Mary, the Mother of God

Mary, the Mother of God
Numbers 6:22-27  +  Galatians 4:4-7  +  Luke 2:16-21
January 1, 2021

“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.  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?”,[1] 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.”[2]

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.’”[3]  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.”[4]

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Given these doctrines that Thomas has articulated about the Old Testament sacrament[5] 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”.[6]  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.[7]

[1] Summa Theologiae III, 70, 1, Title.

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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”.

[5] 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….”).

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

[7] This reflection 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.

The Epiphany of the Lord

The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6  +  Matthew 2:1-12

“We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

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references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church cited for this Sunday by the Vatican’s Homiletic Directory:

CCC 528, 724: the Epiphany
CCC 280, 529, 748, 1165, 2466, 2715: Christ the light of the nations
CCC 60, 442, 674, 755, 767, 774-776, 781, 831: the Church, sacrament of human unity

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As the Church celebrates the feast of the Epiphany, we see three wise men arriving before the manger.  They are men willing to sacrifice of themselves in order to find a newborn King.  This is a sign of their wisdom:  their willingness to sacrifice.  Their sacrifice reflects not only their own wisdom.  Their sacrifice also reflects the One they were seeking.

Each of the wise men was willing to leave his kingdom, where he was king—where everyone bowed down before him—in order to find a king even greater than himself.  Each of the wise men was willing to give up his riches in order to find an even greater treasure.

Few persons don’t want to be rich.  However, there are many people who believe they’re rich, but who have become satisfied with riches that—in the end—aren’t going to do them real good.  This usually happens because people don’t recognize that inside the human soul, each of us has—if you’ll consider this metaphor—two different wells to draw meaning from:  to drink from as we try to find happiness, meaning, and peace.

Anyone who is made content—who is “filled up”—by things that you can see, and hold, and drive, and watch, is filling up the most shallow part of themselves:  that first well, the shallow well.  Now every human being has this shallow well within him.  It’s not that there are shallow people over here, and deep people over there.  Every single human being, including Jesus, has a shallow well inside, in addition to the well that is so deep that it has no bottom.

The purpose of the shallow well is to let us use and enjoy things of this world for worldly needs and purposes.  This is a legitimate part of being human.  It was a part of the life of Jesus.  There is a real, true and good purpose for this shallow well.  After all, God’s the one who put it inside us.  But when a person tries to live his entire life out of that shallow well, he gets into trouble.  He goes thirsty.

Sometimes, even in his thirst, he doesn’t even notice that second well, that deeper well.  But that deeper well is the well that gives meaning to life, and that helps us understand that our lives are not about ourselves, and that our lives are not about this world.

If you peer into the deep well, the first thing you notice is its depth, and that can be frightening.  Most of us, after all, have a healthy fear of heights.  No one wants to fall.  But falling into this well—which spiritually we have to do in order to draw from it—is a form of humility.

This humility is what we see in the three wise kings, who were willing to leave the splendor and riches of their kingdoms and enter a grotto where animals lived, in order to prostrate themselves before a child born of a peasant girl.

Picture this:  these three wise kings fall to the ground in adoration before the newborn Jesus in a stable, where the hay of the animals was likely mixed with the waste of animals.  Would you be humble enough to kneel in that hay?  These three wise kings show us what it means to give up what we think is important in our little kingdoms in order to live from that deeper well.

Look at these three wise kings.  Look at their sacrifices.  There are at least two sacrifices that each king makes.

The first sacrifice is their journey.  They leave behind the lands where they rule, where they are in control, in order to bow down before the Ruler of Heaven and Earth:  in order to follow Him.

The second sacrifice is what they take from their treasuries, and place before the new-born King.  But these gifts are given as a response to a greater Gift.  From Jesus, from the Gift of God the Father, the wise man knows that the whole world, and every land, and every person in every land, will receive an infinite blessing.  The gifts of the wise men are only responses to God’s great goodness.

The Seventh Day within the Octave of Christmas

The Seventh Day within the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:18-21  +  John 1:1-18
December 31, 2020

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us ….

In terms of the Gospel Reading at weekday Mass, today is something of a hinge within the Christmas Season.  Yesterday’s Gospel Reading concluded the narratives of the Presentation, ending by referring to the Holy Family’s return to Nazareth, where Jesus grew in His sacred humanity.

Today’s Gospel Reading is the prologue of St. John’s Gospel account.  This prologue alternates between poetic descriptions of the divine Word of God who became flesh, and narrative descriptions of the ministry of St. John the Baptist.  These two forms come together, however, in the last three verses of the prologue [John 1:16-18].  The one whom John foretold manifests Himself as the source of grace for all who believe in Him.

Throughout the remainder of Christmastide, the Gospel Reading at weekday Mass presents Jesus as an adult during the three years of His public ministry.  This might seem out of place during Christmastide, although understandable from a practical perspective since the narratives of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy are relatively few.

The narratives of Jesus’ public ministry that we hear during the rest of Christmastide in fact have an important purpose.  They point our attention forward to the purpose of the Incarnation:  that is, the purpose of Christmastide.  That purpose is to manifest the divine presence in the world in the Person of Jesus.  This is why Christmastide culminates in feasts of the Lord Jesus’ epiphany.  The word “epiphany” means “revelation”, and the epiphanies of the Lord call for a response from each person who witnesses them.

Working Title/Artist: The Adoration of the Magi
Department: Medieval Art
HB/TOA Date Code:
Working Date: 1507
photographed by mma in 1998, transparency 1a,
scanned by film 5/22/02

The Sixth Day within the Octave of Christmas

The Sixth Day within the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:12-17  +  Luke 2:36-40
December 30, 2020

… your all-powerful Word, O Lord, bounded from heaven’s royal throne.

If asked to sum up the meaning of Christmastide in just a few words, we might reply, “gift” or “children”.  The secular world perverts the religious meaning of Christmas by making this season about children receiving commercial gifts.  Today’s Scripture passages serve as a corrective.

The First Reading is from the first epistle of St. John.  The passage is poetic in form, with the Beloved Disciple alternately addressing “children”, “fathers”, and “young men”.  In each brief address, St. John explains his reasons for writing to them.  All of these reasons have to do with accepting God the Father’s Son as the means of forgiveness of one’s sins.

Then the Beloved Disciple contrasts God the Father’s gift of His Son with the way of the world.  St. John draws a sharp contrast between God the Father and the world, akin to the contrast that Jesus speaks to when He declares that one cannot serve both God and mammon [Matthew 6:24].  What today’s First Reading clarifies, however, is the fault line between the two:  sin.  The world moves us both to disbelieve in sin and yet to commit sin.  By contrast, God the Father calls us both to recognize our sins and also to accept His Son as the means of forgiveness.

The Fifth Day within the Octave of Christmas

The Fifth Day within the Octave of Christmas
1 John 2:3-11  +  Luke 2:22-35
December 29, 2020

“Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted ….”

If Saint Joseph were ever to relinquish his title as the patron saint of happy deaths, Saint Simeon might well take it up.  In the Gospel Reading’s account of the Presentation, Simeon twice speaks.  His words on the first occasion have been canonized by the Church as a hymn that’s proclaimed every night in the Divine Office.  This final hour of the day’s Office, called Compline, helps the Christian to close each day by meditating upon what the Church calls “the Last Things”.  St. Simeon helps us make this meditation fruitfully.

Simeon’s words are the words of one who knows that his earthly life is at its end.  He proclaims words that every human person might wish to utter upon his or her deathbed:  “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”  Yet Simeon continues by speaking to the source of that peace.  As Simeon holds the Christ Child in his arms, he proclaims to the Lord:  “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people”.

It’s in his second discourse that Simeon elaborates upon the mission of this child, and the salvation that that mission will accomplish.  Simeon explains that the “child is destined to be a sign that will be contradicted”.  What is this sign?  Simeon may not have understood that this child would fulfill His earthly mission by dying upon a cross.  Nonetheless, the sign of the Cross is the key to understanding everything Simeon foretold at the Presentation, and indeed everything that is said and done throughout the Gospel.

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
1 John 1:5—2:2  +  Matthew 2:13-18
December 28, 2020

If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

There are two ways to remove sin from people’s lives.  The first, as the Beloved Disciple preaches in today’s First Reading, is to bring one’s sins before God so that the Blood of Jesus might wash them away.  The second is to claim that there neither is nor ever has been any such thing as sin.

The modern world that surrounds us seeks credibility by claiming that there is no such thing as sin.  Some moderns go so far as to claim that there is nothing spiritual at all in existence:  not even God.  Sin and the Almighty are nothing but fables, they claim.

Yet if nothing spiritual exists, then love does not exist.  Pure love is nothing if not spiritual.  Love can take certain material forms, of course, such as loving words or loving works.  Yet pure love is what animates those words and works, and pure love is what can endure after words grow silent and works fade.  This love, the Beloved Disciple explains to us in his epistles, is who God Himself is.  It is this love Who, if “we acknowledge our sins,” will “cleanse us from every wrongdoing.”

St. Stephen, the First Martyr

St. Stephen, the First Martyr
Acts 6:8-10;7:54-59  +  Matthew 10:17-22
December 26, 2020

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

The dying words of St. Stephen—“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”—help us understand why the Church celebrates the feast day of the Church’s first martyr on the second day of Christmastide.  These first two days of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus and the martyrdom of St. Stephen, seem oddly juxtaposed unless we consider Stephen’s last words as revealing something important not just about him, but also about Our Lord and, indeed, ourselves who are disciples of Jesus.

First, it’s helpful to fix in our minds that, as the old saying goes, “the wood of the crib is the wood of the Cross.”  In other words, Jesus was born at Bethlehem so that He could die at Calvary.

Second, we have to consider what, by extension, that first truth reveals.  Dying for fallen man’s sins is the earthly vocation of Jesus Christ.  Communicating to fallen man the graces that Jesus won at Calvary is the vocation of Jesus’ Church on earth.  St. Stephen’s vocation as the Church’s “proto-martyr” makes clear that Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that fallen man wouldn’t have to.

Instead, the victory of Jesus on Calvary, for which purpose He was born at Bethlehem, invests the suffering and deaths of Jesus’ disciples with new meaning.  The dying words of St. Stephen, then, are not a mere surrender on the occasion of his murder.  They conclude a life of faith, in which each day is lived by the same words.  Each day is a surrender to the Lord Jesus.  Each day is a dying to self.  The day of death, then, is the conclusion of earthly self-giving and the day of new life:  entrance into God’s eternal presence and everlasting sharing in the love of His Holy Spirit.

Late Advent Weekday — December 24 [Morning Mass]

Late Advent Weekday — December 24 [Morning Mass]
II Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16  +  Luke 1:67-79
December 24, 2020

“He promised to show mercy to our fathers ….”

This morning’s Mass is the last Mass of Advent, and as such, you might say that it presents to us the close of the Old Testament.  At the center of today’s Gospel Reading is the figure of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  John having been born, the punishment of muteness is lifted from Zechariah.  This morning’s Gospel Reading, then, presents his first words.

St. Luke the Evangelist notes in two separate scenes that Zechariah—in today’s Gospel Reading—and his wife Elizabeth in a previous passage—Luke 1:41—were “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they spoke.  St. Luke also notes that Zechariah, “filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied”.  In these two scenes, the words of Elizabeth and Zechariah—both “filled with the Holy Spirit”—are akin to the words of the Old Testament prophets.  In the Creed’s section about the Holy Spirit, we profess that He “has spoken through the prophets.”

There are two parts to Zechariah’s prophecy, which the Church refers to by the first word of the text in Latin:  “Benedictus”.  The second part is addressed to his infant son John.  We can imagine that Zechariah was cradling John in his arms as he uttered this prophecy.  The words he spoke to John can also be applied to us Christians inasmuch as each of us is called to prepare a way in the world for the power of the Most High.  By our words, works, and prayers we allow others to know about the mercy promised to our fathers:  the Divine Mercy who is Jesus Christ, born for us at Bethlehem.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph [B]

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph [B]
Sirach 3:2-6,12-14 [or Genesis 15:1-6;21:1-3]  +  Colossians 3:12-21 [or Colossians 3:12-17 or Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19]  +  Luke 2:22-40 [or Luke 2:22,39-40]

… they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.

On Christmas Day, we heard in the Gospel Reading how God the Father gave His Son Jesus to Mary and Joseph.  Because they accepted the present of Jesus, we too are offered this gift each day.  We pray especially during Christmas for the humility to accept the gift of Christ into our lives.

On today’s feast of the Holy Family, the Gospel Reading describes the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple.  We see how Mary and Joseph give their Son back to God, and to other people as well, and we pray today for the courage to give the gift of Christ to others.

Joseph and Mary are faithful Jews, fulfilling in today’s Gospel Reading one of the laws of Judaism:  to take the first-born male and present Him to God in the Temple in Jerusalem.  For many Jews, this law was merely something that had to be done.  For Mary and Joseph however, fulfilling this law had much more meaning, demonstrating their fidelity to the angelic messages announced to each of them many months earlier.

However, we have to wonder if even Joseph and Mary could at this point in time have understood what this Presentation foreshadowed.  The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple foreshadows the self-presentation of Jesus on the Cross.  This reminds us of an important truth about the Sacred Liturgy:  as Advent prepares us for Christmas, so Christmas prepare us for Holy Week.

Some thirty years after the events of today’s Gospel Reading, Mary on Calvary witnessed her Son dying on the Cross because of the sins of others.  Mary could very easily have rejected her Son’s sacrifice and pleaded for Him to come down from the Cross.  But as deeply as her sorrow pierced her heart as if it were a sword, Mary—ever-faithful—joined the sacrifice of her own will with that of her Son, and consented to His Sacrifice.  As Jesus presented his life to the Father on Calvary, Mary presented her son as well.  The “fiat” that she offered at the Annunciation and at the Presentation in the Temple was the same “fiat” that she offered on Calvary.

It is the presentation of Christ on Calvary—of His Body and Blood, soul and divinity—that the priest offers at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  In turn, it is the presentation of Mary on Calvary—of her own will to God—that we as disciples are called to offer each time we assist at Holy Mass.

Hopefully no one who’s present at Mass thinks that he or she is a passive spectator.  Sometimes, religious ceremonies can turn into spectacles, when decorations or music are thought of as more important than what’s being celebrated.  If we come to Mass as a spectator, and expect to be entertained, then it’s very likely that we’re not going to get anything out of the Mass, since we haven’t put anything into it.

Kneeling during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, everyone is to be like Mary at Calvary:  saying “Fiat” to Jesus’ sacrifice.  In this offering we make at Mass, we include everything in our lives that is precious to us.  God may not demand from us what we offer, but we must be willing to offer it.  In this we need to realize that if God were to take anything of ours, He would simply be taking what He had given to us as a gift in the first place.

We might put all this a different way.  When you come up for Holy Communion and say “Amen”, you are saying “Yes, this is truly the Body of Christ that is being presented to me.”  But you are saying “Yes” to something more, as well.

Why is God strengthening you with the Body and Blood of His Son?  You accept the strength of Jesus’ life because God has a mission for you to carry out.  The strength you receive in Holy Communion is given to you, not so that you can use that strength any way you wish.  The strength of Christ’s life is presented to you because God has a plan for your life, and He knows that you will fail without this spiritual nourishment to sustain you.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290–1348)