Some years ago I came across the anecdote of a woman who, one day, had arranged to take the morning off work. She had told her employer that she needed the time to observe an annual tradition of going out to have a special breakfast for her mother’s birthday. Naturally, her boss was more than willing to accommodate her request.
It was the 8th of September, and the woman in our story had in fact wanted to go to Mass to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lady, the holy Mother of God.
I have no idea whether or not this really happened, and it seems not to matter. In either case, it is a rather sweet story, and provides us with an instructive example of two things.
The first is how we ought to think seriously about the First Commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. Do we find ourselves unable to observe Holy Week as well as the other feasts and mysteries of the Christian year because of work commitments, but manage to arrange time off work for social engagements, the World Cup, or even the Eurovision Song Contest? In our preparation for Confession, we ought to consider whether we have indeed followed the Saviour’s command to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind.
The second is that this story serves as a reminder of the place that the holy Virgin Mary ought to have in the hearts of all Christians, for she is indeed Mother of God and Mother of the Church.
We may easily recall the words of the Saviour from the Cross – ‘Behold your mother’ – as He entrusted St John to her maternal care, and we may embrace that sentiment as applying equally to us. The image of the Holy Rood captures this moment and emblazons it on our minds. Yet the ways in which the Mother of God permeates our life in Christ are varied and numerous.
We love her as mother but we also know her as the Joy of All Who Sorrow, the Softener of Evil Hearts, the one who cloaks us with her Protecting Veil, the Gate of Heaven, and under an almost innumerable array of titles in which she is known as Our Lady, as we invoke her prayers for particular towns, cities, countries, and assorted groups of people.
Today, we celebrate her birthday, but moreover, we worship the Christ whose grace shone forth through his Mother. It is a story that we all know: the Fall of our first parents separated humankind from the path of growth into union with God and introduced into the world death, decay, and the opposite of all that God had intended for his creation. “Ever since Eve took a bite out of that apple…”, one of my aunts sometimes used to say when there was a news report of something awful in the world.
This reveals itself in various ways and affects each one of us – anybody who has prepared for regular confession and repeated the same sins time after time will know this well. That human beings reach a point in life where co-operation with God in the creation of new life becomes impossible is one effect of the Fall. Yet, the mystery at the heart of our observance today is expressed succinctly in one of the antiphons at Vespers of the feast:
The barren soil gives birth to a fertile field, announcing the resurrection of the human race.The Antiphon on the Third Psalm
The barrenness of St Anne is overcome at the conception and birth of her daughter, who is the Gate through which the Conqueror of death is to enter the world. In the Conception and Nativity of Mary, born to a barren mother, we have a foretaste of the effects of the Saviour’s Resurrection, shattering the bars of death and turning the Fall on its head, and the full participation in that same Resurrection is the promise of Christ to each of us who live and die with Him.
This is the great mystery that we celebrate today: surely that’s worth some time off work.