The Octave Day of Christmas—January 1, 2017
Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God
NM 6:22-27; PS 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; GAL 4:4-7; LK 2:16-21.
One of the most beautiful titles of Our Blessed Mother is in Greek, Theotokos, which means God-Bearer. The title was used by both East and West in the first Millennium of Christianity. This designation came about as a result of a solemn pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431, in response to a heresy called “Nestorianism” that denied the two natures of Christ, human and divine. The followers of the Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorious, wanted Mary to be called “Mother of Christ,” but nothing else to emphasize her role as giving Christ a human nature, but not a divine one. However, they were unsuccessful in their attempts and Mary was declared Theotokos, God-Bearer, the Mother of God. In calling Mary “the Mother of God,” we can appreciate the full depth of her fiat at the Annunciation. To be a mother is a special gift from God. To be the Mother of God was a singular grace bestowed on a young girl whose heart was fully attuned to God, and completely docile to the Holy Spirit. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of the Annunciation and Mary’s fiat:
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We, too, are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us … Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.
Mary’s response was that of a woman of faith “Let it be done unto me according to thy Word.” In that instant she became the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Since then, she has inspired artists and poets, authors and composers, saints and scholars in her faith, humility and devotion. And today, as we begin a New Year, we look to her for guidance and resolve that we will take her counsel to heart that she gave at Cana in Galilee: “Do whatever He tells you.”
Apart from the fact that Mary was given to us by Jesus on the Cross as Our Mother, what is it that attracts us to her? Her prayerfulness and fidelity? Her purity and sinlessness? Her beauty and compassion? The simple answer is—all these and much more besides. Mary always leads us to Jesus. The French poet Henri Jordin wrote that God “wanted His Mother to be a masterpiece.” And truly Mary is God’s masterpiece in every way. She was the perfect instrument of God’s will. How often was her fiat tested from the circumstances of Jesus’ birth to the Flight into Egypt; from the prophecy of Simeon that a sword would pierce her very soul to losing Him in the Temple; from His condemnation by the authorities to His brutal death on a Cross: “Fiat, Let it be.”
“And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Her heart was a Mother’s heart totally united with the heart of her Son. Mary was a woman of prayer. In silence, the Angel Gabriel came to her; she heard what He had to say and responded wholeheartedly. In thanksgiving, she proclaims the Magnificat in which she praises God for His goodness and mercy. What is the quality of our prayer? Do we go before the Lord in silence to listen, away from the hectic pace of the world in which we live? Are we open to God’s will for our lives, no matter how difficult it may be? Do we thank God not only for the blessings we enjoy, but also for the sufferings we endure? We need this union with God each and every day. We desire communion with God and one another. This is not a vague and distant wish. With Mary as our guide, it is possible because as our Mother she will lead us by the hand to her Divine Son. Her great joy is to keep her family united. She intercedes for us in Heaven, as she inspires us here on earth.
Our Holy Father Pope Francis has adopted a beautiful custom of going to the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome before every Apostolic Pilgrimage to pray for its success and afterwards, in thanksgiving. There he prays before the icon of Salus Populi Romani, the Protectress of the Roman People, seeking the intercession of the Mother of God. We are truly blessed to be sons and daughters of so noble a Mother. Today also marks the World Day of Prayer for Peace. We seek her intercession praying that peace will become a reality in every heart, in every family, and in every nation, so that Christ’s farewell gift of peace will one day be realized. Finally, we take to ourselves the counsel given by Pope Francis on the Feast of the Mother of God in 2015 when he said:
Let us look to Mary, let us contemplate the Holy Mother of God. I suggest that you all greet her together, just like those courageous people of Ephesus, who cried out before their pastors when they entered Church: “Holy Mother of God!” What a beautiful greeting for our Mother. There is a story—I do not know if it is true—that some among those people had clubs in their hands, perhaps to make the Bishops understand what would happen if they did not have the courage to proclaim Mary “Mother of God”! I invite all of you, without clubs, to stand up and to greet her three times with this greeting of the early Church: “Holy Mother of God!”
Holy Mother of God, pray for us!
The first Christmas was almost a hidden event. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem to register in the census mandated by the Governor Quirinius. There begins the Christmas story. Joseph, being a descendant of King David, had to register in Bethlehem, the City of David. Going from door-to-door seeking shelter, Joseph and Mary were turned away. Mary was with child; and now the time had come to give birth to the King. He was not born in a royal palace in exquisite grandeur, but rather, a cave in dire poverty. His birth was not announced by royal decree, but by angels and shepherds. Shepherds were considered rogues in Jewish society; even their testimony would not be accepted in any court of law. And yet, they were the first to worship the newborn King. Today, appear the Magi from the East. They were prepared by prophecy for the birth of a king. As watchers of the stars and observers of the heavens, they saw the rising of a bright new star that would lead them to the newborn king. They traveled for miles on camels until the star rested upon Bethlehem. There, they would call upon another king, Herod. The news of a newborn king troubles him greatly. Hungry for power, he will not share his kingdom with anyone. He went so far as killing his own sons when his power was threatened. However, he pretended to show great joy and delight in the newborn king, and asked the Magi to return to him, and let him know where he should go to offer him homage. Once again, God intervenes, and sends an angel to warn them never to return to Herod. And so they came to the cave, and nothing could have prepared them for the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Their hearts were open, and they adored offering him gifts of gold (to honor a king), frankincense (to honor a priest), and myrrh (to signify a victim). They came as pilgrims, and returned home as missionaries, announcing that Jesus was sent to save all people.
The word “epiphany” means manifestation. The very glory of God manifests itself and breaks through in the Lord Jesus Christ. This little child is the hope of all nations. He is a light to enlighten our ways. He is Emmanuel—God is with us. As the kings—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar—were completely transformed by their encounter with the Christ Child, so too, should we. Unlike an historical event of the past, the Christmas story comes alive, again and again. We, too, are called to encounter the Lord, and to be guided by the light of faith. As the kings offered Him gifts, so, too, do we offer Him the gift of our love because He has loved us into existence. Are our eyes open to the many epiphanies in our own lives, seeing the hand of God at work even in the most difficult of circumstances? The journey of the Magi was one wrought with danger and uncertainty; it was long and arduous, but all of that paled when they encountered the Lord Jesus. In the same way, our own journeys of life can be difficult and uncertain. We can be thrown off-course in a single moment. We can allow the light to dim, or quench, and grow lukewarm in our faith. God will reveal Himself to us if only we open our hearts to His love, as the Magi did when they came to the manger. It’s a matter of love and trust. Let us be guided by the wise men from the East. Come let us adore Him; we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
In 2005, then-Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Cologne to celebrate World Youth Day. The theme of the gathering was “We have come to worship Him,” inspired by the example of the Magi. In his message in preparation for the events of those days, he reminded us that as the wise men were obedient to the guidance of a star, we, too, must “observe the signs with which God is calling us and guiding us.” The obedience of the Magi was rewarded when they saw the very essence of love—Jesus, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. He went on to say:
…offer to the Lord the gold of your lives, namely, your freedom to follow Him out of love, responding faithfully to His call; let the incense of your fervent prayer rise up to Him, in praise of His glory; offer Him your myrrh, that is your affection of total gratitude to Him, true Man, who loved us to the point of dying as a criminal on Golgotha.
Everything we have, and all that we are, is a gift from God. No matter what gifts we lay before Him, He will never be outdone in generosity. What gifts do we bring Him? Our love? Our sufferings? Our blessings? Do we give Him whatever is left over rather than the first fruits? With grateful hearts, come, let us worship Him. As we approach the Christ-child as pilgrims, may we depart as missionaries, always proclaiming the goodness of God who sent us His only Son to save us from our sins. He is inviting us into a deeper union—communion with Him. Like the Magi, let us adore Him.
What have the Magi to say to us today in a world that is in so many ways different from times past, where one can travel the world in a short span of days? But at the same time, human nature has not changed. We are still sinners in need of God’s mercy. We have restless hearts that cannot be satisfied by anything on this earth. In the words of St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O God.” In his homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany in 2016, Pope Francis said:
All this has something to say to us today. We do well to repeat the question asked by the Magi: “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews? For we observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage” (Mt 2:2). We are impelled, especially in an age like our own, to seek the signs which God offers us, realizing that great effort is needed to interpret them and, thus, to understand His will. We are challenged to go to Bethlehem, to find the Child and his Mother. Let us follow the light which God offers us—that tiny light. The hymn in the breviary poetically tells us that the Magi followed that tiny light—the light which streams from the face of Christ, full of mercy and fidelity. And once we have found Him, let us worship him with all our heart, and present Him with our gifts: our freedom, our understanding, and our love. True wisdom lies concealed in the face of this Child. It is here, in the simplicity of Bethlehem, that the life of the Church is summed up. For here is the wellspring of that light, which draws to itself every individual in the world, and guides the journey of people along the path of peace.
Like the Magi, we have seen the Lord. Now, let us bring His light to our world!
Jan and Hubert Van Eyck’s famous Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, ranks among the most significant works of art in Europe. Housed at Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, the large and complex altarpiece suffered a varied history over the centuries. Dismantled, stolen, and damaged many times over, it was reassembled, cleaned, and restored after World War II. It appears in the opening scene of the movie Monuments Men. The painting depicts a lamb being worshiped by groups of angels, martyrs, prophets, and apostles. The lamb, bleeding from its neck, represents Jesus sacrificing his life in order to redeem mankind from its sins. The blood of the Lamb, His innocence flows into a chalice, giving life to those who drink it. The Lamb who was slain is now victorious. The images of the shepherd and the lamb resonate throughout the Sacred Scriptures. The Good Shepherd goes in search of the lost sheep, and he is ready to lay down his life for his sheep. Now the Shepherd becomes the Lamb, and as the Paschal lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover, Jesus, the Lamb of God, was being sacrificed on the Cross. Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant was thus fulfilled.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus, and says: “Behold the Lamb of God.” John the Baptist was a popular figure. People flocked to him, from near and far, to listen to him preach, and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance. His mission was to prepare the way of the Lord. He challenged people to live holy lives. He shook people out of complacency. He criticized the religious establishment of his day who used religion as a means of controlling the people. Many believed that John was the long-awaited Messiah by the manner of his life, and the conviction of his preaching. He clearly makes it known that he is not. When he points to Jesus, he says “He is the one of whom I said ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me, because He existed before me.’…Now I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God.” Behold the Lamb of God. John’s mission began in his mother’s womb. When Mary went to be with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, the child (John) leaped in her womb. In the season of Advent, we encounter John again, this time as a recluse in the desert, living on locusts and honey, wearing a hairshirt, and preaching a baptism of repentance. People flocked to hear him preach, and to be baptized in the River Jordan. Once Jesus arrived on the scene, John’s humility was obvious “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Later on, John would be arrested by Herod because of preaching the truth about Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. From then on, he was a wanted man, and Herod’s wife, Herodias, would use her daughter’s provocative birthday dance to get her wish: the head of John the Baptist on a platter. When Jesus was told of John’s death, he was filled with sorrow. “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
What was John the Baptist’s mission? He was to reveal Jesus, the Lamb of God. By bringing people to repentance, he was preparing them to receive Christ. As he baptized the multitudes in the River Jordan, he was preparing them for Jesus’ baptism by water and the Holy Spirit by which their sins would be forgiven. In the same way, Isaiah and Paul were chosen by God for that same purpose of mission. Isaiah’s task was to give the people in exile encouragement and support. He was to be a light to the nations, proclaiming salvation. Paul was an apostle commissioned by the Risen Lord to preach to the Gentiles the Good News. And this is also our mission: we are to bring others to Jesus.
At every Mass, the priest, who acts in persona Christi, says those words of John: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A lamb represents gentleness, and it also signifies a fresh start, and newness of life. The lamb is reassurance that the cycle of life goes on. And it is the holy and unblemished Lamb who would redeem us. “Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb!” Like the Van Eck’s Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, the image of the Lamb of God is at the heart of the apparition of Knock Shrine in Ireland. The Story of Knock began on the August 21, 1879, when, at approximately eight o’clock in the evening, fifteen people from the village of Knock in County Mayo, witnessed an Apparition of Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, a Lamb, and cross on an altar at the gable wall of the Parish Church. The witnesses watched the apparition in the pouring rain for two hours, reciting the Rosary. Although they themselves were saturated, not a single drop of rain fell on the gable, or vision. Once again, the Lamb is victorious as He stands beneath the cross with the angels surrounding Him. The apparition came at a difficult period in Irish history. Millions had died in the Great Famine in the 1840s, and millions more emigrated to various parts of the world, never to return again. When viewing Van Eck’s Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, and the image of the Lamb of God in the apparition at Knock Shrine, one is drawn into a mystery of the depth of God’s love. The Lamb has been sacrificed for our sins; we are set free. Having been forgiven our sins is the greatest of gifts. But it doesn’t end there, our mission is to bring others to Christ so that they, too, might experience a foretaste of the life to come.
On many occasions since becoming Pope, our Holy Father Francis has recounted the story of his own vocation when he felt called by God to serve Him as a priest. On September 21, 1953, a 16-year-old boy named Jorge Bergoglio was planning to go out to celebrate with friends an Argentinian national holiday called “Students’ Day.” Jorge decided to start the holiday by going to pray at his parish church, dedicated to St. Joseph. When he arrived at church, he saw a priest he didn’t recognize, but who seemed to radiate holiness. He decided to approach him, and asked him to hear his confession. We don’t know what Jorge said to the priest, or what the priest said in response. But we do know that that confession totally changed not only the teenager’s plans for the day, but for the whole course of his life. In speaking to a group of ecclesial movements during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said:
For me, this was an experience of encounter: I found that Someone was waiting for me. Yet, I do not know what happened. I can’t remember. I do not know why that particular priest was there, whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess. But the truth is that Someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession, I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus called Simon Peter, and his brother Andrew, as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to follow Him. His invitation to them was a simple one: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They left everything behind, and followed Jesus. It was an irresistible call to be led into the unknown, and to be co-workers with Jesus of Nazareth. This was courage and conviction at its finest. No hesitation, no questions, no doubts—just a firm resolution to be a disciple of Jesus, and to all that entails. Their number increased to twelve, reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel. For three years, they would accompany Jesus, hearing him preaching and teaching, healing and exorcising, and calling people to repentance. This was the actual launch of the public ministry of Jesus. The disciples would have much to learn, but they were ready. They were ordinary men with no special training or skills. But yet, the Lord called them. This is the springtime of Jesus’ public ministry, where he would go from town to town, preaching the Good News, and calling people to repentance, and forgiving sins. Might the apostles have been somewhat proud, that they were chosen and not others? Or were they just eager to learn as much as possible from Jesus, the teacher, knowing that one day, they, too, would have to carry on that same mission? The very fact that you and I are in this Church today means that the Apostles did what was asked of them, and in many ways changed the world. They were not perfect, and there was division at times, yet they were completely open to God’s will. In the Gospel, we also hear that Jesus received word that John the Baptist had been arrested. It is possible that the first disciples were with John the Baptist before being called by Jesus. Many believed that John the Baptist was the Messiah; how often he said that he was not. In humility, he would say that he was unworthy to even undo the straps of Jesus’ sandals. John’s mission was to prepare the way of the Lord, whereas the apostles were entrusted with the task of going out to the whole world, proclaiming the Good News.
As we reflect on the call in today’s Gospel, we might well ask ourselves: what would I have done? What would I do? To leave everything behind is no easy task, but Jesus taught by example. With those he called, he would always provide for their needs. It’s a call to let go, and to be self-possessed. How often do the things of the world possess us, and bring us down. We recall the “Rich Young Man” from the Gospel story. He was called personally by the Lord. Jesus commended him for being faithful to the Commandments, but He also challenged him to give up his belongings, sell them, and give the money to the poor. Then, and only then, would he be ready to be a disciple. The young man went away sad—his possessions possessed him, and he could not let go. Jorge Bergoglio encountered the Lord Jesus, and responded wholeheartedly to the call to the Priesthood. The Lord continues to call because the harvest is rich, but the laborers are few. How many people silence the call with their own pursuits? How often do we hear it said: “I want to be independent … I don’t want someone telling me what to do.” This echoes the original sin in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were banished for disobeying God, and for their desire to be “independent.” We must open our hearts to the Lord by entering into silence, and like Samuel, say: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” What is the Lord calling us to? For all of us, first and foremost, He is calling us to a life of holiness. When we are rooted in God, we are more open and docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Some are called to the Priesthood, or Consecrated Life, others to marriage, still others to a single life … all different, yet they are all calls to holiness. We all have a part to play in establishing the Kingdom of God, and continuing the work of those who have gone before us. Like Pope Francis, we have the same means before us, especially the sacraments, to help us to grow in holiness so that, one day, we might enter eternal life.
“Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus challenges us with this task in every time and place. How often people shy away, and make the excuse: “I’m only human. I’m not perfect.” Jesus never requires anything of us without giving us the means to acquire it. He calls us to perfection and, in turn, gives us the Beatitudes as the road-map to the path of perfection. The Beatitudes have been called the Magna Carta of the Christian life, and the Charter of the New Covenant. By striving to live them, we will grow in holiness. In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes a seat on the Mount, reminiscent of Moses in the Old Testament. This signifies the ancient gesture of a teacher communicating important truths to his followers. In giving us the Beatitudes, we have been given a teaching that is counter-cultural. Our society tells us that we can be happy, here and now, that we can be perfect. It has no room for any talk about sin, or any discussion of eternal life. It is solely focused on the present, and places man, not God, at the center of life. It seeks to pervert the meaning of freedom, and it makes truth subjective. What’s more, if we follow the world’s beatitudes of power, wealth, and prestige, we will never be truly happy. In contrast, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes, which are the very essence of His teaching. They challenge us to measure ourselves against them. In his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote: “anyone who piously and earnestly ponders the Sermon on the Mount—as we read in the Gospel according to Matthew—I believe he will find therein … the perfect standard of the Christian life.” They are, indeed, the key to perfection.
In his Opening Homily for World Youth Day in Toronto, 2002, St. John Paul II said:
What we have just heard is the Magna Carta of Christianity: the Beatitudes. We have seen once more, with the eyes of our heart, what happened at that time. A crowd of people is gathered around Jesus on the mountain: men and women, young people and elderly folk, the healthy and the infirm, who have come from Galilee, but also from Jerusalem, from Judea, from the cities of the Decapolis, from Tyre and Sidon. All of them anxiously awaiting a word, a gesture that will give them comfort and hope.
The “Sermon on the Mount” marks out the map of this journey. The eight Beatitudes are the road signs that show the way. It is an uphill path, but He has walked it before us. He said one day: “He who follows me will not walk in darkness” (Jn 8:12). And, at another time, He added: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11). It is by walking with Christ that we can achieve joy, true joy! Precisely for this reason he again repeats the proclamation of joy to you today: “Blessed are they …”
The Christian life is one that seeks to imitate Jesus Christ in everything. The Beatitudes constitute the very essence of the life of Jesus Christ. The Perfect One climbs the rugged and upward road of the Beatitudes. For every attitude, a blessing is promised, and God is true to His promises. The first seven beatitudes are within our reach. We can actively pursue them. However, the final beatitude about persecution will be inflicted from without.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Jesus was poor; he was born in the poverty of a stable, and was buried in a tomb that was not even his own.
Blessed are those who mourn. Those who love will mourn as mourning is an expression of love. Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.
Blessed are the meek. To be meek is to know who you are, where you are coming from, and where you are going; as Jesus did. He identified Himself as “meek and humble of heart.”
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This is the quest for holiness.
Blessed are the merciful. How often we see Jesus show mercy to sinners—the woman caught in adultery, the tax collectors, and so many more.
Blessed are the clean of heart. A clean and pure heart will love God and His will in every situation.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus the “Prince of Peace” gave peace to his disciples as His farewell gift, and He sent them out to the world announcing peace.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Look at what the scribes and Pharisees did to Christ. Even on the Cross, they made fun of Him. However, God’s wisdom was at work. His death on the Cross for our sins has inspired every generation to hold fast to their faith, no matter what the consequences.
The greatest blessing that God can bestow on the one who lives out the Beatitudes is the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no greater treasure than this. Pope Francis has called the Beatitudes the “blueprint for holiness.” What better way could we examine our consciences than to prayerfully reflect on the Beatitudes, their meaning in my life, and most of all to ask the question: “Am I living them?” Even if we have failed to measure up to them, we can begin anew through the grace of God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance. Jesus has given us the roadmap to heaven; let us do all in our power, with His grace, to reach our destination safely.