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January 1, 2006: MARY, MOTHER OF GOD


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

We have no one picture of Mary in our gospels. Each evangelist uniquely uses the mother of Jesus in a way which helps express his theology. Just as our gospels are not biographies of Jesus, neither are they biographies of Mary.

Of the four images, we Catholics are most comfortable with Luke’s portrait of Mary. The bishops of Vatican II even employed it in the last chapter of their document on the church, referring to Mary as the “type” of the church. Luke defines the perfect Christian as someone who first hears God’s word, then carries it out. Throughout the third gospel, Mary is the person who embodies that characteristic. Remember the exchange in 11:27? “While Jesus 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.’”

Each evangelist demands that Mary have more than just a physical relationship with Jesus. For Luke, it’s her ability to listen and act which sets her, and all Christians, apart from others.

When we hear today’s well-known gospel pericope against the background of Luke’s portrait, we immediately notice how one comment distinguishes her from all the other people in the scene: “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

Those who put listening to God’s word at the heart of their existence eventually develop into deeply reflective individuals. The nature of God’s word forces them to think and think again. A true listening experience entails more than just memorizing biblical verses. The original sacred authors didn’t have a written word of God in front of them when they produced their works. In order to create a written word they had to constantly reflect on how God’s word permeated their whole lives, concentrating on events, situations and persons in a way others rarely did.

Luke believed the word Mary carried out encompassed her whole being. It could be as unusual as angel-sent shepherds showing up at the stable in Bethlehem, as ritualistic as a week-old baby’s circumcision, or as common as giving a child its name. For Mary, everyone and everything overflowed with God’s word; and each event of her life presented her with an opportunity to carry out that word.

That’s why Paul expects his Galatian community to find God’s word in Jesus being born as a law-abiding Jew. Ironically, Paul writes this letter in order to defend his teaching that Gentile Christians shouldn’t be obligated to keep the very Mosaic Law which Jesus observed. The reason for the apparent contradiction is simple: By accepting our humanity, Jesus joined himself to all humans, dying to his own Jewishness deeply enough to make himself one even with non-Jews. That means, if Gentiles die to themselves enough to become one with Jesus, they’ll receive the same benefits which he, God’s Son received. “As proof that you are (God’s) children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” All these benefits are ours just by experiencing and carrying out God’s word personified in a dying/rising Galilean carpenter. If he listened and observed, then, beginning with Mary, all his followers must listen and observe.

No wonder today’s Blessing of Aaron is one of our liturgical selections. We’re constantly blessed by God’s generous face shining on us. Yet the peace which that divine presence brings us isn’t something which turns us into immobile practitioners of religion. On the contrary, it becomes the word which motivates all our actions of faith.