When a child is born
When a child is born, the good news spreads quickly. If a man is relating the news it is a curious fact that he is only interested if the newborn is a boy or a girl; women want to know what weight the baby was, the baby’s name(s), the intensity and duration of the labour, the time of birth, and how the mother is afterwards. Men and women therefore have completely different perspectives on childbirth, probably because men will never experience it.
The good news of Christmas is, of course, the birth of Christ.
But details are few. We do not know his weight, the duration of Mary’s labour (if any), or anything about her recuperation. We do know that he was born in a manger in Bethlehem in the middle of the night, and we know His name.
These two facts alone are hugely significant.
Firstly, a long-standing tradition has it that Jesus was born in the middle of winter in the middle of the night. Now, we ourselves have little control over labour and child-birth, apart from induced births. But God has. And isn’t it interesting that He chose that His Son would be born at the darkest hour of the year, in order to be our light?
And so it is that in all the darkness we experience, external or internal, God wishes to be our light of hope and joy, our light at the end of the tunnel?
Secondly, Jesus is called ‘Emmanuel’, a Hebrew name meaning ‘God-is-with-us’. We choose the names of children after much thought – after a relative, friend, or a saint’s name. The choice of our name is something not taken lightly, because after all we carry it for life.
When we combine these two bits of information that we do possess we realise that God is with us in our darkest hour.
Is there anything else we need to know?
Happy Christmas 2011.
There is a very clear link running through all the readings this Sunday and that is God’s promise to David that his lineage will produce an heir that will rule forever in the dim and distant future. This prophecy was 600 years in the fulfilment. All of Israel waited for a Messiah and yearned for the promised liberator and king to rule all nations from Israel. God was faithful to His promise to David beyond all imagining, that ‘I will be father to him and he a son to me’, and so in the fullness of time ‘God sent his Son born of a woman’ (Galatians). This is the great mystery hidden for the ages that St Paul speaks about in the epistle today.
This prophecy begins to be fulfilled in the ‘yes’ of Mary, who is aware of the prophecy, and that it is to be her son that will be the fulfilment of all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a nation crying out for liberty. Mary is the mother of Israel’s liberation. The familiar beautiful scene which we now call the Annunciation is worth pondering. The angel goes into Mary’s house – there is a sense of heaven meeting earth – of a heavenly being ‘reduced’ as it were to the simple motion of physically walking into Mary’s home and extending a formal greeting like any visitor would. Gabriel’s news and invitation would change Mary’s life forever, and it was the pivotal point in our salvation. This scene is recalled millions of times each day in every Hail Mary, in the first Joyful Mystery, in every Angelus and in every recitation of the Creed, when ‘he was made man’ (incarnatus est).
Now we must place our minds and our lives in the mind, if we can, of the teenage girl Mary, who was being asked something so monumental it has changed the world. God was asking her to be the Mother of His Son – and it is mind-blowing for our tiny minds to imagine what God was actually proposing to Mary in this unique, unrepeatable event which we call the Incarnation.
Mary’s ‘Yes’, it must be recalled, was one of extraordinary blind faith, trust and profound love. She could not refuse, it was not in her make-up to refuse God anything. And yet in that silent moment when she gave her free consent, she conceived Jesus in her womb, and she became a mother. And ringing in her ears as she contemplated this change in her own state in life and the beginning of the embryonic life of her son, must have been Gabriel’s words: ‘nothing is impossible to God.’
Yet after the 600 year promise to Israel it would be another 9 months before Mary would set eyes on Him, and another 30 years before His voice would be heard by all the nation. God’s plan slowly unfolds.
As we ponder this scene so familiar to us, we must ask ourselves why this scene is presented to us as the last Sunday Gospel before the annual commemoration of the birth of Christ?
The words of the angel are meant for us too: ‘do not be afraid!’ ‘Listen’, ‘the Lord is with you’, and ‘nothing is impossible to God’.
• What was an ‘annunciation’ moment for you?
• What is God asking of you?
• God keeps His word, do I trust Him?
• God keeps His promises, do I?
• What am I afraid of?
• To what does God want me to listen? And to listen to the promptings of my angel, and my conscience?
• What is so ‘impossible’ for me that is possible to God?
• Does God want me to exercise patience because of His seeming slowness to act?
• Do I believe God wants to intervene in my life, and do I let Him enter in?
• What is God asking me to do as we prepare for his coming? What change(s) are required of me? What challenges, what new responsibilities lie ahead of me? Where is God leading me? To whom does God want me to reach out, as Mary did to her cousin Elizabeth?
It is a wonderful feeling to be the bearer of good news, even of something monumental and life-changing, something with a definite ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment, or day, that we can all mark in our lives. Today’;s Gosepl was Mary’s ‘before/after’ moment.
This long-expected news of Israel’s liberation was good news indeed, the best news ever, and Mary was the first to hear it. Israel was - to use familiar terms today, in a spiritual recession, in need of a spiritual bail-out, in need of having its debt of sin paid in full.
Jesus, the longer-for Messiah, Saviour and King, is ours too, for the whole world, and for each person. We will not truly ‘get’ Christmas until at last we come to realise that Jesus did not ‘merely’ save the world, He saved you, and He saved me.
‘Come Lord Jesus’.
The following is a review of the latest book on the life of the founder of the Legion of Mary - Frank Duff, published recently. This article also features in the Legion of Mary Christmas newsletter sent to Cobh parishioners now living abroad.
Cobh, December 2011
We wish you the blessings of the season of Advent as we anticipate the season of Christmas 2011.
In the coming year 2012 we eagerly await the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, which will be forever etched into the history and consciousness of Cobh, and which will no doubt receive widespread international publicity in April.
As we look back on 2011, however, significant milestones were also commemorated. This past year marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the voluntary lay organisation, the Legion of Mary, by the Dublin man, Frank Duff on September 7th, 1921. A new book on his life and mission has recently been published by Continuum Books, entitled ‘Frank Duff, A life Story’ by Finola Kennedy (see picture). While it is true to say that ‘a prophet is never recognised in his own country’, at his death in 1980, Frank Duff was described by then Cardinal Tomás O Fiaich as the ‘Irishman of the century’.
The new book is a thoroughly enlightening and well-researched book, helped by the fact that Duff’s 30,000 letters have now been painstakingly digitally formatted and catalogued - a work of three years - making research all that easier. Unlike previous biographies, this one puts flesh and blood on the man and his work, without the pious gloss to be found in other previous biographies. You can read how Frank was an outstanding public servant and his grievances at being overlooked for promotion to which he was entitled, to his concern for the financial well-being of his family, his familiarity with Michael Collins and WT Cosgrave, as well as many of the leading lights in the emerging Free State.
Frank Duff was a man ahead of his times. His concern for the poor shines through. His early membership of the St Vincent de Paul Society led to his concern for the spiritual welfare of those being proselytised by soup kitchens. He was prophetic, when at the very first meeting on that night in September 1921, he said to the ladies present that their gathering would be the template for a worldwide organisation. At present in 2011, the Legion boasts 4 million active members and 10 million auxiliary members worldwide in 170 countries. No other Irish organisation of any kind can make the claims of the Legion for its universal acceptance within decades of its foundation.
A pivotal event in the spread of the Legion after a quiet decade in the 1920s was the International Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin in 1932. The 80th anniversary of this event is of course being marked by another Congress- the 50th of the kind - in Dublin in June 2012. It was in that year of 1932 that the word of the Legion spread from Dublin through contacts made at the Congress to many mission lands and within a short few years the Legion grew with dazzling speed at the behest of Irish missionaries, through Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many Chinese Legionaries were imprisoned or executed in the 1940s and 1950s for their persistence in Legion membership, and their refusal to renounce their Catholic faith.
The work of the Legion could be summed up as the performing of the spiritual works of mercy under the banner of Mary, ‘so that’, in the words of the Legion Standing Instruction, ‘the person of Our Lord is once again seen and served by Mary, His Mother.’ The Legion is a highly stylised organisation, whose hierarchical structure is modelled on the Roman Legion. It stresses efficiency and unity of purpose as the hallmarks of its organisation. The attendance at a weekly meeting, lasting no longer than 1½ hours and the striving towards performance of heroic apostolic work for 2 hours each week, are the two defining characteristics of the life of the member, who is known as a ‘legionary’. But behind the ‘body’ of work and meeting, is the soul-work, that is the sanctification of every member, to imitate the humble servant that Mary also was, to place one’s talents at Her service, and at the service of Her Son, to bring the wayward back to the right path, and to strengthen the faith of those in the fold.
The Legion has been variously criticised in certain quarters for its high level of organisation, with the jibe of ‘inflexibility’, or that its spirituality in its Legion Handbook is eccentric and ‘excessively Marian’, or that its members lack a certain sophistication in theological matters. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Legion members work in a master-and-apprentice system, and learn by doing. Frank Duff’s philosophy was one of Christianity with its ‘sleeves-rolled-up’. Furthermore, the astonishing success in so short a time meant that the Legion of Mary was an idea ‘whose time had come’. It was firmly established before the Church, in its official documents caught up, 40 years after Frank Duff, on the idea that the Church exists to be missionary by its very nature, and that by virtue of baptism every Catholic is called to be apostolic. Frank always believed that no matter what one’s background, anyone could become a member of the Legion, and from the beginning Legion membership miraculously circumvented any clash of social background, race, colour or caste.
Legion work is courageous and challenging. Frank and his early fellow-legionaries overcame obstacles ‘where angels feared to tread’ and successfully closed down a well-established red-light district in Dublin known as the ‘Monto’, with many girls trapped in prostitution, finding a new life, and in most instances, new careers and marriage, and ultimately with their dignity and self-respect restored to them. With sheer tenacity and firmness of vision and faith the early Legion challenged and continue to see the solution to many social problems at their previously overlooked spiritual roots. From the outset some Dublin diocesan clergy were appalled at the apostolic work of lay people and felt undermined in their understanding of what constituted acceptable respective roles of clergy and lay faithful.
Frank Duff was also head of his time in ecumenical matters organising gatherings with prominent Protestants and Jews, which were graciously received by those faiths. He was castigated by the formidable Dublin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid for this at the time, who also gave Frank a hard time in delaying to give the Imprimatur to the second edition of the handbook, hampering the work of the Legion worldwide where new translations and printings were urgently needed.
Duff was not afraid to tackle the most distressing social problems, with the setting up of hostels for homeless men and women. He was prescient in condemning the practises in Magdalene laundries and other work-houses, and opposed the separation of unwed mothers from their children.
If you want a cracking read for Christmas, then I heartily recommend
‘Frank Duff, A life Story’ by Finola Kennedy, Available online for €10 from www.bookdepository.co.uk
Happy Christmas 2011, Fr John McCarthy CC Cobh Parish
For my Sunday sermons you can follow me on: www.frjohnsermons.blogspot.com