Homily by Knights of Columbus Convention Mass
Dedication of St. Mary Major
For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. (Is 55: 10-11)
The ancient Israelites lived in a desert climate; rainfall and snow meant literally the difference between life and death. And so these elements were seen as a powerful illustration of Gods life-giving, creative word. Gods word makes the desert bloom.
While Pope Liberius church is shrouded by legend, the existing basilica of St. Mary Major stands clearly in history: it was built immediately after the Council of Ephesus, which met in the year 431. That council marked a significant milestone in the development of our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. The chain of events which led to Ephesus began around the year 428, when a preacher in Constantinople referred to Mary as the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. Although the title had been used for some time in that city, the bishop, who was from Antioch, was scandalized. How could we say that Mary, a mere creature, was the Mother of God? Time does not permit us to explore all the theological issues of the debate, but the conclusion reached at the Council of Ephesus was very clear. The doctrine is expressed very well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: & the One whom Mary conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Fathers eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly Mother of God (Theotokos). (CCC 495) The title Mother of God may seem paradoxical, but it is orthodox: paradoxical, because Mary as a creature could not be the Mother of God as God; orthodox, because to say that Jesus was truly born of Mary and is the eternal Son of God effectively proclaims that he is fully human and fully divine.
We see in the mystery of the Incarnation the most remarkable example of the power of Gods word: the Word himself becomes flesh, the Son of God is born in time. There are two important lessons I would like to point out in connection with this mystery. First, the work of creation and salvation is first, last, and always Gods initiative. Life is Gods gift, not our accomplishment. But secondly, we, too, have a role to play. Mary was not simply a vehicle or instrument by which the word became flesh, a lifeless patch of land made fruitful by the downpour of Gods word. She is a human being with a free will, and as such she cooperated in Gods saving plan. Mary freely and joyfully embraced Gods will, and for this reason she is intimately connected with her Sons mission. This is suggested by the words of Simeon in todays Gospel. After stating that This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, he then says to Mary: and you yourself a sword will pierce. (Lk 2:34-35) The Mother of Jesus is involved in the whole mystery of the life of Christ, she is we might say a co-conspirator in Gods plan of salvation.
The significance of this for us is both very simple and very awe-inspiring. Only once in history did God himself literally become Man, so that Marys child is uniquely the Son of God. But spiritually God the Son assumes a human nature in each of us. Throughout the pages of the New Testament we are constantly confronted with this amazing doctrine. St. Luke relates the annunciation to Mary, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and the Word became flesh; and then he begins the Acts of the Apostles in the same way, with the Spirit descending upon Mary and the other disciples. St. Paul writes that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. At the Last Supper Jesus assured his disciples that by the gift of the Spirit he and the Father would live in them. This union with Christ begins in our baptism, and continues throughout our earthly pilgrimage, each of us in some way allowing the Word to become flesh in our lives. In a few moments the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary will sanctify our gifts of bread and wine, transforming them into the Body and Blood of Christ; and he also sanctifies us, making us more truly the Body of Christ to the extent that we open ourselves to Gods will in our lives.
As we gratefully contemplate how the sacraments bring about an ever-deepening union with Christ, we are aware of the integral role of our priests to our sacramental pilgrimage through life. With the memory of yesterdays beautiful celebration of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, fresh in our minds, I want to thank you for your constant and unflagging support for priests. The Knights of Columbus are proposing many ways to celebrate this Year of the Priest, and your longstanding program In Solidarity with our Priests has done much to strengthen and encourage priests in their awesome and challenging vocation.
In announcing this special year our Holy Father has spoken eloquently of the mutual love between priests and their people, and Knights have always given a fine example of this love; I encourage you to continue to do so.
All Christians are called to give over their lives to Christ, to allow Him to live through them. Let me conclude with a specific application of that truth to us as Catholics in America, and for us as Knights of Columbus in our beloved country. Our first reading offers us another image, not unlike that with which I began this homily:
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, Gods dwelling is with the human race. (Rev 21:2-3)
The new Jerusalem does not rise up to heaven from the earth; that city is Babel, not Jerusalem. Rather it comes down from heaven to us. In some versions of the legend of Our Lady of the Snows, we are told that the snow fell in the exact outline of the church to built there. That may be a somewhat fanciful image, but I think it makes a good point. Although we sometimes sing about building the City of God, in fact our task is more modest: we do not build heaven on earth, we simply prepare the site to welcome the new Jerusalem which comes from God.
This is an important lesson for us Americans. Our nation has been blessed with many gifts and resources, and at times that abundance can blind people to our utter dependence on God, and the need to seek to do his will. We Knights of Columbus are dedicated to fostering both faith and patriotism in your members; and you experience the tensions when our religious ideals come into conflict with a society that is becoming increasingly secular. The Christ who lives in us is truly a light of revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel, but he is also a sign that will be contradicted. (Lk 2:32, 34) Like Mary, we too will be pierced by that sword of opposition if we are faithful to Christ. That is the cost of discipleship. As American Catholics, we can and we should work with all people of good will, regardless of their religious beliefs, to improve the lot of others. But we must also bear witness to our conviction that the American city set on a hill, no matter how remarkable its scientific accomplishments or technological advances, will always be a barren patch of earth without the life-giving refreshment of the word of God.