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OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS (Cycles ABC)
SOLEMNITY OF THE VIRGIN MARY, MOTHER OF GOD

Readings:
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), and LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of the Readings: Mary is the Mother of God
January 1st is the eighth day after Jesus' birth (as the ancient's counted) from Christmas Day.  It was the day of Jesus' circumcision and naming (Lk 2:21), and today we complete the Christmas Octave.  In 431 AD, the third ecumenical council at Ephesus put to rest the question of the validity of the Virgin Mary's title "Mother of God." The universal council declared that Mary of Nazareth is Christ's mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, and since Jesus is God enfleshed, she deserved the title "Mother of God" as declared by her kinswoman Elizabeth.  When Mary visited her kinswoman in the first months of her pregnancy, it was Elizabeth who filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1:41-43).  Elizabeth's reference to "my Lord" refers to Jesus whose mother is Mary.

The council rejected the Nestorian heresy that regarded Christ as a human person joined to the divine person of God's Son and declared "that the Word, uniting to himself in his person the flesh animated by a rational soul, became man."  In this statement, the Council pronounced that Christ's humanity has no other subject than the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it and made it his own from his conception.  For this reason, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed that Mary truly became the "Mother of God" by the human conception of God the Son in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Council stated: "Mother of God, not that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word of God united to himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word is said to be born according to the flesh" (see CCC 466).  The word hypostasis means "one substance" and refers to the union of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ.

The First Reading is the God-ordained priestly blessing for the covenant people. The blessing, presented in the singular, blesses Israel as one covenant people, but the framework that surrounds the actual blessing is in the plural.  The blessing invokes God's holy covenant name, YHWH (Yahweh), three times in the prayer.  Christians see the three times invocation of the divine Name as another subtle revelation of the Triune nature of God before the Advent of Christ.

In the Responsorial Psalm, we pray that all nations might come to acknowledge Yahweh as their God.  We petition the Lord to reveal Himself to the nations so all humanity might join in praising Him and becoming partakers of His gift of universal salvation.  Mary's son, Jesus, fulfills the petition for universal salvation that is the hope of the psalmist.  It is His Kingdom of the universal [Catholic] Church that fulfills the desire of the psalmist in spreading the "good news" of God's salvation to all nations and welcoming them into the family of God.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes on the concept of the sonship of redemption that transforms Christians. Through the work of Jesus, Christians are freed from the control of the world and are now children of God, a gift of the Spirit of Christ that relates them intimately to God.  It is because of their divine adoption that Christians have the right of that intimacy to address God affectionately in their prayers not just as "Father" but as "Daddy," the better translation of "Abba," the affectionate Aramaic word little children used to address their fathers.  Divine adoption is not only a legal accession to the promised inheritance of Christ, but it is the gift of a new life in the intimate family of the Most Holy Trinity.

In the Gospel Reading, obeying the command of the angel, the shepherds found the "sign" of the child in the manger. The humble shepherds are the first to proclaim the "good news" that the Messiah has come as promised by the prophets.  As Mary witnessed the fulfillment of what the angel Gabriel told her at the Annunciation and Incarnation, she reflected on the unfolding events and probably also reflected on what will happen in the future.  She knew this event was only the beginning of a journey that would change the course of human history.  St. Luke uses Mary's contemplation to call us to also contemplate the meaning of these events, not just in the lives of Mary and those who were present at Christ's birth, but to contemplate what these events mean to the reader in his/her life's journey to salvation.

Today we give special honor to Jesus' mother, Mary of Nazareth.  She is the promised "woman" of Genesis 3:15 whose son is destined to conquer the power of the "serpent" Satan over mankind (Rev 12:9).  She is the mother of the Divine High Priest who in His coming fulfilled the petition of the priestly prayer in the First Reading: "The LORD, let his face shine upon you... The LORD look upon you kindly ..."  And in the Second Reading, St. Paul states that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law," meaning that Jesus was thoroughly human and raised by a loving and devout mother who was obedient to the Law of the Covenant.  This feast speaks to the greatness of Mary.  She is the mother of Jesus and she deserves the title "Mother of God" because Jesus is both fully man and fully God, as declared by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.  Even when she did not fully understand the ramifications of her vocation (Lk 1:45), in faith she submitted her whole life in obedience to God's divine plan and her declaration "May it be done to me according to your word" defined her life (Lk 1:38).  It is the same declaration we should make as Christians on our journeys to fulfill the destinies God plans for our lives.

The First Reading Numbers 6:22-27 ~ The Priestly Blessing
22 The LORD [YHWH] said to Moses: 23 "Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them: This is how you shall bless the Israelites.  Say to them: 24 The LORD [YHWH] bless you and keep you!  25 The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!  26 The LORD [YHWH] look  upon you kindly and give you peace!  27 So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites and I will bless them."  [...] = IBHE, vol. I, page 361.

Excavating a burial cave on the slope of the Hinnom Valley near Jerusalem in 1979, archaeologist Gabi Barkay discovered two small silver scroll amulets that dated to the 7th century BC.  When unrolled, both scrolls contained the same words of priestly prayer recorded in this passage!  These artifacts are the most ancient written record of Sacred Scripture every discovered. 

The blessing, presented in the singular (verses 24-26), blesses Israel as one covenant people, but the framework that surrounds the actual blessing in verses 23 and 27 is in the plural.  Notice the invoking of God's holy covenant name, YHWH (Yahweh), three times in the prayer.  Christians see the three times invocation of the divine Name as another subtle revelation of the Triune nature of God before the Advent of Christ.

The first part of each line of the blessing invokes the movement of God's gift to His people while the second part of each line names His activity on their behalf:

Yahweh's Gifts Yahweh's Actions
Line #1: bless keep/protect
Line #2: shine be gracious
Line #3: look bring peace

His blessing results in protection, His shining face results in grace, and His looking or bestowing of Divine grace results in peace.  The "peace" in the blessing is not the concept of "peace" that means the absence of conflict.  Instead, it is the "peace" of fellowship between God and His covenant child.  Not only is the blessing that God's face will shine upon the faithful covenant member, radiating His Divine grace, but that the face of the faithful worshiper will reflect the glory of God.  The blessing recalls Moses' shining face, reflecting God's glory after his encounters with Yahweh's divine Presence in the Tent of Meeting (Ex 34:29).  This priestly blessing concluded the daily morning and afternoon Tamid liturgical worship services at the Jerusalem Temple (Mishnah: Tamid 7:2; also see Sir 50:21 and the e-book "Jesus and the Mystery of the Tamid Sacrifice"

The Virgin Mary of Nazareth received the fullness of this divine blessing as God's chosen woman (Gen 3:15) and the "Ark of the New Covenant," as she carried in her womb the "Living Word" of God, the "Living Bread" come down from heaven, and the dead "Branch" that one day returned to life (see Heb 9:3-4 and the chart "The Virgin Mary the Ark of the New Covenant."

Responsorial Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6 ~ God Bless Us
The response is: "May God bless us in His mercy."

2 May God have pity on us and bless us; may he let his face shine upon us.  3 So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation.
Response:
5 May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity; the nations on the earth you guide.
Response:
6 May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you!  May God bless us, and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
Response:

The petition in this psalm is not only for God's blessings and the salvation of Israel.  The psalm also petitions God to reveal His saving plans to all peoples across the earth (verses 2-3).  The hoped-for result is that all humanity might join in praising God (verses 5-6), and knowing His awesome works so that all nations might give God their reverence and fear offending Him by their sins.

Mary's son, Jesus, fulfills the petition for universal salvation that is the hope of the psalmist.  It is His Kingdom of the universal [Catholic] Church that fulfills the desire of the psalmist in spreading the "good news" of God's salvation to all nations and welcoming them into the family of God.  St. Augustine wrote concerning the Church's role in the psalmist's hope of a universal gift of salvation: "O blessed Church!  At one time you heard, and at another, you saw.  You heard in the time of promises, and you saw in the time of their fulfilment; you heard in the time of prophecy, and you saw in the time of the Gospel.  For truly, all that is coming to be in these times was prophesied before.  Lift up your eyes, then, and let your gaze wander over all the world; see the inheritance of the Lord, which is spread now to the ends of the earth" (Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 47.7).

The Second Reading Galatians 4:4-7 ~ We are the Heirs of God through Christ Jesus
4 When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  6 As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!"  7 So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.

In Galatians 4:1-7, St. Paul elaborates on the concept of the Christian as an "heir" of Christ that he introduced in 3:26-29.  Notice that Paul speaks of two aspects: the negative aspect of the condition of the world before Christ and the positive aspect of the sonship of redemption that transforms Christians:

  1. The negative aspect of slavery to the world from which Christians have been freed through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
  2. The positive aspect that is adoption as sons and daughters of God.

Through the work of Jesus, Christians are freed from the control of the world and are now children of God.  It is a gift of the Spirit of Christ that relates them intimately to God the Father (Gal 3:2-5).  Because of their divine adoption, Christians have the right of that intimacy to address God affectionately in their prayers not just as "Father" but as "Daddy," the better translation of "Abba," the affectionate Aramaic word little children used to address their fathers.  However, notice that adoption is not only a legal accession to the promised inheritance (verse 7) but is the gift of a new life in which the three Persons of the Trinity are associated: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (verses 4-6)!

The Gospel of Luke 2:16-21~ The First Proclamation of the Gospel ("good news") and Naming of the Child
16 The shepherds went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.  18 All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.  19 And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.  20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. 21 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.

Finding the "sign" of the child in the manger (Lk 1:12), the humble shepherds are the first to proclaim the "good news" that the Messiah has come as promised by the prophets (verses 17-18).

21 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.
The Feast of Mary, Mother of God, completes the octave of Christmas.  It is eight days since the birth of Christ on the 25th (as the ancients counted), and it is the day Jesus entered the covenant with God by the "sign" of circumcision and received His name.  It is for this reason that the Church chose January 1st as the first day of our civil calendar (our liturgical calendar begins with the first Sunday of Advent). 

Mary named her child "Jesus," meaning "Yahweh is salvation" (Yahshua/Yeshua in Hebrew and Yehoshua in Aramaic) according to the angel's command at the Annunciation (Lk 1:31).  Since the time of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was the sign of entrance into the covenant with Yahweh.  The Sinai Covenant repeated this command (Gen 17:9-14; Lev 12:3, and Lk 1:59-60).

The ceremony of the child's circumcision emphasizes his incorporation into the covenant people of Israel and was the physical sign of an internal condition of a life dedicated to God. In the symbolic significance of numbers in Scripture, eight it is the number of salvation, resurrection, and new birth/regeneration.  It also signified the first of a new series.  For example, there are seven days in a week, but the 8th day is the beginning of a new series of days.  Jesus' Resurrection on the eighth day (Sunday), the day after the seventh day Old Covenant Sabbath (Saturday), will signify the beginning of the new and eternal covenant promised by the 6th century BC prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:31; 32:40; 50:5).  In addition, the descent of God the Holy Spirit on the eighth day (Sunday), 50 days after Jesus' Resurrection (as the ancients counted), will signify a spiritual rebirth of the old Israel transformed into the new Israel of the New Covenant people of God (see CCC 877 and the document "The Significance of numbers in Scripture").   Joseph and Mary's cooperation in Jesus' circumcision according to the Law is the beginning of the fulfillment of the old law in what will become the new Covenant in Christ Jesus.

As Mary witnessed the fulfillment of what the angel Gabriel told her (Lk 1:26-38), she reflected on the unfolding events (verse 19), and she probably also reflected on what will happen in the future.  She knows this is only the beginning of a journey that will change the course of human history.  St. Luke uses Mary's contemplation to call the reader to also contemplate the meaning of these events, not just in the lives of Mary and those who were present at Christ's birth, but to contemplate what these events mean to the reader in his/her life's journey to salvation.

Catechism References:
Mary Mother of God (CCC 466, 495, 509)
Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6: need for universal salvation (CCC 588); Church as the universal instrument (CCC 776, 780, 816); Virgin Mary cooperated in mankind's salvation (CCC 511, 969)
Galatians 4:1-7 (CCC 1972); 4:4-5 (CCC 422); 4:4 (CCC 484, 488, 527, 531, 580, 702); 4:5-7 (CCC 1265); 4:6 (CCC 683, 689, 693, 742, 1695, 2766)
Luke 2:19 (CCC 2599); 2:19 (CCC 2599); 2:21 (CCC 527)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013; revised 2018