August 19, 2018
Homily for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary – transferred to August 19, 2018 – Christ Church, Ontario
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Mary the mother of Jesus was a real woman in flesh and blood. The Gospel of Luke tells us, for example, that she was a very wise woman who pondered the extraordinary events of her life deeply in her heart (cf. also Lk. 2:51). But she has since transcended her physical and historical reality to become in the Christian imagination the purest expression of the tenderness of God. When I lived in Tuscany for about two years, I did not understand the meaning of the many Madonnas that you find there placed at almost every corner of old buildings. Even the smallest village has at least one of those. They are usually frescoes made sometime from the 14th to the 18th century, and they almost invariably show the baby in her lap. Sometimes she feeds the baby with her breast (“Madonna del Latte”) and sometimes she is playful with him (“Madonna del Cardellino” for example). It took me a while to figure out that I was surrounded by continual reminders of the divine tenderness, that through centuries which saw poverty and famine, wars and oppression, together with the joy of life and love, Saint Mary was always there, at every corner, to tell people something that perhaps was too difficult to say in words: that God is tender love for us all, for all of creation. As soon as I say such a thing, I feel I am in danger of spoiling it, of making it trivial, or I feel the need to defend my affirmation with theological arguments. It is not so with the Madonnas at every corner, who speak volumes and not only to the rational mind. I find it fascinating, and not at all disturbing, that her iconography, her sitting on a throne with the child on her lap, is derived directly from the iconography of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was very popular at the time that Christianity spread through the Roman Empire. Who am I to tell God how He should teach wisdom to humans? I suspect there are, in fact, manifold ways in which God has tried and tries again and again to explain to us that at the root of all reality there is a infinite embrace of tenderness, but we seldom listen or understand. We never relax into the embrace. But when we do, we become mirrors of the divine tenderness and we become truly wise people.
Jesus came, being born of Mary, to teach us that God is Father of all and not just of somebody. Paul implies in the passage from the Letter to the Galatians, that through his being a Jew and his revisiting his own ancestral religion, Jesus was able to clear the way of access to God for all people, and not just for Jews. In Paul's understanding, Jesus gave to all people the chance to think of themselves as children of God; nobody, Jews or Gentiles, needed anymore to feel oppressed and controlled by the divine or the demonic spirits, because God was a good Parent for all, wanting to see each and everybody grow to their full humanity (cf. Gal. 4: 1-3). For us, today, who do not live in the ancient context of the conflict between Jews and Gentiles, this means that God is not just the Father of the ones who believe correctly, of those who act correctly, or even of those who are wise and compassionate. God is the Parent of all, although we are recognizable as God's children only when the tenderness and the compassion of God show through us.
The Eucharist is yet another of God's invention, perhaps the greatest of all, that is supposed to teach us to become God's children, that is, to become conscious of who we truly are. In celebrating the Eucharist, we can let go of all our pretenses and our masks and we can rediscover thankfulness for life: for our life and for the manifold ways in which life manifests itself in the world. In it, we celebrate the mystery of a God who wants to be eaten and consumed, to become nourishment for the world, instead of being just its celestial ruler. This idea, just like the iconography of Mary and the child, is similar to something already present in the Pagan religion of antiquity. In this case, it echoes Dionysus, a dismembered god associated also to the ritual drinking of wine. But I don't think, again, that we should really mind. What matters is not how God talks to humanity, but what we learn, how wise we become, that is, to what extent we can let go of dualistic thinking, of our need to be right which makes others immediately wrong, and we can instead let ourselves be caught in the mystery of the divine tenderness and the divine self-giving. I just learned, in preparation for this homily, that in Coptic and Ethiopic churches there is a small room attached to the church building where the bread for the Eucharist is reverently prepared, and such room is called “Bethlehem”. One possible etimology of Bethlehem is indeed “house of bread” (BETH – LEHEM). Today, in the feast of Mary, we celebrate the Eucharist and we receive again the Living Bread. May we receive it in our hands with the same humility, the same joy, and the same surprise which she must have felt when she took her child for the first time into her blessed hands and to her breast. Amen.