The Church celebrates a great many feasts of saints throughout the year. Men and women from all parts of the world, all eras of the Church's history and all areas of life are commemorated, their examples of holiness considered and their prayers invoked. But today's celebration is rather more than another saint's day, even an important one. Today we celebrate not just a person but also a title, and one with a dogmatic, doctrinal significance.
We are often attacked as Catholics for being dogmatic. The word 'doctrine' is used as a term of abuse. But we shouldn't be ashamed of these things: to be dogmatic is to have beliefs, to make claims that certain things are true; to be doctrinal is to proclaim these truths, to make them known to a world in sore need of the good news of the Gospel. And the Gospel is not good news if it does not contain truths, and not much use if it is not told.
And so today we celebrate the fact that Mary is Mother of God. This title -- the original Greek is theotokos which means 'God-bearer' -- is not simply an honorific, a piece of flattery; we're not in the business of being sycophantic here, but are actually claiming that Mary, a humble young woman from a nowhere town, a nowhere country, in a seemingly God-forsaken era of human history, gave birth to God. This truth is at once so outrageous, and yet so essential to our faith and to our salvation, that it caused massive theological rows in the earliest times of the Church's life; having been carried like a burning torch through the storms of controversy, this truth now shines forth as a beacon to carry us into a new year.
Of course, the real significance of this title, and of the arguments that surrounded it, is not so much in who Mary is as in who Jesus is. Mary is called 'Mother of God' because her first-born son, Jesus of Nazareth, who was circumcised two thousand years ago in Palestine, is really and truly God. Not 'God' in inverted commas, not 'God in a way' or semi-divine or 'so perfectly in touch with the divine that he can be called "God" in a very real sense'. He was, is and ever shall be God, the divine Son of the divine Father, the Word that proceeds eternally from the Father. God.
And God was born of a woman, born under the Law -- that is to say, born in a particular time and place, into a particular culture. This is the point that Saint Paul is making in today's second reading. Saint Paul's writings are often interpreted as if, for him, the Christian faith is about timeless religious truths, truths about the way life is, the way people are, and the way God is. But in fact his teaching, his doctrine, is thoroughly grounded in history, and in the history of the man Jesus. The religious dogmas that Saint Paul teaches revolve around the birth of a child in Bethlehem and the death of that same innocent one on a hill outside Jerusalem.
And if that child was not God, and if that man nailed to the cross was not God, and if the man who came out of the tomb to live forever is not God, then all our religion is futile. Whether our idea of religion is a set of philosophical propositions, a strict moral code, a sense of communion with 'the divine' or a warm philanthropic glow, without the historical grounding of the birth of the man who is God, it is not Christianity and it is not the Good News.
For our faith is not a human philosophy but a divine truth. To put it bluntly, you couldn't make it up! When the shepherds first heard the Good News from the angel, they told everyone they met, and were met with wonder -- a wonder composed of amazement, incredulity and outright mockery, one would imagine. But they saw the child Jesus and went away glorifying and praising God.
If we dare to model ourselves on those shepherds and tell the Good News that Mary is Mother of God to those we meet, we will equally be met with scoffing and contempt. No matter: we have encountered God because we have encountered Jesus, and we go out glorifying and praising God. The Lord has made his face to shine upon us, and it is the face of Mary's son.