Salus Populi Romani – Basilica of Mary Major, Rome
First reading Numbers 6:22-27
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 66(67):2-3,5,6,8
Second reading Galatians 4:4-7
Gospel Luke 2:16-21
In 1884, a man called Giuseppe Sarto was consecrated bishop of Mantova, in what is now the north of Italy. Giuseppe came from a large and poor family in a little rural village called Riese, and after his episcopal consecration, he returned to his home village to see his mother and thank her (his father had already died). When he went home, his mother kissed his episcopal ring, a sign of respect for the office of an Apostle, and then, curiously, she showed him her wedding ring. Mrs Sarto said, “Your ring is very beautiful, Giuseppe, but you wouldn’t have it if I didn’t have this.”
Bishop Giuseppe Sarto went on to become the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice and later, ascended to the highest office on earth, taking the name Pope Pius X. He is now known as Pope Saint Pius X. The simple and cheeky wisdom of a future saintly Pope’s mother holds a profound truth: Everything we have is given us from or through another, either directly or indirectly. Pope Pius X received his bishop’s ring only because of the life and the faith that he received from his mother and from her marriage with Mr Sarto. His vocation was born, quite literally, from the vocation of his parents. It seems to me that this is precisely the reality that the Church recognises each year on this day, on what is the Octave Day (the eight day) of Christmas. The eighth day of Christmas is the solemnity of Mary the Holy Mother of God, and it is no accident that if falls within the solemn Octave of Christmas. This feast day recognises that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh who alone is our salvation, didn’t just appear magically out of nowhere! He comes to us, as St Paul says in our second reading today, “born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.” What that means is that the Incarnation is real! It’s not symbolic or magical, but God the Son truly became a human being and embraced all that we are. That meant being born into a particular time in a particular place to a particular mother. And, dear friends, without these particulars, we simply don’t have the precious gift of Jesus our Redeemer. Today honours the fact that the precious gift of Jesus Christ comes to us through the beautiful gift of Mary and her vocation as wife and mother. The homespun wisdom of Mrs Sarto touched upon this profound truth, ‘without this ring you would not have yours’. Without the generous “yes” of Mary to the disturbing and frightening message of the angel Gabriel, as well as her persistent willingness to follow through with that yes (her whole life long), we do not have the fruit of that yes, namely, God-with-us.
Now, could God have found another way? Of course! God didn’t need Mary. He could have chosen someone else; he could have figured out another way to incarnate. The point is, this is what God irrevocably chose. He chose to honour this little girl from a backwater town in Galilee as the mother of his Son, which makes her mother of God. In fact, it’s under this title, Mother of God, or Theotokos in Greek, that Mary has been honoured throughout Christian history since at least the 3rd century. Of course, this doesn’t suggest that God came into existence through Mary, but that by an extraordinary grace, Mary bore God into this world. In this sense, we say that salvation comes to us not from but through Mary, since Jesus is our salvation. For this reason, the Church, since the very earliest centuries, has called upon her motherly intercession as the one closest to her son.
Dear friends, it’s important to note that this solemnity of Mary the Holy Mother of God is not a mere birth certificate to point out who Jesus’ mum is. We already know that! The instinct behind this feast is that of Mrs Sarto– that every gift comes to us from and through another, and we must always remember that. For not only does it help us remain grounded in humble gratitude, but it is simply how God works. In fact, God has consistently shown throughout history that he desires to come to us through mediators. In the bible, God chose countless men and women to do his work on earth and to speak his word. Think of Abraham and Sarah. think of Moses and Aaron whom we hear about in our first reading today – God tells Moses to tell Aaron what to tell the people of Israel (!). Think of the Prophets. Think of Mary the Mother of God. Think of the angel Gabriel and the other “angels of the Lord” through whom God spoke and acted so often in both the Old and New Testaments. Brothers and sisters this reminds us that we too can become conduits of God’s grace for others. God wishes for us to become co-operators in his work of salvation, and this is part of the vocation of every Christian, to speak God’s word and to do God’s work in the world. To be, in other words, like Mary, who was blessed not just because her womb bore Jesus and her breasts nursed him, but because she first heard the word of God and kept it (Lk 11:27-28).
God wants you, each of you, (and me), to also become mediators of his grace for those around us. Think of those people in your lives whose lives of faith have impacted yours. I think of my grandmother, who used to speak to me of Jesus and his wonders, which planted in my heart at a young age, the seeds of God’s grace. In those instances, she was, in her own little way acting as a co-operator, a mediator of God’s salvation, just like Mary. You and I also, can be mediators of God’s grace in our own little ways, through the everyday circumstances of our lives for those God has placed in front of us. Dear friends, to do this, we not only need to be intentional about it, but we must also seek to imitate the Mother of God. She heard the word and kept it, and as a result she bore God within her. We too, by listening to the word of God and by keeping it in our lives, can become bearers of God, people who hold Jesus Christ always within us. If we do so, those whom we meet will also meet him who is within. May we, dear friends, begin like Mary in the Gospel today, ‘treasuring these things and pondering them in our hearts.’