JANUARY 1ST, 2017: SOLEMNITY OF MARY
The LORD said to Moses:
"Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them."
Brothers and sisters:
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.
As proof that you are sons,
God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying out, "Abba, Father!"
So you are no longer a slave but a son,
and if a son then also an heir, through God.
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.
We actually know very little about the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Except for Luke, the evangelists didn’t write much about her, and the earliest Christian author, Paul, only refers to her in passing, as he does in today’s Galatians passage: “. . . God sent his Son, born of a woman . . . .” Though many of us Catholics don’t like to admit it, the first gospel writer, Mark, tells us in chapter 3 that Mary was one of Jesus’ family members who one day “came to seize him” because they thought he was “out of his mind.” If we only had Mark’s gospel, I don’t think we’d have many churches named “St. Mary’s.”
In some sense, it isn’t important to know what the evangelists tell us about her historically as it is to surface how they use her – how they have her react to her son and his message. No one uses her better than Luke. Throughout his gospel, she’s Jesus’ perfect disciple. And Luke has a simple definition of that special person: he or she is someone who first listens to God’s word and then carries it out.
Most of us are familiar with John Williams’ well-known score for the movie Jaws, especially the two-note ostinato which warns of the shark’s appearance. When we hear it, we know something bad’s about to happen. In a parallel, but totally different way, whenever Mary appears in Luke’s gospel, he plays her theme song, almost always mentioning something about hearing God’s word and/or carrying it out. The classic place is in 11:27-28. “While he was speaking, a woman from the crowd called out and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ He replied, ‘Rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.’” If Mary’s a significant figure for Luke, it’s not because she’s Jesus’ mother, but because she best carries out her son’s command to listen and act.
The evangelist’s emphasis on Mary as Jesus’ perfect follower also seems to be behind his remark in our gospel pericope that, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Before acting, other Christs must do a lot of reflecting simply to know exactly what God wants them to do.
Yet we can never forget that the historic Mary heard and carried out God’s word as a 1st century BCE Palestinian Jew, not the European, blue-eyed Gentile young woman we’re familiar seeing in our modern pictures and statues of her. Paul reminds his Galatian community that Jesus was “born under the law.” Luke likewise reminds his Gentile community about one of the practical implications of keeping that law: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel . . . .”
Mary didn’t hear God’s word in a church, during a celebration of the Eucharist, or while listening to one of the gospels. She heard that word in a synagogue, reciting her Sabbath meal prayers, or while listening to the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s word in that Jewish context eventually led her son, herself, and people like Paul to go beyond the limits of that historical context and discover Yahweh present and working in all people, not just Jews.
Perhaps January 1st is the best day to hear the famous blessing of Aaron. Though originally a Jewish fertility blessing, its words have evolved into sentiments all people of God share. Jesus’ mother must have frequently employed it. May we, like Mary, not only hear these thoughts about peace, but during this year actually commit ourselves to doing what’s necessary to make that peace a reality.