The Gospel for Sunday, January 1st, 2016: “The Solemnity of Mary”
Reflection: The Interplay of Dialogue and Contemplative Prayer
I greet readers with joy today as many celebrate a new year and we in the Church celebrate a feast dedicated to our Christian mother, Mary. A day focused on the significance of Mary, our Lady, should be joyful, and yet I will admit that such moments sometimes take me down a road that does not immediately lighten my heart. That road is one of research and study on difficult questions. The mystery of Mary’s role in salvation history can be confusing and is still a stumbling block for many of our Protestant brothers and sisters as well as non-believers. The questions are fair. Could Mary really have been fully human and yet without sin? If we pray to Mary, are we worshipping her instead of God the Father? Does her role as wife and mother mean all women should accept those vocations without question, whether it be in marriage to a Catholic man or to the Church as a religious who is married to Christ? As Catholics our answers to those questions affect how we practice our faith, instill it in our children, and discuss it with non-Catholics. So the research is important, whether it occurs in the form of reading materials from recognized Catholic authorities, listening to the message from bishops and priests within our local parishes, discussing it with other laypersons, or surveying the wide range of opinions expressed on the internet by bloggers and forum posters who represent an incoherent cross section of the general public.
In reading today’s gospel, I started down that road again and decided to turn back. While I think at times God speaks to us in this sort of dialogue, it is also possible to lose sight of faith’s simplicity and perhaps become paralyzed with uncertainty by theological and dogmatic study and debate. We are not all called to defend the faith with words, but simply to try to live it each day in the hope of salvation. In reaching the decision to avoid providing answers to deep Marian questions, I realized today’s reading has a lot to say about dealing with the confusion that can arise when the discussion of faith becomes esoteric or controversial if we focus on Mary’s reaction as the shepherds come to the manger and tell her and Joseph what they have learned from the angels.
Consider this brief sequence of events described by Luke:
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 (15-19).
Mary has given birth in some sort of cave primitively arranged as a shelter for livestock. Indeed the livestock are still there with her husband and new born child. While Mary has been told by Gabriel she will give birth to a child bestowed by the Holy Spirit who will be given “the throne of David his father” and who will “rule over the House of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1: 30-33) and has accepted this role on faith, she could not possibly have a full understanding of God’s plan for her family and for Jesus, her son. So it must have been very tempting to doubt the revelation that her new son was a king given the circumstances of his birth. Then along comes the shepherds as she is struggling to keep her baby warm, saying the angels have told them the Messiah is born and that a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes is a sign of this truth (Luke 2: 10-12). I imagine this would have been exciting to Mary, perhaps reassuring based on what she already knows, definitely overwhelming, but also a cause for more questions. Does this mean Jesus is the Messiah? Could He possibly born under these circumstances? And finally, how do I raise the Messiah, a king?
So what does Mary do when confronted by these confusing, uncanny messages from surprising sources? She ‘keeps all these things and reflects on them in her heart.’ In this response I see tremendous help for those of us who, like Mary, find themselves trying to live God’s plan in the face of unbelievable, befuddling messages from both inside and outside the Church. Although Luke doesn’t call it this, I think Mary engages in contemplative prayer. She takes in all she knows into her heart where she can reflect on it in the presence of God (in this case Jesus may very well have been at her breast as she did so). And of course this is enough for her to move forward, still unaware of all the terrors that wait, with faith and love. In the coming days, she will meet the Magi, another sign, and then be forced to evacuate with her family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by slaughtering the baby boys of Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 16). Her roller coaster ride of highs and lows as the mother of Jesus lasts a lifetime.
We can take Mary as a model and pray for her help with our own rollercoaster rides that cause us to doubt and fear. Her feelings of confusion, doubt, and terror, as well as of relief, excitement, and joy would have been every bit as intense as our own. God sees fit to send her incomplete messages about her mission in a variety of means just as he does with us through scripture, tradition, dogma, a variety of commentators on morality and faith both good and bad, and life experience. To sort this out, to simplify our faith, Mary reminds us to go to Jesus in the quiet of our hearts–to pause in contemplative prayer, wherever we may be, to stave off the threat of being overwhelmed and to reorient ourselves to the simple grace of Jesus for the moment at hand.
Let our hearts be light on this feast of Mary. She has shown us that contemplative prayer can turn the cacophony of voices and life experiences into perfect faith. Instead of attempting to shut out and escape the confusion, we simply take it into our hearts and let Jesus transform it into quiet, peaceful guidance for the next step. God bless Mary, Jesus’ mother and ours.