Scripture and the Liturgy

Mary, Mother of God!

My commentaries of fixed feast days and solemnities, like Jan 1, Mary, Mother of God, are available in book form here.

January 1 is the Solemnity (Holy Day) of Mary, Mother of God.  To call Mary the “Mother of God” must not be understood as a claim for Mary’s motherhood of divinity itself, but in the sense that Mary was mother of Jesus, who is truly God.  The Council of Ephesus in 431—long before the schisms with the Eastern churches and the Protestants—proclaimed “Mother of God” a theologically correct title for Mary. 

So far from being a cause of division, the common confession of Mary as “Mother of God” should unite all Christians, and distinguish Christian orthodoxy from various confusions of it, such as Arianism (the denial that Jesus was God) or Nestorianism (in which Mary mothers only the human nature of Jesus but not his whole person).

Two themes are present in the Readings for this Solemnity: (1) the person of Mary, and (2) the name of Jesus.   Why the name of Jesus? Prior to the second Vatican Council, the octave day of Christmas wasthe Feast of the Holy Name, not Mary Mother of God.  The legacy of that tradition can be seen in the choice of Readings for this Solemnity.  (The Feast of the Holy Name was removed from the calendar after Vatican II; St. John Paul II restored it as an optional memorial on January 3, which this year falls on a Monday.  )

1.  The First Reading is Numbers 6:22-27

The LORD said to Moses:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them.”

This Solemnity is one of the very few times that the Book of Numbers is read on a Lord’s Day or Feast Day.  Here’s a little background on the Book of Numbers:

The Book of Numbers is a little less neglected than Leviticus among modern Christian readers, if only because, unlike its predecessor, it combines its long lists of laws with a number of dramatic narratives about the rebellions of Israel against God in the wilderness, which create literary interest.  The name “Numbers” is, perhaps, already off-putting for the modern reader—it derives from the Septuagint name Arithmoi, “Numbers”, referring to the two numberings or censuses, one each of the first and second generations in the Wilderness, that form the pillars of the literary structure of the book in chs. 1 and 26.  The Hebrew name is bamidbar, “In the Wilderness,” which is an accurate description of the geographical and spiritual location of Israel throughout most of the narrative.

         The Book of Numbers has a strong literary relationship with its neighbors in the Pentateuch.  In many ways it corresponds with the Book of Exodus.  Exodus begins with the people staying in Egypt (Exodus 1-13), then describes their journey to through the desert (Exodus 14-19), and ends with them stationary at Sinai (20-36).  Numbers begins with the people staying at Sinai (Num 1-10), describes their journey through the desert (Num 11-25), and ends with them stationary on the Plains of Moab.  Sinai and the Plains of Moab correspond: at each location the people will receive a covenant (see below on Deuteronomy).  Furthermore, there are strong literary connections between the journeys through the Wilderness to and from Sinai (Ex 14-19; Num 11-25).  Both these sections are dominated by accounts of the people of Israel “murmuring” (Heb. lôn), “rebelling” (Heb. mārāh), or “striving” (Heb. rîb) against the LORD and/or Moses, together with Moses’ need for additional help to rule an unruly people (Ex 18; Num 11:16-39), and God’s miraculous provision for the people’s physical needs (Ex 15:22-17:7; Num 11:31-34; 20:1-13).  This is evidence of careful literary artistry: the central Sinai Narrative (Exod 20–Num 10) is surrounded by the unruly behavior of the people wandering in the desert.

         Numbers also has a close relationship with Leviticus.  If Leviticus established a sacred “constitution” for the life of Israel, exhibiting a logical, systematic order concluded, like a good covenant document, with a listing of blessings and curses (Lev 26), Numbers is more like a list of “amendments” to the “constitution,” together with accounts of the historical circumstances that led to their enactment.  And like the lists of amendments on many state and national constitutions, the laws have an ad hoc, circumstantial character, with little logical connection between successive “amendments.” 

         Finally, Numbers “sets the stage” for the Book of Deuteronomy, providing us the necessary information about Israel’s geographical and moral condition when they arrived at the “Plains of Moab opposite Jericho” in order to appreciate Moses’ extended homily and renewal of the covenant that he will deliver at this site in the final book of the Pentateuch.

The specific text we have in this First Reading is the famous Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6.  The formula for blessing given to the priests involves the invocation of the Divine Name (YHWH) three times over the people of Israel. 

A Brief Excursus on the Divine Name

“If they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say?” “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” say … “I AM has sent me to you” (Ex 3:13-14).  The revelation of the divine Name to Moses (Ex 3:13-15) is one of the most theologically significant passages of the Old Testament.  By revealing himself as “I AM”, God distinguishes himself from the other gods of the nations, which “are not.”  He is the only God who truly is.  Furthermore, the name “I AM” stresses that God exists of himself; unlike all other beings he does not take his existence from some other cause.  Later philosophical language will describe God as the one necessary being.  While lacking technical philosophical language, the ancients did have the concept of self-existence: in Egyptian religion, the sun-god Amon-Rē “came into being by himself” and all other beings took their existence from him.  However, God reveals to Moses that it is He, the LORD—not Amon-Rē or any other Egyptian god—who is the ground of being and the source of existence. 

The actual word given to Israel to serve as the Name of God is spelled YHWH in the English equivalents of the Hebrew consonants. It is not the full phrase “I AM WHO I AM” but rather an archaic form of the Hebrew verb HYH, “to be,” with the meaning “HE IS.” Out of respect for the third commandment, Jews after the Babylonian exile (c. 597–537 BC) ceased to pronounce the divine name at all, but instead substituted the title “Lord,” in Hebrew adonai, in Greek kyrios.  Thus the God of Israel is called ho kyrios, “the Lord” in the New Testament.  This sheds light on the meaning of the phrase, “Jesus is Lord!” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3).

The Hebrew language was written without vowels until around AD 700, when Jewish scribes developed a vowel-writing system.  The form YHWH, however, was written with the vowels for adonai, the word Jews actually pronounced.  The English translators of the King James Version did not understand this system, and in a few instances combined the Hebrew consonants of YHWH (called the tetragrammaton, lit. “the four letters”) with the Hebrew vowels of adonai to form the erroneous name “Jehovah.”  Catholic tradition addresses God with neither the mistaken form “Jehovah” nor the ancient pronunciation “Yahweh,” but uses “LORD” to refer to the God of Israel, in keeping with the practice of Jesus and the Apostles.  In most English Bibles, “LORD” in caps represents YHWH in the Hebrew text, while “Lord” in lower case represents the actual Hebrew word adonai.

The concept of “name” in Hebrew culture was of great significance.  The “name” represented the essence of the person, and invoking the name made the person mystically present.  Therefore, God will speak of the manifestation of his presence in the Temple as the “dwelling of his Name” in various places of the Old Testament.

The invocation of the Name of God over the people of Israel communicates God’s presence and Spirit to them at least a mediated way. Although I cannot prove it, it is my personal belief that the formula recorded in Numbers 6 was the standard formula for bestowing a blessing “in the Name of the LORD,” and the authority to bestow such a blessing was reserved to those with priestly authority.  Later in the Scriptures, when reference is made to blessing persons “in the Name of the LORD,” I believe it refers to the recitation of this formula (Deut 21:5; 2 Sam 6:18; Sir 50:20).

In post-exilic Judaism, the Divine Name (YHWH) was seldom if ever pronounced, except on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the High Priest would make atonement for the whole nation in the Holy of Holies, and then exit the Temple in order to bless the assembled people in the Temple courts.  There, he would pronounce the blessing of Numbers 6, including the vocalization of the Divine Name.  Every time the people would hear the Name pronounced, they would drop prostrate on the ground.  This is recorded in Sirach:

Sir. 50:20 Then Simon came down, and lifted up his hands over the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips, and to glory in his name, and to glory in his name; 21 and they bowed down in worship a second time, to receive the blessing from the Most High.

Similar information is recorded in the Mishnah, the second-century AD collection of rabbinic tradition and teaching that become the basis of the legal system of modern Judaism.  So in the Mishnah, tractate Yoma 3:8 and 6:2:

And [when the people heard the four letter Name] they answer after [the High Priest]: “Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever”. (M. Yoma 3:8)

Then, the priests and the people standing in the courtyard, when they heard the explicit Name from the mouth of the High Priest, would bend their knees, bow down and fall on their faces, and they would say, “Blessed be the Honored Name of His Sovereignty forever!” (M. Yoma 6:2)

We read this passage of Scripture in today’s liturgy for a variety of reasons. 

First, we gather as God’s people around the world on this, the first day of the civil year, to ask from God his blessing upon us. 

Second, we commemorate (in the Gospel) the circumcision and naming of Jesus.  For us in the New Covenant, the Name of God continues to be a source of blessing and Divine Presence, but the name we are to use is no longer YHWH but “Jesus.”  Jesus is God’s Name, the source of salvation.  When Paul speaks to the Philippians about the Name of Jesus, he may have in mind the prostrations in the Temple at the Divine Name:

Phil. 2:10  At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth …

It has never been the Christian tradition to pronounce the holy name “YHWH.”  Jesus and the Apostles practiced the Jewish piety of substituting “Lord” (‘adonai, kyrios, dominus) for the pronunciation of the Name.  For this reason, under the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the pronounced name “Yahweh” was removed from contemporary worship resources.  The sect of the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist on the pronunciation of the Name, although their form of pronunciation is erroneous, and there is nothing in Christian tradition or the New Testament to encourage such a practice.  For us, the saving name is now “Jesus,” and although full prostration at the pronunciation of the name of Jesus is impractical, Catholic piety dictates a bow of the head at the mention of the Holy Name.

2.  The Second Reading is Galatians 4:4-7:

Brothers and sisters:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,

born of a woman, born under the law,

to ransom those under the law,

so that we might receive adoption as sons.

As proof that you are sons,

God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,

crying out, “Abba, Father!”

So you are no longer a slave but a son,

and if a son then also an heir, through God.

This Reading has ties to the Gospel, which emphasizes Mary’s role in Christ’s birth (“born of a woman”) as well as Jesus and his family being obedient Jews, faithful to the Old Covenant in submitting to circumcision (“born under the law.”)

This Reading also reminds us that Jesus calls us to Divine sonship (or childhood, if gender neutrality is desired).  Let’s not forget that this is unique to the Christian faith.  Christianity—unlike Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Atheism—is a religion about becoming children of God.  In Judaism, Divine childhood is metaphorical; in Islam, it is blasphemy.  In Eastern religions, it is irrelevant, because God is not ultimately a personal being, but rather an impersonal force or essence that animates all or simply is All.  Christianity alone holds out the possibility of familial intimacy with Creator as a son or daughter to a Father.

Let us also notice the close connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit and divine sonship.  From a legal perspective, it is the New Covenant that makes us children of God; from an ontological perspective, it is the Spirit that makes us children.  The sending of the Spirit “into our hearts,” as St. Paul says, is parallel to the inbreathing of the “breath of life” into the nostrils of Adam, causing him to become “a living being.”  So we are revivified by the Holy Spirit, as Adam was brought to life at the dawn of time.  Adam was king of the universe, as it says: “Have dominion over the over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28).  The word “dominion” (Heb radah) evokes the context of kingly rule: later it will be used of Solomon’s imperial reign (1 Kings 4:24; Ps 72:8; 110:2; 2 Chr 8:10).  So the Holy Spirit makes us royalty in Christ: as St. Paul says, “no longer a slave but a son … also an heir, through God.”  No longer a slave to what?  Sin, death, and the devil.  If we live controlled by lusts, in fear of death, and swayed by the suggestions of Satan, than we are still slaves.  If we are free of these things, then we are walking in the Spirit, as children of God.  This is a theme in the First Epistle of John, which is read during daily mass all through the Christmas season.

4.  The Gospel is Luke 2:16-21:

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,

and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this,

they made known the message

that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed

by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things,

reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned,

glorifying and praising God

for all they had heard and seen,

just as it had been told to them.

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.

We note several things: Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”  This is not only an historical indication of where St. Luke is getting his information about these events (so John Paul II [in his Wednesday audience of Jan. 28, 1987] and the Catholic tradition generally), but also a model of the contemplative vocation to which all Christians are called.  Especially during this Christmas season, up until the Baptism (Jan 13), we should carve out some time for quiet prayer, to meditate on the incredible events we celebrate and allow their meaning to sink into our hearts. 

Then we see the shepherds “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen …”  This, too, describes the Christian’s vocation.  Pope Francis in particular has called us to return to the aspect of praise and joy that characterizes the disciple of Jesus.  Our faith is experiential, it is not just a philosophy.  It is an encounter with a person.  All of us should know what it means to come into contact with Jesus, to “hear and see” him.  In his First Epistle (which we are reading right now in daily mass), St. John sounds much like the shepherds:

1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life —  2 the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us —  3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  4 And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.

Observe the connection in this passage with “seeing” and “hearing” and the culmination in proclamation and joy.  This is what disciples of Jesus do: they experience Jesus and then proclaim in joy what they have encountered.

Finally, we see the naming of Jesus at his circumcision.  Christians no longer practice circumcision, because Baptism is the “circumcision of the heart” promised by Moses that surpasses physical circumcision (cf. Deut 10:16; 30:6; Acts 2:37; Col 2:11-12).  Yet at our Baptism, the “circumcision of our heart,” we still receive our Christian name.

The name given to Jesus is the Hebrew word y’shua, meaning “salvation.”  In the Old Testament, we are more familiar with the name under the form “Joshua,” who was an important type of Christ.  Just as Moses was unable to lead the people of Israel into the promised land, but Joshua did; so also Jesus is our New Joshua who takes us into the salvation to which Moses and his covenant could not lead us.

Salvation is now found in the Name of Jesus, because salvation means to enter into a relationship of childhood with God the Father.  It’s not that other great religious leaders (Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius etc.) claimed to be able to lead us into divine childhood, but couldn’t. It’s that they did not even claim to be able to do so.  Jesus is unique.  So Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6).  This is not arrogance.  Jesus is the only great religious founder in human history to proclaim that God is a Father and we can become his children.  This concept of divine filiation is at the heart of the Gospel.  In a sense, it can be said to be the heart of the Gospel. 

On this Solemnity, let us give thanks to God that he has, through Jesus, made a way for us to become his children and receive a new name which he has given us (see Rev 2:17).  This intimate, personal relationship with God has been made possible by the cooperation of Mary, who became the mother of the one whose Name is Salvation. 

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