Scripture and the Liturgy

Happy New Year! Mary, Mother of God

(These commentaries are available in book form here.)

As our Catholic readers know, this is the Solemnity (Holy Day) of Mary, Mother of God, one of the more significant liturgical celebrations in the Catholic calendar.

The confession of Mary as “Mother of God” presents a stumbling block for some non-Catholic Christians, but curiously it never did for me.

I think it was back in the Fall of 1992 when I was sitting in a course in Ancient Church History at one of the best Calvinist seminaries in America.  Our professor, a devout Dutch Calvinist (like most of us students), was lecturing on the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus AD 431, the council that recognized Mary as “Theotokos,” “Mother of God” (or more literally, “Bearer of God”).  He began to address the question, Can Calvinists confess Mary as “Mother of God”?  He answered in the affirmative, granted that one understood this not as a claim for Mary’s motherhood of divinity itself, but in the sense that Mary was mother of Jesus, who is truly God.  And that, of course, is precisely how the Catholic Church understands the term.

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).

Happy feast day to all!

A brief commentary on the Readings:

Two themes are present in the Readings: (1) the person of Mary, and (2) the name of Jesus.

The First Reading is one of the very few times that the Book of Numbers is read on a Lord’s Day or Feast Day. 

Num. 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.””

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” (Deut. 34:1, RSV2CE) 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 Little 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, RSV2CE).  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, RSV2CE).

The Hebrew language was written without vowels until the middle ages, 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. 

In post-exilic Judaism, the Divine Name (YHWH) was never 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 and in the Mishnah:

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. (Sir. 50:20, RSV2CE)

Also see Mishnah Yoma 3:8, 4:2

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:

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth … (Phil. 2:10, RSV2CE)

Ps. 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8

R. (2a) May God bless us in his mercy.
May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
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!
R. May God bless us in his mercy.

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.

The Gospel is Luke 2:16-21, a well-known and beloved passage:

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 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 been calling 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:

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. (1 John 1:1-4, RSV2CE)

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, 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.

(Would you like to journey to the sites the Blessed Mother visited? Nazareth, Ein Karem, Bethlehem … see them all with me June 23-July 2, 2023! All the info his here.)

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