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Last Word - January 2010

Mary, Mother of God

Eight maids a-milking. “On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking.” January 1 is the 8th day of Christmas, the octave day of Christmas, we call it liturgically. And on the eighth day of Christmas, while the song gives us farmers’ daughters, the Church gives us Mary, the Mother of God.

Today is the oldest feast of Mary on the liturgical calendar. Devotion to Mary has played a large and important role in Catholic spirituality over the centuries. But, it must be admitted, devotion to Mary, indeed devotion to the saints in general, has declined significantly in the Church over the last couple decades for a whole variety of reasons: some of them good but others bad.

Commenting on this decline in interest in Mary and the saints, the great Jesuit theologian of the Second Vatican Council, Father Karl Rahner, once observed that much is at stake here: the reality of Jesus as a historical, actual person. All Christians, Rahner wrote, Catholics and Protestants alike, face the temptation of making faith too spiritual and intellectual, of turning the central truths of the faith into abstractions and abstractions, Rahner commented, “have no need of mothers.” Christianity is not about ideas, it is about a person. Christianity is not a philosophy of life or a world view, it is attachment, a commitment, to a person, a particular Jew, who lived at a particular moment in history, in an identifiable place: a person, and persons have mothers.

We too easily get distracted by doctrines, moral teachings, and declarations of Vatican authorities from what is central in Christianity: the person of Jesus of Nazareth. All our debates and discussion and, yes, sometimes even dissent, tend to miss what matters most.

The late Cardinal Hickey once pointed out that Mary did not give birth to an idea or a world view or a doctrine. She gave birth to a person. “We are called to bear witness not to some thing – some abstraction – whether it be called redemption, liberation, or affirmation; we are sent to be witnesses of Someone – whom we call Son of God and Son of Mary.”

A religion centered on ideas and abstractions is inevitably cold; it lacks passion. This is the god of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It becomes a mind game and a head trip. Christianity is neither; it is a matter of the heart and the passionate love we have for Jesus and He for us.

On the eighth day of Christmas the Church gives us Mary, the Mother of God, who calls us to embrace her Son, to love Him as she loved Him, not the abstractions whether about Him or about her. It occurs to me that that could form the basis of a New Year’s resolution: to come to know Jesus more deeply, intimately and personally.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal