Wednesday, December 31, 2008

With Mary, Looking on the Face of Christ

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Vigil Mass, 31 December 2008

Numbers 6:22-27

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:16-21


            The Octave Day of Christmas, this special feast in honor of Mary, Jesus’ Mother, celebrated eight days after His birth, on the day He received His Name and was bound to the Covenant through circumcision, this day which in modern times has been celebrated by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Prayer for Peace, finds us once again teeter-tottering on the brink of a New Year, 2009. As believing people we gather tonight to sing “Thank you, God!” for all that has been in 2008 and “Please, God!” make 2009 even better! Our lives and our world are indeed in His Hands.

            The Holy Father closes his message for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for Peace with these beautiful words addressed to people everywhere, Catholic and non alike: “At the start of the New Year, then, I extend to every disciple of Christ and to every person of good will a warm invitation to expand their hearts to meet the needs of the poor and to take whatever practical steps are possible in order to help them. The truth of the axiom cannot be refuted: ‘to fight poverty is to build peace.’”

            Earlier in his message, Pope Benedict mentions a series of points that have to be addressed in fighting poverty. Among them is child poverty, which is, I think, an appropriate topic to address on the Octave of Jesus’ birth. The Holy Father writes: “When the family is weakened, it is inevitably children who suffer. If the dignity of women and mothers is not protected, it is the children who are affected most.” What to do? Besides finding ways to serve the most vulnerable in our midst, maybe we need to remind ourselves once again of who we are, where we come from, and what is most important in our lives as Catholics.

Poor Mary and Joseph, Joseph especially, must have been aghast, almost desperate, at having to bring Jesus into this world in a stable. Jesus came to us as the poorest of the poor. Lots of Nativity art work shows poor Joseph sitting there, holding his head, struggling to figure this all out: the mystery of God come to birth as a man and here in this humble stable. And yet… the stable at Bethlehem was a point of light which drew the visit that night of the shepherds alerted to this blessed event by the angel of the Lord. We heard about it this evening in Luke’s Gospel: “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.”

            Why did God, in the fullness of time – at the high point in His work of salvation, why did He expose His Only Begotten Son to dire poverty? How do we make sense of the challenge all of this must have represented to the Mother of our Lord? Why was Jesus born in a stable? Well, simply explained, knowing us as He does God could settle for no less than this high price. God’s sacrifice to restore mankind to Himself and God to mankind was total: the Father did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him up for the sake of all of us. It was a true sacrifice – from end to end: from the cradle to the grave, as they say, and of course in victory beyond the grave for Jesus and for us in the glory of the Resurrection.

            I saw an advertisement on TV for a new reality show, which is supposed to be starting in the New Year (no doubt to replace some show which flopped in the first part of the television season). My bet is that this new one will flop too; at least you’ll never find me watching it. At any rate, it’s another one of those TV programs where the contestants compete for weeks on end to become somebody’s best friend and thereby share his life of liming and carefree partying. I’m sorry, but why would anyone want to do that? It’s just too little to get excited about! Moreover, it all seems terribly unreal and leads me to believe that my dictionary must be out of date, because in mine I can’t find a definition for this grand old word “reality” to fit this sort of folly. Even if I bought a new dictionary that provided a new definition of “reality”, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t accept what the movie and television industry is trying to sell me. It’s simply wrong and way too shallow to waste one’s time on. Ultimately, if that were the only tradeoff for poverty, I would think you would be better off poor and in a stable.

Channel-surf all you want and Google-search until you drop, my bet is that you will never find anything bigger or better than what “Mary… treasured … and pondered … in her heart”: life with Jesus, True God and True Man. Not only was her life reality, but the Blessed Mother looked God in the face at Bethlehem, held Him in her arms, fed Him, kissed Him and tucked Him in to sleep when His tiny eyelids got heavy; she watched Him grow; she pondered the mystery of her Son for thirty years and more.

            Recently, I read one of those silly little filler stories newspapers buy to make copy. It was about some movie star who insisted on doing himself a bungee-jump in an upcoming film, instead of leaving it to the stuntman. He classified the experience as “one-time” and “life-changing”. The only drawback, he said, was that now he’s having recurring nightmares about dying. Bungee-jumping the ultimate? Guess again! No matter how intense and exciting the here and now may be, to set your heart on this side of the grave (eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die) is too little for a full life. “In death”, as the preface for the funeral Mass goes, “life is changed, not ended”.

On her feast, let us look to Mary and the love with which she bore and brought to birth the Promised One. In the course of Jesus’ relatively short but intense lifetime, Mary shared first His little joys, and later His great sufferings and His victory. We need only look to Mary and understand that in her the Church is prefigured in all its glory, as are we the various parts of that great body. Mary participates in God’s work of reconciling the world to Himself through His Son and we can too, born again through water and the Holy Spirit, if we so choose and as Saint Paul says, make up in our lives through personal sacrifice for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world. It does not get any better. That is reality, far more than an unforgettable bungee-jump or an everlasting lime. Would that we were eager above all else to live as Mary did! Poor, yes, but not spiritually impoverished!

            The newspapers and the yearend reports of radio and TV ask despairingly again and again about the whereabouts of peace: too many killings, too much violence! … Why despair? Granted, the battle for peace will not be absolutely won until the end of time. Meantime, if we make life easier for mothers and their babies, if we give children a chance to grow healthy, strong and loved, if we give a joyful answer to all who ask about our concern for the needs of the less fortunate and thereby better illustrate the reason for our hope in everlasting life, we might be able to help others to wonder at those things which Mary pondered with such profit in her heart.

            Strive in 2009 not only to be worthy of your inheritance, as St. Paul would say, heirs in God and heirs with Christ, but strive to be eager to receive the blessing, the only blessing which is really real (far beyond a constant search for entertainment, beyond health, good looks and money), receive the blessing which God instructed Moses to teach to his brother Aaron, the high priest, and which Mary in her life knew in its fullness: “May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace”. Strive in 2009, as Mary did in her day, to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation (God become Man) and through your understanding and faith help to bring Christ to a waiting world.

            The Blessed Virgin Mary had a life in this world worth more than many a Magnificat and now she sits with her Son on His Throne in glory. Material poverty and disadvantage in this world must be fought, fought with a loving and expanded heart.

Who is poor, really? Poor indeed is the child who does not know the stable at Bethlehem and its Light. Poor indeed is the person of any age who thinks reality lies elsewhere but in the manger.


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