May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is New Year's Day and so I say to you again 'Happy New Year!' Hopefully that loud shout won't have disturbed too many heads that are sore from toasting in the New Year last night. But, of course, if you did have one or two drinks last night, that is understandable. It is traditional to have a few libations on the last night of the year to welcome in the one that is to come. There are other traditions associated with this time of year as well. There is the looking back over the year that has gone by; and there is the making of resolutions for the year to come. It is, in a way, a time for thinking, for pondering the past and pondering the future.
So it is interesting that we see the Blessed Virgin Mary also pondering in our Gospel reading this morning*. She is pondering the things the shepherds have told her and keeping them in her heart. And we know that this is not all she pondered. St Luke again tells us she is keeping these things in her heart after the Holy Family returns to Nazareth after the finding of our Lord as a young boy in the Temple. The context on that occasion suggests that she is pondering all the details of our Lord's life to date. And how much she had to ponder! Her encounter with an angel and her miraculous virginal conceiving; her chaste spouse Joseph's own many angelic visitations in his dreams; the visit of the wise men; and so much more.
And we might note here that she was not simply just a mother storing up memories of her little boy's childhood, as any mother would naturally do. This was the Mother of God thinking deeply about incidents in the life of the Word made Flesh. When we reflect on these passages we call what we are doing reflecting on the word of God as it is written in the Gospels; and so when we are told that the Blessed Virgin is pondering on these incidents we are being told that she was pondering deeply about the Good News brought into the world by her son, the Son of God.
Think about that for a moment. Mary, the Blessed Virgin, the mother of God, is shown to us in the Gospels pondering the message of the Gospels. This is the one whom the angel Gabriel saluted in the first chapter of St Luke's gospel with the words 'Hail, full of grace.' I know more modern translations prefer to render that as 'greetings, highly favoured one.' But frankly I do not think that a particularly accurate way of translating it. I have two main reasons for saying that. The first is that St Jerome when he produced his first translation of the Gospels from Greek into Latin in the fifth century, the version of the Bible that was the standard for the Western Church for almost a thousand years, rendered the term as 'plena gratia' or 'full of grace' which plainly shows that of all the possible ways of rendering he considered that this was the most accurate. We must remember that he was one of the foremost scholars of his age and someone who spoke both Latin and the Greek used in the Scriptures as living languages; if he thought the phrase 'full of grace' best conveyed the true meaning of the original then we must attach enormous weight to his opinion on the matter. My second reason for thinking 'highly favoured' is wrong is that when he later uses much the same word in chapter two of his Gospel, at verses 40 and 52, these same translations are quite happy to render it as grace; and similarly when St John uses the word several times in first chapter of his Gospel it is always translated by the English word 'grace.' Simple consistency therefore suggests when it is used in relation to the Blessed Virgin it should also be translated thus.
It may seem I am labouring the point. But it is for a reason: the Mother of God, the one whom the Archangel Gabriel, God's own messenger declared as being full of grace, thought it worthwhile to ponder in her heart the Gospel message. We who are followers of her Son, and his brothers and sisters by virtue of our baptisms, ought to follow her example and do likewise. But how can you ponder what you do not know? So at this time of year when we traditionally look back, perhaps it would be advisable to look back over your own spiritual practices of the year gone by and honestly assess if a sufficient part of them been devoted to the study of Sacred Scripture. I know all lead busy lives; but surely 15 minutes a day could be found … at which pace, I might add, a person might well read the entire Bible over the course of a year. Perhaps I could even suggest it to all here as a New Year's resolution to do so? Ignorance of Scripture is, as that same St Jerome I mentioned earlier once famously remarked, is ignorance of Christ. So the reading of Scripture helps us to know him better, equips us to ponder the meaning of his life and his teaching for each and everyone of us, and, by helping us to better keep of his law, better prepare ourselves of gaining what all Christians hope for – eternal life with Christ in heaven. Surely, therefore, a new year's resolution worth making and keeping. But whatever your own particular resolution or resolutions may be this year, I pray that 2017 will be a year that is filled with hope, happiness, and holiness for you all … even as I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen.
*Luke 2. 15-21And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord has showed to us. And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. And seeing, they understood the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child. And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel, before he was conceived in the womb.