Mary the Mother of God

Readings: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/010117.cfm

Mary has a lot of feast days: The Immaculate Conception, The Assumption, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, and many, many others. So what makes today’s solemnity, “Mary, the Mother of God” special?

Well, first, it commemorates a very specific event in the history of the Church. In the church of the early 5th century, there was a heated dispute about whether Mary should be referred to as “mother of God” or only “mother of Christ”. This seems like a minor dispute, but everything we believe about Jesus hung in the balance. What was at stake was what it means to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man. To say that Mary was the mother of God is the say that God, who existed from before time, was born. But to say that Mary was not the mother of God, but only the mother of Christ, was to suggest that somehow the divine and human natures could be separated in Jesus. This was a very hard problem, and one that hit directly to the heart of the Christian faith. The Church resolved this question with the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, by saying that Mary could be referred to as “Mother of God” because the divine and human natures are so perfectly united in Jesus that anything we say about Jesus we can say about God. So just as we can say that God died on the Cross (another seemingly impossibility), we can also say that Mary gave birth to God, and today’s solemnity celebrates that import moment in the life of the Church.

The second importance of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God is that it anchors all of our other devotions to Mary. Mary, just like all of the saints, is only special, only honorable, because of her relationship to Christ. Before Mary was called the Immaculate Conception, or was reverenced in the Rosary, or appeared to Juan Diego, she was the mother of God, and only because she is the mother of God can we celebrate her in all these other forms. Mother of God is her first and most important title.

Now, what benefit do we gain from celebrating the Mother of God? Really, why do we celebrate any saints, especially when they seem to distract us from the true focus of all worship, Jesus Christ? It is because the opposite is true: the saints do not distract us from Christ, but they give us powerful examples of what a deep and abiding relationship with Christ should look like. We look, for example, to the martyrs for examples of heroic Christian courage, to St. Francis of Assisi for an example of heroic Christian poverty, to St. John Vianney for an example of heroic Christian priesthood, and to Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin for an example of heroic Christian marriage. So why do we look to Mary? What example does she give us?

Today Mary gives us an example of perfect Christian prayer. The beautiful phrase from the Gospel is “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Let’s try to unpack this.

What first happens to Mary are miraculous events: an angel appears to her, she conceives as a virgin, and now shepherds are showing up telling her that angels had sent them to come to this manger and worship a savior. That’s a lot to take in for anyone, let alone a teenage girl. But how does she respond? The Greek word is “συντερεο (suntereo)”, which we have here as “kept all these things,” but other translations will use “treasured” or “preserved”. It basically means to gather up to prevent from being lost. And this is what Mary does with all of these things that God has done in her life: she preserves them and keeps them close; she does not forget them, but keeps them present. And the next verb is “συμβαλλω (sumballo),” which we have as “reflecting on them,” but other translations will use “ponder.” The literal meaning of the Greek is “to throw together,” so Mary is shown throwing all these things together in her heart, that is, mixing them up, exploring their meaning, their relationship, what they could be telling her. So first Mary “gathers up” and then she “throws together,” first she “preserves” and then she “ponders.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is exactly the pattern we are called to follow in our own lives; this is exactly what Christian prayer looks like.

See, even if we do not have crazy miracles happen to us like Mary, each of us has had an experience of God, otherwise we would not be here. Maybe it was a moment of intense joy or intense pain, maybe it was an overwhelming sense of thanksgiving, or an experience of our own limits, but each of us has, at some point, felt the presence of God. And even beyond these obvious inbreakings, we cannot forget that not a second goes by when God is not standing right next to us, nothing ever happens to us without God supporting us through it all.

What Mary’s example encourages us to do is to be aware of those times, those moments when we observe God’s presence and his action in the world. Collect those moments, good and bad. Preserve them like a treasure. Try not to forget them, but call them to mind regularly, so that you can remember that God does work in the world. And then throw all of these observations together in your heart. Try to remember that moment when you first remember God acting in your life, and ask yourself how that moment relates to whatever you are going through now. Is it still God? Do you experience him in the same way? Has God given you a moment of comfort to get you through a moment of difficulty?

In seminary, we call this process “See, Judge, Act”. First, observe what God has done. Try to remember the details, how it came about, how you reacted. This is the “gathering up”. Then reflect on it, judge it, determine how that experience of God relates to the rest of your life. This is the “throwing together”. Finally, act. Ask God what he wants you to go about all these things, how he wants you to move forward.

If I can leave you with a recommendation, try to do a little bit of this at the end of each day. Ask yourself where you have seen God in that day. Ponder it for a while. And then ask him what he wants you to do tomorrow. This is the example of Mary, who is the example of perfect prayer.

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