As another pilgrimage season opens at Our Lady's Island next Thursday 15th August, we pause to reflect on the person of Mary as a woman of faith and what devotion to her might teach us as a pilgrim Church community as we move forward into the future.
And as we walk along this path together, Mary is with us as one of us, as human and as one who stands with us in relating to God. In the past perhaps we tended to associate many of the feminine qualities of God with Mary before we realised that God was both male and female. This among other reasons tended to attribute divine qualities to Mary that rightly belonged to God. If and when this happens, a great disservice is done to God and to Mary by seeing her as a kind of ‘back door’ in securing favours from God that He would not otherwise grant.
Mary is the model of Christian discipleship who teaches us that our ‘yes’ to God is to be total and from the depths of our being. She reminds us that ‘all things will work to the good for those who love God’ (cf. Romans 8:28). She teaches us that God is a God who is on our side, the one who waits on us at table and who washes our feet. She teaches us how to see the goodness of God in everything and everyone and how to rejoice in it. Adopting her attitude we find ourselves with thankful hearts filled with gratitude for the saving things that God has done in our lives. With her our hearts can pray in gratitude, ‘For the Almighty has done great things for me, holy is his name’ (Luke 1:47). This is something invaluable in a consumer world that seeks to achieve more and more without taking the time to give thanks. She is the one who points to her Son as a person in whom the world can find happiness and peace. With tender love, she never ceases to point to her Son and say to us, ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (John 2:5). Should the world receive him in faith it will finally know peace, unity, harmony and an age where everyone has a just share in the fruits of the earth.
The Immaculate Conception and Assumption are lights of hope when we look at the events of history with our enormous record of pain and suffering. Without God, humanity can very easily degenerate towards fatalism, destruction and despair. We saw this in the last century with Nazism and Communism, two regimes that excluded God but who ended up taking his place, deciding right and wrong, who should live and who should die. Both systems collapsed eventually but not before they left a trail of blood and destruction behind them. Have we learned the lessons of history? Do we still believe the words of the serpent in the garden of Eden who tempted Adam and Eve to do the very same and to live without God? As one of us, Mary pleads with humanity not to make the same mistakes over and over again. She is a sign of someone who lived a full live of love and freedom which was made possible by her being always in relationship with God. In this sense, she stands as a powerful witness to hope. She is a profound symbol for us of healing in body and soul in the midst of a broken world. She teaches us that loving God will lead to healing in ourselves, among people and among all nations. This is because true devotion to her always leads us back to the truth about ourselves, about Christ and about the world.
Another invaluable way in which Mary helps us is her witness to true fulfilment and how it can be attained. Without being presented with an alternative, we could easily be given the impression that fulfilment comes from a place or a way ‘outside’ but certainly never from a capacity within ourselves. Without her example and inspiration we could be tempted to believe that true happiness is an achievement and not a gift. Without the alternative that she represents, there exists a grasping mentality, a desire for success, recognition and approval from others at all costs.
This is not the wisdom of Christianity. The whole life of Jesus was one of self-emptying, self-giving. It was a life which spent itself for others in loving, giving and healing. As St. Paul tells us in Philippians, ‘Though he was of God, Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped; emptying himself, he took the form of a slave’ (2: 6-7). Self-fulfilment for the Christian comes in self-emptying. We must die to ourselves.
Mary, surely, is a perfect model of this process of active self-emptying. She lived for others and for the mission of her Son with which she is so closely identified. She was prepared to put her own ambitions and plans for her life aside for the love of her God and what He was asking of her. She realised that God had been generous to her and so she was generous to Him. She knew that she received without charge. She is a model of someone who responded by giving without charge. She gave her word and her life to God. In response, God was lavish with his gifts. Mary stands out as an example of someone who gave for the kingdom of God and who was repaid a hundredfold in return, as Jesus promised (cf. Matthew 10:42).
We must be careful when we interpret those beautiful words of Mary in Luke where she responds to the angel, ‘Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done onto me according to your word’ (1:37).
Her desire to do God’s will does not mean that she was passive, submissive and meek. She was a woman of unbelievable strength who experienced poverty, the lot of a refugee and the unspeakable sight of watching her Son die on a cross. The disciples fled but she did not flee. She stayed with a mother’s courage, a mother’s fidelity, a mother’s goodness and a faith that did not waver in the hour of darkness. Having endured all of this she is still found with the other disciples praying in the upper room with her faith intact, waiting for God to fulfil what he promised (cf. Acts 1:12-14). She loved as only a mother can love. She suffered as a woman and as a mother living through the agonising death of her only child. In this way she has a particular appeal to parents who have lived through the nightmare of their child who dies through illness, violence or by accident. She is a great example of support and a friend to young girls who fall unexpectedly pregnant and who experience the fear and uncertainty that go with that. The story of Jesus’ conception and birth was far from conventional in the eyes of the world and must have been a time of great emotional turmoil in Mary’s life. Because this is true and because she remained steadfast in the face of trial, she remains close to all in any kind of difficulty.
Another way that Mary is a great model and example to our world today is in her fidelity, not only to God’s word but to her own. Her ‘yes’ to God’s will that she uttered with her lips was matched by her ‘yes’ that she lived with her life. Her ‘yes’ meant ‘yes’. She gave her word and by God’s grace, she kept it. As such, Mary’s life was like a transparent pane of glass or like a clear glass of sparkling water illuminated by the sun. What we see is what we get. Because she was a person who is deeply authentic and sincere, she remains a shining alternative in modern times to any kind of superficiality. She was a human being with depth and integrity who was impregnated with God’s life that gave everything its meaning. The seed that was God’s word did not meet a shallow soil in her heart. The seed was received by a fertile and rich base that produced fruit ‘a hundredfold’ (cf. Luke 8:8). She is a model to all of us of living a life of commitment and keeping her promises. She was faithful to the end, being there at the beginning of Christ’s life, there with him throughout it, there at the end of it and there at Pentecost in the days of the early Church. She has always been with the disciples of her Son because she is one of them. She is with us still.
In recent times we as Church are becoming increasingly aware of our responsibility to be people of justice and to challenge injustice and hypocrisy wherever we find it. In today’s divided world, Mary stands in solidarity with those who are oppressed and dominated or treated unjustly in any way. She is a prophet who announces that God will reverse the order of things when ‘He pulls down princes from their thrones and raises high the lowly’ (Luke 1:52). She is a symbol of hope and an icon of a new humanity set free; a humanity consisting of equals where there are no injustices based on power and self seeking. Only in the absence of such things can there be a true Christianity and a true humanity. Mary, conceived without sin, is one of our own who reminds us of our calling to become part of and shape a new world of peace and justice where Christ is all in all. Looking to Mary we are reminded of the words of Pope Paul VI who reminded the Church that ‘the ultimate purpose of devotion to Mary is to glorify God and to lead Christians to commit themselves to a life that is in conformity to his will’.
May Mary always be our friend and guide who leads us to God.
Photo at Our Lady's Island by Lorcan Brennan, with permission