Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21
We know what we mean when we say “the Mother of God.” Taken literally, those words would suggest someone who brought God into existence before time began. Certainly today’s Gospel tells a very different story, not before time but (so typical of St. Luke’s Gospel) in a very specific time. A young woman bears her first child in an unlikely shelter; shepherds come to honor the newborn, a strange happening, unexpected by the young mother and pre-occupying her thoughts.
Theological debate surrounded the title, “Mother of God”, a controversial title in the early Church but one with a valid claim. Something marvelous had happened and was recognized by believers: the God of the Hebrews, who intervened in their history, the sublime deity posited by the best philosophers of the nations, had entered human existence and experience as only a human being can: by being born of a woman. Today’s readings remind me that to be born human is more than beginning a biological existence. It means being born into a family–and so the Gospel mentions Joseph and Mary. It means being preceded by expectations, and so the shepherds arrive looking for the sign announced to them: a babe lying in a manger. It means being nurtured and being received into a context, into history: when the fullness of time had come…born of a woman, born under the law, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. It means coming to life spiritually. Each of us needs someone to make God real for us; it can be our religious tradition–for example, the wonderful blessing from the Book of Numbers, pronounced by Kohens and Levites in Jesus’ world and still evoked every Sabbath in synagogues around the world today. For many of us, it was our mothers who taught us to pray, who identified the living God somehow at work in our lives. All these people brought God to birth in our consciousness and are, metaphorically, “mother of God” to us.
But in a wonderfully concrete, in an historical and specific way, Mary is Mother of God because she is the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, an actual man of history. She made a home for him as part of her family and Joseph’s; she nurtured and taught him. With Joseph, she initiated him into his ancestral faith and culture, transmitted their hopes and aspirations and sheltered him from the dangers of his day. She later relinquished him to her husband who taught him the family trade. She is a real mother, even as Mother of God, with all the joy and disappointments, the hopes and ambiguity and open-endedness of being human. Because human being is open-ended being, as open to one another as to the transcendant, as incomplete without openess to one or the other, to be both human and God, as Jesus is, is anything but inconceivable. This incarnation is not invasive to being human but the fulfillment of being human: first in intention, last in execution, as John Duns Scotus taught.
Significantly, Mary claims no privilege, no insider’s knowledge: Mary kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart, because she was struggling to understand. God is the chief player here but the forum is genuine human experience, not God masquerading as a man. Both Jesus and Mary enjoy no short cuts, going the way we all go in our life with God, trusting through uncertainty, hoping through tragedy. Consistently, as St. Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, Mary is there with the Apostles in the uncertainty of those days between the Ascension and Pentecost, during the birth-pangs of the Church. As such, might she not model for us how to become, in Jesus’ words, his brother and sister and mother?