Allowing Oneself to Be Influenced

Douglas P. McManaman
January 1, 2020
Homily for the Solemnity of the Mother of God
Reproduced with Permission

The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph.

What is interesting here is that early on in the history of Israel, shepherding was a noble profession. However, by the time we get to first century Palestine, that had changed; shepherds had dropped to the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Mishnah, which is Judaism's written record of the oral Torah, refers to shepherds as "incompetent". Moreover, "It is not permitted to buy wool, milk, and kids from shepherds, [it being possible that they stole these from the owner's flock which was given them (to guard)]" (Mishnah Bava Kamma, 8). The Mishnah also says that one need not feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit. Shepherds, according to biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias, were not even permitted to act in court as witnesses.

And yet it is to these shepherds that the good news of great joy, the gospel, is revealed, the news of the birth of a savior, the Messiah and Lord, "born for you", says the angel. The shepherds have been chosen by God to be the first heralds of the good news of the birth of the true savior, the true king and Lord, as opposed to the false one who is mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, namely Caesar Augustus, who was regarded as a savior and Lord. The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem. What this means is that they went with joy, for in biblical terms, to go with haste and to go with joy mean the same thing. In that joy, they find the child in the darkness of a cave. Again, throughout the scriptures, God is always hidden within a cloud of darkness, and here too, the Messiah and Lord, the savior, is hidden in the darkness, yet revealed not to the religious elite, but to those having the lowly status of shepherd.

But what happens next is particularly relevant for this feast. The shepherds made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed. In other words, they believed what the shepherds told them. And Mary was there, so she heard them too.

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart

Luke singles out Mary. She treasured their words and pondered them. That is remarkable, because in the previous chapter, this is the woman whom the angel addressed by a title: Hail, full of grace. This is the only place in the entire bible where an angel addresses a human being by a title. Luke also describes her as the New Ark of the Covenant. The original Ark of the Covenant, the most treasured artifact in Israel, contained the tablets of the Law, manna from the desert, and the staff of Aaron. The New Ark of the Covenant, Mary, contained in her womb the New Law, Christ himself, who is the new manna, the Bread of Life, and the eschatological priest and victim who offers himself upon the cross. Mary, this new Ark of the Covenant, listens to the shepherds, that is, allows herself to be influenced by them.

Note the tremendous humility in Mary; for in this same gospel, Elizabeth refers to her as "the Mother of my Lord". Mary is the Mother of God, because Jesus is the Person of the Son, and the Son is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. Furthermore, Mary is entirely without sin, because she is full of grace. And to be without sin is to possess a knowledge that is inaccessible to anyone who has tasted sin, which is every other human being. The reason is that sin darkens the mind. But Mary's mind is not darkened or dulled in any way. She sees the world with a mind and heart into which the darkness of sin has never entered, and so she enjoys a light that is inaccessible to anyone who has ever tasted sin. And yet she listens to the Shepherds with amazement, and what they tell her she treasures, she values, protects, holds on to, and ponders. She is learning from them because she has listened to them. The first century rabbis would have found it inconceivable to listen much less learn from shepherds.

One factor that led me to the decision to teach high school students and attend Teacher's College 33 years ago was the atmosphere of the university. At the time, I remember how tired I was of the arrogance and isolation of the university environment. A university is supposed to be a single universe of knowledge, but it is really a multiverse, a plurality of individual worlds sealed off from one another, isolated departments, very few actually talking to one another, listening and learning from one another. It is impossible to speak eye to eye to an arrogant man. If he has a PhD and you do not, there is nothing you can teach him, so why should he listen to you? This is not to suggest that all professors are arrogant, that's not the case at all, but even one good professor friend of mine pointed out this sad tendency to arrogance amongst many of his colleagues. The arrogant do not allow themselves to be influenced by those they regard as less than them, which is almost everyone else without a PhD. We see this not only among many professors, but we see it wherever anyone possesses some kind of status and delights in it. To be influenced by another, to listen and actually learn from another, is to allow oneself to be enlarged and expanded. But that requires that one acknowledge that one needs to be expanded and enlarged. It is to acknowledge one's limits and to recognize that this person before me has something that can make me better in some way. The arrogant are not capable of that. But the Mother of God is. Although she has a knowledge of God that puts her in a class all her own - by virtue of her sinlessness - , she knows there is more to learn about the son she gave birth to, and she will learn this by pondering God's action in history, God's marvelous action in the lives of ordinary humble folk, because God does marvelous and miraculous things in the lives of the humble and unpretentious.

What was revealed to her by the angel Gabriel (that "you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.") was now revealed to the Shepherds. She sees her affinity with the shepherds, for in her Magnificat, referring to herself, Mary says: "The Lord has looked upon the nothingness of his servant". She sees her nothingness and rejoices in it. And now she sees that God reveals the good news of great joy to those despised as much as tax collectors.

God continues to hide within in a cloud of darkness, but this darkness is not dark for the humble of heart, who have ears to listen and a heart that is open to expansion. And if you notice ancient icons of the Theotokos, Jesus is always looking out at the world from Mary's vantage point. He learned to see the world from her vantage point, and she is there for us as well, our Mother, to teach us how to see the world from her perspective. And we do this by allowing her to hold us, to carry us, to listen to what she says to us. And this happens when we pray to her, converse with her, as we would converse with our own mother.