Today’s Liturgy is full of good things. It helps us begin our New Year under the protection of God’s blessing. It helps us set our compass. Let’s look at what is on the table.
It is, as we all know, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. On 8th December we feast her Immaculate Conception, on the 25th March the Annunciation, her conception of Jesus, on the 15th August her Assumption body and soul into the glory of heaven. And today, in the light of Christmas, her motherhood and her title, Mother of God.
It is also the 8th day of Christmas, the Octave day. The 8th note in a scale replays the 1st, an octave higher. And so today is a second Christmas. The Gospel is that of the Dawn Mass of Christmas Day: so we’re back with the shepherds beside the child in the manger.
It’s also a day for remembering Jesus’ circumcision. Jewish boys are circumcised eight days after birth. It was a sign of his entering the covenant, becoming a member of God’s chosen people. And so Jesus too was incorporated into Abraham’s line and the people of the covenant. St Paul speaks of him as a ‘subject of the Law’. It’s another aspect of his sharing the human and Jewish lot. Today too Jesus was publicly named, with the name given earlier by the angel.
Again, it’s the day of the Priestly Blessing, Aaron’s Blessing, recalled in the 1st reading. ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you’ etc (Num 6:22-24). In the 1970s, Israelite amulets were discovered, almost three thousand years old, inscribed with this text. It is still alive in Jewish practice, when parents use it to call God’s blessing on their children on a Friday, Sabbath Eve, and the priestly descendants of Aaron still raise their hands and sing it over their congregations on high feast days. It’s beautiful to recall it at the beginning of the calendar year. It can be used too as a final blessing at Mass. Isn’t it wonderful that this blessing has been chanted and read and prayed for so many centuries? May it penetrate this year too!
Another element: today in the Roman Rite the cycle of saints begins afresh, the ‘sanctoral’. We begin appropriately with Mary, the ‘all-holy’. Tomorrow, we keep Ss Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. And so it goes on throughout the year. So we enter another calendar year, not alone, but in company, ‘surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1).
So, a great richness here.
What might come across is a sense of connections, of different expanding circles. First of all, our common humanity. There are many New Years – the Chinese, the Vietnamese, as well as ours, for example – but this New Year is in practice universal. And so we feel part of the world, the continents, the nations. What lies ahead is hidden, but for all our divisions, we go into the year together. And surely as Christians, we feel a desire to invoke God’s blessing on everyone, those with power, those without it. ‘It is by the prayer of Christians that the world is kept in being’. Our baptism, our spiritual circumcision, empowers us to pray. The Psalm we sang, Ps 66, echoes Aaron’s blessing, but expands it. It stretches its hands over the whole world: ‘O God, be gracious and bless us / and let your face shed its light upon us. / So will your ways be known upon earth / and all nations learn your saving help.’ It is a prayer, originally, for good harvests, for food. Always needed. A prayer for peace. Always needed. And a prayer too that the whole world may come to know God. It’s a prayer that the light of faith may shine more widely. ‘Let the peoples praise you, O God; / let all the peoples praise you.’ It is a missionary prayer really. It’s a prayer that God’s face, who is Jesus, may shine through the clouds, and God’s bread, the Eucharist, feed the multitudes.
Then another circle: that of all the Christians who honour Mary and aren’t afraid to call her Mother of God. We think especially of our fellow-Christians of the Eastern Orthodox and of many Oriental Orthodox churches, some like the Copts of Egypt and the Christians of Iraq suffering. From these communities, there is a constant chorus of praise going up to Mary. We all acclaim what today’s Collect calls her ‘fruitful virginity’. We all – the Collect again – ‘experience [her] intercession’, and want to. Mothers are not mothers just of bodies but of persons, and her child in person is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, born of a woman in time. And so she can be called Mother of God. It is God himself we have as our Saviour! How she must long for the unity of her Son’s disciples! How the Church does too. Do we sense a summons here to pray for the unity of Christians, for the dissolving of prejudices? Mary is, in a mysterious way, the one who can untie the knots of history.
A third circle, already mentioned. How can we not remember the Jews, our elder brothers as St John Paul II called them, the people from whom Jesus came, to whom he and Mary and Joseph and the first disciples all belonged, in whom we’re rooted. How for some good sixty years now, the Church has been seeking closer ties, urging us to a greater appreciation of our Jewish ancestry, as it were, apologizing for the crimes of Christians, trying to build links and friendships, looking for greater understanding of each other. And again, never forgetting to pray. Perhaps we remember the cry this separation wrenched from St Paul: ‘I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race’ (Rom 9:2-3). One of the prayers in the Divine Office at Christmastide runs: ‘Christ, God and man, David’s Lord and David’s son, fulfilling the prophecies, we beg you that Israel may recognize you as Messiah.’ ‘Call the Jews to the New Covenant’, goes another prayer.
At the centre of today’s Gospel is Mary’s heart. It was to this heart that the bishops of Scotland entrusted our country last September. It’s to this heart we surely want to entrust ourselves and our families and the coming year. It’s a heart that ‘treasured all these things and pondered them’, letting itself be shaped and enlarged by them. I think the mysteries of Christ we celebrate every liturgical year can have the same effect. Mary, we say, is a symbol, ‘type’ or figure of the Church. Mary’s heart is a ‘catholic’, that is, universal, heart, welcoming the whole mystery of Christ, and reconciling Jew and Gentile in itself. The Church’s heart must grow to the dimensions of Mary’s. In her heart too, the Church wants food, peace and faith for everyone: to uncover the face of Jesus and call down his name on the world (Rom 11:12). The Church longs for the unity of Christians and for what Paul calls ‘the full inclusion’ of the Jews. Mary’s heart was formed by Christ and the Church’s heart, our heart, is formed by his through hers.
Today a second Christmas, sounding its note not just in Bethlehem but in the world. ‘Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us’ (CCC 526).
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 1 January 2018)