On Christmas Day, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity, and the focus was on Jesus, the Word made flesh. A week later, the Church invites us to celebrate the Solemnity of the Mary, the Mother of God. This is not about taking the focus off Jesus. It is about reminding us whose mother Mary actually is. In the early centuries of the Church, some Christians, while believing that Jesus truly is the Son of God, thought that Mary was only the mother of the human Jesus. But that would be dividing Jesus into two parts, one divine and one human.
It was at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century that the Creed was proclaimed, which we recite at Mass each Sunday. We say, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages” and then we go on to say: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man”. He is one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Church calls this the mystery of the “hypostatic union”, from the Greek word for person. He is one person with two natures. The Solemnity that we mark today was established in the fourth century as a way of celebrating this great mystery.
Mary was caught up in a mystery which is bigger than herself. We can imagine the confusion of it all. She was a woman of faith, but she wasn’t a theologian. The gospel tells us that she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart”. I suppose that’s how you become a theologian. I’m told that a lot of the artists who painted this scene very discretely added in a little cross, somewhere in the background. Maybe it was a way of saying that, in her pondering, Mary understood that her child had been born for the salvation of humanity. The little cross in the background would stand as a reminder that Peace on Earth, of which the angels sang, was gained for us through His sacrifice; through His death on the Cross.
It was Pope Paul VI who, in 1968, invited people all over the world to celebrate a World Day of Prayer for Peace each year on 1 January. Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you, not as the world gives it, but I give you my peace”. We pray these words at Mass just before we exchange the sign of peace and it is a useful reminder to us that authentic peace is something that comes from the human spirit being in tune with the Spirit of God. It flows out from our hearts to heal the world around us. I think we all know instinctively that the wars that spring up around the world and the violence that happens in our own society come about because hearts are not at peace.
Part of the problem is the experience of helplessness that so many people have. When so many people are stuck in refugee camps and direct provision centres; when families are without a home of their own; when so many sick people are waiting on trollies for essential medical care, is it any wonder that people are frustrated. It is hard, if not impossible, to create peace when human rights are denied.
For his Message for this World Day of Prayer for Peace this year, Pope Francis focuses on ‘Good Politics at the Service of Peace’. The Holy Father says:
‘Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions, but when political life is not seen as a form of service to society as a whole, it can become a means of oppression, marginalization and even destruction. Political office and political responsibility thus constantly challenge those called to the service of their country to make every effort to protect those who live there and to create the conditions for a worthy and just future. If exercised with basic respect for the life, freedom and dignity of persons, political life can indeed become an outstanding form of charity.’
It is tragic that today, when paradoxically we celebrate the Motherhood of Mary, the fruit of political action which is being celebrated by our government and parliament, is the fact that today we have the beginning of what they describe as “services for the termination of pregnancy”. A great deal of political energy went into achieving this fundamentally destructive target; energy that could otherwise have been used to do other things that would give life and hope to our society. This denial of the fundamental right to life will, whatever people say, unquestionably undermines the common good of our society. It will undermine the inner peace of mothers, fathers, grandparents, doctors and nurses and all who are directly touched by it.
Those who have responsibility for the common good and for the formation of public policy carry a particular burden of responsibility for the consequences that their decisions have, not only for themselves, but for society as a whole. On this World Day of Prayer for Peace, we pray for them.
I think it is appropriate to acknowledge the courage of those in public life who, especially during the past year, have taken personal and political risks to defend the right to life. By contrast, there is a genuine sadness that Catholics have been among those who publicly and persistently promoted the taking of innocent human life, whether for political or ideological reasons, or for their own personal advancement. In so doing, they have chosen a position which is clearly out of communion with the Church. There is no point in pretending otherwise. My message to them is a pastoral and spiritual message: “Trusting in the mercy of God which knows no limits, I invite you to turn back to the Gospel of Life where you will find true peace”.
If we as Christians stop to pray for peace, it is not because we think that prayer alone will change the world. It is because we recognise that, through prayer, our hearts are converted and we are led to be the people God has called us to be and to do the things that he calls us to do, for the building up of his kingdom on earth. It is hard to pray sincerely for something without also being motivated to do something about it.
Many of you here, through various kinds of service, devote your time and your energy day after day to the building up of the common good, which is ultimately the service of peace. That service of the common good, in care for the poor, the sick, the young and the elderly and in the administration of civil society as well as in the mission of the Church, is all a participation in the work of salvation, which is the mission of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary.
Let me finish by making our own the blessing of Aaron the priest, which we heard in the first reading:
‘May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.’ Amen.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. This homily will be delivered tomorrow during 11.00am Mass on 1 January 2019, World Day of Peace and the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo.
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