This feast really is a feast. It’s a well-laden table.
First of all, it’s the Octave or 8th day of Christmas. The 8th day completes the circle and in a way takes us back to the beginning. So today Christmas Day returns. We have just heard the Gospel of the Shepherds from the Dawn Mass of Christmas Day.
Then again, Jewish boys were circumcised on the 8th day after their birth. And so today is the day of Christ’s circumcision, the first shedding of his precious Blood. By being circumcised, he’s enrolled as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the people of the Covenant. He becomes a subject of the Law to redeem the subjects of the Law. It’s also the day he was named: the day the name “Jesus” was first publicly pronounced.
It is, of course, also the beginning of the calendar year. Hence the 1st reading with the beautiful blessing of Aaron, and its echo in the Psalm. We want to put the whole coming year under the blessing and protection of the Lord. May he bless and keep us. May his face – which is Christ- shine on us and bring us peace. And the mention of peace reminds us it is also the World Day of Peace, the 49th, an initiative that goes back to Pope Paul VI. Every year the Pope writes a letter for the occasion. The theme of this year’s is winning peace by overcoming indifference.
Most all, today is the feast of Mary’s motherhood. Like the Fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, held in year 431, we hail Mary as the Mother of God, Theotokos in Greek. We call her Mother of God because the Son of God, the 2nd person of the Blessed Trinity, took on our human nature in her virginal womb and was born of her. And so the person she gave birth to as a human being was the eternal Son of the eternal Father, God from God. When we hail Mary as mother of God, we are acclaiming her son as our God; we’re professing his divinity. When we say mother of God, we’re professing his humanity. And when we profess that he is therefore God and man, one person in two natures, we’re professing our salvation. God became human so that we humans might come to God. ‘To make us more, Thou wouldst be less’ (Henry Vaughan). And Mary is the burning bush, as it were, where all this first happens, where God’s flame burns without destroying. Some 17 babies were born in the Royal Infirmary here last Christmas Day. I met one yesterday, three weeks premature but fine, tiny, with its puckered face, clinging to its mother like a limpet. Extraordinary that God has been like that, and that Mary was the one who held him. In her life Mary mothered that little child, and in the life of the Church, her title ‘Mother of God’ protects the truth about this child and keeps him alive in us.
So, many things: 8th Day, Circumcision, Naming, New Year’s Day, Day of Peace, Feast of the Theotokos. What rich blessings to have upon us! What light for our path!
Babies grow. And Christ grows. The Christ who lived some thirty years on earth, now that he is risen, grows in the world, grows in the heart, in every person that opens the door of faith to him. ‘I am the Vine, you are the branches.’ God the Father ‘has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph 1:22-23). From the Cross he gave the beloved disciple to his mother as her son: ‘Woman, behold you son.’ He stands for every disciple, actual and potential. So, through the pain of the Cross, her motherhood grew to the dimensions of all of us. Its scope became the mystical body of Christ throughout history, Christ in us. And Mary, assumed into heaven, exercises her motherhood by prayer. She prays for each and all of us that the flame of Christ’s truth, life and love may burn in us. She takes care of us in very detailed, real and practical ways.
In Constantinople (Istanbul), in the area called Blachernae, there is a church dedicated to Mary which, in the Middle Ages, counted among its relics the supposed Veil of Mary. This veil became a symbol of Mary’s intercession for the world. When she prays for us, she as it were extends a protecting veil over humanity. Many icons represent this. In the Eastern churches, there is a feast called the Veil of our Lady or the Protection of the Theotokos or the Intercession of the Theotokos. In Russia, the name is Pokrov, meaning both cloak and protection. There are churches dedicated to Mary under this title – the most famous being St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow, officially entitled the Church of the Intercession of our Lady. In 1988, the British Composer John Taverner wrote an evocative piece for cello and strings called the Protecting Veil. And in the West, from the 13th century, we have the picturesque images of the Mother of Mercy wearing a great cloak sheltering all kinds of folk: the Schutzmantelmadonna as the Germans call it. Duccio and Piero della Francesca painted this, among others. In Seville in Spain, there’s a painting The Virgin of the Navigators dating from the 1530s. It shows Mary straddling the two continents of Europe and America, with both Spanish sailors and indigenous American people sheltered under her cloak. That was a difficult history. Perhaps we need now icons of Mary straddling Europe and Africa, Europe and the Middle East…enfolding governments and refugees.
In the Gospel, Mary wrapped her child in swaddling clothes: to protect him from the cold, to ensure his life. Here are we two thousand years later, so many people shivering with fear over the future of their lives, so many hearts without the warmth of love, so many threats weighing on us. Today, though, in the face of another year, we can take courage. We can overcome indifference. We know that God is with us, even in the smallest details of our life. And we know that Mary is always sheltering the world with the veil of her prayer, keeping the life of Christ alive.
‘The shepherds hurried away to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger.’ The shepherds were ordinary folk, like us. They had heard about the Child from the angel, but now they saw him. Our faith too comes from hearing, but it takes us towards sight. May we, may our friends and relatives and colleagues, make the same discovery as the shepherds. May Christmas not just be words to us. May we really find, feel, see, experience, and grow close to Mary, Joseph and the Child in the manger. And may they be with us for the whole of this year.