Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mary the Mother of God: 2015

“Mary treasured all these things in her heart”

There are few feasts in the liturgical year which have had more names than the 1st of January. From the 7th Century or so this day was simply called the Octave of Christmas, the eighth day when the child was circumcised and given the name ‘Jesus’. In the 13th or 14th Century, when there was a new interest in the humanity of the divine Son, January 1st was renamed the Circumcision of the Lord, which was the tradition followed in the Prater Book. In 1960 Pope John XXIII reverted to the title ‘Octave of Christmas’. The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer followed a late medieval practice by calling this day “The Holy Name of Jesus’, although that was in fact traditionally celebrated on the second Sunday after Christmas.  But the oldest name for this day and at the same time the most recent is “Mary the Mother of God’, restored to the Calendar of the Western Church in 1969.

We might imagine that this title ‘Mother of God’ is just another example of Marian devotion run amok: paying more attention to Mary than Jesus. But the truth is the 3rd Ecumenical Council not only allowed this title but insisted upon it because it clarifies who Jesus is.  First of all it proclaims the full humanity of Christ: that Mary is truly the mother of Jesus Christ. She gave him everything that every mother gives to every child. She is truly a mother and Jesus is truly her human child. The second point is the assertion of the divinity of Christ:  that because the Second Person of the Trinity took on our human nature at the moment of his conception, we can say that Mary is also truly the mother of God. She is “God-bearer”, the Theotokos, not according to the divine nature of Christ, but because of the unity of the divine-human man Jesus Christ, to whom she very definitely gave birth.

But all that may seem hopelessly dry and abstract. We do not get the theology  unless we follow Mary’s example, who ‘treasured these things in her heart’. That is, it is by prayer that we come to understand the dogma. The ancient rule is “what we believe is determined by what we pray.”  Long before the Council of Ephesus defined the theology, there was a Latin prayer, the Sub tuum, once thought to be a medieval composition, which contained the all important phrase Mother of God, Theotokos. “WE fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen”.  A papyrus found in Egypt around 1917 shows that the prayer is indeed a very ancient one, as is the title Theotokos, Mother of God, Dei Genitrix. The papyrus has been dated to c. 250, about 200 years before the great Council of Ephesus which officially required the title to be used the whole Church.

More familiar of course is the prayer “Hail Mary’. In the first part of the prayer the humanity of Christ is stressed; “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” In the second part, the divinity of the Christ, and the prayer of Mary is stressed; “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death...” The unity of the whole prayer could be said to represent the unity of the person of Christ himself; Jesus Christ, true God and true man. We need never worry that any authentic devotion we give to Mary in any way detracts from the unique saving power and dignity of Christ for, to paraphrase St Bernard of Clairvaux, to honor the Son is to the honor the Mother, and vice-versa.

Very likely the reason that Our Lady originally came to be associated with the octave of Christmas has to do with a simple courtesy: in the Middle East it was the custom not to visit a new mother and child until after eight days. Perhaps it is a custom we ought to imitate. In any case the mystery of the Incarnation means that all our hope is bound up with the life of this Holy Family, with the love which must be part of every family, the respect accorded to every member of a family, with what the Mother of God ‘treasured in her heart.”

With considerable help and inspiration of Fr Neil Ferguson OP. What would  I do without the Domini Cannes.

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