The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

 

Luke notes all throughout Jesus’ young life that Mary kept the events of Jesus’ life and reflected on them in her heart.  At the visit of the shepherds, and again after finding Jesus in the temple, Mary kept those memories for later reflection.  It’s kind of like she was keeping a scrapbook of memories in her heart, and I found myself wishing during these Christmas days, that I could take a look at that scrapbook.  She had a first-hand view of how Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, and as Luke tells the story, her perspective of God’s work in the life of her family had to be incredible.

Mary’s reflection on the life of Jesus is really a model for us.  Keeping those events close to her and reflecting on them later is her way of reflecting on the Word of God.  Whether she understood them at the time or not, she didn’t just live through the moment and move on.  She went back to those events later in her life – even after the death and resurrection of Jesus – and came to a new understanding guided by the Holy Spirit.  And thank God she did that.  It’s probably her later reflection on those events that made the early Church Evangelist able to record them and pass them on to us.

We too, must reflect on the Word of God.  We have to put ourselves in the presence of the Story, and ponder it in our hearts.  If we’re confused by Scripture, we have Mary as our patron to help us reflect on that Word and come to understand it, guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.  But we also have her encouragement to keep those Scriptures in the scrapbook of our hearts, to keep coming back to them.  That’s the only way the Spirit can work on us and help us to come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Word of God, and in doing that, to come to a renewed and vibrant relationship with our Lord.

If we would make a resolution for this new year, maybe it could be to follow Mary’s example.  Maybe we could set aside some time on a regular basis – even if just once a week – to put ourselves in the presence of the Word of God.  And not just here at Mass, although that’s a good start.  But maybe in private prayer or even in an organized Bible Study – we have a few of them going on in our parish on a regular basis.  If we regularly open ourselves up to the Word of God, maybe we too could come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Scriptures; and a closer and more beautiful relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

Mary, mother of God the Word, help us to understand the Word as you did.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God:
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Blessed Pope Pius IX instituted the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1854, when he proclaimed as truth the dogma that our Lady was conceived free from the stain of original sin.  This had been a traditional belief since about the eighth century, and had been celebrated as a feast first in the East, and later in the West.  So let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25.  It’s easy to keep this straight if you remember the math: nine months after this date is September 8th, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Nine months after the Annunciation is December 25th, or Christmas, the feast of the birth of our Savior.

Today’s feast celebrates our faith that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight.  This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was finally coming to fruition.  How appropriate it is, then, that we celebrate the Immaculate Conception just before Christmas, when our salvation begins to unfold.

The readings chosen for this day paint the picture.  In the reading from Genesis, we have the story of the fall.  The man and the woman had eaten of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat.  Because of this, they were ashamed and covered over their nakedness.  God noticed that, and asked about it.  He found they had discovered the forbidden tree because otherwise they would not have the idea that their natural state was shameful; they had not been created for shame.  Sin had entered the world, and God asks the man to tell him who had given him the forbidden fruit.

This leads to a rather pathetic deterioration of morality, as the man blames not just the woman, but also God, for the situation: “The woman whom you put here with me: she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  In other words, if God hadn’t put the woman there with him in the first place, he never would have received the fruit to eat.  The woman, too, blames someone else: the serpent.  As if neither of them had been created with a brain to think for themselves, they begin that blame game in which we all participate from time to time.

Thus begins the pattern of sin and deliverance that cycles all through the scriptures.  God extends a way to salvation to his people, the people reject it and go their own way.  God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation.  Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation, or we would be in dire straits.  It all comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today.  Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection.  That is why St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, today: “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.   In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…”

And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder.  God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to them, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man.  He began this by preparing for his birth through the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin.  He was then ready to be born into our midst and to take on our form.  With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us, and as the least among us: a newborn infant born to a poor family.  Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.  There’s a wonderful Marian prayer called the Alma Redemptoris Mater that the Church prays at the conclusion of Night Prayer during the Advent and Christmas seasons that sums it all up so beautifully.  Pray it with me, if you know it:

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
Gate of heaven, star of the sea,

Assist your people
who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us, poor sinners.

Our celebration today has special meaning for us.  Because Mary was conceived without sin, we can see that sin was never intended to rule us.  Because God selected Mary from the beginning, we can see that we were chosen before we were ever in our mother’s womb.  Because Mary received salvific grace from the moment of her conception, we can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day.  Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too.

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

The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel can be a confusing one, perhaps even a little difficult to hear.  It’s very disconcerting to see Jesus as being callous to his mother and not receiving her when she came to visit.  But our gut – or rather our faith – tells us that Jesus and Mary had a relationship that transcended that kind of thing.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about Mary; it’s just that he knew he really didn’t have to worry about her.  She had been filled with grace from the moment of her conception, and would never be without the benefit of that grace.

Theirs was a relationship in which Jesus instinctively knew that his mother was okay and he needed to attend more to the people he ministered.  And it is for that reason we celebrate Mary’s presentation today.  As with Mary’s birth, we don’t really know anything official about Mary’s presentation in the temple.  An unhistorical account tells us that her parents, Anna and Joachim, offered Mary to God in the Temple when she was three years old.  This was to carry out a promise made to God when Anna was still childless.

Though it cannot be proven historically, Mary’s presentation has an important theological purpose.  It continues the impact of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the birth of Mary.  It emphasizes that the holiness conferred on Mary from the beginning of her life on earth continued through her early childhood and beyond.  We celebrate Mary, full of grace from the moment of her conception and all throughout her life.

We pray the words of Mary in the Responsorial Psalm today: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”  Mary was always aware of the amazing grace that sustained her throughout her own very difficult life-long mission.  We are graced like that too, and we celebrate that grace with Mary today.

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

Our Lady of the Rosary

Today’s readings

The Battle of Lepanto was a naval engagement that took place on this date in 1571 when a fleet of the Holy League, of which the Venetian Empire and the Spanish Empire were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the fleet of the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras, where the Ottoman forces sailing westwards from their naval station in Lepanto met the fleet of the Holy League sailing east from Messina, Sicily.  The Holy League was victorious this day, which was attributed to the praying of the Holy Rosary, as requested by Pope Saint Pius V.  To commemorate the victory, Pius instituted this feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and it was extended to the entire Church in 1716.

We all experience varying degrees of tragedy or worry or need or concern in our lives.  It is important, I think, to have prayer as a tool to keep the faith in those circumstances.  Pope Saint Pius V encouraged the Rosary as a powerful tool for a real time of concern.  Praying the Rosary is effective in those times because it is simple. The constant repetition of words helps create an atmosphere in which to contemplate the mysteries of God. For me, the Rosary gives me the opportunity to see God at work in the mysteries of my own life, even as it draws me into the mysteries of salvation.

There are a lot of ways to pray.  Many are as complex as they are beautiful.  But it helps, I think, to have a simple prayer like the Rosary at your disposal for those times when prayer is urgent, and the words don’t come as readily as we would like.

Pope Saint John Paul II said, “To pray the Rosary is to hand over our burdens to the merciful hearts of Christ and His mother.”  The powerful combination of Jesus and Mary in the praying of the Rosary was a force for the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto.  We should, then, have no pause in bringing the Rosary to bear in the battles of our own lives.

The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today’s readings

Fear keeps us from doing all sorts of things the Lord wants for us.  If we would truly let go of our fear and cling to our God, just imagine what he could do in us and through us.  Ahaz was King of Israel, a mighty commander, but yet was so afraid of God and what God might do that he refused to ask for a sign.  Perhaps he knew how far he had strayed from God’s commands, and he was afraid to engage God on any level.  He would prefer to cut himself off from God rather than give himself over to the amazing power of God’s presence in his life and his rule.  Because of that perhaps, he never lived to see the greatness of God’s glory.

But his weakness did not disrupt the promise.  In the fullness of time, God’s messenger came to a young woman named Mary and proposed to accomplish in her life the sign for which Ahaz was too afraid to ask.  She too was initially afraid, pondering what sort of greeting this was.  She was also confused, not knowing how what the angel proclaimed could possibly take place in her life.  Our reaction to God’s mysterious will for us is quite often the same, isn’t it?

The difference, though, was that Mary heeded the initial words of the angel that have resounded through Salvation history ever since: “Do not be afraid.”  And, thanks be to God, Mary abandoned her fear and instead sang her fiat, her great “yes” to God’s plan for her, and for all of us.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  These words are reminiscent of what the Psalmist sings today: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

And we know what happened from there.  Mary certainly knew that none of that could be accomplished through her own efforts, but she absolutely knew that God could do whatever he undertook.  Nothing would be impossible for God, and she trusted in that, and because of that, we have the great hope of our salvation.  We owe everything to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plan for our salvation.

And so the promise comes to us.  We have the great sign of which Ahaz was afraid, but in which Mary rejoiced.  We too are told that God can accomplish much in our own lives, if we would abandon our fears and cling to the hope of God’s presence and action in our lives.  Can we too be the handmaids of the Lord?  Are we bold enough to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will?”  All we have to do is to remember the first thing the angel said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.”

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

Luke notes all throughout Jesus’ young life that Mary kept the events of Jesus’ life and reflected on them in her heart.  At the visit of the shepherds, and again after finding Jesus in the temple, Mary kept those memories for later reflection.  Maybe she understood them, or perhaps had to work them out later, but keeping them in her heart, she was able to ponder the Word.  It’s kind of like she was keeping a scrapbook of memories in her heart, and I found myself wishing during these Christmas days, that I could take a look at that scrapbook.  She had a first-hand view of how Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, and as Luke tells the story, her perspective of God’s work in the life of her family had to be incredible.

Mary’s reflection on the life of Jesus is really a model for us.  Keeping those events close to her and reflecting on them later is her way of reflecting on the Word of God.  Whether she understood them at the time or not,  she didn’t just live through the moment and move on.  She went back to those events later in her life – even after the death and resurrection of Jesus – and came to a new understanding guided by the Holy Spirit.  And thank God she did that.  It’s probably her later reflection on those events that made the early Church Evangelist able to record them and pass them on to us.

We too, must reflect on the Word of God.  We have to put ourselves in the presence of the Story, and ponder it in our hearts.  If we’re confused by Scripture, we have Mary as our patron to help us reflect on that Word and come to understand it, guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.  But we also have her encouragement to keep those Scriptures in the scrapbook of our hearts, to keep coming back to them.  That’s the only way the Spirit can work on us and help us to come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Word of God, and in doing that, to come to a renewed and vibrant relationship with our Lord.

If we would make a resolution for this new year, maybe it could be to follow Mary’s example.  Maybe we could set aside some time on a regular basis – even if just once a week – to put ourselves in the presence of the Word of God.  And not just here at Mass, although that’s a good start.  But maybe in private prayer or even in an organized Bible Study – we have a few of them going on in our parish on a regular basis.  If we regularly open ourselves up to the Word of God, maybe we too could come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Scriptures; and a closer and more beautiful relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

Mary, mother of God the Word, help us to understand the Word as you did.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God:
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today’s readings

Appropriately enough, I think, we celebrate a second of Mary’s feasts in the space of just four days.  During Advent, we naturally turn our hearts in gratitude to Mary for her fiat that made possible our world’s salvation.  Last week we celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary; today we celebrate a quite different feast, Our Lady of Guadalupe.  We celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe in part because she is the patroness of all the Americas, and so once again, a special patron for us.

A Native American author of the sixteenth century describes the story of our Lady of Guadalupe in today’s Office of Readings.  He tells us of another Native American named Juan Diego, who was on his way from his home to worship on the hill of Tepeyac.  There he heard someone calling to him from the top of the hill.  When he got to the top of the hill, he saw a woman whose clothing shone like the sun.  She told him that it was her desire that a church be erected on the hill so that all could worship her son Jesus.  She sent him to the local bishop to plead that cause.

The bishop didn’t believe Juan Diego’s story and sent him away.  He returned to the hilltop to find the radiant Lady once again, and she told him to tell the bishop that she, the ever virgin holy Mary, Mother of God, sent him.  Again the bishop did not believe, telling him that unless he had a miraculous sign, he would not believe the story.

At that point Juan Diego’s uncle became quite ill.  Juan then set out for the local church to have a priest come to anoint his uncle.  He purposely took a route around the hill at Tepeyac to avoid seeing the Lady and being detained, since the need for a priest was urgent.  But of course, she met him at the side of the hill and spoke to him again.  She assured him that his uncle had already been cured and sent him up the hilltop to find flowers of various kinds.  He got to the top of the hill to find many Castilian roses growing there, which was odd for that time of the winter.  He cut them and carried them down the hill in his tilma, a kind of mantle that he wore for warmth.  She sent him to the bishop bearing the miraculous flowers as proof.

He went confidently to the bishop and informed him that the Lady had fulfilled his request for a sign.  He opened up his tilma, the flowers fell to the ground, but the great miracle was that the inside of the tilma revealed the image of the ever virgin Mary, mother of God, in the same manner as Juan had seen her on the hill.   The bishop built the church, and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, as she had referred to herself, has grown ever since.  You can still see the tilma, still bearing the image of Mary, at the shrine in Guadalupe today.

During Advent we are blessed to have the saints point the way to Jesus.  None of them does this more faithfully than his very own mother, and so we are blessed to celebrate her feast today.  May Mary our mother and the mother of God, lead us one day to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.