September 8, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

Let’s celebrate Mary’s birthday and the great gift of her ‘yes’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

Let us celebrate with joy the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for from her arose the sun of justice, Christ our God. (Entrance Antiphon)

The publication date for this column is Friday, Sept. 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today we are invited to celebrate Mary’s birthday, and as every birthday should be, this is an opportunity to give thanks to God for the precious and inviolable gift of human life.

In addition, today we are rejoicing because of Mary’s absolutely unique role in the history of our salvation. Because of Mary’s collaboration in God’s plan, we have all been freed from the oppression of sin and death, and that truly is cause for rejoicing!

Mary’s birth in a small town called Nazareth was not a public event. It was as simple and unassuming as she was. We assume that SS. Anne and Joachim (traditionally identified as the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus) rejoiced at Mary’s birth, perhaps surrounded by family members and friends. But no one among them could have known what God intended this “ordinary” daughter of Zion to become for the world.

In fact, Mary’s greatness remained hidden until as a young woman she said “yes” to God’s Word and then gave birth to our Redeemer in a stable far from her home.

Mary’s own birth may have seemed uneventful, but it was prepared for by the whole history of the Jewish people. Mary is the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior (the meaning of the name “Jesus”) to redeem us from our sins. All of the law and prophets chronicled in the Old Testament prepare the way for the mother of our Lord, whose courageous free choice sets in motion the realization of God’s plan.

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist—the only other saint birthday celebrated in the Church’s liturgical calendar—Mary’s birth has a special significance for us because it prepares us for the gift of life eternal that Jesus alone can give.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) once offered the insight that while we traditionally associate the birth of the Church with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is a sense in which the Church is born in and through Mary, the Mother of the Church. In fact, he says there is a close correlation between these two “births”:

The time of Jesus’ public activity had been for [Mary] the time of rejection, the time of darkness. The scene at Pentecost, however, reprises the beginning of the story in Nazareth and shows how the whole hangs together. Just as Christ had at that time been born of the Holy Spirit, so now the Church is born by the working of the same Spirit. But Mary is in the midst of those who pray and wait (Acts 1:16) (from the book Credo for Today: What Christians Believe).

And, of course, we Christians believe that the same Holy Spirit who was present at the birth of Jesus and at Pentecost was also present and instrumental at the nativity of Mary, who was born full of grace and free from original sin.

We rejoice at Mary’s birthday for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious reason is Mary’s role as our spiritual mother.

At the time of his passion, Jesus gave us two extremely precious gifts—the gift of himself in the holy Eucharist and the gift of his Blessed Mother.

We are invited to celebrate with joy the nativity of Mary because it is our spiritual mother’s birthday, a special time for thanksgiving and praise to God. And just as we honor and respect our earthly mothers on the occasion of their birthdays, it’s only right that we should celebrate with Mary today.

Mary’s importance for us, her children, cannot be emphasized too strongly. In many ways, this simple, strong, ordinary women from Nazareth shows us how we are meant to live. Her prayer, her trust in God, her devotion to her Son, and her instruction to us: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5), all serve as examples of Mary’s maternal care for us, her children.

It is impossible to imagine the Catholic Church without Mary. She was the first Christian disciple, her Son’s most loyal follower, one who stood with him until the bitter end, who rejoiced in his resurrection and ascension, and who stood with the disciples when the Church was born at Pentecost. She remains present throughout Christian history, accompanying us on our synodal journey as the pilgrim people of God.

Let’s celebrate our mother’s birthday with simplicity but with great joy, giving thanks to God for the great gift of our Mother Mary. †

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