Monday, December 31, 2007

Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

We celebrate today the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

The title mother of God does not mean that Mary, who was created by God, existed before God, but that Jesus who existed first, who shares the same Divine Nature as the Father and the Holy Spirit; Jesus who is the Eternal Word of the Father assumed our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The person who Mary conceived and gave birth to at Bethlehem is God himself. Therefore when we honor Mary with the title Mother of God, we are really honoring Jesus.

Bishops throughout the Christian world gathered in Ephesus in modern day Turkey in 431 to defend Mary’s title as Theotokos or God-bearer which at this time had already become a time honored phrase.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople challenged the title. Nestorius was a gifted, clever but weak theologian. He claimed that Mary gave birth to human nature only. He said Mary was the mother of the man Jesus whom God dwelt in as a temple.

St. Cyril of Alexandria defended the divinity of Christ and Mary’s title of God-bearer. St. Cyril said that you can’t give birth to a nature without giving birth to a person. St. Cyril pointed out Nestorius error to Pope Celestine I who convoked the Council of Ephesus to settle the question officially.

As the Council was making its deliberations the people waited outside. When they heard the news that The Council fathers had reaffirmed the teaching of Mary as God-bearer, they cheered the Council Fathers and there was a great celebration. The people led torchlight processions through the streets with the bishops and other delegates.

But Nestorius refused to back down. He held a council at Antioch without the approval of the Pope. The Antiochenes attempted to excommunicate St. Cyril of Alexandria. Instead, delegates from Rome arrived and excommunicated Antiochenes. Sixtus III (432-440) succeeded as Pope. He renovated the Basilica of Santa Maggiore with an icon of Mary, Mother of God.

St. Cyril’s defense of Mary’s title as Mother of God reminds us that Mary always leads us to her Divine Son. To honor Mary is to honor Christ. Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant carried holy bread and tablets of the law, but Mary is far greater because she carried God himself. For while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1, 17) Jesus, our God, took on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When we call her Blessed we fulfill her prophecy she made in the Bible in her Magnificat when she said “…from now on will all ages call me blessed”. (Luke 1,48)

Jesus gave us his Mother to be our Mother from the Cross when he said to St. John the Apostle “Behold your mother” and when he said to Mary about St. John “Woman, Behold your son.” St. John says from that hour he “took her into his home.” (John 19, 26-27) We are also called to take Mary into our home to be our mother that she may lead us into a more intimate relationship with her Son, Jesus Christ.

Mary teaches us to pray. She treasured things in her heart. How often do we turn our hearts and reflect on the things God has done for us? We honor Jesus and Mary when we pray the rosary. Praying the rosary is a beautiful way to imitate Mary who reflected on the things that God was doing in her life in her heart. The soul of the rosary is reflecting on the mysteries in the life of Jesus and Mary. The other prayers – the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be form a background for our meditation on the mysteries

We face so many difficulties in this life whether it be sickness or family members who have fallen away from the faith or problems in the world. What can we do? The answer is to start by praying the rosary.

Sister Lucia, who died in 2005, was the last surviving visionary from Fatima. She once told a priest that in the times in which we live the Blessed Mother has given a new efficacy to the recitation of the rosary. She said that Mary “has given this efficacy to such an extent that there is no problem, no matter how difficult it is, whether temporal or above all, spiritual, in the personal life of each one of us, of our families, of the families of the world, or of the religious communities, or even of the life of peoples and nations that cannot be solved by the Rosary."

We should always approach Mary the Mother of God, and our mother too, with confidence and devotion. May we always give her the love and honor she deserves. We ask her to help us faithfully imitate her Son. Let us never fail to call on her in all our needs, especially pray for peace and a greater respect for all human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

On the Sunday after Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Every family is called to imitate the Holy Family in some way. Every family is called to be a sanctuary of life and love.

The foundation of society is a marriage between a man and woman who have committed themselves to each other and to God in lifetime union and are open to the generation of new life. Today the family is under attack by those who would place other living arrangements on par with a man and woman united in marriage and also by those who promote contraception, sterilization and abortion. We must be unafraid in answering these attacks and look to the Holy Family as a model.

How can the Holy Family be a model for families today? Their situation was unique in that Mary was perpetually a virgin in view of her role to be the Mother of God.

The Holy Family is a model of self sacrifice. They faced situations that many families face today.

Mary was a young woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy. She fulfilled God’s will by saying yes to the message of God delivered through the Archangel Gabriel, but she needed to place her absolute confidence in God’s protection and providence. The penalty for being found pregnant outside marriage according to Jewish law was stoning to death. But Mary said yes to life. She placed her hope in God, even though she had no health insurance and no guarantee of future income. She trusted God would provide for her and her family.

Joseph is a model for husbands in that he cared for Mary and Jesus during Mary’s pregnancy. He protected them by taking them into Egypt to escape the evil Herod. Like St. Joseph, men are called to be guardians and defenders of life. Fatherhood, like motherhood, begins not at birth, but at the moment of conception in the womb.

Joseph is also a model for fathers in that he taught Jesus his trade of carpentry.

Both Mary and Joseph trained Jesus in the ways of faith. Some think that after Jesus was found in the Temple at the age of 12 that he began formal studies to become a Rabbi. His followers called him “Rabbi” and no one questioned his credentials in this regard, not even his enemies.

Traditionally St. Joseph is considered to be the patron of a happy death since he is believed to have died in the company of Jesus and Mary. We believe that Mary and Jesus cared for St. Joseph at the end of his life on earth. So we are reminded that life is precious up to the moment of natural death. Deliberately acting or withholding treatment to cause death is always wrong. We are not required to use extraordinary means to preserve life, but euthanasia is always wrong. There is a world of difference between death take its natural course, accepting it as a part of life and deliberately causing death. Food and water must always be given to a sick person on the progression toward a natural death.

Mary is also a model for those who mourn, having lost her husband early in life and seeing her only son die on the cross. She reminds us to trust in God, knowing that he is close to the brokenhearted. She is also a model of forgiveness as she forgave those who were responsible for his death.

Even right after his birth Jesus faced danger. Herod was afraid of losing power so he searches for the infant Jesus who he considers a potential future rival in order to kill him. Even as an infant, Jesus was a sign of contradiction to the world. This reminds us of the conflict between a culture of life and the culture of death that we see in our day.

In January of 1999 Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis and spoke of a great conflict occurring in our coutry today between “a culture that affirms, cherishes and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings -- the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered 'unuseful' -- to be outside the boundaries of legal protection."

In 1994 Mother Teresa spoke of the harm abortion has done to America when she said "America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father's role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts -- a child -- as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters"

“And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners. Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being's entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign."

It was both Pope John Paul II’s and Mother Teresa’s hope, that Americans of every race, ethnic group, economic condition and creed would resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of life. One crucial element of that choice is that the nation continues to honor and revere the family as the basic unit of society.

What can we do to defend the family? First we can promote chastity. The foundation for marriage is the virtue of chastity. Chastity should not be understood as a repressive attitude, but rather the temporary stewardship of a rich and precious gift to be realized in each person’s specific vocation. Chastity respects God’s plan for human sexuality and his plan to transmit new human life.

We can also help women who are pregnant to make a choice for life. In his Letter to Families in 1994 Pope John Paul II recalled the Lat Judgment scene in the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus will say to the blessed "Come, O blessed of my Father... for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me…" (Mt 25:34-36). He tells us that his list could be lengthened to include countless other problems relevant to married and family life. There we might very well find statements like: "I was an unborn child, and you welcomed me by letting me be born"; "I was an abandoned child, and you became my family"; "I was an orphan, and you adopted me and raised me as one of your own children". Or again: "You helped mothers filled with uncertainty and exposed to wrongful pressure to welcome their unborn child and let it be born".

He also refers to the other list, solemn and terrifying. "Depart from me... for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink… (Mt 25:41-43). To this list also we could add other ways of acting, in which Jesus is present in each case as the one who has been rejected. In this way he would identify with the abandoned wife or husband, or with the child conceived and then rejected.

Pope Benedict XVI has been equally strong in his defense of human life and the family. In November of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI visited Kenya and instructed the bishops that “[w]hen you preach the Gospel of Life, remind your people that the right to life of every innocent human being, born or unborn, is absolute and applies equally to all people with no exception whatsoever."
At the same time he said that the Catholic community “must offer support to those women who may find it difficult to accept a child, above all when they are isolated from their family and friends.” Catholics should also “be open to welcome back all who repent of having participated in the grave sin of abortion, and should guide them with pastoral charity to accept the grace of forgiveness, the need for penance, and the joy of entering once more into the new life of Christ."

All of us have a role to play in strengthening the family and defending life. We should pray to the Holy Family today that they may grant us the grace to be faithful to our mission to build a new culture of life where each family will be a sanctuary of love and life, where every human being will be welcomed, protected, nurtured and loved from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.