The Jews circumcised their baby boys on the eighth day, as our Gospel reading points out: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision” – so for many centuries January 1 was called “The Circumcision of the Lord and Octave of the Nativity.” But the reform after Vatican II took us more deeply to the point: having celebrated the birth of Christ, we now celebrate what his parents do with him, and call it “The Octave Day of Christmas Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”
What this works out to is a great way to frame the New Year. Christmas is almost like a prelude. The New Year is associated with Mary: who is, precisely, what Jesus means for us. Let us make every new year a Marian year, joining Mary to live in light of the coming of Christ.
The reading for the circumcision takes us into two ways Mary relates to the word. First, the circumcision is also the feast of the naming of Christ: “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel.”
This is a big deal, both in the Bible and in the Liturgy. In Matthew’s account of the Nativity, which focuses on Joseph, this is precisely his task: “Joseph, son of David,” says the angel, “fear not to take Mary as wife . . . . She shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . . And they shall call his name Emmanuel . . . . She brought forth her firstborn son: and he [Joseph] called his name Jesus.” Joseph must name Jesus.
Luke’s Gospel, focusing on Mary, also culminates in her giving him this name above all names.
The old Liturgy thus celebrated the feast of “The Most Holy Name of Jesus” on the Sunday after January 1, or January 2, depending on when Epiphany fell. The liturgical reform briefly lost this feast, but St. John Paul restored it, to January 3. (This is a nice example of how we can continue to rediscover tradition, not by rejecting the reforms, but by moving forward through them.)
But Mary relates to the word in another way. Our Gospel reading, leading up to the circumcision, begins with the shepherds “find[ing] Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.” This is appropriate for the feast of Mary Mother of God: when we find Jesus, we find Mary beside him.
But the rest of the reading gives a fabulous insight into who Mary is. The shepherds “made known the message” – the Greek rhema focuses on the words that the angels spoke to them. And those who “heard it were amazed”: the sight of the child becomes amazing when we hear the words that explain who he is. A baby is not amazing: but these words make him amazing.
And then Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Unfortunately, the translation is not very literal: in the Greek, she keeps the words, the rhemata. That’s what she keeps in her heart.
In college we used to wonder at a statue of Mary holding a rosary. “Did she pray, ‘Hail me, full of grace’?” we joked.
But the answer is, yes, Mary pondered the words. First the words of the angel: it says, “she was stirred up by his word, and ‘worded’ what kind of salutation it might be,” then she asked him to explain about it, with words – in fact, despite all the un-Scriptural preaching about how the angel asked her permission, that isn’t in the Bible. What does happen is that Mary “dialogues” with the angel, pondering his words, begging explanation to take her deeper. And she concludes “be it done to me according to your word.”
Now she ponders the words of the shepherds. Next she will wonder at the words of Simeon, and then after the Presentation, she will again “keep all these words in her heart.”
And she will “call his name Jesus,” the word above words.
One of the driving insights of this webpage is the great phrase from the Rule of St. Benedict’s nineteenth chapter, “On the Discipline of Psalming”: “let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.” In short, true prayer ponders the words: the divine words given to us.
With Mary, let us ponder the other readings tomorrow. “The LORD let his face shine upon you”: those words should be pondered! May he “give you his peace”: hold those words in your heart!
The Spirit comes to let us speak – the word in Galatians is for how a raven (or a parrot) croaks words it barely understands – “Abba, Father.” We babble, we barely understand – but let us, with Mary, ponder all these words in our heart.
And above all, the name of Jesus, “savior.” Mary pondered that name, that word, deep in her heart.
Could you make a New Year’s resolution about finding more space to ponder God’s word?