Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Micah 5:1-4a / Romans 8:28-30 / Matthew 1:1-16, 18-23

In the United States, we then to think of the beginning of September as the beginning of the school year. In the Byzantine world, September 1 actually marked the beginning of the year itself. It was believed that the very first day of creation was September 1, and so this same date marked the annual cycle that passed from the beginning of all things until the culmination of the age. As a result of this calendar, the festal year of the Church in the Byzantine world both opens and closes not with events in the life of Jesus Christ, but rather with those of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, beginning with her entrance into the world on the feast of the Nativity, and ending with the celebration of her entrance into eternal glory, body and soul, on the feast of the Dormition.

For Latin Christians, it may well seem strange to give this kind of priory to the Virgin Mary rather than to her Son, Jesus Christ. It may strike us a well-meaning but ultimately misplaced act of piety to honor the Mother of God and the Church. Why not, we might understandably ask, prefer a more obvious cycle, one that begins and ends the year with the two Advents of the Word made flesh, opening the year with the prophecies of his most gracious coming in time, closing with his return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the world with fire?

However, there is a deep truth in beginning and ending the calendar not with the Creator, but rather with creation, and marking its opening and closing with the crowning glory of all things made, the Blessed Virgin. God, after all, as we are told by philosophers and theologians alike, is sufficient to himself. He has no need of anything else, as he is goodness itself, his very being unalloyed joy. So, while creation may well be a work which serves to glorify God, we cannot say that it is for his good. Instead, creation must be for our good, that we might have a share in God's goodness in this life, that goodness which is mirrored in the world he made, and, at least for those whom he has predestined, the world is to prepare us to have a share in the glory of his eternal, Triune life. Even as the Nativity of the Virgin near the anniversary of the creation of the world both marks and models our share in earthly bounty, so too the annual celebration of her Assumption serves as a model and anticipation of the glory promised to all those whose names are written in the Book of Life.

Yet, for this very reason, that is in light of the fact that the world exists not for God's good but for ours, we must likewise conclude that there are no incidental people, no one who just happens to be in the world but who is not invited to share in those goods which the world was meant to impart. The yearly cycle of events, that is, is not and never was meant to benefit God, neither in his divinity nor even as such in the Incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ. Nor was is meant merely for one human person, or even a few. Rather, the world and its yearly cycle have been given us so that those whom God has predestined and called may, through and in the world, come to have a full share in the righteousness and glory of God Most High.

In a nation where, during the past year, some 17 million persons, over one in twenty Americans, repeatedly ran short of the food they needed to thrive, this truth should make us pause. Knowing that the world was meant for all of our good, and seeing in the humble Maid of Nazareth God's care for the lowly and poor, as well as hearing on her lips his judgment against the mighty and well-fed, can we afford to let our observance of the Virgin's Birth pass by as one more pious observance? Or, emboldened by the grace and promise of her Birth, will we renew our commitment to the poor and hungry of our nation and of our world? Will be trust in the strength of God's call to justice and to glory, and witness to the Good News to the poor, that God's peace, who is Jesus Christ, may reach to the ends of the earth?

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