Monday, January 9, 2012

12-01-01: Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

Mary, Mother of God

Numbers 6:22-27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4-7 / Luke 2:16-21

One of the lines in the revised translation of the Mass is heard in Eucharistic Prayer II when the priest prays for the dead: “Welcome them,” he asks the Lord, “into the light of your face.” I’m guessing that whoever wrote that line was thinking of today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers citing what is known as the priestly blessing. “The Lord let his face shine upon you…the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

About thirty years ago an archeological discovery was made in the environs of Jerusalem when a silver amulet was unearthed containing these words of blessing. The amulet dates back to the eighth century BC, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by more than half a millennium. Perhaps this is where St. Thomas received his inspiration to describe heaven, eternal joy, as the Beatific Vision – looking upon the face of God.

For the ancient believer in the one true God, there was surely an awareness that the author of the priestly blessing is speaking in metaphor: God, being God, does not have a face. Yet the whole import of Christmas, the Incarnation, is to attest that in Christ the divine has become human: God has taken a face. And, of course, not only a face but an entire human body with all its limitations and sensations. At the risk of sounding crude, Christmas is all about bodies and body parts.

The short gospel we read on this feast of Mary’s motherhood mentions a number of body parts. The shepherds saw the infant with their eyes and then used their voices to proclaim his praise. Mary, we are told, kept all these things in her heart. Before he was conceived in Mary’s womb, the child is named Jesus. And the child undergoes ritual circumcision; his foreskin becoming the source of numerous legends of miracles throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, not too long ago we used to celebrate this day as the Feast of the Circumcision, reminded that in such a ritual, blood inevitably flows from the wound.

One of the greatest threats to true Christianity came, and continues to come, from those who profess some sort of Gnosticism in which the human body and the material world is considered superfluous or downright evil. In the famed Gnostic gospels (the Gospel of Thomas, I think) we read that Christ did not blink and never left footprints when he walked: evidence that this insipid heresy abhors the human body and all its functions. Death is seen as the spirit’s release – finally cleansed from the dirtiness of human existence to soar pure and unhindered. Christmas offends this type of thinking: Jesus is born in a stable surrounded by smelly animals and shepherds (who probably smelled worse). He’s laid in a manger – the trough from which the animals ate. Far from an unshackled existence, Christ binds himself forever to our human existence with all its limitation and difficulty.

We’re often reminded, this time of year, that it’s good to have the Christmas “spirit,” meaning that it’s good to cultivate the practice of lending a helping hand to those in trouble, making sacrifices big and small for those we love and, especially, for those we don’t. In these ways that Christmas “spirit” becomes embodied through our words and actions. That embodiment of spirit is the key, the calculus if you will, to understand the mystery that has taken place at Christmas: not that we are spirits with a body but that we are embodied spirits - temples of divinity. In Christmas the temple of this human body has been sanctified in all its parts. Everything Christ assumed, the Church Fathers would write, has been redeemed – all is good, all is holy, all is grace.

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