say that Mary was not the Mother of God is to say in a very real and precarious way that Jesus was not God, and we know just as surely that that would be incorrect.  Jesus was fully human but also fully divine, his human and divine natures intertwined in his person without any separation or division or degradation of one nature at the expense of another.  And so, as theologians teach us, Mary is the Mother of God the Word according to his human nature.  Sister Sarah made us memorize that in seminary, and every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly theologically courageous, I reflect on that statement and marvel at its beauty.

So, Mary is the Mother of God, but Mary is also the Mother of the Church, leading its members to her son Jesus and to faith in God.  She is mother of priests, caring for us in a special way and interceding for the faithful completion of our mission.  She is the mother of mothers, interceding for them and showing them how to nurture faith in their children.  She is the mother of the faithful, showing us how to cooperate fully with God’s plan.  She is mother of scripture scholars and those who just love the scriptures, having seen the Word unfold before her and treasuring it in her heart.  She is the mother of disciples, having been the first of the disciples and the most dedicated of them all.  She is the Mother of God, and our mother, and we cannot sing our Christmas carols without singing her praises too.  We honor her faith and example today, and we ask for her intercession for our lives, for our families, for our Church and our world.

Pray for us, o holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

What did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Perhaps you, like me, are at the stage where the gifts are nice, but being together at Christmas is the real gift.  Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get the coveted gift of the year, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us ultimately happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

St. John tells us quite clearly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Because what we have is so much better than anything the world can give.  The real gift this Christmas, and really every day, is the gift of eternal life.  And we have that gift because Jesus came to earth and chose to be one with us in our human nature.  That’s why the angels sang that night, and why we sing his praise every day of our lives.

The Holy Innocents

Today’s readings

Right here in the middle of the joy of the Christmas Octave, we have the feast of what seems to be an incredibly horrible event. All of the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem two years old and younger are murdered by the jealous and, quite frankly, rather pathetic Herod. But not only are his plans to kill the Christ Child (and thus remove any threat to his reign) thwarted by the providence of God, but also the horror of this event is transfigured into something rather glorious in terms of the Kingdom of God.

As I said, in some ways, this is a horrible feast. But the Church, in recognizing the contribution of the Holy Innocents to the kingdom, asserts that this is just the beginning of the world’s seeing the glory of Jesus Christ. As disgusting and repugnant as Herod’s actions are to our sensibilities, yet these innocent children bear witness to the Child Jesus. St. Quodvoltdeus, an African bishop of the fifth century writes of them:

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

I think the key to making sense of all this is in the first reading. The line that really catches me, because it seems almost erroneous in light of the horrible event we remember today, is “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” We can see all kinds of darkness in an event like the murder of these innocent children. Yet only God could turn something that horrible around to his glory. They may have lived extremely short lives on earth, yet their lives in eternity were secured forever. They become some of the first to participate in the kingdom that Christ would bring about through his Paschal Mystery.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

It’s certainly appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, just a few days after Christmas.  This feast helps to underscore that Jesus came to live among us in a very ordinary way: by taking flesh and becoming one of us, even to being part of a family.  So we look on the manger scenes that still are on display here in church and in our homes, and we see Jesus, Mary and Joseph beginning their lives together.  We  still sing Christmas carols that extol the peace of his coming.

Our thoughts about that beautiful family might run along the lines of “how nice for them!”  I’m aware that some families who are here today may have just managed to get here on time, or a little after.  Maybe there was the constant argument with the kids about why they have to go to church.  Or maybe someone wasn’t quite ready on time.  It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from whatever it was they just got for Christmas.  And so, as they hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is, perhaps, the furthest thing from their minds.

So it can be hard to relate, I think, to the Holy Family in some ways.  Maybe you’re thinking, “How do I get one of those?” There are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families divided by immigration issues, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts. Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but are unable.  There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in their history.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges. An unexpected – and almost inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety. Even this Holy Family was saddened, in some ways, by an extremely rocky beginning.

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing. We know this. God knows this. Yet it was into this flawed structure that the God of all the earth chose to come into our world. Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and sanctify the whole world by his most merciful coming.

St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God. We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice. Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to be that way. We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble. But that’s what disciples do. But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing. Because all of us are going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another. So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another. We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.

Even today’s Gospel portrays for us the challenges of the family.  The Gospel event, if it played out today, would be an Amber Alert!  Jesus is lost on a journey, and a frantic search turns up nothing.  It is only in returning to Jerusalem that they find Jesus, right where he’s apparently supposed to be: debating with the religious leaders in the temple.  Even so, one wonders if he did not end up grounded until he was thirty, based on the fact that we don’t see him again in the Gospel until he is a man beginning his ministry!

And so I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is not some kind of idyllic perfection.  Certainly they attained more perfection than any of us could ever possibly hope for in this life, but that’s not what we’re supposed to be focusing on.  What I think is worth focusing on is that, even though they knew there would be hard times ahead for them, they faithfully lived their lives through it all.  They continued to be a family, Jesus continued to grow and become strong in his human nature, and to be filled with wisdom and the favor of God.  And that, for us, is something worth striving for.  Being perfect might seem impossible, but being faithful is possible and it leads us to holiness.

For Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their faithfulness helped them to absorb the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.  For us, faithfulness can help us to get through whatever rough spots life may have in store for us and not break apart.

I am aware, however, that as I speak about faithfulness, that it all can still seem insurmountable. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please you have your Church family to support you with prayer and love as you do it.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we will be quite far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Mary may have kept today’s Gospel event, along with many other events, in her heart, but they had to be hard to understand in the moment.  Yet they continued to live their lives, aided by the Spirit of God, and they all grew strong in wisdom and grace.  Those same blessings are intended for us to, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit in our own human families, no matter what those families may look like.

St. Stephen, Deacon & Martyr

Today’s readings

St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, chosen to aid in the distribution of food to those in need, so that the Apostles could continue their work.  He was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was unafraid to speak the truth.  And that, of course, is what brings him to today’s celebration.  His unwillingness to cover over the truth and his powerful, indisputable words, did not make him friends with everyone, to say the least.  He was stoned to death, an event in which we see perhaps the beginning of the conversion of a man named Saul, who of course, we know, later becomes Paul.

The truth may, as Jesus tells us, set us free, but not without cost.  Stephen, and later Paul of course, paid for it with their lives, as Jesus did.  But covering over the truth or refusing to speak the truth would have been death of a far worse kind: a death that had no hope of salvation.  Giving his life for the truth and for the faith united Stephen forever with his God, who was his salvation and his joy.

And so on this Christmas day, we are reminded that Christ came to bring the truth, and that that truth would change everything, which was not always a welcome thing.  The gift of this Christmas day is the truth, given to us to guard and proclaim and shout without fear.  It is the Spirit who gives us the words of truth to say in any situation, that same Spirit who gave Jesus to Mary in the first place.  We too rely on that same Spirit to help us fearlessly witness to the truth, fixing our eyes as St. Stephen did on Christ, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

All during Advent, we have been yearning for the light.  Advent reminds us that the world can sometimes be a very dark place, that war and terrorism and crime and disease and sin and death can really give us a beating, that very often we experience life much differently than God intended us to, and that all of this darkness has kept us from union with our God.  But Advent also has reminded us that it’s not supposed to be that way, and that God has always intervened for love of the people he has created.  And so in Advent, we came to see that God promises salvation for the people that are his own, and that he would do everything to make that promised salvation unfold for us.

The Old Testament unfolds for us the many ways that God has intervened in history to save his people.  He placed man and woman in the Garden of Eden, safe from all harm, should they choose to accept it (which, of course, they did not!).  He brought eight people through the deluge of the great flood on Noah’s Ark.  He promised Abraham his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the sky.  He led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert and into the Promised Land, protecting them and guiding them through the hand of Moses all along the way.  His love for his people, his desire that they be one with him, and his efforts to save them from their own folly have been abundant all through human history.  But as numerous as his efforts have been, so have humankind’s failures to follow him been numerous as well.

Which brings us to the event we celebrate today.  Let’s be clear: this is not some last-ditch effort before he throws up his hands and leaves us to our own devices.  This is the saving event, par excellence.  This is the way to salvation that has always been intended and has been promised through the ages, from the very days of the creation of the world, when the Word, as St. John tells us today, was with God, and with God, was the Word through which everything in heaven and on earth came to be.

This awesome event is the Incarnation: Jesus, the Word through which all were created, comes to be one of the created ones.  This is the primordial mystery of our faith: without the Incarnation, there could be no cross, no resurrection, no ascension, no salvation.  None of the savings events of the Old Testament could be as efficacious as the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery: in fact, those previous acts of salvation led up to the salvation we have in Christ Jesus, and paved the way for that saving act.  In today’s feast, the great light of Christ has taken hold of the darkness this world brings to us and shatters it forever, shining great light into every corner of our dark world, and our sometimes very dark lives as well.

That’s all very theological and theoretical, I know, and maybe it goes over our heads most of the time.  So let me put this all another way.  For this illustration, I have to thank one of my seminary professors, who beat this image into our heads over and over again.  Here’s the way it works:  God always intended for us to be with him.  But, that became impossible, because over time we developed this great, dark chasm of sin and death.  That chasm separated us from God, and we could not reach across it to get to God.  So, on December the 25th, in the year Zero, if you will, God sent his only Son to be our salvation.  He was born into our midst and became one of us: he walked our walk, he lived our life, and he also died our death.  But that death did not last forever: instead he rose to new life that lasts forever, canceling out that great chasm of sin and death, and forever uniting us to God, allowing us to live the life God always intended us to have.  Now, I should mention, he used to call that chasm the “deep dark yogurt of sin and death,” and he once explained that he used that image because he didn’t like yogurt!

You get the idea.  This gift of the Incarnation is the best Christmas present we will receive – it is the best gift of any kind that we will ever receive, because in the Incarnation we have what’s necessary for us to be saved.  This is so important a mystery and so great a gift, that at the words of the Incarnation in the Creed today, we are instructed to genuflect, not just bow.  So we will genuflect when we say the words, “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  And we genuflect because we remember with great gratitude that if the Word didn’t become flesh, if he wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary, if he didn’t become one like us, if he didn’t pay the price for our sins, we would never have salvation, or hope of life with God.  Praise God for this great gift today!

And so as we continue our prayer today, we offer God the darkness in our lives: our sins, our frustrations, our disappointments, our pain, our grief – and we hold up all of this to the great Light that is God’s Word, the one who became one like us, who pitched his tent among us, and who dwells with us now.  We pray that the Light of the world would banish our darkness, and help us to see the way to God from wherever it is that we find ourselves on the spiritual path today.  We celebrate that today and every day, Jesus Christ is the Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Nativity of the Lord (Vigil Mass): Joseph’s Story

Today’s readings

Once, a very long time ago, there was a man named Joseph.  He was a well-respected and hard-working man, from the family of the great king David.  But since Israel hadn’t been a great nation in a long time, he wasn’t respected for being a great king himself.  Instead, people respected him for his carpentry work and for the fact that he was faithful and just.

He was engaged to a young woman named Mary but was not yet living with her.  They would come together to be man and wife when the time was right.  One day, she came to him with an unbelievable story about being pregnant, with a child given to her by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph didn’t know what to think.  He knew he was not the father of the baby, and so he decided not to marry the young woman, but instead to let her go quietly, so she would not be embarrassed.

The night he decided to do this, Joseph had a dream.  In the dream, an angel appeared to him and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and that God wanted him to do just that.  The angel told him that the baby was very special, that would come to save all God’s people from their sins and would be called Emmanuel – a name which means that God is here among us.

So Joseph decided to do what the angel told him.  Even though his friends thought he was crazy, he took Mary as his wife.  And about that time, an proclamation came from the government that said that everyone had to go and be registered as a citizen.  They had to go to the city where they were from to do that.  So Joseph made plans to travel with Mary from Galilee where they were living, to Nazareth, which was where Joseph was from.  The way was long and dangerous and, along the way, the time for Mary to have her child came.

They looked desperately for some inn or any house to take them in, but every place was full because so many people were traveling.  Eventually, they at least found a shelter: a rickety little shack for farm animals, and they went in there.  That’s when Mary had her baby.  She was scared, and Joseph had never delivered a baby before.  But the child was beautiful, and Joseph held him while Mary slept, exhausted from travelling and giving birth.  They placed the baby in the manger, a feed-trough for the animals, and they named him Jesus.

Later, they had visits from shepherds and from three astrologers from the east, who came to worship the child, because they had seen visions too.  Mary and Joseph were amazed at all that was happening, and the wonderful visits they were receiving.

That night, Joseph had another visit from an angel in his dreams.  The angel told him that people were planning to harm the new baby.  So, at the angel’s instruction, Joseph got up from bed, took Mary and Jesus, and fled to the land of Egypt so that they would be out of harm’s way.  They stayed there until the angel told Joseph that those who wanted to harm Jesus were dead, and it was okay to go back to their own town now.

Joseph watched the child grow up, and was so proud to be his foster-father.  He taught Jesus how to live and how to respect others, and all about the religious law, just like any father would do for his children.  In his private moments, Joseph always wondered what would become of Jesus, wondered what God had in store for him.  All he knew was that something wonderful was happening, and as hard as it was sometimes, he had been called to help it happen.

And God wants to continue to do wonderful things for us.  Jesus didn’t just get born two thousand years ago; Jesus is born right here, right now for us, if we would just make a little space, a little shelter for him in our hearts.  Just as Joseph didn’t know exactly what God had in store for Jesus, we don’t know what God has in store for any of us in the year ahead.  But we do know this: God sent Jesus so that God could be here among us, and he is here among us now, leading us back to him, telling us that we are his special children, and loving us all with love beyond anything we can imagine.

Just like things were hard for Mary and Joseph as they travelled along, trying to find a place to stay, sometimes things for us will be hard too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, and helping us to find the Good News.  Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like the shepherds and astrologers, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.