Today many things come together. New Year’s Day, of course, and then the news of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s passing yesterday, and more still. Today is the Octave Day of Christmas, a second Christmas. And today, first of all, we honour the mother of our Lord. So, what began a week ago with honouring the new-born Child, the Son, concludes with honouring the mother. This is right, this is natural, this is as it should be. We’re like the unnamed woman in the crowd who, during Jesus’ public life, couldn’t stop herself crying out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked!” And our Mass began, “Hail (Salve!) holy Mother, who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever”.
Every Christmas, like the shepherds we come down from our ordinary work, the different kinds of sheep we care for, and make our way to Bethlehem. We come to see the new-born child, and like the shepherds we find Mary and Joseph as well. Every Christmas, like the magi we follow the star of faith, enter the house of a church and there, like them, we see the Child and his mother.
As another year begins, this is what the Church holds up before us. This is to be first in our lives: Jesus and Mary, this gift of God’s love, this sign of his closeness. And we respond by faith. What is first in our lives? I like the dictum of a famous Celtic player: This is my life, he said, and in this order: faith, family, football. That’s so right, even if our number three is something other than football! Pope Benedict is remembered too as a confessor of the faith. May we too put faith, faith in God’s love, first.
So today, having honoured the Child, we honour his mother. And, following Catholic tradition, affirmed centuries ago in the year 431 at the Council of Ephesus we honour her with the title Mother of God. This is a profession of faith. We don’t mean by this that she came first and then God, that she was the mother of the Trinity or the Godhead. No, we’re talking about the economy of the Incarnation. We’re talking about God entering our world of flesh and blood, of the birth of God’s Son “according to the flesh”, as Ephesus said. We’re saying that the child Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, that she carried for nine months and gave birth to in Bethlehem, was the Son of God in person – born of the Father before all ages, now born of a woman, eternally God but now also a human being in time: one person in two natures. And a mother isn’t a mother of a bit of us; she’s the mother of the whole person. And so we can call her Mother of God – that is, “according to the flesh”, mother of God made man. This is the faith we profess.
And if we get this right, then we will realise who her child is, who he is in God’s plan. Christ is not another Buddha or Confucius or Moses. or a Mohammed, just another wise man or prophet. He is God’s very Son among us, Emmanuel. He is unique. And we begin to realise all he is in our own lives: Shepherd, Friend, Companion, Rescuer, able, as St Paul says, to make us sons of the Father, able to fill and sanctify our lives as no-one else.
At the Spanish Mass yesterday, I met an Italian man and in conversation he reminded me of the Italian for New Year’s Day: capo d’anno, the head of the year. And who is the Head of our year, our 2023, our whole life, if not our Lord? If we make New Year resolutions, let this be the first one: to have Christ as first, to always be part of the Body of which he is the Head. Then everything finds its place.
And it is Mary, the woman of faith, who shows him to us, as she did to the shepherds and the magi, who holds us close to him. “Mothers are the greatest lovers”, said St Thomas Aquinas. In Christian art, one sometimes sees paintings or sculptures of Mary wearing a great cloak, and under that cloak all sorts of people finding shelter. At the Annunciation, Mary conceived our Lord in joy by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Thirty years later, beside the Cross, Mary was overshadowed again, this time by the outstretched arms of her dying Son, and she conceived a second time, in grief. “Woman, behold your son”, said Jesus indicating his beloved disciple, John. And so, in the middle of grief, she became Mother of the Church and, more, the spiritual mother of all mankind. Mother of the whole Christ, Head and Body. And this mother is certainly the greatest lover of the brothers and sisters of Jesus that we are.
Last Sunday, Christmas Day Mass ended – thanks not least to the choir – in a joyful outbreak of singing and dancing. That was lovely to see. At the same time, there was a young Ukrainian woman, alone, sitting in tears on the Blessed Sacrament side. Did we notice, I wonder? But Christmas holds joy and grief together.
And so today, with the blessing of Aaron in our 1st reading, God’s overshadowing Name is called down upon ourselves and our year ahead, with its joy and sorrow to come.
Today, the 8th day after his birth, Mary and Joseph gave Jesus the name the angel had given them for him. Today the Name of Jesus was first heard in the world. That name, meaning The Lord saves, is the blessing we ask for.
And with it comes the name of Mary too, God’s mother and ours. The name that is a mantle, that warms and protects and gives us the courage of faith to go into the future.
“Hail, holy Mother, who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever.”