Today we celebrate the solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Some of the special days in our calendar are called “feasts” and some are “solemnities”. What’s the difference? A solemnity is ranked much higher than a mere feast. According to Catholic Answers, “a solemnity is the highest ranking feast. These commemorate an event in the life of Jesus, Mary or the Apostles central to the Christian faith. The celebration of mass on a Solemnity includes proper readings, the singing of the Gloria and the recitation of the creed.”
There are a lot of rules regarding solemnities that you really don’t need to know, but the main thing you do need to know is that part about commemorating an event in the lives of Jesus, Mary, or the Apostles that’s central to our faith. So, why is this celebration, just one week after Christmas, central to the faith?
It’s the day that the shepherds came to Bethlehem to see the Baby Jesus. Notice that the shepherds “went in haste”. In 2016 we don’t have a lot of contact with shepherds. We don’t know much about them. But one thing we do know is that the don’t go anywhere “in haste”. They spend their days hanging out with sheep, not known to be speedy animals. Shepherd is a pretty low-key job. But here we have them hurrying to Bethlehem to see this little baby. Something important was going on here.
When they got there, they told Mary and Joseph what the angels had told them. Luke says, “All who heard their story were amazed!” What was so amazing? Well, the story itself was pretty outrageous. But the fact that the angels had delivered this message to these sheep herders, the absolute lowest rung on the social ladder was even more amazing. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Then Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary was the central player in the greatest event in the history of the world. Everything that had happened to her in the last nine months had to be pretty overwhelming. She wasn’t an educated girl. She was a young girl from a small town whose life had been turned upside-down and I’m sure she spent many hours reflecting on what had happened.
She knew from the time that Gabriel had visited her that she was going to give birth to the Messiah. The angel had also visited Joseph and told him what was to come. On Christmas night Mary gave birth to the Son of God. She knew it. Joseph knew it. So what makes the visit of the shepherds an event “central to our Christian faith”? What makes it a “solemnity”? Why do we have to go to mass on New Years Eve (day)?
I think it goes back to the shepherds. Over the centuries, God has chosen the most surprising people to deliver His message. Look around at the statues of the saints in our chapel. There are a couple of kings, and Saint Michael, the Archangel. But for the most part they were ordinary people. Yet God chose them to be His messengers. The first in this long line of ordinary messengers were those shepherds.
Why didn’t the angels appear to somebody important; somebody with some influence; somebody who didn’t smell like a sheep? The most obvious answer is because the shepherds lived a quiet life. They were available to hear the message. They listened. Then, when they had received the message they went “in haste” to Bethlehem. It may have been the first time in their lives that they hurried anywhere.
If the shepherds were the first New Testament messengers, and if all these saints were messengers, then who are His messengers today? Take a look at the person sitting next to you. Better yet, take a look in the mirror. That’s where you’ll find His twenty-first century messengers. It’s you and me. We’re called to spread the Good News of the Gospel in this place and time. And, like the shepherds, we’d better hurry! There’s no time to waste!
If we’re not just as amazed by this story as the people who heard it first-hand from the shepherds, then we haven’t been paying attention. In the first reading the Lord told Moses to bless Aaron and his sons saying, “The lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!”
“Let His face shine upon you.” Nobody had ever seen God’s face. How could the Lord let his face shine upon them? That’s what this solemnity is all about. Now God has a face! It’s the face of a little baby lying in a manger. And the shepherds couldn’t wait to see it. This is what the world’s been waiting for for centuries. It’s an event that’s central to our faith.
The all-powerful God has chosen to show Himself to us in the form of a little baby. Halleluia!
On this day when we celebrate this awesome event, and on a day when we celebrate the changing of the secular calendar to a new year, we should keep in mind our neighbors who are suffering greatly from the recent rains and the catastrophic flooding. Please keep them in your prayers and, do what you can to help them. We will be taking up a second collection today and at both masses this weekend to help our neighbors. Please be generous, as you always are.