Monthly Archives: December 2013

Feast of the divine maternity of Mary

New Year’s day is an important feast day of Our Lady, that of her divine maternity or Mary the Mother of God. The day used to be celebrated as the feast of the Circumcision of Christ. In these two answers to questions I trace the history of the feast. The question on the Divine Maternity is question 264 in my book Question Time 2 and the one on the Circumcision has recently been published in my column in the Catholic Weekly.

264. The feast of Mary, Mother of God

I notice that the feast of Mary, Mother of God, has been moved from October 11 to January 1, when we used to celebrate the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. When was this done and why?

The feast has a long history, going back many centuries. It commemorates, of course, Mary’s divine motherhood. That is, since Jesus is true God and true man and Mary is his mother, Mary is the mother of God.

Mary’s divine motherhood was defined in the Council of Ephesus in the year 431 against the errors of Nestorius, who was patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431. He had taught that in Jesus there were two persons, one divine and the other human, and that Mary was the mother only of the human person and therefore was not the mother of God. This teaching went against the popular belief that Mary was truly theotokos, a Greek word meaning “God-bearer”. Christians had called Mary by this name since at least the third century, the earliest documented usage of the term being in the writings of Origen of Alexandria in the year 230. The Council of Ephesus, in condemning the errors of Nestorius, taught: “If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel (Christ) in truth is God and that on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God – since according to the flesh she brought forth the Word of God made flesh – let him be anathema” (DS 251).

The exact origin of the liturgical feast of Mary, Mother of God, is unknown but around 500 AD the Eastern Church celebrated a “Day of the Theotokos” around Christmas. Over time the feast came to be celebrated on December 26 in the Byzantine calendar and on January 16 in the Coptic calendar. In the West the Gregorian and Roman calendars of the seventh century gave a strong Marian emphasis to the octave day of Christmas, January 1. With time, the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus came to be celebrated on that day.

It seems that the push for a special feast of Mary’s divine maternity began in Portugal. In 1751 Pope Benedict XIV allowed the Church in that country to commemorate Mary’s divine maternity on the first Sunday of May. The feast was gradually extended to other countries and in 1914 it was celebrated on October 11. It became a feast of the universal Church in 1931 under Pope Pius XI.

After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI decided to change the feast on January 1 from the Circumcision of Jesus to the commemoration of Mary, Mother of God, in order to reclaim the ancient Marian emphasis on that day. On 2 February 1974, in the Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus he wrote: “The Christmas season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific motherhood of her whose inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world.” He went on to say: “In the revised ordering of the Christmas period it seems to us that the attention of all should be directed towards the restored Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on January 1 in conformity with the ancient indication of the liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation” (MC, 5).

He added: “It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewing adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels (cf. Lk 2:14), and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. It is for this reason that, in the happy concurrence of the Octave of Christmas and the first day of the year, we have instituted the World Day of Peace, an occasion that is gaining increasing support and already bringing forth fruits of peace in the hearts of many” (ibid.).

The feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary is a good occasion to renew our love for our blessed mother, who brought the Son of God into the world, and to honour her as both Mother of God and Queen of Peace.

The circumcision of Christ

As I recall, years ago we celebrated the feast of the circumcision of Christ on New Year’s Day. Now we celebrate on that day the feast of Mary, Mother of God. Can you tell me why we celebrated the circumcision and when and why the change was made?

As you say, on January 1 we used to celebrate the feast of the circumcision of Our Lord. This was an appropriate day for the liturgical celebration of this event because a week after the birth every male Jewish child was circumcised and a name was given him. St Luke describes it: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21).

The circumcision of Christ has an interesting origin and symbolism. It dates back to the time of Abraham, around 1900 BC. The book of Genesis records that when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God made a covenant with him, promising to multiply his offspring and to give them the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. At the same time he changed his name from Abram to Abraham (cf. Gen 17:1-8). God told him: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised… So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:10-13).

Ever since, as a sign of the covenant, every male child was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, and this became the means of incorporation into the people of the covenant, just as Baptism is for Christians today. St Paul himself would boast of having been “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5). Circumcision distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles, who were peoples of the uncircumcision.

Our Lord’s circumcision thus manifests that he is truly man, born of a woman into the Jewish nation, whom he had come to redeem. God had chosen his people of the Old Testament to prepare the way for the Incarnation of his Son, who would be their Messiah, their anointed one, who would free them from their sins and establish a new and definitive covenant with them.

Christ’s circumcision also has great symbolic value. It was in his circumcision that he first shed his blood, foreshadowing the piercing of his side by a soldier as he hung on the cross (cf. Jn 19:34). It prefigured the water of Baptism through which Christians enter the new Covenant. St Paul writes: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism” (Col 2:11-12).

When Christ was circumcised, he was given the name Jesus, which the angel had announced both to Joseph (cf. Mt 1:2) and to Mary (cf. Lk 1:31). The name Jesus means saviour and so the angel had told Joseph that the child was to be named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).

The feast of the Circumcision was celebrated on the eighth day after Christmas, and therefore on January 1, from the very early centuries. Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25 from at least the fourth century (cf. J. Flader, Question Time 1, Connor Court 2012, q. 141). Since January 1 was the beginning of a new calendar year, the Christian feast had to compete with the pagan festivities celebrated on that day, as it does today. The feast of the Circumcision was celebrated in the Gallican rite from the sixth century and in the Byzantine calendars in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Octave of Christmas was celebrated at the same time, especially in Rome from the seventh century.

Even though the feast was of the Circumcision, the texts of the Mass and Divine Office came to include many references to Our Lady. Until 1960 the Roman calendar celebrated on January 1 the Circumcision and the Octave of the Nativity. In the revised calendar of 1960 January 1 was called simply the Octave of the Nativity. Finally, in the Roman calendar of 1969 the feast became the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, but is also referred to as the Octave of the Nativity. It is fitting that we celebrate Mary’s divine maternity on the octave of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 3.

Meditation on the joy of Christmas

Christmas is usually a happy time in which good will and joy abound. In this meditation we consider why this is so and why we should be joyful throughout the year, not only at Christmas. After all, in a real sense Christmas is everyday. Click on the link below.

The birth of Christ

We have all read many times that Our Lord was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, and we may have wondered exactly what these are. I post here an answer to some questions on the birth of Christ, which contains a number of very interesting observations from Pope Benedict.

I take advantage of the occasion to wish you and your loved ones a very happy and holy Christmas and a New Year filled with God’s blessings.

I have three questions on the birth of Christ. Why do we say he was born in a stable when the Bible doesn’t make any mention of this? What are swaddling clothes? And what exactly was the sign announced by the angel of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger?

The birth of Christ has a number of extraordinary aspects and your questions touch on some of these. The first is that the Son of God, the King of Kings, was born in such humble surroundings. Surely God in the flesh should have been born in a palace, a castle, or at least a dignified inn. And he should have been laid in a bed or a cot, not in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.

But God’s ways are not man’s ways, and God clearly wanted it to be that way in order to teach us something. From the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth we learn, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little” (CCC 526).

And from the poverty of the stable we learn that the possession of material wealth, with all its attending comforts, is not as important as the possession of God. Mary and Joseph, while poor in the material sense, were truly rich in having the very Son of God, the King of Kings, in their family.

Returning to your questions, why does Christian tradition, and even the Catechism, say that “Jesus was born in a humble stable” (CCC 525) when nowhere in the Scriptures do we find any explicit mention of it? Indeed, St Matthew limits himself to saying that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” and, significantly, when he tells of the arrival of the magi he says that “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Mt 2:1, 10). The reference to a house can be explained by the possibility that after the birth in a stable, Mary and Joseph were finally able to find a house in which they lived at least until the presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem forty days after his birth. St Luke doesn’t mention a stable either but he does say that after Jesus’ birth Mary wrapped him in swaddling cloths “and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Since a manger is a feeding trough for animals it has always been assumed that Jesus was born in some sort of stable.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives, comments on the significance of the manger: “The manger is the place where animals find their food. But now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God” (p. 68). We might add that the name Bethlehem means precisely “house of bread”.

But why do we associate the birth of Christ with the actual presence of animals, in particular an ox and an ass? Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledging that the Gospel makes no mention of animals, writes: “But prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Is 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (ibid., p. 69).

And what are swaddling cloths? In ancient times, as often seen in icons of the nativity scene, the newborn child was customarily wrapped round and round with a narrow band of cloth like a mummy. It was thought this would help the limbs to grow straight. Pope Benedict comments: “The child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death: from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim… The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar” (ibid., p. 68). The swaddling cloths can be seen too as a reference to Christ’s kingship and his descent from King Solomon, the son of King David. Solomon, in the book of Wisdom, writes: “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure” (Wis 7:4-6).

Finally, why did the angel say to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). Certainly a baby lying in a manger would be a sign, since this was most uncommon. But probably, since the angel mentioned the swaddling cloths specifically, this too must have been part of the sign.

So there is much symbolism and much to be learned from these simple aspects of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

The meaning of Advent

The season of Advent raises some interesting questions which I answered in my book Question Time 1. Here is the answer, question 140 in that book.

140. The meaning of Advent

I have always been somewhat confused about the meaning of Advent. I thought it was a season in which to prepare for Christmas but the readings for Mass on the first Sunday are more about the end of the world, not Christmas. Also, is it a season of penance like Lent?

Advent has a long history. Its name, both in Latin and English, means “coming” so that tells us something about the meaning of the season. It is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. It seems to have originated in Spain and Gaul around the end of the fourth century, at about the same time that the feast of Christmas began to be celebrated. It came to be celebrated in Rome around the second half of the sixth century.

Originally, it commemorated the long wait in the Old Testament for the coming of the Messiah, and it was thus a preparation for Christmas. Gradually it evolved into preparing also for Christ’s second coming at the end of the world. Today, the Church commemorates both comings in Advent. The focus on the first Sunday is the second coming of Christ at the end of time. Then the focus shifts to John the Baptist’s preaching in preparation for Christ’s public life, and finally, on the fourth Sunday, to Mary’s preparation for the birth of Christ.

These comings are related to each another. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (cf. Rev 22:17; CCC 524).

With the first Sunday of Advent the Church begins the new liturgical year. There is thus a certain continuity between the end of the liturgical year, when the readings focus on the end of time with the celebration of the feast of Christ the King, and the beginning of the liturgical year, when we again prepare for Christ’s second coming. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and always has four Sundays. Nonetheless, its length varies, depending on the day of the week on which Christmas falls.

When Advent was first celebrated in the Church it had six Sundays before Christmas. The number was reduced to four by Pope St Gregory the Great (591-604). The Eastern Orthodox Churches still celebrate a longer Advent, beginning on November 15, the day after they celebrate the feast of the Apostle Philip. Thus for them Advent, like Lent, has 40 days. It is lived as a penitential season, sometimes called St Philip’s Fast, although the penance required is not as strict as that for Lent.

In the Catholic Church, the predominant spirit of Advent is one of expectation, of hope. The Vatican’s General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar, issued in 1969, says that Advent is “a period for devout and joyful expectation”. Nonetheless, the 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy adds that Advent is also a time of “conversion, to which the Liturgy at this time often refers, quoting the prophets, especially John the Baptist, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mt 3:2; n. 96).

Repentance, in the sense of sorrow for sin, conversion of heart and acts of penance, is always an appropriate way to prepare for a great celebration. The Church has traditionally preceded the great feast days with days of penance, as in the 40 days of Lent in preparation for Easter. The liturgical colour of violet used during the Advent season reminds us of this penitential aspect. On the third Sunday, Gaudete, or “Rejoice”, Sunday, the colour may be rose, suggesting a lessening of the penitential aspect as Christmas approaches.

We can consider that through our conversion and penance, including the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation, we are cleaning out the stable of our hearts so that Jesus can find a clean resting place in them.