Commentary on the Readings
The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God – New Year’s Day – Year A
Bless, Don’t Curse: It is the Way of Peace
Christians have always connected the traditional New Year’s feast to a motive of their faith. Before the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council, Jesus’ circumcision was celebrated on this feast. It took place, according to Luke, eight days after his birth (Lk 2:21). Then this day was dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. From 1968, January 1 became the “World Day of Peace” as promulgated by Pope Paul VI. The readings reflect a variety of themes: the blessing to begin the New Year well (First Reading); Mary, model of every mother and disciple (Gospel); peace (First Reading and the Gospel); the divine sonship (Second Reading); amazement before God’s love (Gospel); the name with which God wishes to be identified and invoked (First Reading and the Gospel).
“To bless” and “blessing” are terms that occur often in the Bible. They could be found on almost every page (552 times in the Old Testament, 65 times in the New Testament). From the beginning, God blesses his creatures—all living beings—that they be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22), the man and the woman that they rule over all creation (Gen 1:28), and the Sabbath, sign of rest and of joy without end (Gen 2:3).
We need to feel blessed by God and by the brethren. “Cursing” distances, separates, and indicates a refusal, while “blessing” on the other hand approaches, strengthens solidarity, and infuses trust and hope. “May the Lord bless you and protect you”: these are the first words that the liturgy utters on this day. May they be impressed on our hearts and may we repeat them to friends and enemies throughout the year.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Teach us, O Lord, to bless those who insult us, to bear with those who persecute us, to confront those who slander us.”
The market for blessings and curses, magic spells, charms and casting an evil eye is still flourishing. It was even more flourishing in ancient times when it was thought that the word—especially when accompanied by gestures and pronounced by one gifted with superhuman and mysterious powers—would bring to completion what it expressed.
The Word of God was naturally retained as always efficacious. “With his word he created the heavens; he speaks and all is made, he commands and all exist” (Ps 33:6,9). They trembled at his curses and they invoked his blessings. He blessed his people when He filled them with good things: when he extended prosperity and health, success and victory, rain and fruitfulness to the fields and animals (Dt 28:1-8). Misfortune, disease, famine, defeat were all signs of his curse (Dt 28:15-19).
There were also mediators of divine blessings: the father of the family “The blessing of the father strengthens the homes of the sons” (Sir 3:9), the king (Gen 14:18 ff) and the priests.
Our reading refers to the text of the most famous of blessings taught by the Lord himself to Moses. It was to be used by the “sons of Aaron … to put the name of the Lord on the Israelites” (vv. 23,27). It was used at the end of the daily liturgy in the temple. The priest came out of the door of the sanctuary and stretching his hands over the crowd waiting for him, he uttered this sacred formula.
In it, the name of the Lord—JHWH—is invoked three times. It is an ineffable name that only priests were allowed to pronounce and only to bless, never to curse.
To each of the three invocations of the holy name two requests are added:
- May the Lord bless and protect you.
- May the Lord shine his face upon you and be gracious to you.
- May the Lord direct his gaze on you and give you peace.
These are six images that express the request for grace and favor. The radiant face is a sign of friendship and benevolence, inspires trust and opens the heart to a joyful hope. With very human language, the pious Israelite often asks the Lord to “cheer up his face” and not “to hide his face” (Ps 27:9), not to show himself angry. “Let your face shine—the psalmist implores—and we shall be saved” (Ps 80:4): “let the light of your face shine on us, Lord” (Ps 4:7).
It’s not only God that blesses the person, but also the person is called to bless God. In the Psalms, the invitation insistently returns: “Bless the Lord, all of you, servants of the Lord … Raise your hands towards the sanctuary and bless the Lord” (Ps 134:1-2); “Bless his name … tell of his glory, to all the nations tell his prodigies” (Ps 96:2-3). The pious Israelite starts all his prayers with the formula: “Blessed are you, Lord …”
The blessing that a person addresses to the Lord is the response to what has been received. It is the sign that he is aware that all good comes from God, that all is gift.
The Bible continuously speaks of God’s blessing and—very rarely—of his curses. It deals in human language to describe the disastrous consequences provoked not by God but by sin. The one who strays from the way of life brings upon themself the worst of misfortunes. The sage Ben Sirach already understood this: “The evil is poured on him who does it” (Sir 27:27). From God, only blessing comes.
What answer has the Lord given to the petitions of his people? Israel waited for a blessing from the Lord: peace, a very materialistic shalom. In the fullness of time God has sent his peace, his Son “he is our peace” (Eph 2:14). The surprise was so great it made Paul exclaim: “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, in Christ” (Eph 1:3) and to Zachary: “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel who has visited and redeemed his people” (Lk 1:68).
God has sent his Son to bring blessing (Acts 3:25-26). In him, all curses are transformed into blessings (Gal 3:8-14). If, in Christ, God has always revealed his benedictory face, man has to always bless, including one’s enemies. “Bless and do not curse” (Rom 12:14), “do not render evil for evil, insult for insult, but on the contrary, answer by blessing, because for this you are called to have a blessing in inheritance” (1 P 3:9).
In this passage from the Letter to the Galatians, Paul recalls the central truth of the Gospel: after God has sent his Son “born of a woman,” (4:4) that is, similar to all of us, except sin, we can call God: “Abba, Father” (4:6). This is the good news.
The pagans also called God “father of all people.” What do Christians specifically mean? Why does Paul movingly affirm that now a Christian is no longer a slave but a son or a daughter and can, therefore, shout: “Abba?” Is the “Our Father” a prayer that all people can recite?
To the last question, all of us will probably answer: “yes” and there is a Gospel text that justifies this answer. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good, and he gives rain to both the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:44-45). The benevolence of God does not make a distinction among people; all are his children. God is the father of all people.
But when a pagan and a Christian invoke God as “father” they don’t mean the same thing. The pagan calls God “father” because he is conscious of having received from him the gift of existence. Christians identify themselves as a son or a daughter of God at another level: they know that besides existence, they have received the Spirit from him, a sharing in his very own divine life. For this reason, in the first centuries, the prayer, Our Father, was presented only some days before Baptism, that is, only when the catechumen was able to fully understand its meaning.
The reading is also tied to the theme of the Feast of Peace. Those who receive the Spirit and call God “Abba” cannot but feel brother/sister to all people and to become a builder of peace.
Today’s Gospel is a continuation of the passage read during Midnight Mass. Beside the manger of Jesus, the shepherds again appear. Following the news received from heaven, they go to Bethlehem and find Joseph, Mary, and the baby in a manger. One notes that they do not find anything extraordinary. They see only a baby with his father and his mother. Nevertheless, from that weak being, needing help and protection, they recognize the Savior. They do not need extraordinary signs; they do not verify miracles and prodigies. The shepherds represent all the poor, the excluded that, almost by instinct, acknowledge in the baby of Bethlehem the Messiah from heaven.
In the depictions, the shepherds appear in general to be on their knees before Jesus. But the Gospel does not say that they were prostrated in adoration, as the magi were (Mt 2:11). They simply observed—amazed in ecstasy—the marvelous work that God has done in their favor. Then they announced to others their joy and all were astonished at what they heard (v. 18).
In the first chapters of his Gospel, Luke often reveals the marvel and the immense joy of the persons who felt involved in the plan of God. Elizabeth, having discovered herself pregnant, repeats to all: “This for me is the Lord’s doing” (Lk 1:25). Simeon and the prophetess Anna bless God who has granted them sight of the salvation prepared for all the people (Lk 2:30-38); Mary and Joseph are also amazed and astonished (Lk 2:33,38).
All of them have eyes and heart of a baby that accompanies with a glance each gesture of the father. He remains enraptured by his gesture and he smiles. He smiles because in all that the father does: he sees signs of his love. “For the Kingdom of God belong to such as these—Jesus says one day—and whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mk 10:14-15).
The first worry of the shepherds is not of an ethical nature: they do not ask what they must do, what changes they need to bring to their not so exemplary moral lives, or what sins they must undertake to avoid. They stand to enjoy that which God has done. Only after feeling being loved, are they able to listen to advice, the proposals of a new life poured upon them by the Father. Only in this way will they come to find themselves in a right condition to trust him.
In the second part of the Gospel (v. 19), the reaction of Mary to the story of the shepherds was emphasized: “She treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart” (literally: she put them together).
Luke does not mean to say that Mary “had in mind” all that happened, without forgetting any detail. And he does not even want—as some have maintained—to indicate Mary as being a source of information on the infancy of Jesus. The theological significance of his affirmation is far greater. He says that Mary “gathered together all the facts,” bound them and captured the meaning; she discovered the connecting link; she contemplated the realization of God’s plan. Mary (a 12-13-year-old girl) was not superficial. She did not take pride in herself when things went well nor did she lose heart in the face of difficulties. She meditated and observed with an attentive eye on each event in order not to be pre-conditioned by ideas, convictions, and traditions of her people, but be receptive to and prepared for God’s surprises.
A certain Marian devotion has distanced her from our world, from our human condition of anguish, doubt, and uncertainty, and from our difficulty in believing. It wrapped her in a cloud of privilege that in some cases left her admired or envied, but not loved. Luke presents her in a balanced perspective, as a sister who fulfilled a journey of faith, similar to ours.
Mary does not understand everything from the beginning. She marvels at what Simeon says of the child. She is almost taken by surprise (Lk 2:33). She was amazed before God’s work, as were the apostles and all the people (Lk 9:43-45). She does not understand the words of her son who chose to commit himself to the Father’s affairs (Lk 2:50) as the Twelve had difficulty in understanding the words of the Teacher: “They could make nothing of this; the meaning of these words remained a mystery to them, and they did not understand what he said” (Lk 18:34).
Mary does not understand, but observes, meditates, reflects and only after Easter (not before), will she come to understand everything; she will clearly see the meaning of that which happened.
Luke will present her, for the last time, at the beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. He will put her in her place, in the community of believers: “All of these together gave themselves to constant prayer. With them were some women and also Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). She was blessed because she believed (Lk 1:45).
Today’s Gospel concludes with the report on the circumcision. With this rite, Jesus officially becomes part of the people of Israel. But this is not the principal reason for Luke in recalling this fact. He is interested in another detail, the name given to the child, a name that was not chosen by the parents, but was indicated directly from heaven.
For the people of the Ancient Orient, the name was not only to indicate who the person was, or distinguish them them from animals or objects, it was more than that. It expressed the very nature of things; it became the person it identified. Abigail tells of her husband: “He is just what his name says. He is called Nabal (literally “a fool”) and his is a fool” (1 Sam 25:25). To be called by the name of the other meant to impersonate them, to make them present, having their very own authority, to call on their protection (Dt 28:10).
Keeping in mind this cultural context, we are able to understand the importance that Luke attributes to the name given to the child. He is called Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.” Matthew explains: he was called such because he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21).
In the commentary on the First Reading, we said, that the name of God—JHWH—could not be pronounced. But without a name, he remains anonymous. If someone does not know our name, only a superficial relationship is possible.
If God wants to enter into dialogue with a person he must tell that person how he would like to be called; he must indicate his name and reveal his identity. He did. Choosing the name of His Son, God said who He is.
Here is His identity: He who saves, He who does nothing but saves. In the Gospels, this name is repeated 566 times, almost to remind us that images of God that are incompatible with this name must be deleted. Now we understand the reason why in the Old Testament God did not allow his name to be pronounced, because it is only in Jesus that he would have told us who he was.
In Luke’s Gospel, it is interesting to note that those who called Jesus by name are not the just or the perfect, but only those who are marginalized, those who are at the mercy of the forces of evil. They are the possessed (Lk 4:34), the lepers: “Jesus, teacher, have mercy on us” (Lk 17:13), the blind: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” (Lk 18:38) and the criminal who dies on the cross beside him: “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
Peter will remind the religious leaders of his people: “No other name in fact under heaven is given to people, through whom they are saved” (Acts 4:12).
READ: God teaches Moses and Aaron the formula for blessing in God’s name. In and through Mary, the blessing takes flesh and lives among people. Shepherds receive and witness to the blessing incarnate.
REFLECT: The year begins with the message of blessing. God’s blessing comes to us through the mediation of people around us—like the instrumentality of Moses, Aaron, and Mary. We are, in turn, called to be carriers of this blessing into the lives of others—like the shepherds did. Am I ready to be a conduit of God’s blessing?
PRAY: Baby Jesus, bless me and make my life a blessing for the people around me.
ACT: On this first day of the New Year, bless your family members/community using the formula of blessing given by Yahweh.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.