Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God
January 1 is the octave of Christmas, bringing the eight day celebration of the Lord’s nativity to a formal close. This is also a feast that took a while to settle on its official title! Traditionally it celebrated the circumcision of Jesus, an account from Luke’s Gospel that is still included in the Lectionary selection for this feast (Luke 2:16-21). But Pope John XXIII, for reasons that are not so clear, decided to drop the reference to the circumcision and call the feast simply, "The Octave of Christmas." But in the liturgical reforms of 1969 that took place after the Second Vatican Council, the Church renamed January 1 as a time to celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and that is the title we celebrate today.
On this day a lot of things converge. For all of us it is the beginning of a new calendar year and a time to mark another milestone on the journey of our lives. For many in our world 2014 was a difficult year-along with the many blessings God has given us, there was the continuing violence in the Middle East intensified by the rise of militant terrorism in Syria and Iraq; the racial explosion in Ferguson, Missouri; the terrible toll on human life through the Ebola virus; the clash between Israel and Gaza, to name just a few events. To this short list can be added many personal losses and sufferings that so many families will not forget.
The New Year and the Scriptures of our liturgy for today invite us to turn in hope to a new year of grace. The traditional focus of this feastday on circumcision celebrated the formal induction of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, into God’s people. For Jewish males, circumcision was the sign of their participation in the covenant between God and Israel. God would be their loving God forever and they would be God’s people. We, too, circumcised or not, as followers of Jesus, "the first born," are bound up with our loving God forever. As Paul recalled in thinking of God’s enduring covenant with his beloved Israel-"God’s promises are irrevocable" (Romans 11:39).
The first and second readings, as well as the Responsorial Psalm, exuberantly proclaim that bond of love. The blessing from Numbers 6:22-27 is one of the Bible’s most well-known passages: "May the Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!" This is surely a blessing for a new and hopeful year ahead. The Response to Psalm 67-a psalm that pleads for God’s blessing-is in the same vein: "May God bless us in his mercy!"
And in the second reading from the Letter to the Galatians, Paul gets right to the heart of the matter: "When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters of God." Through the Spirit given to us by God, we are able to address God in the most intimate terms, "Abba, Father!" The Hebrew word abba is an affectionate greeting that a child as well as an adult addresses to a beloved father. One can still hear this word in the Holy Land as a child calls out to his father or a thoughtful adult son speaks respectfully and lovingly to his father. So, Paul tells us, we can address God fearlessly with the same respect and love.
In dedicating this New Year’s day feast to Mary, the Mother of God, Pope Paul VI noted that it gives us a chance to once more contemplate the incredible beauty of Christmas and the heart of its message: "God so loved the world that he sent his only son, not to condemn the world but that they world might be saved through him" (John 3:16). And in contemplating that breathtaking reality, we are invited to do so through the eyes of Mary, the Mother of God. Luke notes in the gospel text that "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."
So, here on this New Year’s Day as the world turns to a new chapter, we, in the contemplative spirit of Mary, have the opportunity to make peace with all the events-good and bad-of the past year, to remember God’s abiding love for us–come what may, and to turn to a New Year with hope and trust.
Father Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.