Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
January 01, 2023 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Numbers 6:22-27 | Psalm 67:2-3;5-6;8
Galatians 4:4-7 | Luke 2:16-21
+In the name of the Father, and of Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Several weeks ago, one of our valued choristers, Laura Bloom Farber, asked me why God chose Mary, in particular, to be the mother of Jesus, whom some scholars also know by his Hebrew name, Yeshua. Laura asked me a very good question at an opportune time because this year, January first, the Feast of the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, falls on a Sunday. This will not happen again until the year twenty-thirty-three, by my calculations.
The Catholic theology of the saints looks at sainthood in two ways: the examples they set for us in the way they lived, and their ongoing perpetual intercession for us. Mary fulfills both of these attributes, but what distinguishes her from all other saints is that she is the Mother of Jesus. The technical theological term for that is that Mary is the Theotokos, the Greek word for “god-bearer, ” so she deserves special honor.
But before I continue further, I want to make one thing VERY clear: Catholics DO NOT worship Mary, despite the insistence of Protestants to the contrary. And we do not pray TO Mary. Rather, we ask Mary to join us in prayer, and to pray FOR us, much as we would ask other people to do in relation to us. Even though Mary is now in heaven, she can and does join us in prayer because we, as Christians, do not accept death as the end of life.
Incidentally, Christianity is not the only religion that honors Mary. Mary appears in the Islamic holy book called the Quran. Except there, she’s called Maryam. In fact, the Quran mentions her more times than the New Testament does, and calls her “the greatest woman who ever lived.” The Quran got it right on that.
The reason everyone should honor Mary is quite straightforward: we would not have Jesus without Mary. That is a bare biological fact. As today’s second reading tells us, Jesus was “born of a woman.” However, Mary’s significance for all Christians is not limited to just birthing Jesus, but to the nature of what Jesus is: fully and truly God and fully and truly human, as defined by the church Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. From Mary, Jesus received the flesh and blood that constitute human existence. Jesus would not be what Jesus is without being born of a woman, and that woman is Mary.
So, who was Mary? The New Testament gives us very little information. In the first chapters of both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, Mary is identified as the prospective spouse of Joseph, who is of the House of David, meaning that King David was Joseph’s lineal ancestor, and, indeed, the lineal ancestors of Joseph are traced back to King David in the genealogies of Jesus found in the Gospels of both Mathew and Luke. But Christians know that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. As the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, a sort of divine parthenogenesis. So we are still left with the question of why God chose Mary, a particular teenage Jewish girl, to be the Mother of Jesus.
Scholars have proposed two prevailing theories as to exactly why God chose Mary. The first is a genealogical one. Both Mary, as we shall learn, and Joseph were descendants of King David. The Jewish community expected a Messiah to be a descendant of King David. The second reason is how Mary lived her life as described in the Gospels and in the tradition of the Church.
But to fully answer Laura’s question as to why God chose Mary, we have to look beyond the Old and New Testaments, much to the chagrin of the Protestant sola scriptura crowd and consult the New Testament Apocrypha, in particular, the Protovangelium of James, which, in my personal opinion, really should have been included in the New Testament. Why? A major part of the tradition of the Church relating to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is derived from it.
Not surprisingly, the Protovangelium tells us that Mary was an extraordinary child from day one, starting with her conception. The story of Mary’s birth mirrors that of other extraordinary women of the Bible. Mary was born to a barren couple who had given hope of ever having a natural child. You may recall the stories from Genesis about Abraham and Sarah, the parents of Isaac. In the First Book of Samuel, we have the tale of Hannah and Elkanah, parents of Samuel, the prophet. And in the New Testament, Elizabeth and Zechariah in their old age birthed John the Baptist.
Barren women who miraculously and unexpectedly get pregnant and give birth are of special significance in the Jewish scriptures. The women became pregnant through divine intervention. The children they birthed were dedicated to God. This was true for Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist.
Recall in the Book of Genesis, God told Abraham he would father a great nation through Isaac with numerous descendants.
Recall Hannah in First Samuel dedicating Samuel to God and God’s calling of Samuel to be a prophet.
Recall the Song of Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke, when Zechariah said of John the Baptist, “You shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare his way.”
Mary’s birth and childhood fit this narrative. Her mother was named Anna, and her father was Joachim. The Protovangelium tells us that Joachim was a wealthy man who enjoyed everything life in the ancient world had to offer but was unhappy because he had no children. He was so upset that he went into the Desert all by himself and fasted forty days and forty nights. Anna was similarly upset. She retired to her garden and prayed. And wouldn’t you know it, an angel appeared to her and told her she would give birth to a child. And, like other similar narratives, Anna promised that the child would be dedicated to God.
And so Mary was born. When she was six months old, Anna stood Mary up on her feet to see if she could walk. She walked seven steps. Anna took her to the Temple to be received and blessed by the Temple priests. Joachim celebrated the occasion with a party to which he invited many prominent people. When Mary was three, her parents brought her to the Temple, where she danced with joy before God and received food from the hand of an angel. There was no doubt Mary was a special child.
The Protovangelium details how Mary became betrothed to Joseph, who was an older widower with children by his widow. And then we also learn in the Protovangelium that Mary, like Joseph, was a lineal descendant of King David.
So why is that significant? In the Annunciation scene in the Gospel of Luke, we read that Jesus will be great, the Son of the Most High God and that God will place him on the throne of David. This fits with the expectations of the Jewish community in the days of Jesus, which expected a warrior monarch descended from King David who would reconstitute a large army and drive the Roman Empire out of Palestine.
This is what was widely expected of Jesus, but that is not how he turned out. He did not fit the prevailing narrative for his expected role. Having just been through the Christmas narrative, we know that Jesus was born in very humble circumstances.
Throughout his life, Jesus lived in abject poverty. He stayed in the homes of whoever would welcome Him and sometimes outside. He spent his last night before his crucifixion outside in a garden. Jesus was homeless. As you may recall, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke quote Jesus as saying, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
With the then-prevailing prophecies about Jesus at least partially unfilled, we are left with the idea that God chose Mary to be the Mother of Jesus for reasons other than her genealogy. How about the idea that God chose Mary because she was a humble and willing servant? Mary’s response to the angel’s message telling her that she would be the Mother of Jesus says it all: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary unequivocally said “Yes” to God, not out of obedience compelled by a person or by law, but of her own free will. That is the kind of obedience God wants from us, obedience driven by our love for God, not by fear of punishment, either in this life or in the hereafter.
In addition to calling Mary the Theotokos, or God-bearer, the Church also describes her as the New Eve. Adam’s wife, Eve, said no to God in the garden of Eden when she disobeyed God, and through this disobedience, death entered the world. But when Mary said, “Yes,” the human race’s Savior entered the world and defeated death through the power of his resurrection.
Mary is the Mother of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ, comprised of his adopted brothers and sisters. Recall the words of Jesus on the cross in the Gospel of John: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.” Thus, Mary is our Mother and the biological Mother of Jesus.
The Church sees Mary as its model of Christian discipleship. Evangelism is a major part of discipleship. Mary was the first disciple of Jesus, the first to assist him with his ministry as an evangelist. You will recall that the party ran out of wine at the Cana Wedding Feast. She told Jesus about it, and then told the stewards of the feast to do what Jesus commanded. Isn’t that what evangelists tell people to do what Jesus commanded? There is no valid reason not to ordain women.
When we are baptized, we are anointed by the Holy Spirit as priests, prophets, and kings or queens, depending on our biological gender. Mary was all three. She was a priest, prophet, and queen. Let’s take this one by one.
The priesthood has many attributes, but the most important is to be a gateway to God for others. All of the first Apostles carried on priestly ministry. Mary was numbered among the Apostles, as shown by her presence in the Upper Room awaiting the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost. There is no reason for the church not to ordain women as priests.
But Mary was, apart from the Twelve indeed, an Apostle in her own right. Mary showed herself to be the first Apostle to carry out a priestly ministry. By making the existence of Jesus possible by giving birth to Jesus, Mary opened a gateway to God for humanity.
Another thing priests do is make sacrificial offerings. In saying “Yes” to God, Mary sacrificed her own personal ambitions in favor of willing servanthood, just as priests today devote themselves to God instead of to succeed in the secular world. By carrying Jesus in her womb for nine months and then delivering Jesus to the world, she was akin to a priest who celebrates the Eucharist and carries the Body of Jesus to those who receive it. There is no reason not to ordain women.
Mary was a prophet. Have you ever noticed that Mary is never shown in a domestic setting like so many other women in scripture? She appears talking to an angel, giving birth in a stable, fleeing to Egypt, witnessing in the Temple, at a wedding in Cana, at the foot of the cross, and outside the tomb. This detail points to Mary’s unique identity in scripture and how we ought to view her today. Prophets are never shown in their own homes. Homes are places they leave to bear God’s word to places where they are sent.
You will recall that when Mary journeyed to visit Elizabeth, Mary sang her song, commonly called the Magnificat, which you will find in the first chapter of Luke. It was a prophetic preview of what Jesus would later teach. Two verses stand out: “He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” Mary acclaims that there is a tearing down, a reversal: God will see to it that the proud, mighty give way to the pleas and cries of the poor whose needs will be satisfied.
Just as through Mary’s consent, the human race opened itself to receive God incarnate, so too, through the model of Mary, the poor receive the plentitude of divine goods into their lives and existence. Mary clarifies that going forward, God will favor the poor and lowly over the rich and powerful, a message that continues in the Church of today in Catholic Social Teaching.
The Magnificat is a message of the fulfillment of all that God has promised to God’s people: the world now has a savior; eternal life can be ours. It is a message of confident hope that all our vital needs will be filled and our cries will be answered as – the kingdom of God is now before us. It is a message of faith for those who receive the word of God and practice it.
The Magnificat is a message of identity for those who are lowly, for those who, in their oppression, must humbly place their confidence and trust in God, their Savior. As a message of hope, the Magnificat focuses upon those who receive God’s word and cast themselves upon the might of His arm to deliver them.
And in the Catholic tradition, Mary is the undisputed Queen of Heaven in her role as the Mother of Jesus. Mary is called Queen of Heaven because her son, Jesus, is the heavenly king of the universe; indeed, since the days of King David, the people of Israel recognized the king’s mother as the queen mother of Israel. Almost every time a new king is introduced in the Old Testament books of First and Second Kings, the king’s mother is mentioned. She was a royal court member, wore a crown, sat on a throne, and shared in the king’s reign. Those queen mothers acted as advocates for the people that the king ruled and as an advisor to the king. Hence, it’s logical for Christians to ask Mary to pray to Jesus on our behalf.
In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic portrait of a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet who gives birth to a child. She wears a crown of twelve stars, by tradition symbolizing either the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve Apostles, symbolizing her queenship of the new heaven and the new earth inaugurating the new Kingdom of heaven proclaimed by Jesus.
Over the centuries, there have been many interpretations of this biblical passage. While some scholars are of the opinion that the woman is the symbol of Mary, others say that the woman represents the Church. However, the Church considers Church and Mary as one. Simply put, Mary is the model for the church in its faithful relationship to Jesus.
Mary served as a most excellent and ideal model of that faithfulness. The first of the two Great Commandments is to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. That is, to be totally faithful and loyal to God. In colloquial terms, likewise, the Church itself is totally faithful, and each of the baptized within it is called to total faithfulness.
As Mary brought Jesus to the world, the Church goes forth, too, bringing Jesus to the world, both sacramentally in the Eucharist and in proclaiming his Gospel through word and example. Mary was the perfect mother; she loved her Son to the end and suffered with him. Isn’t that a model for all Christians to emulate in their personal relationships with one another as family members and friends? Mary was the perfect family member and friend. Just as she was there with Jesus throughout his life, including his suffering on the cross, we should also be that way to the people around us in our lives. As I said on Christmas Eve, human relationships are precious and worth preserving. Mary models that very concept in her relationship to Jesus.
Some of us come from terrible birth families, myself included. Some of us are born into privileged backgrounds. But our ancestry does not have to define us. Mary is proof of that. The Marian traditions in Catholic Christianity do not arise from Mary’s lineage but from how she lived her life. Do not think that because you might have a distinguished background automatically makes you somebody. It does not. What matters are your character and your actions.
Everything about Mary tells us unambiguously that opposition to women priests is absolute nonsense. Simply put, she did what priests do. But Mary is an example for all of us in ministry, whether lay or ordained.
In your character and actions, be like Mary.
Be a priest with a small p. Be a gateway to God and offer prayers for others.
Be a prophet. Listen for God’s message to you and deliver it to the world. Call out evil and oppose oppression, just like Mary did, in the tradition of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others.
And like Mary, do what a queen mother does, even if you are a man. That is, be an advocate for the people in your life. Don’t let people in power dump on the people and animals you love.
Mary is there for us. You, too, can be there for others. As God blessed Mary, so may your life bless others. AMEN.