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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Mary, Mother of God: A Life of Joy and Sorrow


Homily Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God 2014

 

Today we honor Mary under the title “Mother of God.”  We ask ourselves: what does this title mean for the Church, for Mary, and for us as Christians?

 

What does it mean to call Mary “Mother of God”?

 

This was a hotly debated topic in the 5th Century and the title wasn’t confirmed as part of our faith until 431 at Council of Ephesus.  The bishops of the council reasoned that, if Jesus is God and Jesus was born into the world through Mary, then Mary is not only Mother of “Jesus” in His humanity but also Mother of God.  The Easter Rite Catholics call her “Theotokos” or “God-Bearer.”  “Mother” in this sense means not that Jesus first existed in her womb, for the Son of God existed from all eternity with the Father – begotten before all ages and sharing in the Father’s very being, “consubstantial” as the words of the creed phrase it.  “Mother” in this context means that, through Mary, God was born in time and space, took on flesh and came into the world. 

 

What does this title mean for Mary’s life?

 

In accepting her role as Mother of the Savior, Mary accepts a life of enormous challenges and difficulties.  Her maternal instincts and capacities are tested to the limit.  Her faith in God is tried and proven time and again.  The life of Mary is revealed as a life of docility to God’s will that brings her to the greatest possible joys in welcoming her child into the world and seeing first-hand the mysteries of God’s plan for the salvation of the world unfold; and at the same time the most horrific sorrows.  In the end, she lives the life of suffering with Christ and come to share in His glory. 

 

Mary becomes the Mother of God at the moment she says “yes” to the angel Gabriel, overcoming her lack of understanding and incredulous fear by internal courage – amazing for a young girl of 16 – and the power of divine grace.  The reader of the Gospel story knows that she wonders how it is possible for her to conceive outside of any relations with a man and that she is afraid.  Yet, how much of the life of suffering to come is revealed to Mary?  Does the angel tell her about the flight into Egypt?  The searching for Jesus amid the crowds?  The Cross and tomb?  Mary clearly believes in God’s presence and Word enough to say yes without knowing what lies ahead or to say yes to the pain that must come before the Resurrection.  Whatever she knew, she believed.  How often our faith is tested when we have to believe in face of what we know, or believe in the face of the frightening unknown!  Mary trusted in God even though faith did not always mean a pleasant existence or much consolation. 

 

Mary revealed her motherhood to Joseph her beloved betrothed at some moment unrecorded by the Gospel writers.  Perhaps it was too intimate and Mary asked them not to write it down.  Mary and Joseph both knew the law and feared her being stoned to death for her “sin” in becoming pregnant outside of marriage.  In those days, it was usually the woman’s “fault.”  Joseph struggled between the law and his conscience, which told him not to expose a woman to shame and torture, until God broke in and spoke to him in a dream.  Surely he woke up in utter confusion, as we all do sometimes, puzzled about whether it was a dream or real or a little of both.  Still, he, too, found the courage and cooperated with God’s grace in order to accept his role as chaste foster-father to Jesus and continue following the Lord’s plan.  He became Mary and Jesus’ protector.

 

Mary’s motherhood comes to fruition in the most rustic of circumstances.  Refused by innkeepers, Mary and Joseph settle down in the stable amid the smelly animals and Mary prepares a place to lay her infant Divine Son in the pile of straw in a feed-box.  She gives birth in the cold, dark night, far from home and family.  Yet, her fears are assuaged by the pure joy of welcoming her son and her God into the world. 

 

Shepherds in awe and Magi bringing strange gifts challenge Mary’s understanding.  Like a good hostess, she no doubt accepts the gold, frankincense and myrrh with gratitude but with uncertainty as to their meaning in the back of her mind.  We are told Mary “reflects on these things in her heart” that have been happening.  Why me?  Why him?  Why here?  Such a strange way to save the world!  And yet, the Christ must be born in poverty to show us the utter humility and self-emptying love of God. 

 

At the appointed time, Mary and Joseph took Jesus for His Presentation in the Temple.  They offer the prescribed sacrifices.  But then an old man named Simeon, pious and devoted to the Temple, comes forward to fulfill his life-long dream: the promise of God that he would see the Messiah, foretold from ages past, face to face before he died.  He predicts that Mary will suffer, that “a sword of sorrow” will pierce her heart.”  Her child will be a “sign of contradiction”… “so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”  Indeed, wherever Jesus preached, His message struck to the core of men and women, challenging them to a holy way of life and prompting them to speak boldly either in support of condemnation of His mission.  It was never a lifeless message.  His counter-cultural call to costly discipleship elicits the passionate expression of the thoughts of many.  At that moment, however, Mary is not able to consider anything but the statement that her child will cause her to suffer.  Because of Him, her heart will be pierced.  Whether this was a new revelation or a confirmation of what the angel had shown her, she fought back the tears and not only accepted God’s will but embraced it.  When a mother learns her child will be handicapped or disabled, it is as if the doctor is saying to her: “Your child will cause you to suffer as you meet his needs every day and because your expectations are shattered.”  But a mother’s response is always to love the child God gave her as he is and to see his own special beauty. 

 

Sheer terror comes upon Mary like a dark cloud when news of Herod’s plot to destroy the young Messiah spreads.  Joseph again proves his tenacity when he takes Mary and Joseph safely into Egypt.  “Someone wants to kill my child?” Mary asks.  She cries.  She screams.  She wraps him up and, holding him close, rides that donkey as fast as she can away from Judea. 

 

After Herod’s death, the Holy Family finally settles into their home at Nazareth.  There, they sanctify home and family life by their virtuous manner of living.  Mary encounters the child Jesus as a helpless infant, a curious toddler, a challenging teenager and a hard-working young man.  She is “Mother” to her son and the Son of God in every step of His journey.  Motherhood never ceases to be a part of a woman who has conceived life and cannot be easily tossed aside.  As the depression and suffering of post-abortive women reveals, motherhood never goes away even when evil forces destroy a woman’s child and we pretend it’s all ok.  Whenever motherhood and the maternal instinct are squelched or downgraded, the core of humanity itself has been attacked and only evil and pain will result.  Mary lived to be a mom.  She remains a mother to Jesus and to all His brothers and sisters in faith. 

 

At the age of twelve, Jesus gave Mary and Joseph quite a scare.  Unlike many young boys who might be scared if they are trapped between the racks of clothes at a store and unable to see mom or dad, Jesus was calmly about His early ministry, teaching by asking calculated questions that made the elders reflect and stand in awe.  Surely Mary’s few words recorded in the Scriptures – “Son, why have you done this to us?” – were accompanied by a little shake of the finger and a slap on the bottom.  Jesus learned obedience through suffering His parent’s disappointment.

 

Mary observed Jesus’ public ministry, beginning with His Baptism, from a distance, always supportive but knowing her son had to make a life for Himself.  The young carpenter from Nazareth soon became a superstar preacher and healer.  Fans and enemies alike swarmed around Him.  Constant was the love He gave her at home, though He ventured forth from her side to preach, to heal and to suffer.  At the wedding feast at Cana, we see Mary’s only intervention in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  She overlooks His stammering “My hour has not yet come” and tells the servants to “do whatever He tells you.”  Knowing it is time for Jesus to reveal His true self and that He will come to the needs of the guests, Mary starts the clock ticking that leads to the Passion.  The cat is out of the bag.

 

As the Fathers of the Church said, the wood of the Manger prefigured the wood of the Cross.  In His infancy, Jesus was laid in a rough wooden box and He was destined to die on a splintery wooden Cross.  At the Cross, Mary’s sorrowful heart is pierced over and again as she beholds her son hanging from the tree in torment.  She “stands firm” (stabat), stricken with grief yet unmoved in her love for her son, her faith in God and her hope in the resurrection.  His flesh is torn from His bones.  Her heart is torn open.  His hands and feet are pierced and unbearable pain courses through His body.  She falls to her knees weeping.  Her only dear son’s blood drips and pours.  Mary tries in vain to wipe it up.  Yet, as He never cried out in agony, she never cries out in despair. 

 

As Mary stood at the foot of the cross, the divine nature of this plan of redemption is revealed in Mary’s acceptance of another man as her son even before He dies.  Jesus was looking out for His mom in the absence of His father and himself but no earthly mother could fathom "replacing" their dying child with another person, even a holy man, even your son’s best friend.  Your child is always your child no matter how old they get or whatever happens to them.  There is no replacement for your child.  Once your child dies, so does a piece of your heart.  Beyond what would have been customary in those days for a widow who was losing her only son to be placed under the care of another, Mary shows that she accepts God’s will.  Her son was never hers alone.  He belongs to the world and is the world’s Savior.  She cared for Him on earth but must let Him go to die, rise and return to the Father.  Mary never lived for herself.  As she held Jesus in her arms that last time, tears mingled with blood, and the greatest sorrow ever known was displayed.  The Messiah was brutally tortured by lawless men and His mother bore His suffering as if it were her own, for that is true love. 

 

The coldness and finality of the empty tomb leave Mary glassy-eyed and stumbling home to curl up in a ball and sob.  She pounded the pillow.  She played back the tape of her memories with Jesus.  It’s what we all would do.  There was no joy in the Passover that year, for she only could agonize in longing for the Resurrection.  Even Jesus’ triumphant return could only bring so much happiness, for He had to again leave to ascend to the Father’s right hand.  The glory of the Resurrection is not found in seeing in the flesh again but in being offered the promise of eternal life in Heaven.  That promise sustains Mary and sharing it becomes her mission as she helps form the early Church.  Mary becomes Mother of the Church, praying with and taking care of the Apostles until in her old age she falls asleep and is taken incorrupt to sit with her son in the glory of Heaven.  From her special place, she remains our model, our intercessor, our sure companion on the way to Jesus. 

 

All this and more was Mary’s experience as “Mother of God.”

 

What does this mean for us?

 

1.  This world only offers us fleeting joys, which are at their best only glimpses of Heaven.  Our earthly life will never leave us satisfied or happy for long.  This life is more to be endured than enjoyed, for it is not where we belong.  We were created for much more.  Our true homeland is in Heaven and there alone will we truly rejoice.  

 

2.  Just as Mary’s “yes” to being “Mother of God” opened the way to a life that was anything but rosy all the time, so our life of surrender to God’s holy will will not be without it’s challenges.  The promise of eternal life with Mary and Jesus, along with the blessing of her example and prayers, gives us the courage to accept whatever God calls us to do or whatever life sends our way with faith, hope and, above all, love.  We begin this New Year resolved to live as Mary did: never for ourselves but always for Him who loves us.

 

3.  We also know that Mary understand us and thus her companionship on the journey of faith is one of kindred spirits.  She lived the totality of human emotions and experiences.  She walks with us every step of the way.  Surrender to God in all things and open your hearts to deep and constant prayer.  Jesus and Mary will never abandon you. 

 

 

 

1 comment:

Katherine Donaldson said...

Thank you, Blessed Mother, for saying "Yes" to God's call!