Christmas by way of Mary
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
The final week of the last year begins with the Solemnity of the Birth of Jesus, Son of God, on Christmas Day, 25th December 2010, and ends with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on New Year Day, 1st January 2011, the beginning of the first week of the New Year. There can be no better way to celebrate both Christmas Day and New Year Day and to commemorate the Christmas Week than to consider that "pilgrimage of faith in which the Blessed Virgin advanced, faithfully preserving her union with Christ" ('Mother of the Redeemer' 5). Together with Mary let us undertake this pilgrimage of faith as described so marvellously in the Infancy Narrative of Luke's Gospel.
Mary hears and accepts the Good News (Lk 1:26-38): Luke begins his Gospel by presenting Mary as 'Greatly Blessed by God' and as 'Highly Favoured of God' (1:28,30), since she is the first one to hear the Good News. For she would have an altogether unique role to play in the fulfilment of God's plan, because she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and bring forth a holy child, Jesus, the Son of God (1:31,32,35). Through her response, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your Word" (1:38), Mary also becomes the first person to accept and to obey the Good News, thus anticipating in herself in a unique way the essential characteristic of a disciple of Christ: who doesn't just listen to his Word; but instead puts it into practice (James 1:22). Although she has been given a sign (1:36-37), she was a 'believer' for whom God's Word was sufficient. This was the first step in her journey of faith.
Mary is declared blessed because she believed God's Word (1:42,45): Mary, always the obedient maidservant of the Lord (1:38), then goes with all speed to the house of Zacharias and greets Elizabeth in her joy (1:39-40), who in her turn through the power of the Holy Spirit loudly proclaims: "Blessed are you among all women, and blessed is the child you will bear" (1:42). Because she has conceived a son like Jesus, Mary is hailed as the most blessed woman that ever was. But Elizabeth makes it absolutely clear why Mary is blessed through the blessedness of Jesus her Son, "How fortunate are you to believe that the Lord's message to you will come true" (1:45). She is already blessed because of her obedience to the Word of God (1:38), and not just because, as Elizabeth promptly realizes, she is now 'the mother of my Lord' (1:43). The first person to be called blessed in the Gospel was thus appropriately the first person to believe in the promise of the Lord and so open herself to its fulfilment in her life. Mary's response of faith to God's call and choice is the essence of Christian discipleship.
All generations will therefore call Mary Blessed (1:45-55): In response to Elizabeth's blessing, Mary herself prophesizes, "For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed" (1:48). But, what is so distinctive of a Christian disciple, Mary does not so much accept Elizabeth's and all future generations' blessings as a credit to her faith as much as a tribute to God's holiness, mercy and power (1:49,50). In doing so she is in fact, as a representative of the 'anawin' of Israel, anticipating the proclamation of the Good News by Jesus in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, on what makes for True Happiness, (Mt 5:2-12), and prophesising its actualization in the Jerusalem community (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37).
Mary ponders the Good News given by the angel to the shepherds (Lk 2:19) and revealed to the wise men through the star (Mt 2:2): Nine months later Mary gave birth to her 'first born' at Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of King David, where they had gone to register at the Census being his descendants (Lk 2:4-6). Luke gives us three reactions or responses to the 'Good News of Great Joy to All the People' brought by the angel: the birth of a Saviour, Christ the Lord (Lk 2:10,11), that would give Glory to God and bring Peace to men (Lk 2:14). The shepherds returned, from seeing Baby Jesus lying in a manger, with Mary and Joseph, singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Lk 2:16-20). And all those who heard it marvelled at what the shepherds told them concerning this child (Lk 2:18). Again observing and recognizing his Star in the east, certain wise men came to see the baby born to be King of the Jews. What joy was theirs as it stopped over the place where the child was with his mother Mary, and they knelt down and worshipped him (Mt 2:2,9-11). But Mary treasured in her heart all the words and incidents connected with Jesus' birth, and thought deeply about them (Lk 2:19).
Mary receives the Good News as the Sword of the Spirit (Lk 2:35b): When forty days later Joseph and Mary brought the Child Jesus to be presented in the Temple and to be dedicated to the Lord (2:22,23), they marvelled at the consoling prophesy that Simeon made about the Child in his prayer of thanksgiving and blessing to God (2:28-33). But Luke does not tell us about their reaction to Simeon's disturbing prophesy, "Behold, this Child is destined for the destruction and for the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God, which many people will speak against, and so reveal their secret thoughts" (2:34,35a); much less about Mary's response to his direct prophecy to her, "and sorrow will break your own heart like a sharp sword" (2:35b, cfr Heb 4:12). But she would have understood that she too, as part of Israel, would be judged by her final response to the Child, who will be the occasion of the fall or the rising of people, even of Israel, depending on their final attitude to Jesus. For obedience to the Word of God would not be a once for all act (1:38,45), but an ongoing attitude tested through trials and perils. Mary would thus have to go through the test of discipleship, but would come through successfully, unlike Peter who could not hold fast to the Word of God in the face of diabolic opposition (22:32-34).
Mary does not understand the Word - but keeps it in her heart and treasures it (Lk 2:48-51): Twelve years later, after three days of searching for their lost son, Mary and Joseph found him in the Temple, and were astonished at seeing him calmly sitting with the teachers of the Law, listening to them and asking them questions, which he himself answered amazingly, apparently oblivious of his parents' anxiety and their concern for him (2:46-48). Jesus' response to his mother's reprimand seems to be one of surprise and even pain that his parents have still not known him well enough. When he reminds them of his true identity and affirms the priority of his relationship with his heavenly Father over that with his earthly parents (2:40), they still did not understand his answer (2:50), which may seem to be surprising, on Mary's part at least, after twelve years of reflection on the previous revelations of her son's identity (1:31-35; 2:11,17-18). Yet Mary treasured all these things in her heart (2:51), even though she must now be realizing the full import of Simeon's prophecy uttered twelve years before (2:35b).
And so the final reaction of the parents in Luke's Infancy Narrative seems to be similar to that of the twelve disciples even after his third prediction of his Passion, "But they did not understand any of these things - and they did not know what Jesus was talking about" (18:34). Unlike the disciples, however, "though they (his parents) did not understand his answer, His mother kept all these things in her heart and treasured them" (2:50,51). As she did twelve years before, she retained now also the disturbing words that had puzzled her, but she continued to search for their true and deeper meaning (2:19), in apparent contrast with Jesus "growing in wisdom and stature, gaining favour with God and man" (2:52). Mary's attitude, therefore, of acceptance of and obedience to the Word of God and of waiting on the Lord, throughout the Infancy Narrative, is for us a model preparation for Christmas - and for the rest of the year and even for the rest of our lives.
Postscript: Mary was not present at the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan to hear the Father say at the beginning of her son's unique ministry, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22); nor was she present at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor at the climax of his ministry to hear the Father say again, "This is my Son whom I have chosen. Listen to him" (Lk 9:35; Mk 9:7; Mt 17:5). But she was present at the Crucifixion, standing at the foot of the Cross, at the end of his ministry, to hear the Good Thief on the right exclaim, "Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King" (Lk 23:42), and to hear the Roman Centurion, who was standing there in front of the cross and saw how Jesus had died, proclaim, "This man was really the Son of God!" (Mk 15 39; Mt 27:54; Lk 23:47). That is why in the recitation of the Rosary we first 'Hail Mary' as blessed because the child in her womb is the Son of God and we then pray to 'Holy Mary' as the Mother of God, and - as her Son Jesus told his Beloved Disciple who was there standing next to his Mother - as our Mother too (Jn 19:26 27).
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