giving birth to God (part II)
The Church does something a little strange on this day. Liturgically speaking, some years ago we changed this feast from the Circumcision of Jesus to the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. But officially in the Catholic Church New Year’s Day is also the World Day of Peace, and it’s advertised as such on the Vatican website as well as the USCCB one. It’s almost as if we pick something for sacred was well as the secular calendar. As a matter of fact, this is actually the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Peace; it was declared first by Pope Paul VI in 1967, inspired by John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris. And just as in Gaudium et Spes the Church resolutely addressed “not only… all who call upon the name of Christ, but the whole of humanity as well,” so Paul VI addressed his first World Day of Peace message not simply to Catholics but to all people. And his words are just as timely now.
“Peace is the only true direction of human progress,” he wrote, “and not the tensions caused by ambitious nationalisms,” not the “conquests by violence, nor repressions which serve as mainstay for a false civil order.” Peace is the only true direction of human progress. (You might also say, peace is the only direction of truly human progress.) Pope Paul also warned about the danger of believing “that international controversies could only be resolved “by means of deterrent and murderous forces” instead of by the ways of reason and “negotiations founded on law, justice, and equity.”
In the intervening fifty years, every pope since has done the same thing that Paul VI did, used this as an occasion to issue a letter to the whole world, making declarations and giving teachings based on Catholic social doctrine, addressing over the years, for example, support for the United Nations, human rights, women’s rights, labor unions, economic development, the right to life, international diplomacy, peace in the Holy Land, globalization, terrorism, and even the environment, as Pope Benedict did in his message of 2009 (“If You Want Peace Protect the Environment”). It’s almost as if you could read through these fifty messages for the World Day of Peace and get a summary of Catholic social thought.
The odd thing about it is that the way the Church has laid out the liturgical calendar we don’t actually celebrate the World Day of Peace liturgically. We celebrate Mary the Mother of God instead. (As a matter of fact, the Ordo, without a hint of irony, says that we are expressly forbidden from using the Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice today! A few hints sneak in the prayers and also in the first reading, the beautiful blessing from Numbers.) What I would like to do though is keep that in the background and start asking, so that the title of Mary the Queen of Peace doesn’t become a simple pious platitude, what exactly does the Mother of God have to do with peacemaking and Catholic social teaching? Somebody must have thought that that would be a nice match.
I’m returning to something I preached about on Christmas Eve. It was this one line from the Discourses of St. Anselm, when he wrote: “All nature was created by God, and now God was born of Mary! God had created all, and Mary gave birth to God!” I saw a great evolutionary cycle in this: nature created by God, and God born of Mary. And we hear it today in the second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: In the fullness of time, this one particular human being––Mary, this woman, who herself is nature reaching a certain level of perfection––returns the favor: God gives birth to nature, nature gives birth to Mary, and, by giving birth to Jesus, Mary completes the cycle and gives birth to God. But, what’s notable about this is that we normally don’t call Jesus “God” in our prayers and in our scriptures; we usually call Jesus “Lord.” (The odd mention of Jesus as God, as in Thomas’ exclamation in the Gospel of John, for instance, or in the Syriac liturgy, being the exception that proves the rule.) And Fr. Bede Griffiths said that that’s because it’s not enough to simply call Jesus “God.” Jesus is always God-Incarnate, Jesus isn’t just God but God-the-Word-Made-Flesh, God-in-a-human-being. So maybe we need to be more specific on this feast too: Mary, the Mother of the God-Incarnate, Mary, the Mother of God the Word-Made-Flesh.
But here’s the other step I want to take. In another one of those shocking moments that if I didn’t know any better I would have thought was a bunch of New Age hooey, St. Augustine wrote, “Do you wonder how you can be the mother of Christ?”; “Shall I not dare to call you [Christ’s] mother?” In some marvelous way––and in some very real way, not just metaphorical––Christ is born in us through revelation, through the Word when it sown in the garden of the deepest part of our inmost being. Well, then, shall we not go all the way and say that we are called to be mothers of God, that we are called to give birth to God in the world? That God the Word is meant to become flesh in us?
I understood that first of all when I first heard the German mystic Meister Eckhart’s famous aphorisms that speak of the “eternal birth of God in the soul.” That’s already wondrous and startling. But somehow even that’s not enough; it’s not enough for God to be born in us; we have to complete the cycle too, and are meant to give birth to God, too! As Jose Pagolà wrote, “Acceptance of the reign of God begins within a person in the form of faith in Jesus”––as Raniero preached about powerfully yesterday––“but it is realized”––made real––”in the life of the people wherever evil is being overcome by God’s saving justice.” God is born in us, and then we give birth to God.
How do we give birth to God? As one of my Yoga teachers used to say, “It’s simple––but it’s not easy.” By being God-like, by reflecting the image of God in whose image we are made, and participating in building God’s kingdom of justice and peace. May as well bring the last person of the Trinity in here too who I think gets somewhat neglected during this season––the Holy Spirit. I’m specifically thinking of the fruits of the Spirit, which Paul lists in the Letter to the Galatians. Where these fruits are, we are sure God is. How do we give birth to God? Every time we manifest love, joy, patience or kindness, God is not just born in us, but we are bearing God to the world. Every time we are generous, faithful, gentle, or self-controlled, God is not only born in us, but we are giving birth to God, God is made flesh in us.
And, of course, I left one fruit of the Spirit out––peace: as Jesus himself says in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God.’ Could we go so far as to say, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be mothers of Christ, for they shall give birth to God in the world’? And doesn’t Jesus himself say, ‘Who is my mother? Whoever does the will of my Father…’
And that is what ties the celebration of Mary the Mother of God in with the World Day of Peace. This is why the popes speak about social justice on this day. Even more broadly, this is why the Church has such a strong tradition of social teaching at all: She is, and we are, called to be mother of Christ, She is and we are meant to give birth to God in the world. If I may quote both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict here, Francis wrote, “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” Then he quotes Benedict XVI who said that even though this may seem unrealistic, this teaching is actually very realistic “because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness.’ And he says, “This ‘more’ comes from God.” And could only come from God. But it doesn’t start in grand gestures. Francis goes on to say that, “If violence has its source in the human heart, then it is fundamental that nonviolence be practiced before all else within families.” Dare I say, at a micro-level, within our local communities? Because that’s “the indispensable crucible in which [we] learn to communicate and to show generous concern for one another, and in which frictions and even conflicts have to be resolved not by force but by dialogue, respect, concern for the good of the other, mercy and forgiveness.” (That sound like chapters 72 and 73 of the Rule of Benedict.) Then from within families, from within the communities, “the joy of love spills out into the world and radiates to the whole of society. … The politics of nonviolence have to begin in the home and then spread to the entire human family.”
Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures that break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.
It’s simple––but it’s not easy.
As this new year begins, let us pledge ourselves once again to the way of Jesus, to the way of peace, to the simple daily gestures of nonviolence, and ask Jesus and Mary to be our guides. Let’s pray that the joy of love would spill out of this place and into the world and radiate to the whole of society. Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done––in me, in my home, among my brothers and sisters and friends, in my community, in simple daily gestures––on earth as it is in heaven!
In his infancy narratives, Luke mentions the heart of Mary three times, one of them we’ll hear today: And Mary kept all these things reflecting on them in her heart. We live in violent times. And so did Jesus himself live in violent times. Yet, as Pope Francis wrote in his message for the World Day of Peace, Jesus taught that “the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk 7:21).’” On this Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, on this first day of the new calendar year, let’s pray for a heart like the sacred heart of Jesus, a heart like the immaculate heart of Mary, a heart receptive to hearing God’s Word and keeping it.