Sermons

Summary: Every title we give to the Blessed Virgin Mary is an act of praise to God in Christ

Christmas Eve 2015

Joy of the Gospel

Recently the Capuchin Franciscan preacher to the papal household, a Father Cantalamessa, gave his last Advent homily for the year, and, speaking of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said this of Catholics: “we Catholics have contributed to making Mary unacceptable to Protestants by honoring her in ways that are often exaggerated and ill-advised and above all by not keeping devotion to her clearly within a biblical framework that demonstrates her subordinate role with respect to the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself. Mariology in recent centuries has become a non-stop factory of new titles, new devotions, often in polemic against Protestants, sometimes using Mary-- our common Mother!-- as a weapon against them.”

He also criticized the extreme rationalism of some Protestant theologians. Now contrast this with Zechariah’s berekah–his hymn of praise–uttered as his first words after nine long months of mute listening. Remember, this was the priest-father of John the Baptist, responding to the question, “what shall we name your son?” at his bris–his circumcision. Poor old Zach had given the angel the wrong answer when told, at the time of sacrifice, right close to the Holy of Holies, that he would sire a son in his old age. His answer to Gabriel, whom I imagine to be about four stories high, appearing in the glory of God, was not “Oh, thank you, Lord,” or “yes, I’ll go home and tell Elizabeth right away.” No, he asked the angel how this would happen, since he and Elizabeth were old. For his lack of faith he was struck dumb and had to spend the next nine months listening to all the women of his family cluck to each other about how he was dumb in several other ways as well.

Well–not all the women of his family, or at least of Elizabeth’s family. Because just about fourteen weeks later, Mary appeared at his door, and the baby Elizabeth was carrying–six months along–jumped for joy. Over the next few weeks, as they waited for the child’s birth, Zechariah had cause to listen to the stories Mary told–about her betrothal to Joseph, about her vow which he understood that she would remain a virgin even in marriage, about the visit of Gabriel to herself, her wonder at the mystery, and the miraculous conception of the tiny child who would be called Jesus. Zechariah realized that as he stood offering incense next to the empty room that should have held the Ark of the Covenant–the ark stolen and lost by the Babylonians hundreds of years earlier–Gabriel was trying to draw him into the mystery that then brought Mary–the true Ark of the Covenant–to his home. The stolen Ark held the commandments of the Law; Mary held the very Lawgiver, the Lord of hosts. The old one contained the manna; Mary bore the Bread of Life. The lost Ark was inaugurated by a cloud, representing the presence of God, resting on its mercy seat; Mary’s pregnancy with the God-man came as the very Spirit of God descended and worked a miracle in her womb.

This Jesus was the offspring foreseen by the prophet Nathan, who prophesied that a descendant of King David would sit on an eternal throne. The kings of Israel–almost every one of them an impious jerk–could not fulfill that prophecy. Jesus, though, would fulfill it as Gabriel had announced, but in an unexpected way. He would free us from our sins as He took His throne–a rude cross. He would break our slavery to sin by dying the death of a slave. John himself–son of Elizabeth and Zechariah–would witness to this Messiah and be murdered for his witness. Mary would–as Simeon later promised–share in the suffering of her Son. The Roman blade that pierced the heart of Jesus also ran her through. She truly participated in all of the mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ, something we commemorate in the mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

So, to answer the good Capuchin preacher, this deacon preacher in a tiny parish in San Antonio asks “what honor that we give the Mother of the Messiah is ‘over the top’?” Do we ever venerate the Mother without adoring the Son? As we tonight worship in our imaginations the tiny baby in the manger, are we not doing so in union with Mary and Joseph? When we call Mary the “Ark of the Covenant,” are we not doing so “within a biblical framework that demonstrates her subordinate role with respect to the Word of God”? We cannot render hyperdulia to the Mother without giving latria to the Son.

Tonight we are the holy family, the Church, in union with that first Holy Family. The Holy Father in his encyclical on the Joy of the Gospel begins his New Testament exegesis with two references to Mary’s joy at the news of the coming of Christ. We rejoice with her, with Joseph, the shepherds and angels, for the mercy of the Lord endures forever because of her “yes” to God.

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