In Honor of the Theotokos

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Mary, the Mother of God
Numbers 6:22-27  +  Galatians 4:4-7  +  Luke 2:16-21
January 1, 2016

“When eight days were completed for His circumcision, He was named Jesus, the Name given Him by the angel….”

On the eighth day of Christmas—the Octave Day of the Lord’s Nativity—we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos:  “God bearer”, or more commonly translated into English as “Mother of God”.  Out of the five mysteries of Christmastide—the Nativity of the Lord, the Holy Family of the Lord, the Theotokos [Bearer of the Lord], the Epiphany of the Lord, and the Baptism of the Lord—today’s mystery focuses more squarely on the person of Mary herself.  Of course, this focus cannot possibly exclude her Son.  The very title “Theotokos” recognizes Mary in relation to the One whom she boreThis act of bearing is the key that unlocks the mystery of today’s feast.

However, today’s Gospel passage doesn’t relate a scene from Mary’s pregnancy:  that is, from the time during which she bore the unborn Christ.  The Church might have chosen the Gospel passage of the Annunciation for today’s feast, or the Visitation, or a passage relating to Mary’s seeking a place to give birth.  Instead, today’s Gospel passage describes the scene on the eighth day of the Lord’s life “in the world”, as distinct from that part of His life that was hidden in the womb.

Today’s Gospel passage relates these “eight days” to Jesus’ circumcision.  As you know, in the calendar of the Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass, today’s feast is called the Circumcision of the Lord.  The Gospel passage for today in the Extraordinary Form consists of a single sentence:  that is, the final sentence of today’s passage in the Ordinary Form.  The Ordinary Form today, then, expands on the feast as celebrated in the Extraordinary Form.  You might say that the camera is pulling back for a wider angle shot in the Ordinary Form, so that the event of the Circumcision of the Lord would shed light not only upon the mystery of the Word made Flesh, but also upon Mary as Theotokos.

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St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Third Part of his Summary of Theology, discusses the Circumcision of Jesus in Question 37.  Thomas offers seven reasons why Christ ought to have been circumcised.  Reflect on just two of them.

Thomas gives as his fifth reason that Christ ought to have been circumcised “in order by His example to exhort us to be obedient.[1]  Wherefore He was circumcised on the eighth day according to the prescription of the Law[2] which Thomas then quotes:  that is, the passage from the twelfth chapter of Leviticus where the Lord declares to Moses:  “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days….  And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”[3]  The biblical text continues with further prescriptions about the woman’s purification.  It’s important to keep in mind that here in Leviticus, as in the days of Jesus and Mary, the two are linked:  that is, the circumcision of the child and the ritual purification of the mother.

The seventh of the reasons that Thomas offers as to why Christ ought to have been circumcised is “that by taking on Himself the burden of the Law, He might set others free therefrom, according to Galatians 4:4,5”,[4] which Thomas then quotes, and which of course are the first two verses of today’s Second Reading:  “God sent His Son … made under the Law, that He might redeem them who were under the Law.”  For whatever reason, however, St. Thomas omits from that quote a phrase that we need to remember in reflecting on today’s feast.  The entire quote is:  “God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to ransom those under the Law”.[5]  The One whom the Theotokos bore was born under the Law, to ransom those under the Law.”

So Thomas offers—among others—these two reasons for Christ to be circumcised:  that His example would exhort us to be obedient, and that by taking upon Himself the burden of obedience to the Law, we might be freed from that burden.  With these reasons as a backdrop, consider one other point Thomas makes about Levitical circumcision, which—frankly—seems at first to throw a monkey wrench into Thomas’ Christology, and into our reflection on Mary as the Theotokos.

To Christians unfamiliar with St. Thomas Aquinas, it may come as a surprise that in Question 70 of the Third Part of his Summary of Theology, where he asks “Whether [Levitical] Circumcision Bestowed Sanctifying Grace?”, Thomas insists that “[a]ll are agreed in saying that Original Sin was remitted in circumcision.”[6]  Thomas adds that “[w]hen adults were circumcised, they received remission not only of original, but also of actual sin”.[7]

For some Christians, Thomas’ strong view of circumcision’s efficacy might seem to nullify the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, Thomas explains the limits of the grace bestowed by circumcision in stating that while “Original Sin was taken away in circumcision… there remained the obstacle to the entrance of the kingdom of Heaven”.[8]

Further, Thomas clarifies the source and the means of the grace bestowed in circumcision, explaining that “circumcision bestowed grace, inasmuch as it was a sign of faith in Christ’s future Passion”.[9]  These two elements of circumcision—faith, and Christ’s Passion—are the means and source of grace.

Consider first Christ’s Passion as the source of grace.  The grace bestowed by circumcision is what Catholic theology calls “prevenient grace”:  literally, grace that “comes before”.  That is to say that prevenient grace flows from the Passion of Christ as the source of grace, yet flows backwards in time by means of God’s Providence so as to work its effects at points in historical time before the Passion occurred.

This phrase “prevenient grace” is best known in regard to the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  Mary was conceived without Original Sin by virtue of the grace that her Son would bestow from the Cross.  In the current English translation of the Roman Missal, in the Super Oblata at Holy Mass on the feast of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception, the priest beseeches the Lord to “grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so, through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.  Through Christ our Lord.”  So then, understanding the Passion as the source of prevenient grace, we want to understand the means of accepting this grace.

Consider how it is that faith is the means of access to the grace that flows from the Passion.  In Thomas’ Summary of Theology, when he asks “Whether circumcision was a preparation for, and a figure of Baptism?”,[10] his affirmative response is based upon the fact that “Baptism is called the Sacrament of Faith”, and he illustrates this fact with two examples:  that “in Baptism man makes a profession of faith, and by Baptism is aggregated to the congregation of the faithful.”[11]

Then St. Thomas compares the Old Testament rite of circumcision to Christian Baptism, and he makes this comparison by highlighting faith’s role in the rite of circumcision.  He first asserts that the faith of Christians “is the same as that of the Fathers of old, [that is, the Old Testament patriarchs,] according to the Apostle (2 Cor 4:13):  ‘Having the same spirit of faith … we … believe.’[12]  Then Thomas describes the spiritual act and the spiritual effect of circumcision.  The act of circumcision was a profession of faith, and the effect of the act was that “men of old were aggregated to the body of the faithful.”[13]

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Given these doctrines that Thomas has articulated about the Old Testament sacrament[14] of circumcision, what then can we say in particular about the circumcision of the divine Person of Jesus, and the Theotokos?

Freely, the divine Person Jesus was obedient to His Father’s Will and entered this world whose inhabitants are yoked by sin and death, to which yoke the Law testified.  Of her own free will, the human person Mary, free from all sin, was obedient to the Father’s Will and accepted the vocation to be the Bearer of the God-man, who had been born of her and “born under the Law, to ransom those under the Law.”  Mary’s vocation was for the sake of this ransom.

However, this ransoming that was fulfilled on Calvary, served a further purpose:  namely, that the very sinners who had been yoked to sin and death might enter into the fullness of life as children of the God-Man’s own Father.  The Beloved Disciple testifies to this truth in the prologue to his Gospel account:  “to all who received [the Word], who believed in His Name, He gave power to become children of God”.[15]  Mary herself, of course, is the initial and purest example of this reception of the Word in her obedience to her unique vocation to serve God and mankind as the Theotokos.

On the eight day of His manifestation within this world—that is, one week after the epiphany of His Birth from the ever-Virgin Theotokos—the Word made Flesh was circumcised according to the Law.  This act of obedience to the Law, as an Old Testament sacrament that foreshadowed Christian Baptism, derived its efficacy from the prevenient grace that flowed from the Passion of the Word made Flesh on Calvary, and by means of faithFaith is the final word of today’s celebration of the Christmas mystery of the Circumcision of the Lord, and Mary speaks this word in her role of Theotokos:  God-Bearer.

Faith, as a divine virtue whose object is God, cannot be practiced by a divine Person such as Jesus Christ.  However, every human person is called by God by means of faith to receive God the Father’s Word, to believe in that Son’s Name, and to receive God’s power so as “to become children of God”.

Faith, within the spiritual womb of Mary’s soul, is the means by which she gave her “Fiat” to the Father.  Through this “Fiat” within the womb of her soul, she bore the Word who became Flesh through her.  So each human sinner is called through the divine virtue of faith each day of his life within the Church Militant to bear the Word in his soul, to become a child of God, and to begin anew his own vocation within the Mystical Body of Christ.[16]


 

[1] Bede, Hom. x in Evang.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, 37, 1 Respondeo, in Volume Two of the First Complete American Edition [New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947].  All references to Question 37 are based upon this edition.  No page numbers will be given for references to the Summa Theologiae.

[3] Leviticus 12:2,3 [RSV-CE].

[4] Summa Theologiae III, 37, 1 Respondeo.

[5] The Roman Missal: Lectionary for Mass, Volume I, Year C (Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing, 2000), 94.

[6] Summa Theologiae III, 70, 4, Respondeo, ¶1, in Volume 20 of the Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas (Lander, Wyo.: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012).  All references to Question 70 are based upon this edition.

[7] Ibid., III, 70, 4, Reply Obj. 5.

[8] Ibid., III, 70, 4, Reply Obj. 4.

[9] Ibid., III, 70, 4, Respondeo, ¶4.

[10] Ibid., III, 70, 1, Title.

[11] Ibid., III, 70, 1, Respondeo.

[12] Ibid.

[13] In the edition of the Summa cited in footnote 6, the English translation speaks of a “protestation of faith” [“protestatio fidei”].  However, “profession” is not only an adequate synonym for “protestation” here, but also relates more closely to the current language used to describe the liturgical act of a “profession of faith”.

[14] St. Thomas in Question 70, Article 2, Reply Obj. 2 uses the word “sacrament” to speak of the ritual of circumcision:  “Circumcisio autem erat sacramentum….” (“But circumcision was a sacrament….”).

[15] John 1:12 [RSV-CE].

[16] This homily has not treated the second half of the verse cited at the homily’s beginning, but its spiritual theme—that is, the Holy Name of Jesus—is celebrated in the Sacred Liturgy on January 3 in the Ordinary Form and on the Sunday after today’s feast in the Extraordinary Form.

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