Today's feast of Mary, the Mother of God is the oldest Marian feast in the church. The title is so easily accepted by us today, it is part of our lives, it rolls off off our tongue so easily. At one time it was the center of controversy. Jesus' divinity was being questioned in the early church. There was a fierce debate about calling her Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus defined Mary Theotokos - God Bearer. But this was more a statement of Jesus' divinity than of Mary's maternity. Through the years there was a tragic division in Christianity over the title: Mary, Mother of God. It does not mean that Mary existed before God or that she is equal to God. She is totally human as we are, born as we are of two human parents. We do not worship Mary (as some even today believe). We adore God alone. We honor Mary who was first honored by God. And we venerate Mary as the Mother of God and our Mother, too.
Our devotion to Mary is very romantic, perhaps epitomized in the words of the Christmas carol: All is calm, all is bright. Our Christmas cards depict a peaceful family in a stable with words of encouragement and good will and happiness. True, it is a testimony to the joy of the season, it is the message of Christmas. But it overlooks the turmoil and confusion that Mary endured: a family far away from home, poor, and in need of adequate shelter. The shepherds arrive with their story of the star and its meaning. And Mary continues to ponder the meaning of it all. In medieval times painters put a small but distinct crucifix in their nativity scenes. Perhaps only when she sees her son die on the cross that she realizes the full meaning of her title: Mother of God.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is the one about the sisters who were captives of the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. They were allowed to have their services. They were celebrating a novena leading up to Christmas, bringing up the infant in procession and placing him on the altar. The Japanese guard watched all this with great interest. About the fifth day he figured it out and asked Mother McCarthy a question. "Same one?" he asked, pointing to the Infant and to the crucifix nearby. "Yes," she replied. "Same one." and he said: "Sorry." The story shows the intimate connection between Christmas and the cross.
There is a new crib on the market. It comes with painted landscape in the background of rolling hills and trees - the kind you see in many renaissance nativity scenes. The new product moves gently at all times. It comes with a sound track that mimics the steady heart beat of a mother, with the wound of waves in the background. All of The first reading tells the Jews and us too, today: "May the Lord bless you and keep you." As we begin a new year we ask for a special blessing from God for each other and for the whole world under the tender gaze of Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, too. Mary's role is central. She is an example of mature, joyful, spontaneous faith in action. As Jesus is true man, Mary is true woman. As with us, she journeyed in faith. Today we celebrate her as the Mother of God. In this feast, once the only Marian feast in Rome, we recall the part she played in the fulfillment of the ancient blessing promised to Israel. And we give thanks for that blessing which has been bestowed upon us all.