Homily for the Solemnity
of Mary, Mother of God
Jan. 1, 2011
Luke 2: 16-21
Christian Bros., Iona College
Ursulines, Willow Drive, N.R.
“The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found … the infant lying in the manger” (Luke 2: 16).
Following the Savior’s birth, secret, unknown to anyone in David’s city, angels announce the Good News to “shepherds living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (2:8). Since, in truth, we know nothing about the social or economic status of Mary and Joseph, this is the 1st announcement of the Good News from God to “the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing” (1 Cor 1:28). For that is who the shepherds were—perhaps not on the very lowest rung of the social ladder, but definitely near the bottom.
Unlike the social elite and the political powers on whom Matthew reports—King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in Jerusalem, who were “greatly disturbed” by what the magi told them (2:3-4)—these social outcasts in the fields near Bethlehem respond positively to the Good News and hasten to the manger, themselves, not sending someone in their stead. This will be the theme thruout Luke’s gospel, the positive, personal response to Jesus of the poor and of sinners.
Commenting on Luke’s narrative, Fr. Raymond Brown sees in the shepherds’ response, hastening to the manger, a reversal of a complaint of the prophets: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people has not understood” (Is 1:3)—a passage that, incidentally, seems to be the origin for our traditional placement of an ox and an ass in our manger scenes, there being no reference to them whatever in Luke’s story. So Israel of old didn’t recognize their Lord; but now the poor and the lowly of Israel do so recognize him and hasten to him—in a manger.
The shepherds do more than come and “find Mary and Joseph and the infant” (2:16). “They made know the message that had been told them about this child” (2:17). If we wish to call Mary the very 1st evangelist on account of her hastening to visit Elizabeth, then the shepherds are the 2d evangelists, announcing the Good News.
There’s another group who hear the Good News, namely “all who heard it [and] were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds” (2:18). Amazement doesn’t necessarily lead them to the manger or to belief in this child, any more than it will later induce faith and discipleship in those who hear the marvelous teaching of Jesus and see his miracles. We don’t hear anything further, in any of the gospels, about shepherds or other people from Bethlehem. Fr. Brown compares them to those who “hear the word, receive it with joy, but have no root” (Luke 8:13).
The 1st lesson for us to draw from what we hear this evening/morning is that each of us has heard the report that “a Savior has been born for” us in utter lowliness, and we have to decide how we’ll respond to that news, regarding it as either good news, like the shepherds; or bad news, like Herod and the Jerusalem elite; or hearing it with amazement but no action, like the people of Bethlehem. And it’s a response we have to make for ourselves; we can’t delegate it.
Our response, moreover, also involves a 2d choice: to spread the news, like the shepherds, or to keep it to ourselves. “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” St. Paul exclaimed (1 Cor 9:16). Jesus tells a parable of a servant who received a charge, a commission, but who buried it, kept it secret, and then was condemned by his master for not using it to increase the master’s wealth (Luke 19:11-26). So the Good News about this child isn’t ours to keep but to make known. This is the 2d lesson for us.
There is one who responds most favorably to all the marvels surrounding this child. “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (2:19). Mary has already shown her disposition to accept God’s word, confessing that she’s the Lord’s lowly servant (the Greek word that Luke puts in her mouth means “slave”) and will do whatever he asks (1:38). God’s actions are not only to be watched, to be marveled at, but to be absorbed, taken into the heart, and applied to one’s own life. When Jesus says during his public ministry, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (8:21), Luke gives us to understand that his biological mother is among these. He will also place her at the center of his brothers and disciples in the Upper Room waiting for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:13-14)—who will lead them out to “make known the message that had been told them” about the “Savior born for [them] who is Christ and Lord” (Luke 2:17,11).
The 3d lesson of our gospel reading, thus, is to look upon Mary as the model disciple of Jesus: one who listens for God’s word, ponders what that word may mean for her, then acts upon what she has heard, pondered, and understood. This is why Gabriel can address her as “highly favored” of God (1:28), and it is the key to our own relationship with God thru Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.