You could say that the reforms after Vatican II made for a kind of “remedial liturgy.” One of the basic principles was that the meaning of the liturgy should be accessible to those who are faithful but lack a deep symbolic formation.
The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, was simplified, and the hardest verses were removed from the Psalms. For example, they removed from Psalm 110, which we have recited every Evening of the Christmas octave, verse 6: “He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.” It’s not that this verse is wrong, once you know how to read the spiritual meaning of the Psalms. It’s just that it’s not the best way to introduce people to the liturgy.
(Some other time perhaps I’ll explain how necessary I think this “remedial liturgy” is.)
So too, the Marian liturgies are greatly simplified. It can be annoying. The tradition has some awesome Biblical symbolism for Mary. (For example, Sirach 24:9-18, in the old Little Office.) Now the readings are all on the literal level – and since Mary (perhaps by her choice) was hidden in Scripture, that means we don’t get much.
Even the feasts themselves are simplified. The octave of Christmas, January 1, used to be the feast of the Circumcision (which the people of the Old Testament do on the eighth day after birth), but in the remedial liturgy, that’s simplified to just, “Mary, Mother of God.” Forget the details, focus on the big stuff. And the readings for the feast are strangely generic.
The first reading is the blessing of Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.” There’s nothing Marian, on the literal or symbolic levels, in this first reading for Mary’s main feast day. It’s a lovely blessing for the New Year, but not specifically Marian.
And yet the reading is strangely insightful about Mary.
A strange parallel, from my December reading: One of St. John Paul II’s synods was on Confession. Out of that synod came his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia. Now, on first glance, that document is all over the place. Here we’re supposed to be talking about the sacrament of Confession, and instead JPII gives us musings on world peace, human rights, terrorism, racial discrimination, and “an unfair distribution of the world’s resources.” Confession doesn’t show up until the last of seven chapters. Was he avoiding the subject? Getting distracted? (Imagine if Pope Francis did that!)
Well, of course JPII knew what he was doing. He was showing what Confession is really about. It’s not about waving a magic wand. It’s not about a ticket out of earthly responsibility. To the contrary, it’s about how wildly practical God’s grace is, how the sacraments work to restore our humanity, to restore society, to bring about “reconciliation.”
To understand and appreciate grace, we have to understand and appreciate the natural order that it heals and elevates.
So too with Mary. Yes, the Circumcision is significant. But if we get lost in the details, we can come up with a Mary who is marginal, a Mary who is just a matter of theological obscurity, a Mary who has nothing to do with our real lives – and a God who has nothing to do with our real lives.
But Mary is not a theological obscurity. Like Confession, she has everything to do with the true meaning of a happy new year, and even the true meaning of politics. We can’t let our faith become a fun little dress up game we play in Church. Mary is everything.
And so in our first reading, Mary reveals the true Happy New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, let his face shine upoin you, look upon you kindly and give you peace.”
In our second reading, Mary is the transition from the Law – a law that, as a faithful Jewish girl, she lived to the hilt – to the discovery of God as Father. She looked on her Son and knew, as no one had ever known before, God as Father.
And in our Gospel, Mary is inseparably there when we discover Christ himself, as she was for the shepherds, who “went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant.” With Mary, with the shepherds, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them in our hearts,” dwelling in the amazement of the Word made flesh.
(And let us go, too, to his very human circumcision, which also makes it into our Gospel reading.)
Mary isn’t a matter of obscure details. Mary is about the heart of the Gospel. Mary is everything.
How do you keep your faith – and your devotion to Mary – from becoming marginal to your real desires for the New Year?