Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God
Today is my birthday…the first baby born in Philadelphia in 1940! I treasure a photo of my father standing in a line with a group of other fathers of New Year’s babies that day—each of them holding a cigar and most of them (my father included) with slightly startled looks on their faces. If any of us take the time to be a bit philosophical on our birthday—especially as the numbers keep adding up! —surely one deep feeling is that of gratitude for simply being alive!
That sense of exuberant blessing rolls through all of the Scripture readings for this feast day, the octave of Christmas and a special day honoring Mary as the Mother of God. In the first reading from Nehemiah 6:22-27 we have one of the Bible’s most popular blessings: “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!” One can only say “amen” to that! The psalm response has the same spirit and takes its cue from the beautiful Psalm 67— “May God bless us in his mercy.” The whole psalm praises God for the blessings he has lavished on his people and prays: “May all the nations be glad and exult…may all the peoples praise you!”
In the second reading, the apostle Paul joins in the chorus, too, reminding us in a segment from his letter to the Galatians, that we are truly children of God and therefore able to cry out with the same affectionate term Jesus himself used in his prayer: “Abba, Father!” Whenever I am in Israel and I hear little children calling to their father in Hebrew, “Abba!”—I think of this beautiful passage from Paul’s letter. An astounding assertion of our Christian faith is that through the gift of the Spirit we are able to share in Jesus’ own intimate relationship with his Father.
The Gospel selection from Luke brings us back to the Christmas story whose octave we celebrate today. We recall the visit of the shepherds to Bethlehem and their amazing discovery of Mary and her child. Poor and often despised as shepherds were in those days (they crossed boundaries with their flocks and had a reputation of being thieves…), Luke’s Gospel makes them the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth (a care for the marginal that extends throughout Jesus’ ministry in this Gospel). The dazzled shepherds return to their flocks, Luke notes, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”
All around us today, it seems, there are reports of violence and expressions of fear. Yet, for people of faith, fear is definitely not the spirit of this sacred day, January 1, 2016. This is a day to count our blessings and to give thanks: for the gift of life, for the gift of our faith, for our family and friends, for God’s unconditional and unquenchable love that comes to us through Jesus, the Son of Mary.
Fr. 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.