“Ubi venit plenitudo temporis…” When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman…
These are the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Chapter 4, beginning verse 4. The passage is one of the most frequently quoted from all Paul’s writings and we had it also just now for our second reading.
This text gives us the only direct reference to the Mother of God in St. Paul’s writings. He doesn’t name her here, but refers to her simply as “Woman”. St. John, in his Gospel and in the Apocalypse, does the same. And the exegetes tell us, in line with the whole tradition of the Church, that the word “woman” in such a context cannot be understood as disrespectful or dismissive. On the contrary, it’s loaded with meaning, and is spoken with honour, reverence, love. The “woman” from whom the Son of God was born evokes the Daughter of Zion, figure of God’s holy people, figure of Messianic expectation, of whom the prophets spoke.
She evokes also the holy women of the Old Testament, through whom the Promise and Blessing first given to Abraham were passed on. She also inevitably evokes Eve, mother of all the living. But this woman will be different from Eve, and opposite, in that from her will come not temptation, disobedience and death. On the contrary: from her will come definitive blessing; an invitation to enter a better paradise; perfect union with God, in true holiness; and the promise of life, in its fullness, without end.
Now the “fullness of time” has come; the period of waiting is over; and the Apostle of the Gentiles stands, as it were astonished, as he contemplates in wonder the mystery of the Incarnation. Who is it that is born of this woman? He is God! That is: he is God the Son, who has existed as one with the Father from all eternity, and is now sent out, as also the Holy Spirit is sent out, to us. Why? Paul tells us: to redeem the subjects of the law. That is, to ransom, to set free those who were under bondage. This bondage is symbolised for Jews by the strict requirements of the law of Moses, now abolished; but more radically, and for us all, St. Paul refers here to our slavery under the inexorable law of sin and of death.
In Christ, then, we are given a new and radical liberty. But this is not an end in itself. Just as the Exodus of Israel from Egypt was in function of her entry into the Land of Promise, so, according to St. Paul, our liberty in Christ is in function of our entry into the ultimate blessing, which is our adoption as sons of God. Christ opens up for us the very relationship with the Father he himself enjoys; so that in him, and in the power of his Spirit, we can cry out, with total confidence, Abba! Father!
All this wonderful message – too wonderful for us to grasp – would lack justification, and even meaning, if Christ were not truly God. What then must we say about the Woman from whom Christ came? St. Paul doesn’t here directly draw out the necessary implication, but very soon after his time the Church did, and continually, ever since, she has strongly insisted on its truth. The implication I mean is that the Mother of Jesus is truly the Mother of God, and she must be honoured and venerated as such. And her name, we know from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was Mary.
One of the great theologians of the Church, of the late 4th century, was St. Gregory Nazianzen. He said that the title “Mother of God”, or Theotokos, of itself preserves the Catholic and Orthodox faith against all attacks of all heresies. Another great Doctor of the Universal Church, writing in the early 8th century, was St. John of Damascus. He said that the title Theotokos encapsulates in itself the whole economy of salvation. Nearer our own time Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman had this to say about it:
“The word Theotokos, Mother of God, declares that (Christ) is God;
it implies that he is man;
it suggests to us that he is God still, though he has become man,
and that he is true man, though he is God.”
These are not just words, or lifeless doctrines from a past age. This is Good News for the Human Race, and for us a source of boundless and invincible joy. How can I speak adequately of this joy that comes from Christ, from the Gospel; the pure and heavenly joy that filled the Immaculate Heart of Mary herself; that even now fills heaven; that still today resounds throughout the Church, and please God in the hearts of all here present too?? Certainly no merely earthly joy, however exalted, can begin to compare with it. How much less the sullied joys of the secular New Year, hung over from last night’s alcoholic excess? And what is the secular celebration all about? Just the passing of time, the ageing of the world, the taking of one step closer to death…
Our own New Year, by contrast, begins under the banner of Mary. For us it heralds another year of grace, Anno Domini, another opportunity given for conversion, for growth in holiness. Today’s celebration directs us one step closer towards Christ’s definitive Reign, towards his Second Coming, when the spiritual joys of which we now have hints and foretastes will ours without any alloy.
The Joy of the Gospel – Evangelii gaudium – is the birth right of every human person. So Pope Francis cries out to us that we have to Evangelise, to communicate the joy of Christ: because to be left in ignorance of it is a terrible tragedy for anyone.
Today then we turn especially to Mary, “Cause of our joy”, and we ask her to help us remain always in the grace of her Son; always united with him as she is; effective instruments too, as she is, for spreading the Gospel throughout the world.