[Homily. Assumption Chapel. Sept. 8, 2022.]
Today is the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.
In our Church, the theologians say there are other more important celebrations of Mary. The three solemnities of Mary are the Immaculate Conception, the Divine Motherhood, and the Assumption. They celebrate that Mary, chosen to conceive and nurture Jesus in her womb, was preserved from the stain of sin, even original sin; that she was the mother not only of a human baby but of the divine Word made flesh who from the beginning was “with God and God” (Jn 1:1), and therefore that as a human mother she was the mother of God; and that after the course of her life on earth was ended, she received the first fruits of her Son’s suffering and death and was assumed into heaven. Behind all these glorious titles is the young virgin who, having been told by the angel Gabriel that she was chosen to be the mother of Jesus, responded in readiness with her famous words, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). It was her consent to a God who created us free and values our free consent to collaborate with him in the work of redemption. Without this consent, redemption would not have taken place.
But today we celebrate Mary’s birth. It is not a solemnity, but a feast nevertheless. Mary’s birthday. It is a feast that has been celebrated in our Church since the 6th century. There is no account of Mary’s birth in our Gospels. Instead, the circumstances of her birth are told in the apocryphal Gospel of St. James. According to this devotional text that embellishes the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, Joachim, a successful herdsman, and his wife, Anna, were unhappy that they were childless. When Joachim prays for a child while Anna lamented her childlessness, God is moved by their situation. Angels announce their child’s birth. Born after but seven months, Joachim and Anna name their child Mary and dedicate her especially to the service of God. When she turned three, she is brought to the temple, and there she is raised.
But in her twelfth year, according to the Gospel of St. James, she is removed from the temple before her menstrual blood can make her unclean. To care for her, God finds Joseph, an elderly widower who already has children and so has no interest in carnal love. With a love that is simple and fatherly, he is betrothed to Mary.
When the angel Gabriel announces that Mary is to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary consents to God’s plan for her. She conceives her child. Joseph, however, is upset, fearing that the priests may think he had acted improperly. The inevitable accusations are made, but overcome. On the way to Bethlehem, in obedience to the requirements of a Roman census, the virgin Mary gives birth to a Child. And they name him Jesus.
The details in this apocryphal text have no historical value. It is not Gospel truth that Mary married an old widower, even though his children provide a convenient explanation for “the brothers” of Jesus (cf. Mk 6:3) whose mother was a virgin. It is not clear that Joachim and Mary were old and childless before she was born. Joseph need not have been betrothed to Mary as a widower and an old man. He could have been much younger, healthier, and truly in love with her. What is clear is that when Mary was born, she who would give birth to the Son of God, was especially born. Conceived without original sin in anticipation of her divine Son, her birth occurred already in graced holiness.
Today we celebrate simply because it is Mary’s birthday. With joy, we celebrate her birthday as we celebrate the birthdays of our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, our relatives and friends. We celebrate her because we have experienced her presence in our lives, ready to help us whenever we need help, ready to bring us closer to her Son.
But also because she helps us in our mission of sharing the Good News of salvation in her Son with others.
On her birthday, may we who celebrate her, as Pope Francis says, share “in the revolutionary nature of [her] love and tenderness. In her, we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves. Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk. 1 52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice. This interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others, is what makes the ecclesial communion, [the Church], look to Mary as a Model for Evangelization” (Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #288).
We celebrate her especially in Mindanao, wherein the light of the historical injustices done against the Bangsamoro through Mary’s intercession, we must evangelize but not proselytize, respect others created “in God’s image” and not just in ours, share truthful lives, not just dogmatic truths, where humility is not a warrant for pride in vanity but genuinely allows us to admit shortcomings and sins against a gifted human fraternity, and where the Son of Mary is not an agent of vengeance and violence but a Word of love, a Word of dialogue, a Word of collaboration and understanding, a Prince of peace.