Sunday 01 January, 2012
Num 6:22-27. The solemn priestly blessing, a prayer that God would bless and protect us and be gracious to us, is especially apt at the beginning of a new year.
Gal 4:4-7. Through the Incarnation, the distance between God and man has been bridged and now we can call God “Abba! Father!”
Lk 2:16-21. The visit of the shepherds on the first Christmas night. The closing verse, about Jesus’ circumcision eight days later, makes it an apt reading for the octave day of Christmas.
New Year’s Day is not a bad time to speak on the possibility of making a significant new start, both as individuals and as members of our civil and church communities. Many will be happy to reflect on possible New Year’s resolutions, to bring a new quality into the year just beginning. January 1st is also designated a day of prayer for peace in a world which is only too prone to make war. One might easily build the homily around the things that make for peace. New Years are deeply felt by most people as a time for asking God’s blessing on the year ahead, which is a still unforseen future holding a mixture of both hope and fear. The first reading offers the reassurance that the God we love and worship is One who goes with us on our journey, who is gracious and familiar to us. And the Gospel tells of the welcome God gives us, sending us His Son, born from a human mother, and bearing the name “Jesus” which offers the ultimate solution for all human ills, since he will save his people from their sins.
Recently, the Church proposes another important idea to be celebrated on this significant start-day of the year. In the feast of we say thanks for the wonderfully human way that God came close to us us, through the motherhood of Mary, the Virgin from Nazareth. Through this theme, we can recall the real Jewishness of Jesus, whose parents brought him to the Temple, to fulfil the Law of circumcision.
By mothering him, Mary not only gave Jesus a body, she also fundamentally shaped his personality and moulded his early identity. Part of her shaping of Jesus’ identity was in the religious upbringing she gave him, teaching him prayer and love towards God, and handing on the core of Jewish belief in the reliably faithful God, whose faithfulness was shown through the story of his people. The spirituality of the Magnificat (Lk 1:46ff) would have been taught to Jesus by his mother.
From his home life with Mary, and Joseph (the too-often forgotten man in the story) Jesus first came to know the meaning of faithful love in its human practicality. The second reading points to the cosmic dimension of Mary’s role, that her total ‘Yes’ to God, the Saviour was “Born of a woman, born under the law;” and so the divine Son took a human face and received a human name. It is a day for joining in her deep pondering on the Word of God.
(adapted from Liam Swords)
Sociologist Andrew Greeley put the question “Why do Catholics stay in the Church?” – particularly nowadays when so many disagree with much of its magisterial, almost dictatorial style. He suggested it is because of the Church’s images, metaphors and stories. And the most powerful image of all is Mary, the Mother of God. It all begins when a mother brings her little child to see the Christmas crib. The child gazes in wonder at this exotic scene of angels, animals, shepherds, kings, mother and father, all gathered around a little baby in its cot.
“Who is the baby?” the little child asks.
“That is Jesus.”
“And who is Jesus?’
“Jesus is God.”
“Oh.” the little child says.
“And who is the lady?’
“That is Mary, God’s mammy.”
It’s a hard story to beat. It is many children’s first introduction to theology and a most effective one at that. Nothing in later life shakes their attachment. They may disagree and sometimes violently with the Church’s pronouncements on certain issues. They may fall foul of its discipline in areas as intimate as marriage and family life. They may be disillusioned by the leadership of pope and bishops, or by the lifestyle of their clergy but they remain Catholics or the majority of them do. An American survey a few years back showed the actual defection rate among Catholic remaining fairly steady over several decades, at about 15%.
Some ecclesiastical “hard-liners” like to dismiss many of their fellow-worshipers as “a la carte” Catholics, who prefer to choose their own menus than toe the official line. But the rank and file of Pobal Dé (the People of God) remains unimpressed by labels, and are still Catholics. They have their stories, images and rituals and nobody will detach them from them.
The most powerful object of attachment is the metaphor of Mary, the Mother of God. Research on young Catholics in America shows that the Mary image continues to be their most powerful religious image. I personally have known some older people, very often men, whose attachment to religion was tenuous, to say the least. Yet they carried in their pockets a rosary beads and stopped occasionally in places like Knock to pray before a statue of Our Lady. And the people I knew, were far too intelligent to be duped by superstitious charms or miraculous madonnas. Brendan Behan once wrote a letter to the newspaper protesting vehemently against some journalist who described him as a “non-Catholic.” He was not a non-Catholic, he insisted, but a bad Catholic and there was a world of a difference between the two.
There’s a story heard from nuns who taught grade-school in Chicago. One day God made a tour of heaven to check out the recent arrivals. He was taken aback at the quality of many of those allowed in and he went out to confront Peter about it. “You’ve let me down again” he told Peter. “What’s wrong now?” Peter asked. “You let a lot of people in that shouldn’t be there.” “I didn’t let them in.” “Then, who did?’ “Well, I turned them away at the front gate, but they went round the back and your mother let them in.”
It is the sort of story that may make intellectuals squirm or non-Catholics sneer. But it strikes a chord in our Catholic sensibility. It tallies well with our conception of mother and the gospel image of Mary. She is the Mother of God and our mother too and like any mother, she will not be baulked by bureaucratic red-tape or hair-splitting moralists, when it comes to the happiness of her children.
First Reading: Book of Numbers 6:22-27
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Gospel: Luke 2:16-21
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.