Words on the Word
Mary Mother of God
Number 6:20-22: So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
Galatians 4:4-7: That we might obtain adoption as children.
Luke 2:16-21: They gave him the name Jesus, spoken by the angel.
Two days ago, on the feast of the Holy Family, we heard of Jesus’s return from Egypt with Mary and Joseph. On account of the aggressive policy of Archelaeus, Herod’s son, Joseph did not risk settling in Judea. Instead he took his family north to Galilee, to a town called Nazareth. This took place, writes Matthew, to fulfil what prophets had foretold: ‘He shall be called a nazirite.’ It has to be said: there is some confusion here. The Old Testament word ‘nazirite’ does not mean ‘native of Nazareth’. It means ‘one consecrated’, ‘one set apart’—and in this light, the evangelist’s point is valid enough, even if based on false assumptions.
The naziriteship is described in Numbers 6. Men or women would assume it for a time, in fulfilment of a vow. During this time they would be ‘holy to the Lord’. They would live in a state of separation visible to others by external signs, notably their ever longer hair, supposed to stay uncut until the day of their release. On that day, their head would be shaved, all hair burnt and, on that flame, a peace offering made. Nazarites were to walk among Israel as signs of God’s claim on individual lives. They were to embody a commitment to the supernatural, a reminder and a challenge to their fellows.
In Jesus’s case, naziriteship was not limited to a fixed duration. He would always and essentially be one set apart, at once intimately close and unfathomably distant. This point matters on the octave of Christmas not only because Mary’s Son is put before us as a nazirite. It matters because the institution of naziriteship immediately precedes the priestly benediction that is given us today as our first reading. Having prescribed the nazirite rites, the Lord goes on to tell Aaron and his sons how to bless Israel: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.’ God’s blessing is declared in response to the account of human consecration, assuring us that offerings and prayers do not rise aimlessly. They are addressed to a God who has a ‘face’, who, for being present everywhere, is particular and personal, who hears his children and speaks to them. This God lets the light of his countenance shine, not as an anonymous cosmic force, but as the loving utterance of a name. ‘So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel.’
Today’s Gospel culminates in naming. ‘When the eighth day came and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before his conception.’ The angel had said, ‘Fear not, Mary, you have found grace before God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ In the annunciation to Joseph, the sense of that name had been made clear: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ In Hebrew, indeed, the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘God saves’. The saving purpose contained in the name assumes human features because Mary consents to God’s design. She says Yes unconditionally. She accepts her consecration, knowing that it requires a complete dispossession of self. She becomes ‘one set apart’—in effect, a nazirite—so that heavenly blessing may become incarnate in her. Thanks to Mary, God’s face has shone upon mankind, bestowing grace. The countenance of the Most High has been lifted up upon us, bestowing ineffable peace. The name of God has, through her, been put upon our race. God saves. God saves us, here and now.
In a celebrated sermon on the holy name of Jesus, St Bernard speaks of it as a wonderful remedy against the soul’s wounds. On account of this fact, he adds, the Song of Songs calls the Lord’s Name ‘oil poured out’. This eighth day of Christmas invites us t let this blessed ointment do its healing work in us, seeping into the secretest recesses of our hearts. Yet how can we, weak as we are, place ourselves so utterly at God’s mercy? By calling on Blessed Mary. Through her intercession the grace of salvation unfolds, to this day, among Eve’s exiled children. In a maternal mystery that the Church contemplates with silent wonder, Mary remains a privileged channel of priestly blessing. She is, as we will hear in our post-communion prayer, not only Mother of God’s Son, but of the Church; she is our Mother. She would make us, too, become a dwelling place for Jesus; a people set apart, a nazirite people, fit to receive and transmit God’s bountiful blessing.
The solemnity of Mary, Mother of God coincides with the beginning of a new calendar year. It is customary to accomplish this transition by making good resolutions. May ours be this above all: never, this year, to resist the grace of God, pondering always in our hearts the meaning of the Word revealed to Mary, through Mary, asking her to make our Yes to God as faithful and as fruitful as hers. If we do, the year ahead will be a year of benediction. Even hours of darkness will be illumined by the face of the Lord, shining on us. Above the horizon we shall ever perceive the comforting twinkle of the Star of the Sea. It sheds the light we need to journey on with confidence: the knowledge that our gracious God saves, wants to save, never ceases to save. Amen.