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he liturgy for today’s feast, while celebrating the birth of Mary, directs our attention to the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son. Consider, for example, the Collect (Opening Prayer) of the Mass. It prays that Mary’s birthday “may bring deeper peace to those for whom the birth of her Son was the dawning of salvation. The Prayer over the gifts is even more explicit. We are given two options: The first prays: “May the humanity of your Only Begotten Son come, O Lord, to our aid.” The other asks that we “be given strength by the humanity of your Son, who from [Mary] was pleased to take flesh.”
Similarly, the Prayer after Communion refers to Mary’s birth precisely as “the hope and the daybreak of salvation for all the world.” Mary’s birth, then, is presented as the harbinger of the human birth of Jesus, our Savior. The Preface strikes a similar Christological note: “. . . When you looked on the lowliness of your handmaid, you gave us through her the author of our salvation, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” (BVM Preface #2. The Liturgy of the Word, moreover, leaves no doubt that Mary’s Son is the fruit of a thoroughly human family tree, stretching from “Abraham the father of Isaac,” through “Jesse the father of David,” on through the Babylonian exile to “Jacob the father of Joseph.” But here, the pattern is broken. Joseph is identified not as the father of Jesus, but rather, as “the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” In other words, today’s feast presents the birth of Mary as harbinger of the human birth of the eternal Son of God. It is in and through Mary that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Angelus). As the Alleluia Verse proclaims immediately before the Gospel: Blessed are you, holy Virgin Mary, deserving of all praise; from you rose the sun of Justice, Christ our God.
Cardinal John Henry Newman writes about Mary’s key role in the Incarnation of the Son of God with particular power: God, in the person of the Word, the Second Person of the All-glorious Trinity, humbled Himself to become her Son. Non horruisti Virginis uterum, as the Church sings, "Thou didst not disdain the Virgin's womb". He took the substance of His human flesh from her, and clothed in it He lay within her; and He bore it about with Him after birth, as a sort of badge and witness that He, though God, was hers. He was nursed and tended by her; He was suckled by her; He lay in her arms. As time went on, He ministered to her, and obeyed her. He lived with her for thirty years, in one house, with an uninterrupted intercourse, and with only the saintly Joseph to share it with Him. She was the witness of His growth, of His joys, of His sorrows, of His prayers; she was blest with His smile, with the touch of His hand, with the whisper of His affection, with the expression of His thoughts and His feelings, for that length of time.
She has no chance place in the Divine Dispensation; the Word of God did not merely come to her and go from her; He did not pass through her, as He visits us in Holy Communion. It was no heavenly body which the Eternal Son assumed, fashioned by the angels, and brought down to this lower world: no; He imbibed, He absorbed into His Divine Person, her blood and the substance of her flesh; by becoming man of her, He received her lineaments and features, as the appropriate character in which He was to manifest Himself to mankind. The child is like the parent, and we may well suppose that by His likeness to her was manifested her relationship to Him. Her sanctity comes, not only of her being His mother, but also of His being her son. . . . And hence the titles which we are accustomed to give her. He is the Wisdom of God, she therefore is the Seat of Wisdom; His Presence is Heaven, she therefore is the Gate of Heaven; He is infinite Mercy, she then is the Mother of Mercy.
Today’s celebration of Mary’s birth is a graced reminder of God’s ways with humankind. Ours is a God who from all eternity calls us into being, as he did Mary, with a purpose. In much humbler ways than Mary’s, we, too, are called to give our humanity to God, for his own kind, creative, redemptive purposes. As Newman writes, Mary “came into the world to do a work, she had a mission to fulfill; . . . to her is committed the custody of the Incarnation . . . .” And we? What work are we to do? What mission are we to fulfill?
Newman gives us a good reflection to make our own on this feast of Mary.
God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me, which he has not committed to another. I have a mission—I may never know it in this life; but I should be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, and a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall be an angel of peace. A preacher of truth in my own place. While not intending it—if I do but keep my commandments. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends; he may throw me among strangers; he may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me—still he knows what he is about. Therefore, I will trust him.
May Mary, who often had to struggle, as we do, to understand “what God is about,” help us ponder all these things in our hearts!
Sources: John Henry Newman, “The Glories of Mary for the Sake of Her Son” and “On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary.” Discourses to Mixed Congregations, ## 17 & 18. Available on line: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/discourses. Copyright © 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.
“Hope in God—Creator,” in Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman [New York: Longman, Green, and Co., 1911], page 301. Copyright © 1893 by Longmans, Green, and Co.)