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JANUARY 1, 2012: SOLEMNITY OF MARY

Readings: 

Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

It takes lots of practice and knowledge to insert yourself into the world of the sacred authors. Most Scripture readers mistakenly presume the writers composed their works for us. We need only pick up the Bible, read it and we'll instantly surface God's message. I often remind my students of the obvious: had these authors written for us, they'd have used English, not Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Today's readings show us how a biblical writer's frame of mind can be quite different from our own.

Our Number's passage, for instance, contains some of the best known lines in the Hebrew Scriptures. We employ the Blessing of Aaron in formal benedictions and especially in ecumenical and inter-faith gatherings. “Yahweh bless you and keep you! Yahweh let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! Yahweh look upon you kindly and give you peace!" Who could find fault with such harmless prayer?

There's really no problem with it - as long as we're petitioning God for fertility! All Hebrew Scripture blessings are fertility blessings. People with lots of children, huge flocks of sheep and goats, and acres and acres of grain-producing fields are a people blessed by God. In a world with no concept of an after-life, as we know it, fertility was paramount. No one was concerned with being blessed with a higher place in heaven.

In a similar way, Paul had a different frame of mind about Jesus than many of us have. In his seven authentic letters, he says almost nothing about the historical Jesus. Today's passage from Galatians is about as much as he ever tells us about the Capernaum carpenter who lived between 6 BCE and 30 CE. "When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters."

The Apostle's faith revolves around the risen Jesus ("the Christ"), not the historical Jesus. It's Jesus alive in the community today to whom he's dedicated his life - the Christ -who, as he says back in chapter 3, is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman.

Throughout his gospel, Luke asks a question most of had answered as children. What does God expect of us? The answer we usually got made for a simple, easy life of faith: just do what the church tells you to do.

I hate to tell anyone whose faith has yet to go beyond those first formative religion classes, but Luke doesn't give that answer. He doesn't give any answer, he gives us a person: Mary. She's the one who does what God wants all of us to do. Notice the theological background music which always plays when Jesus' mother comes on the scene, especially in the passage in which he quotes an anonymous woman in the crowd. "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" the excited woman yells. Jesus immediately comes back with a corrective: "Blessed rather are those who hear God's word and carry it out."

For Luke, the perfect Christian is someone who constantly surfaces God's word in his or her life, and is courageous enough to carry it out. If Mary is blessed, it's not because she's Jesus' physical mother, but because she's doing what God wants all God's followers to do. In today's gospel, she "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." It's by such reflection that we discover God's word.

The Vatican II document on the church bought into Luke's theology. In it, Mary doesn't tell us to follow the church, she's actually the "type" (the example) of the church. The gospel message is clear: All of us, as church, should constantly be listening for God's word, and carrying it out.

Once we spend the time to learn about our sacred authors, we almost always surface something different from what we've learned in the past.