"She treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart"
(Readings: Numbers 6: 22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21)
Introduction to Mass
Today's feast continues the Christmas Season by highlighting Our Lady's unique role as the woman who brought God into the world. Mary's complete openness to God and her willingness to cooperate with God's plan of salvation made her a model of Christian faith from the earliest days of the Church's existence. We begin Mass by examining our own consciences, acknowledging the occasions when we have closed ourselves off from God and his grace.
Today's feast extends our reflection on the Christmas mystery: the mystery of the eternal God made incarnate in the man Jesus.
God took on our human condition for a purpose of course: so that we could fully enter and share his divine life.
Jesus' birth was the culmination of a long process in which God had revealed himself to the human race, stage by stage. Perhaps there were several ways and means open to God in carrying out this plan. But if, as St. John says in his gospel, the essence of God's nature is love, and if the essence of our sharing in God's life is to become suffused with the spirit of God's love, then not all ways and means were open to God.
God can't contradict his own nature; he can't draw us into his divine love by means of force or violence. We know from our own experience that in the realm of human relationships love is rarely pure, holy, completely disinterested. It's usually mixed up with motives of power, possession, various forms of self-seeking.
God's motives on the other hand, are not mixed. He always respects our dignity and our free will. He wants us to answer his invitation, join in his life - but only by a freely-willed decision on our part.
Not everyone responds to God's call with the same passion or enthusiasm. For every Abraham or Moses, for every Peter or Paul, there are thousands - millions - who fail to ignite the divine spark within themselves, who spend their lives in pursuit of more or less selfish goals, with an untroubled conscience. And let's concede that even in our own case, as believers and professed followers of Christ, our response is often ambiguous and hedged about with weakness and compromise.
Mary, Jesus' mother, was someone whose response to God had no hint of ambiguity, compromise or ulterior motive. As a young woman from a very ordinary and humble background, Mary had no sophisticated plans or ambitions for herself. Even before the Annunciation took place she must have been a person of deep faith and holiness, intent on cooperating with God's will, whatever she might eventually discover that to be.
There's a meditation on Jesus' birth by an Orthodox mystic which imagines God as a king in exile, a stranger outside the city, wandering homeless until Mary receives the angel Gabriel's message and agrees to bear him into the world. It's an image which highlights God's refusal to act unilaterally, his resolve to carry out his plan of salvation only when there is a free response of love on the side of humanity. And it's also an image which emphasises the unique part played by Mary, as the woman who offered that free response and made the coming of the Saviour possible.
St. Luke tells us, in today's gospel passage, that after Jesus' birth in what were after all rather uncomfortable and even squalid conditions, Mary's attitude was nevertheless one of gratitude and joy and a calm, prayerful acceptance of whatever hardships followed from doing God's will.
Mary didn't know exactly how God's plan, and her part in it, was going to unfold. She listened to the testimony of the shepherds, which confirmed her own and Joseph's experiences so far, and - as Luke says - "treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart". Luke describes Mary's attitude in similar terms later on when Jesus is older, when again, without knowing the full implications of her son's vocation, she quietly notes what he says and does and - Luke repeats - "stored up all these things in her heart".
These brief remarks tell us something very important about Mary's relationship with God and her openness to his grace.
First of all she possessed the quality of simplicity. Her heart was uncluttered. Many people are caught up in a riot of desires and plans. They fasten onto various goals or objects and become agitated and frustrated as the obstacles to their supposed happiness inevitably pile up.
Mary was someone who, from her youngest days, concentrated purely on finding God and becoming tractable to his grace. She eliminated everything which interfered with this aim. This was her quality of simplicity, a mentality that ceases to be attracted by anything that doesn't lead further into the mystery of God.
Mary was also above all a woman of contemplation. She was free from the mentality which is obsessed with analysing and proving everything, often rooted in the desire to manipulate people and things and bring them under our own control. Her attitude was to meditate quietly on the gradual and mysterious unfolding of God's plans. With this type of prayer comes the sense of gratuity: God is all we want or need, he frees us from the spirit of attachment and possessiveness, and re-creates us in the pattern of his own self-giving service and love.
God's appeal to Mary to be the mother of his Son demonstrates the reversal of conventional values that characterises his Kingdom. In all his dealings with the human race he never got far with people who are proud, self-sufficient, successful. "Blessed are the poor" is God's rule. Those who are humble, simple, fully conscious of their insignificance in worldly terms, have usually proved more receptive and more responsive to his call.
In the whole of salvation history this was truer of Mary than of anyone else. The Church community recognised it from the earliest years of its existence and acknowledged her uniquely special role as Mother of the Saviour. I hope that as we ponder on the events of Jesus' birth and the mystery of the Incarnation, Mary's part will not be lost on us, and that the whole Christian fellowship will continue to honour her in the identity assigned to her by our Scriptures: Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of the Poor.