Fourth Sunday in Advent
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,* because he will save his people from their sins." (Mt 1: 20-21)
Like many of you reading this, I was brought up to have a love of Our Lady, Saint Mary the Mother of Jesus. Many of my earliest memories church in childhood are of going with my Grandparents to the 8am Mass ' at Our Lady of `Lourdes, Cardigan Road in Headingly, Leeds. Yes it was all in Latin (which I didn't understand then) and also a 'said' liturgy, which I know I wasn't impressed with, because I much preferred going to the sung High Mass at St Ann's Cathedral, whenever the opportunity arose. But always a favourite moment was going to light a candle at the image of Our Lady at the end of the service and saying a prayer in front of her.
All this was reinforced by my Mother's love for her and also our French family, because I was obviously taken with the love of her shown in the plethora of churches and places dedicated to 'Notre Dame', and that influence remains with me still: but it's grown, as it should, into a healthy theological respect and devotion to Mary. That's why I feel we do the story of salvation and her true role in it an injustice, when we make of 'Our Lady' something she is not, when her story is embroidered by religious fancy, and pious, sentimental notions of who we might want her to be. That's why this Gospel from St Matthew is so important, for it roots her, allows us to approach her as one of us, one of our own!
First of all, go back to the story of the Genealogy of Jesus, which comes just before the section we have followed today, it's done through Joseph's lineage and ends starkly with these words: 'Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah' (Mt 1:16) Firstly Matthew does not embroider this statement, in blunt terms he simply says 'of Mary Jesus was born', full stop or as the Americans say, period! That my friends, is the real start of any devotion to Our Lady, the relationship she has with her son and that must never be separated from her story. Incidentally this is why in the Eastern Church any Icon of the 'Theotokos'* must always have her son in the picture, or like the Annunciation, portray her in direct connection with Christ.
Then if you take time to look at that list of names in Matthew. other women appear, they are important, the genealogy shows the continuity of God's providential plan from Abraham on, but in their names we also find discontinuity and strange goings on! The women, Tamar (Mt 1:3), Rahab and Ruth (Mt 1:5), and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba (Mt 1:6), bore sons through curious and unexpected unions. These culminate in the supreme "irregularity" of the Messiah's birth of a virgin mother; the fulfilment of God's plan is inaugurated by a creative, curious and extraordinary act of God! Mary in the eyes of her world has conceived an irregular union, Joseph, to his credit, does not do what the Law requires, but prays it through, no doubt with Mary, and in a dream finds the answer and a way past the drama, where a trembling God, births the Saviour into our human care.
That to me takes Mary out of any false sentimentality and shows her partnership with Joseph to be a strong, robust and truthful one. These are real people, in a real dilemma; the inner sight of faith grows strong in both. This is the Mary I can face in prayer and thought, my sister, my friend, a relative of mine in the human family, that is why the Christmas story is such a dangerous one, it brings us close and connected to the Living God, and when that happens, our story changes, we become part of something greater than we can ever imagine, we become like Mary!
From I believe in God
Section on Mary and Joseph at Nazareth
…He who becomes the friend of God must be prepared for surprises. It is not Judas; it is my love, my beloved wife, bound to me by a tie stronger than marital love, who has betrayed me. In his pain, he hurriedly devises a plan.
There is something strange in the atmosphere; some new element has been introduced that works against the carrying out of that decision he reached so sorrowfully. Joseph has now the feeling that if he sent this woman away, it would be he and not she who would be excluded.
And then occurs the event of which we are told in the Gospel: An angel appears to him in a dream, the angel of the Annunciation, we may be sure. And it is the very scene of the Annunciation, for all the explanation he is given! Good God, he has understood!
A day, two days pass. And on the third day Mary does not rise from the table; she lingers there, looking at her husband. She does not look at his eyes, she looks at his lips. His eyes are closed, and tears are rolling down over his gray beard. His lips are moving; they begin silently to form that first salutation which passed from the mouth of the angel to that of a priest: Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. (Rose, 141-144)
"The Incarnation, which is for traditional Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and earthly life of Christ, is for mystics of a certain type, not only this but also a perpetual Cosmic and personal process. It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, the pure character of God, of which the one historical life dramatized the essential constituents. Hence the soul, like the physical embryo, resumes in its upward progress the spiritual life-history of the race. "The one secret, the greatest of all," says Patmore, is "the doctrine of the Incarnation, regarded not as an historical event which occurred two thousand years ago, but as an event which is renewed in the body of every one who is in the way to the fulfilment of his original destiny."
*The title Mother of God, Theotokos, was formally sanctioned by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.
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