On January 1, the Octave Day of Christmas, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
It’s fitting to honor Mary’s motherhood of Jesus soon after celebrating the birth of Christ. Mary’s title “Mother of God” was adopted at the First Council of Ephesus and is a western derivation from the Greek Theotokos, “the God-bearer.” This title for Mary was given not so much to say something about Mary as to say something about Jesus: Jesus is one person, divine and human, and Mary is the mother of that one person. These are the aspects of our faith we celebrate today.
Liturgically, the Octave of Christmas also celebrates the beginning of a new year and is also a day designated for prayers for global peace.
1st Reading – Numbers 6:22-27
The LORD said to Moses:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them.”
The book of Numbers gets its name from the fact that it begins and ends with a census. The setting for the book is the desert during the exodus experience from the time that the Israelites left Mount Sinai until the time when they reached the Jordan River.
Today’s passage is one of the earliest blessing formulas that the Bible has conserved for us. It is referred to in the psalms (e.g., Psalm 31:16, 67:1) and it was used by priests in the temple liturgy. Even today, this text is one of the optional blessings a priest can use at the end of Mass. It is also one of the oldest pieces of poetry in the Bible.
The blessing consists of three petitions: for protection, for grace, and for peace.
The LORD said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them: This is how you shall bless the Israelites. Say to them:
Note the mediatorial roles: one played by Moses and another played by Aaron and the priests. The priests give the blessing to the people, but it’s Moses who receives the blessing from God and delivers it to Aaron and his sons.
This gives the blessing Mosaic legitimation and divine authority. To make it clear that the blessing is from God himself, God puts the exact words in their mouths.
The LORD bless you and keep you!
Each blessing is brief and direct, invoking a personal action from God. The first is a general blessing of good fortune and protection from harm.
YHWH, the personal name of God, is repeated three times in the blessing. This is unusual in light of the ancient Jewish tradition that forbids using the personal name of God. It’s possible, however, that God has given them leave to use his name in this particular blessing, especially considering that they are God’s exact words — so that God himself is using his personal name, not the priests.
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
An invocation of God’s presence and favor. If the Lord’s face is shining upon you, that means the Lord is with you. Our gospel reading will describe the fulfillment of this blessing: the infant Jesus lying in the manger is God’s true presence and favor.
“Let his face shine upon you” is a Hebrew idiom for “smile,” providing a vivid depiction of God looking favorably upon his worshipers like the sun shining upon the earth.
In contrast, when one feels the absence of the Lord, the Lord is said to be hiding his face, as in Psalm 44:
Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rise up! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face;
why forget our pain and misery?
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!
The climax of the blessing is the peace that comes only with God’s gracious presence.
The phrase “look upon you kindly” seems to allude to the gaze of a father upon his child, or of someone looking upon a friend. The indication is that God blesses us with special favor and acceptance.
Each of the three lines of the petition are actually quite similar; they all ask for blessings that make life worth living, with peace as the foundation.
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
The reading closes with a final word from God, a kind of ratification and confirmation.
The Hebrew would actually be better interpreted as “put my name upon the Israelites,” which evokes the image of inscribing one’s name on property in order to certify ownership.
The Israelites belong to God and as such, he will bless them generously.
2nd Reading – Galatians 4:4-7
Brothers and sisters:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
to ransom those under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as sons.
As proof that you are sons,
God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying out, “Abba, Father!”
So you are no longer a slave but a son,
and if a son then also an heir, through God.
In our second reading, Paul demonstrates the great advantages believers have with the gospel, above what they had under the law. He is arguing against a false teaching introduced by others after Paul had left them: that in addition to having faith in Jesus Christ, one must obey Mosaic Law to be saved.
Brothers and sisters: When the fullness of time had come,
The “fullness of time” is a time set by the Father (see Galatians 4:2); it’s the point in history when God’s saving intervention took place in the person of Jesus Christ.
God sent his Son, born of a woman,
The word for send (apostéllō) carries the idea of authorization, as in the case of an official agent or envoy. The primary stress is more on the commission than on the sending itself. Paul is referring, then, to the mission entrusted to Christ by God.
Referring to Christ as God’s son refers to his divine nature; here Paul simultaneously acknowledges that he was born of a woman, establishing his human nature. In one short phrase, Paul encapsulates an essential part of today’s feast.
born under the law,
“Born of a woman” is Christ’s incarnation, “born under the law” is his subjection.
Jesus was born under the law, not only as one obligated to fulfill it but also as one identified with sinners who are under the curse of the law. He took on our curse in order to free us from it, through his death (see Galatians 3:10-14).
to ransom those under the law,
The concept of ransom (or in other translations, “redemption”) comes from the institution of slavery. In both the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, one could purchase freedom for a slave by paying a redemption price to his owners. The price of our redemption was paid with the blood of Christ (see 1 Peter 1:17-19).
Jesus, who was truly God, became human for our sake. He consented to a state of subjection and took the form of a servant, with the purpose of saving us from the intolerable burden of the law. This includes not only Jewish law but also moral law, against which all humans sin.
so that we might receive adoption.
The goal of Christ’s mission was to transform us from being slaves under the law to being adopted children of God.
As proof that you are children, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”
Servitude under the law is contrasted with freedom in Christ. The fact that believers are filled with the spirit of Christ and dare to call God by the intimate term abba (which translates from Aramaic to the equivalent of “daddy”) is evidence of their status as his adopted children.
So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.
Paul is creating an analogy using a social custom of his day. If an heir was too young to claim an inheritance, a legal guardian was appointed until the heir became of age. Here, Paul is depicting believers as underage minors who, until the “fullness of time” could not claim what might be rightfully theirs – and so the law was given as their legal guardian.
Paul is not as negative toward the law here as he is elsewhere (see Romans 7:7-24). The law was a necessary guardian that carefully watched over the children until they were mature enough to take care of themselves. It was binding and restrictive in order to teach and instruct. Though it is inferior to the spirit of Christ, it is faithful and trustworthy. However, once the spirit takes hold of the believer, dependence on the law ends and freedom in the Spirit – the rightful inheritance of the children of God – begins.
Therefore, Paul assures the Galatians that they are no longer slaves to the law, but are adopted children and heirs of God.
Using the same metaphor, we are also children of the woman who gave birth to Jesus. The church honors Mary not only as the preeminent disciple, the one after whom we model ourselves, and as the mother of God, but as our own mother.
Gospel – Luke 2:16-21
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.
Today’s gospel reading is essentially the same as that of the Christmas Mass at Dawn. However, this passage includes the circumcision and naming of Jesus, shifting the focus away from the shepherds to the child and his parents, especially Mary.
The shepherds went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
Shepherds were considered irreligious by the self-righteous in their community because their occupation prevented them from participating in regular ritual observances. Their focus was on supervising and protecting their flocks.
The fact that they would leave their flocks in the hills in search of a newborn baby was extraordinary. If anything happened to the sheep in their absence, they would suffer a considerable financial setback – a very risky gesture on the part of the shepherds, who were likely poor.
However, they were responding to heavenly revelation, as described by Luke immediately before our reading begins:
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-14)
This revelation wasn’t bestowed on the privileged leaders of Israel but on poor, dirty shepherds.
Note that “they went in haste.” They are full of joy and eager to see the Savior — in fact, they are the first to respond to a divine invitation to seek out this child.
and the infant lying in the manger.
This was the sign the angel had given them, that they would find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, which was surely a unique sight. After all, who puts a baby in a feeding trough?
One would expect the infant Messiah to be draped with royal robes, lying in the warmth and security of a palace, with a long line of attendants and visitors.
When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.
When the shepherds saw the Holy Family in the exact state the angel had predicted, they were convinced that everything the angel had told them was true: the long-awaited Messiah had arrived.
It’s reasonable to guess that the shepherds not only told Joseph and Mary about the message from the angel, but also about the entire vision of the host of angels and their song of praise. This would have been a great encouragement to them.
It is also likely that Joseph and Mary told the shepherds about the visions and experiences they’d had concerning the child. Such an exchange would have greatly strengthened the faith of both parties.
All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.
They proclaimed this news to everyone they met. This was another risky move on the part of the shepherds – not only had they abandoned their flocks, they were now making truly incredible claims.
Note that the text doesn’t state that the hearers were convinced; it states that they were astonished. Evangelization does not itself guarantee success.
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
Mary has already experienced the wondrous power of God, having conceived and birthed a child without having relations with man. She made clear in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that she is a believer. Now she stands silently before the mystery of what God has done, treasuring these events in her heart with respectful contemplation.
Commentators since ancient times have concluded that this line is also Luke’s way of citing the Blessed Virgin as his firsthand source. This makes sense given that Luke was a scrupulous historian and Mary was the only person who could have given an eyewitness account of the unusual events surrounding Christ’s birth.
Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.
If the shepherds received any negative reaction to their message, they have not been dissuaded. Encountering the infant Messiah has been a profound religious experience. They resume their lives, but they would never be the same.
These humble, probably uneducated, people had been transformed into believers, and their ultimate response was praise.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
Circumcision was a sacred ritual that initiated Israelite males into the community as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14). As observant Jews, Mary and Joseph fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law.
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the angel announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of the long-awaited messiah, he also told her that the child would be named Jesus (Luke 1:31). Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means “savior” or “the Lord saves.”
At this point, nearly everything the angel had announced has come to pass. Mary will wait and see how Jesus will acquire the throne of David and rule the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:31).
Connections and Themes
Mary. As previously mentioned, today’s gospel reading is essentially the same as that of the Christmas Mass at Dawn. Within the context of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, we focus on Mary, who is described as holding all these wondrous events in her heart, pondering their significance. In doing so, she inspires us to also contemplate and reflect on what has transpired within this Christmas season. Constant reflection on the truths of our faith, rather than mindlessly going through the motions, makes those truths real in our life experiences.
By naming the child as instructed and having him circumcised as prescribed by law, Mary also inspires us to fidelity to the practice of our faith. Obedience to our faith disciplines the soul, which leads to a clearer focus on God and his presence in our lives.
Blessings and prayers for peace in the New Year. The ancient prayer for shālôm, the Hebrew word for peace, is quite appropriate on the first day of the new year. When God blesses us with peace, hearts are stilled and souls are at rest.
Our first reading is woven throughout with blessings of peace in various forms. The second reading shows that peace is our inheritance in Christ – as adopted children of God, we have been given the freedom to tenderly identify God as Abba, our father. In the gospel, Mary has peace in her heart as she contemplates all that has happened to her and the Holy Family. They are essentially homeless, and she has just given birth in a stable, but she has quiet confidence in her knowledge that God is at work.
The beginning of a new year is a good time to reach out and share God’s peace with others, as well as to pray for God’s blessing of shālôm for all the earth. If we resolve to live lives with our identity as children of God, we will be granted the freedom of heart that shows itself in works of peace and justice.