Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Nm 6: 22-27
Ps 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8
Gal 4: 4-7
Lk 2: 16-21

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my Dad teaching me how to ride a bike on the church parking lot. In retrospect, a paved venue was probably a poor choice, considering the number of times I came in sudden contact with the ground, and also given that this was well before the days of protective headwear. Still, it was a wonderful experience. I was excited and scared, wanting to go fast but not too fast, trying to keep my balance and impress my father by staying between the lines. I recall how strange my arms and legs and feet felt: they had always worked together in the past, but now they acted as if they had never met. To sum it all up, you could say I experienced the joy of learning. I learned what your stomach feels like when you take a risk, and how your spirit feels when you’re successful. I learned about my tolerance for some mild pain and a little blood. I learned a few uncommon words from my father, who, as he watched me tumble into the rosebushes next to the convent, said some things he would normally never have said in front of his children.

Today we begin a New Year. Many of us have made resolutions about learning new things: taking up a foreign language, working on our family genealogy, practicing a musical instrument, learning how to fish or dance or ice skate, how to hit a baseball or use a smartphone or fix a faucet. Two thousand seventeen lies before us with countless opportunities to learn. This includes our faith. There is always something new to learn from the Lord. Perhaps some of our New Year’s resolutions concern this, as we vow to learn greater patience and mercy, to read the Bible, come to confession, and serve the poor more often.How fitting, then, that we begin with this feast of Mary, the mother of God. She is the greatest student of the Lord, the accomplished bike rider from whom we can learn about balance and speed and dealing with obstacles and falls. As St. John Paul II taught, every disciple can learn from the Blessed Mother. Mary is the tutor all of us need in learning how to follow Christ more closely (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 53-56). She received Christ in her womb, brought him forth in Bethlehem, followed him up Calvary. And she kept all of it in her heart. That makes her the one we watch to learn the path of true and joyful discipleship.

On this New Year’s Day, let us focus on two of her lessons: freedom and courage.

In the Annunciation, Mary shows us that the Lord does not force us to obey Him, but invites us to fulfill His plan. “Let it be done to me according to your word.” In her obedience to the command of God, in her fulfillment of the law in presenting Jesus in the Temple, Mary shows that true Christian freedom is not the power to get whatever we want, but the liberty which comes from obeying our Maker. For us, who have so many choices and advantages, the Blessed Mother’s lesson is that obedience to God is the only true and lasting freedom. Choosing to gossip rather than stay silent or speak well of someone may feel good; choosing to purchase the biggest car or the newest computer may lift our mood; choosing to seek sexual pleasure outside of marriage may offer a thrill. But none of these will make us free and happy. When the audience for our gossip disperses, when newer cars and computers come out, when the feast of physical excitement leaves only fast-food crumbs, we remain unfulfilled, sour and stale, exhausted but unable to rest, desperately in search of more and more chances to use less and less freedom.

Mary teaches something quite different, and hard to hear. “First and last, seek God’s will and obey. Obedience is the only real freedom, the only lasting happiness.”

Mary also tutors us in courage. A young, pregnant girl, she travels alone into the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. A new mother and wife, she is forced into exile with her son and husband, under the shadow of a mad king’s wrath. A widow, she endures the unimaginable sorrow of watching her only son die in horrible pain. She commands no troops, she explores no unknown continents, she leads no dangerous expeditions. But again and again she displays amazing courage. Mary teaches us that disciples can be sinners, but they cannot be wimps. Learning from her, we can respond bravely to our own opportunities: when the faith is ridiculed, when our good intentions are doubted, when the demands of marriage grow sharp, when the harsh lash of loneliness, sickness, and grief falls upon us, Mary says, “Do not be afraid! With God all things are possible. His Spirit will be your strength, His grace will be your courage. In Christ you can be brave!”

We need Mary the same way we need Dads to teach us to ride a bike, to take a punch, to swing a bat; the same way we need Moms to teach us how to play, how to cook, how to share with our brothers and sisters. We need Mary the same way we need people to teach us physics, sewing, and poker. No one who wants to learn how to fly a plane pushes his teacher away, saying, “No, you’ll only be in the way!” No one who wants to learn how to scuba dive tells her teacher, “Don’t get between me and the water. I’ll do this on my own!” Teachers do not get in the way. Teachers open the door. Mary and the saints are students like ourselves, but they are all advanced students, prodigies in the Christian craft. In His great mercy and love, God has appointed the saints as our tutors, and Mary as our head tutor, that we might better learn the way of our Master. Mary cannot follow Christ for us, but she can teach us a great deal about what it takes to stay on the path.

In this New Year, as we resolve to be better students of faith, Mary says to us what she said to the waiters at the wedding in Cana, as she points to Christ and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” That is the lesson plan for lifelong discipleship. That is our homework for all the days ahead.