Virgin and Child mosaic, 9th century, Hagia Sophia
(About this Image)
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
January 1, 2023
Today, we celebrate the feast of Mary, the Mother of God with the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It includes the phrase “born of a woman” but this is not the primary reason for choosing this passage. As we will discover that this entire chapter from Galatians is best understood with Mary, even more than Paul, as our model.
We will need provide only a brief background. Galatia is not a city but an area in Asia Minor (near Ankura in modern Turkey). Paul had lived there and was treated quite well. He taught the people and thought they were well prepared when he left. He discovered however afterwards that other missionaries, perhaps claiming to have been sent by the apostles in Jerusalem, had come to Galatia and told the people that Paul’s teaching was incomplete because he did not require circumcision and other signs of being fully Jewish. Paul feels betrayed and hurt for himself but more concerned for the salvation of his flock and in this letter blasts his opponents personally and demolishes their arguments intellectually.
He is quite intemperate in places and, as we have noted in previous commentaries, much of the Letter to the Romans is written to explain the same matters but in more judicious language. The passage we read this week is a calm representation of the basic argument near the end of the letter, but we must read it remembering that these are spiritually life and death matters for Paul and cannot be understood dispassionately.
Paul provides the framework for this summation in the previous chapter.
And if you belong to Christ,
then you are Abraham’s descendant,
heirs according to the promise.
He reminds his readers that they have been joined to Christ by faith (Abraham ), not by law (Moses) and will inherit, be heirs, of the promise of Abraham and become children of God. This will not however be immediate. The people will need training.
I mean that as long as the heir is not of age,
he is no different from a slave,
although he is the owner of everything,
but he is under the supervision of guardians and administrators
until the date set by his father
Although there would have been some differences of understanding of inheritance between Jews and Gentiles, they would have shared the basic concept: a young man did not have control of his property until he had reached an age when he could properly manage it. Thus, the Jews and now the Gentiles joined with them were children of God but needed the law to help them reach maturity. This would be at a time set by the Father.
In the same way we also,
when we were not of age,
were enslaved to the elemental powers
of the world.
Elemental powers would be immediately understood as the forces that pagans believed controlled the universe but note that Paul says, “we also.” The exact meaning of this phrase is distributed but, in some way, indicates that the Law was more like slavery to the world of the elemental powers than the freedom of the Spirit.
He now presents his key argument:
But when the fullness of time had come,
God sent his Son, born of a woman,
born under the law
The time of the supervision of the law is over. The when and what are determined not by our recognizing that we are more mature by by the action of the Father. He sent his son. He did so not as a royal emissary but as a child. The expression “born of a woman” means born in full humanity in its frailty:
Man born of woman
is short-lived and full of trouble,
Like a flower that springs up and fades.
He was also born under the law, which allowed him to make use of it. For Paul this meant he could ransom us from the powers of evil and adopt us.
To ransom those under the law,
so that we might receive adoption.
These are both important concepts through the ancient world. The Jews had some specific ideas, but these would been understood by everyone.
The family was the basic unit of society, and it was important to keep it intact. If the bonds were broken, a kinsman would be appointed as the “redeemer.” This usually occurred when a person had lost property or perhaps even been made an indentured servant. It also could occur if a family member was kidnapped and held for ransom which is the implication here. By his death and resurrection, Jesus ransoms us.
This allows him to adopt us. Adoption was very serious business in the ancient world. A male heir was extremely important, and a family would go to great lengths to secure the line. This was a contract which can be clearly outlined:
Conclusions about adoption: (1) the adopted son becomes the true son of his adopted father; (2) the father agrees to provide the necessities of food and clothing; (3) the adopted son cannot be repudiated; (4) the adopted son cannot be reduced to slavery; (5) the natural parents cannot reclaim the adopted son; (6) adoption leads to the right of inheritance.
(Lexham Biblical Dictionary)
As with Joseph and Jesus this means a permanent bond with the right of full inheritance. Because we are adopted by God, we are forever his children.
As proof that you are children,
God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying out, “Abba, Father!”
Paul wants the Galatians to know that they really are children of God and can assume intimacy with him. Thus, they can call him “Abba” which means Daddy. This is so monumental that it cannot be done without the power of the Father: “God sent the spirit of his Son.”
Our passage ends with Paul’s grand summation.
So you are no longer a slave but a child,
and if a child then also an heir, through God.
We are freed from the law and now a child of God who has the full rights of one and that this is all through God’s grace.
We can see how Paul would have been so enraged by the Galatians return to the practice of the law. It calls to mind the Israelites in the desert pining to return to slavery in Egypt. Paul understood that the life of freedom is hard and there is always the temptation to return to the comforts of slavery, but it is God’s greatest gift.
This passage beautifully reflects the life of Our Blessed Lady. She accepts participation in the divine plan as a mere child. But what could she have understood? Simeon and Anna in the temple when Jesus was a baby and his disappearance on a trip to Jerusalem as a teenager indicate that she knew this would not end happily. We see her and Jesus’ family asking if he knew what he was doing. Yet she is there at the cross on Good Friday (John) and the upper room at Pentecost (Luke) and proved herself “a good disciple.” She did not turn back; she embraced the freedom given by her son. Is it not appropriate that we begin the year, asking for her intercession that we do the same?