Sunday, 1 January 2012

Solemnity of Mary Holy Mother of God Year B

1st Jan marks the Octave of Christmas. Today is 8 days after Christmas. Every liturgical year, the Church celebrates two Octaves: Christmas and Easter. In some countries, 1st Jan is also a Holy Day of Obligation. The Solemnity is important for the Church and until recently very important for the Society of Jesus. The official title is Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. I said “recently” just now and so for the Society of Jesus, 1st Jan was important because it was, apart from it being the Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God, also the Feast of the Giving of the Name of Jesus. Recently is as recent as 2002. With the latest edition of the Latin Missale Romanum  of 2002, a decoupling took place. Mary, Holy Mother of God remained the Solemnity we mark on 1st Jan whilst the Feast of Giving of the Name of Jesus has been shifted to 3rd Jan. But, even for so progressive a Society like the Jesuits, for the time being, we will still celebrate today as our Titular Feast but in time to come, when our liturgy catches up with the Calendar of the Universal Church[1], the Jesuit’s Titular Feast will be shifted to 3rd Jan. One of the reasons for shifting the Feast of the Giving of the Name of Jesus is because a Solemnity ranks above a Feast.
These are just some technical trivia so that you might ask why we should not celebrate the Giving of the Name of Jesus on 1st Jan, after all He is the Lord. Instead, the Church has given the honour to Our Lady. The next logical question would be: “Are we giving too much honour to Our Lady”?
The question as to why we should celebrate Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on 1st Jan lays bare a fear we may have that as Catholics we are idolaters. Putting aside the fear, let us attempt to uncover the foundation for why we give such great honour to Mary.
Not long after the event of the death and resurrection of Christ, even at the stage where the Gospels were being composed, there were already distortions about who Christ really was. There were already Gnostic tendencies within the community of St John. They did not believe that Christ had come in the flesh. How could He condescend to become human when flesh is “evil”? John’s Gospel was a response against these tendencies. By the use of the word “flesh”, John indicated that Jesus did not just take on a body as if He were putting on clothes. The Word was made “flesh” meant that Jesus was not some kind of appearance and nor was He some kind of a ghost. In fact, John’s Gospel was a detailed record of the facticity or concreteness of the event of the Incarnation. John 1—the Word became flesh; John 6—my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink; and finally, John 20ff—the post-Resurrection encounters of the Disciples with Jesus took place bodily, albeit a glorified body. “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side”.
Furthermore, the Giving of the Name of Jesus coincides with the 8th Day—as detailed in the Gospel—the day on which Christ was circumcised. Here again, the circumcision is a reminder that Christ came in the flesh and that He did not merely appear in the flesh.
St Paul in the Letter to the Colossians made mention of this flesh: In His body lives the fullness of divinity (Col 2: 9). Here we are brought into the fullness of the mystery which we have been celebrating these last 8 days: Christ is True God and True Man and not 50% God and 50% Man. He is not like your Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that uses both fossil fuel and battery power. This mystery of the God-made-man is called the Incarnation. And to call Mary the Holy Mother of God is to make this mystery as real as it can be.
It is upon this mystery that the foundation for the whole theology of the Sacraments rests. The Sacraments are often considered a Catholic preoccupation but they are not. In fact, Pope St. Leo the Great used to say "Since the Lord is no longer visible among us, everything of Him that was visible has passed into the Sacraments". In effect, the Sacraments would not be possible without the event of the Incarnation. This follows from what John wrote of the Jesus whom he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands: The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory (John 1:14).
Mary is called the Holy Mother of God only because Jesus is God. And this dogma declared in AD431 at the Council of Ephesus has salvific implications. Again we quote Pope St Leo the Great: “Henceforth, He is reckoned to be of the stock, not of His earthly father but of Christ, who became the Son of Man precisely that men could also be sons of God. For unless in humility He had come down to us, none of us by our own merits could ever go up to Him”.
 So, are we idolatrous in our relationship with Mary? Or do we give too much honour to Mary? Not at all. Mary, the Holy Mother of God is a statement of our salvation as it cuts through any attempt to fudge the question of the universal salvation of mankind. Let me read you the Preface III for Sunday, both from the old and new translation that you may appreciate how important the fullness Christ’s divinity and humanity is for salvation.
We see your infinite power in your loving plan of salvation. You came to our rescue by your power as God but you wanted us to be saved by one like us. Man refused your friendship but man himself was to restore it through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Old translation).
For we know it belongs to your boundless glory, that you came to the aid of mortality itself, with your divinity and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation, through Christ our Lord. (New translation).
No Marian dogma is ever about Mary alone. So, right at the beginning of the year, in declaring Mary to be the Holy Mother of God, the Church unequivocally declares that Jesus the Lord is the Saviour of the world and through Jesus’ humanity, mankind is saved.

[1]Every religious congregation has a titular feast. It could be the Founder’s Feast Day. Since the official name for the Jesuits is the Society of Jesus, it makes sense that the titular feast should be the Feast of the Giving of the Holy Name of Jesus.