An ancient blessing for the new year

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The following is the text of the homily of Bishop Rhoades at Mass on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, at Saint Mary Church in Huntington on December 31, 2016:

Every year on January 1st, on this Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, we hear in the first reading the ancient priestly blessing from the Old Testament book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!”

This ancient blessing was entrusted by God, through Moses, to Aaron and his sons, that is, to the priests of Israel. It was entrusted to them as they led the people on the journey of the Exodus through the Sinai desert. Later, this blessing was used in the temple liturgy in Jerusalem. The Church carries on the tradition of this blessing, not only today, but often throughout the year since it is one of the options the priest can use for the blessing at the end of Mass. It is a prayer for God’s protection and for grace and peace — three gifts that sum up our aspirations as human beings. In our journey through life, and especially at the beginning of a new year, we ask the Lord for these blessings.

We ask the Lord to let His face shine upon us. What does this mean? God’s face, which we see in the face of the Child Jesus in the manger, is a face of mercy and love. To ask God to shine His face upon us is to ask Him to bless us with His mercy and love. We ask the Lord to be gracious to us: to bestow upon us His saving grace, His divine life. And we ask Him to look upon us with kindness and to give us His peace.

The Catholic Church observes January 1st as the World Day of Peace. Today, at the beginning of a new year, we pray for peace in the world, the peace that begins in our own families. We remember in prayer all who are suffering the ravages of violence, war, and terrorism, in the Holy Land and the Middle East and in so many other places where there is conflict and discord. We also pray for peace in our own country, especially in cities like Chicago where the murder rate continues to climb. We ask for God’s gift of peace in this new year 2017.

The great priestly blessing from the book of Numbers, “The Lord let His face shine upon you,” fell upon Mary and Joseph in the most unique way, for they had the experience of beholding the true face of God. In gazing upon the face of the little infant Jesus, they were gazing upon the face of God. From the face of Jesus, a new light issued forth upon the world, the light of salvation, the greatest blessing for humanity.

In today’s Gospel, we heard that “the shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger.” The grace and peace invoked in that ancient Jewish blessing descended upon the shepherds as they adored the child in the manger. And it descends upon us when we adore the Lord Jesus, especially in the Blessed Sacrament.

The first person to be swept up by this great blessing from God was Mary. She was the first to see the face of God made man in the small fruit of her womb. Elizabeth rightly called her “blessed among women.” We honor her today as the “Mother of God.” She is the first of the blessed, the one who bore the blessing, the woman who received Jesus into herself and brought Him forth for the whole human family.

Today’s Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, is the oldest feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary