Sunday, 1 January 2017

Mary Mother of God - 1 January

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 66; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Among many strange phrases in the new English translation of the Mass is one we hear very often because it is found in the second Eucharistic Prayer. In praying for the dead we now say ‘welcome them into the light of your face’. It is not a familiar way of speaking and yet it has deep roots in Biblical patterns of thought and speech.

We see it, for example, in the famous blessing from the Book of Numbers which is read today, the first day of the new year. We find it also in today’s psalm. Grace or blessing are often spoken of in this way in the Bible: God (or another human being) turns his face towards a person, looks at them, notices them, keeps them in sight and therefore in mind and in heart. ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you’. In other words ‘may he let his face shine on you and be gracious to you’. The prayer is that God will keep the people in mind, attend to them, watch over them.

One of the Hebrew terms for grace, chen, originates in this ordinary experience of being noticed by another, being seen or, as it is often translated, finding favour in the sight of another person. The great blessing of Numbers 6 concludes: ‘May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace’. Psalm 66 prays that God will be gracious and bless us, that he will let his face shed its light upon us. It is from within this biblical tradition that the prayer we now use at Mass comes: may the dead be welcomed into the light of God’s face: may they be remembered by God, may they be greatly blessed by Him.

The greatest blessing is to see the face of God. We call it the beatific vision, the experience in which the perfection of human fulfilment and happiness is to be found. It is misleading to think simply in terms of physical sight, of course: it is more about knowledge and understanding, being present together sharing God’s life in a communion of love. We know from the First Letter of St John, also read during these days of Christmastide, that to see God means to become like him ‘because we shall see him as he really is’.  From being seen by God (and so brought into existence, to life, to the life of grace) we are brought to see God, to turn our faces towards him, and in this our deepest happiness consists. Lovers rejoice to look at each other, to admire each other, to feast their eyes on each other. They look out for each other, keep each other in sight and so in mind and in heart. And often too they become like each other, taking on the mannerisms, interests and concerns that they see in the one they have come to love.

This way of thinking is present also in the angel’s conversation with Mary at the annunciation. ‘You have found favour with God’, he tells her. God has turned his face towards Mary. He has remembered her and noticed her. The light of God’s face is shining upon her as the angel delivers his message and she responds with faith, trust and love. Across this mutual gaze, of God seeing Mary in the angel’s message and Mary seeing God in her response,  flow the grace and blessing that belong to her as the Mother of God and the First Disciple. That mutual gaze establishes the particular graces that belong to Mary as an individual daughter of God with her particular role in the history of God’s relationship with the people. Because what happens through Mary is unique and unrepeatable. It brings time to its fulfilment and in the same moment initiates the new time. Mary is Virgin as well as Mother and in this paradox we find also the paradox of the beginning and the end of time.

Paul, writing to the Galatians, describes this moment of Mary’s motherhood as the fullness of time, when the Son was born of a woman, born a subject of the law. She is fully pregnant with the Word, ready to deliver. Her time to give birth has come and so too God’s time has come, the time appointed for sending Jesus, the one who was to save the people from their sins. His conception and birth means the end of expectancy, the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, a new and eternal covenant.

It is also the time of Mary’s virginity which means the time of a new creation when God acts within the world without doing violence to it, without intruding upon it or interfering with it. Grace does not destroy nature but brings it to its perfection. God’s gaze does not destroy Mary but brings her to perfection, a supernatural perfection, as the first disciple in the Kingdom that is coming. So it is virginal time, springtime, fresh and free and full of new life. It carries the promise of new birth for all and an adoption as children of the Father. No longer slaves but sons and daughters. No longer debtors but heirs. No longer controlled by fear but alive by the Spirit of the Son who enables us to cry ‘Abba, Father’.

Mary treasured in her heart all that was being said about her son and she pondered over what was being revealed about him. We continue to do that during this season of Christmas as we gaze upon the infant in the crib, and gaze upon the Virgin Mother who brought him to birth. It is a fulfilment, yes, a birth so long desired, a healing so long awaited, a light so long watched for. But it is also a new beginning, completely fresh and unexpected, a gift from the God of surprises.

We begin the new year, then, in the company of Mary, basking in the light of God’s face as it shone on her, meditating on the mystery of her place in our life of faith, in our spirituality. We begin the new year with her, praying that during the weeks and months ahead we may enter more fully, less hesitantly, into the light flowing from her Son, a light that is not only new knowledge and understanding but new life and a new love. During this coming year may we all be welcomed into the light of God’s face, whether we are alive or dead when he uncovers his face to us, is gracious to us and brings us peace.

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