Sunday, January 01, 2017

"Year with Mary" & The Face of God

Michelangelo's Pietà

(Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God-Year A; This homily was given on December 31, 2016 and January 1, 2017 at Holy Spirit Parish in Central Falls, R.I.; see Number 6:22-27 and Luke 2:16-21)

We celebrate today the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.  To entrust ourselves to the maternal protection and loving care of our Lady is the best possible way to enter the Year 2017.  Mary always, always leads us closer to Jesus Christ.   Bishop Tobin has asked that we devote ourselves to a special “Year with Mary our Mother” in this New Year.  As we enter into 2017, who of us can say that we are already close enough, or as close as we would like to be, to the Blessed Virgin Mary?  There is always room for us to grow in our relationships.  We thank God for the grace to enter more deeply into relationship with Mary and with her son, Jesus, in this coming year.

There are so many beautiful images of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this Church!  We find Mary wonderfully illuminated in stained glass, and handsomely fashioned in several statutes here.  One of the most beloved and well-known representations of Mary is found in Michelangelo’s Pietà.   We are all familiar with that remarkable sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica of the Blessed Mother, holding Christ’s body in her lap just after He has been taken down from the cross. 

There is a powerful story about Michelangelo, who was present during one of the initial displays of the Pietà before it came to rest at St. Peter’s.  At that time, someone asked Michelangelo, “Why does Mary look so young?”  If you look closely at the Pietà, Mary looks about 25 years-old, at most.  Of course, we know that Jesus was 33 years-old when He was crucified, and so the Blessed Mother would have been at least 45 years-old, perhaps even as old as 50. Michelangelo’s response is telling.  While some say the sculptor responded that Mary appears so youthful because of her purity and by virtue of the fact that she was conceived without any stain of original sin, others contend that his response was much less theological.  They say Michelangelo remarked how, when he sculpted the Mother of God, he had in his heart his own mother, who died when he was just a young boy.  He sculpted the Mother of God as a beautiful, youthful woman, because that is the only image of mother that he had in his heart.

Whatever the case may be, with great love and devotion Michelangelo made the face of Mary visible for all the world to see.  The great mystery of the Incarnation, when Christ was born in a manger in Bethlehem, expresses that same reality: that God suddenly made the face of Christ visible.  What we celebrate here today, however, is that He did so only through the cooperation of the Blessed Virgin Mary!  Mary’s faithful response to God allowed the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, and suddenly the entire world could see the face of God.

That expression, “the face of God,” is one that is used frequently in the Old Testament.  It is used in our First Reading for this weekend, in the Book of Numbers, when God is instructing Moses and Aaron how to bless the people of Israel.  He proclaims to Moses and Aaron:

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!

—Numbers 6:24-26
That expression, of course, was only understood figuratively by the people of Israel, because God did not literally have a face.  God, as they understood Him, was purely spiritual.  He was invisible and dwelt in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).  But suddenly, when Christ is born in Bethlehem, the face of God becomes visible and that blessing of God takes on a whole new reality.

In our Gospel for this Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, the shepherds received a vision of angels instructing them to go and see the child born in the manger.  They made their way to the place where the child was, and suddenly they were looking upon the face of God.  That blessing from the Book of Numbers was something they experienced quite literally.  Of them it could be said: “The Lord bless you and keep you!  The Lord let his face shine upon you, shepherds, and be gracious to you!  The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!

The face of the child Jesus shone upon them and the Messiah looked upon them kindly.  How much do we long to look upon the face of God?  How aware are we of the God who longs to let His face shine upon us and grant us His peace?  This “Year with Mary” is a timely opportunity for us to seek the face of God and to receive all the blessings He greatly desires to give us.

Bishop Tobin, in his introduction of the “Year with Mary,” suggested some very practical ways that we can enter more deeply into this relationship with Mary, who always leads us closer to Christ.  He encouraged us all to imitate the virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, seeking her protection and the graces she desires for us.  What are those virtues?

The first beautiful and virtuous image of Mary that comes to us today in the Gospel is that of a woman of prayer.  Mary hears what the shepherds say about her son, she listens to the account of the angels, and St. Luke tells us that, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Mary spent time in silence reflecting on the great mysteries that were transpiring around her.  Several times in the Scriptures we are told that she kept these wonderful and mysterious events in her heart and reflected upon them.  Do we?

How much time do we spend each day, alone and in silence with God?  Do we spend time reflecting and meditating on the birth of Christ in poverty and humility?  Do we spend time considering the passion of Jesus Christ?  His resurrection from the dead and all that it means for our lives?  A recent survey revealed that the average American spends five hours a day before the TV set.  Five hours!  Is it unreasonable to consider giving back one of those hours to God in prayer each day?  Our lives would be completely transformed if we, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, were to spend even 15 minutes alone and in silence before God each day meditating on the great mysteries of Christ.  How can we, like Mary, become men and women of prayer in 2017?

Secondly, Bishop Tobin suggested that we imitate Mary’s faith and her response to God.  Mary was responsive to the voice of God in her life; she believed in the promises of God and she was ready to respond to what He was asking of her.  Fiat voluntas tua. “Be it done unto me according to your word.”  This faith and generosity towards God is what brought the Messiah into this world and allowed our Savior to be born in that stable in Bethlehem.  God still wants to be made present in this world, but He is asking for our cooperation to do so.  He wants us to respond with that same faith, that same openness and generosity to what He desires to accomplish through us.  In 2017 we ask for the grace to imitate Mary’s faith and her response to God.

Finally, Bishop Tobin also suggested monthly prayer intentions, asking for our Lady’s intercession for ourselves and the world around us.  For the month of January, the Bishop’s intention is “For an increase in Respect for Life, especially for unborn children.”  January is the month that marks the anniversary of the tragic court decision of Roe V. Wade.  Since 1973, millions of unborn children in our country have been sacrificed on the altar of “choice.”  In 2017, we ask for Mary’s powerful intercession in reversing that terrible court decision. 

This month we ask for Mary’s protection for all the children that will be conceived, so many of them in danger of losing their lives to abortion.  We also ask for our Lady’s intercession for all the women who have already made that decision in their lives to terminate a pregnancy, however long ago or recent, or whatever the circumstances may have been, that they may know with certainty how very much God loves them and desires to give them His forgiveness and the grace of a new beginning.  It is perhaps through Mary’s intercession alone that we can experience new pathways of healing and a new way of life that ultimately leads us directly on the path to Jesus Christ in 2017.

How is God calling each of us this year, like Michelangelo, and like the Blessed Virgin Mary, to make God present in the world that we live in?  What are the ways that we will seek the face of God in prayer and strive to make Him visible for those that we encounter?  Because, ultimately, what the world needs more than anything else in 2017 is to encounter and embrace Jesus Christ.  What the world longs for, more than anything else, is to behold the face of God.