Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
This is a feast that has evolved over the years. Originally, it celebrated the Circumcision of Jesus—honoring his rite of initiation as a member of God’s people, confirming the essential Jewish roots of Jesus and Christianity itself. The name of the feast was changed in 1969 to honor Mary as the Mother of God.
Both designations, in fact, recall the most profound conviction of our Christian faith—that Jesus is both truly divine and truly human. Obviously, the ritual of “circumcision,” still sacred to Judaism, can be experienced only by a human being with an authentic human body. And Mary’s title of “Mother of God” also affirms the astounding fact of Jesus’ humanity. Some in the early church were leery of this title for Mary but the Council of Ephesus in 431 solemnly declared that Mary should bear the title of theotokos, in Greek literally meaning “God bearer” or Mother of God. This was affirmed because in Jesus the divine and human are fused into one person. In bearing the infant Jesus in her womb, Mary also bore the Divine and Eternal Word. The divinity and humanity of Christ were not to be separated but, rather, celebrated as an astonishing reality of God’s provident love for humanity.
The Scripture readings for this feast celebrate this glorious mystery of the Incarnation. The gospel passage from Luke’s infancy narrative recalls the joys of Christmas just celebrated. Guided by a chorus of angels, the shepherds come to the manger to pay homage to a “Savior, who is the Messiah.” That “savior” is a vulnerable infant in the arms of his mother Mary—what more could the gospel do to emphasize the humanity of Jesus?
Luke presents Mary as pondering these marvels, as Luke notes, she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Later she and Joseph would have the infant circumcised, further affirming his place within the people Israel.
The rest of the readings reflect the exuberant joy of this moment. The first, from the Book of Numbers, cites the famous blessing that God instructs Moses to give to the people, a blessing repeated throughout history: “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.” The responsorial Psalm 67 also praises God’s abiding love and care for Israel—a love that would find its most compete expression in the appearance of Jesus himself: “May God bless us in his mercy! May the peoples praise, you, O God; may all the peoples praise you!”
The second reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and contains Paul’s only reference to Mary when he notes that Jesus, “God’s Son,” was “born of a woman, born under the law”—a description that captures at once, Jesus’ divine status as God’s Son and his humanity as one “born of a woman” and born Jewish, “under the Law.” The mission of Jesus, Paul goes on to note, was to affirm our own status as children of God. Now we, too, along with Christ, can pray to God as our “father.” Paul uses here a telling word for God as father. The Spirit enables us to call God “Abba, Father.” Abba is the Hebrew diminutive for “father,” used as an affectionate term by both children and adults to address a beloved parent (Imma is the parallel Hebrew term for “mother”). At a moment of great anxiety, Jesus himself prays to his Father as Abba in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36),
Today we put behind us 2020 and welcome a New Year, 2021. I doubt if anyone will think nostalgically about the tragic year just past. So much loss of life, so many hardships, so much strife, so many divisions in our own country. But this feast of Mary, Mother of God, and the tender love of God for us that it proclaims, can be a source of hope. God has not abandoned us and will be with us as we look to a renewed future.
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.