Tag Archives: Mary

Mary, the Mother of God

Virgin and Child

The Feast of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1) is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church as the Christmas celebrations end and a new year begins. Eastern Christian churches have a similar feast honoring the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God at this time.

“Marvelous is the mystery proclaimed today
Our nature is made new as God becomes man;
He remains what he was and becomes what he was not,
Yet each nature stays distinct and undivided.” Canticle, Morning Prayer

Mary’s Son who came “in the fullness of time” blesses all time:
“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!” (Numbers 6, 22-27)

This January feast honoring Mary begins a month named for the Roman god Janus, the two faced god who looks ahead and looks back. Mary connects us to the world ahead as well as the world of the past, and so we pray to her “that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

On this feast of Mary, the Mother of God, I think of a PBS special “What Darwin Never Knew” produced awhile ago on Nova. I don’t remember or understand a lot of the program’s scientific material, but its description of DNAs and embryos caught my attention.

According to scientists, embryos from different living beings–humans, animals, birds, fish– appear remarkably alike at an early stage of development, as if they were from the same source. Then, something triggers a different development in each species. Humans sprout arms and legs and begin human development. The other species develop in their own way.

Recently, I visited an exhibit called “Deep Time” at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington which described the development of the earth through 4.5 billion years. One section described our development from 4.5 billion years ago. We come from that development; we belong to this world.

In Mary’s womb, the Word became flesh, connecting with the world of the past and the world of the future. Early theologians, like St. Irenaeus, say the Word became truly human. He went through the same process of development as we do. They also say he had to assume all that he would redeem. In his early embryonic journey Jesus Christ assumed the creation he would renew.

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Elizabeth says to Mary before Jesus’ birth. (Luke 1,42) At that moment, the Word of God gave the promise of redemption to another infant– Elizabeth’s son John. The same promise was communicated to the rest of creation too. Jesus Christ is the maker and Savior of all.

The Magnificat and the Benedictus

St. Luke offers a beautifully crafted narrative of the infancy of Jesus Christ in the first two chapters of his gospel. Mary concludes her visit to Elizabeth with a song of praise to God, who is “mighty and has done great things to me.” – her Magnificat.

After John the Baptist’s birth, his father Zechariah sings his praise to God. “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel. He has come to his people and set them free.”–his Benedictus.

The Benedictus is the church’s daily morning prayer, ending the silence and darkness of night and welcoming a blessed day.  “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

No matter what the day, the Dawn which is Jesus Christ brings God’s blessings to the world and guidance for our steps. Each morning we pray Zechariah’s song, the man who came slowly to belief.

Each evening we pray Mary’s “Magnificat” at evening prayer in thanksgiving for the blessings of the day. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.God has come to the help of his servant Israel, remembering his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” The promises of God remain and we rejoice in them with Mary and wait for their fulfillment to come.

Commentators on Luke’s gospel say that Luke probably uses Jewish Christian prayers, applying them to Zechariah and Mary. The New American Bible says: “ Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story.”

Ancient prayers, the Magnificat and the Benedictus are attributed appropriately to Mary and Zechariah. They’re our prayers too. Daily prayers.

Gracious God,

Let me not doubt your promises, your tender mercies, but let me rejoice in them as Mary and Zechariah did, and look for their fulfillment, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

December 21: The Visitation

Visitation

We’re fortunate these last days of Advent to read St. Luke’s entire Infancy Narrative richly describing the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus.

Today  Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth after the angel’s great announcement. She travels to the hill country, to a town of Judah “in haste,” Luke says. She goes “in haste” not in panic or fear.  She visits Elizabeth to share the mysterious gift of God, hastening for joy.  The Visitation is one of the joyful mysteries of the rosary.

In the first reading for Mass today Mary speaks to the Child in her womb in words from the Song of Songs:

“O my dove in the clefts of the rock,

in the secret recesses of the cliff,

Let me see you,

let me hear your voice,

For your voice is sweet,

and you are lovely.”

As they come together to share what they have been given, Mary and Elizabeth are believers, rejoicing.  “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled,” Elizabeth says to Mary.

The two women tell us about faith in their simple meeting. Faith is something to rejoice in. It’s meant to be shared and shared eagerly. The two women are pregnant and don’t yet see the life they carry within them. Like faith, the life within them is hidden from their eyes. And so it is with us.

Their meeting is a communion of saints. They share gifts of God not yet seen. 

“The women speak of the grace they received,” St. Ambrose says, “ while the children are active in secret, unfolding the mystery of love…”  As the women speak to each other, another meeting goes on within them as the infants in their wombs meet.

Is that true with us too? God works within us, beyond our understanding, as we live by faith.   “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith,” St. Ambrose says, “You also are blessed because you have heard and believed. A soul that believes both conceives and brings forth the Word of God… Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

December 12th is the feast of Our Lady Guadalupe, which recalls the appearance of Mary on a hilltop near Mexico City to Juan Diego, a humble Mexican laborer, in 1591, ten years after the Aztec Empire was crushed by the colonial armies of Spain. Mary appeared dark skinned, with native features and in native dress, not at all like one from the colonial powers. In appearing like them, Mary helped many of the native peoples accept the Christianity.

Keep this story in mind when the next discussion on immigration comes up.It’s a strong reminder of Isaiah’s ancient call in our Advent readings: God wishes all to be his children.

Pope John Paul II said this about St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, whose feast is celebrated December 9th:

“He has lifted up the humble. God the Father looked down onto Juan Diego, a simple Mexican Indian and enriched him not just with the gift of rebirth in Christ but also with the sight of the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a role in the task of evangelizing the entire continent of America. From this we can see the truth of the words of St Paul: those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen – those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything.

“This fortunate man, whose name, Cuauhtlatoatzin, means “the eagle that speaks,” was born around 1474 in Cuauhtitlan, part of the kingdom of Texcoco. When he was an adult and already married, he embraced the Gospel and was purified by the waters of baptism along with his wife, setting out to live in the light of faith and in accordance with the promises he had made before God and the Church.

“In December 1531, as he was travelling to the place called Tlaltelolco, he saw a vision of the Mother of God herself, who commanded him to ask the Bishop of Mexico to build a church on the site of the vision. The bishop asked him for some proof of this amazing event.

“On 12 December the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego once more and told him to climb to the top of the hill called Tepeyac and pick flowers there and take them away with him. It was impossible that any flowers should grow there, because of the winter frosts and because the place was dry and rocky. Nevertheless Juan Diego found flowers of great beauty, which he picked, collected together in his cape, and carried to the Virgin. She told him to bring the flowers to the bishop as a proof of the truth of his vision. In the bishop’s presence Juan Diego unfolded his cape and poured out the flowers; and there appeared, miraculously imprinted on the fabric, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which from that moment onwards became the spiritual centre of the nation.

“The church was built in honor of the Queen of Heaven. Juan Diego, moved by piety, left everything and dedicated his life to looking after this tiny hermitage and to welcoming pilgrims. He trod the way to sanctity through love and prayer, drawing strength from the eucharistic banquet of our Redeemer, from devotion to his most holy Mother, from communion with the holy Church and obedience to her pastors. Everyone who met him was overwhelmed by his virtues, especially his faith, love, humility, and other-worldliness.

“Juan Diego followed the Gospel faithfully in the simplicity of his daily life, always aware that God makes no distinction of race or culture but invites all to become his children. Thus it was that he enabled all the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the New World to become part of Christ and the Church.”

Pope John Paul II

The Immaculate Conception

Some question why Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has such a big place in the faith of  our church. The words of the angel in Luke’s gospel, words we often repeat in prayer, offer an answer: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”

Mary is full of grace, gifted by God with unique spiritual gifts from her conception, because she was to be the mother of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.

She would be the “resting place of the Trinity,” and would give birth to, nourish, guide and accompany Jesus in his life and mission in this world. To fulfill that unique role she needed a unique gift. She would be free from original sin that clouds human understanding and slows the way we believe in God and his plan for us.

“How slow you are to believe” Jesus said to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus made that complaint repeatedly as he preached the coming of God’s kingdom. “How slow you are to believe!” “What little faith you have!” “Do you still not understand!” That human slowness to believe didn’t end in gospel times. We have it too.

Mary was freed from that slowness to believe. “Be it done to me according to your word,” she immediately says to the angel. Yet, her acceptance of God’s will does not mean she understood everything that happened to her. “How can this be?” she asks the angel about the conception of the child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  But the angel’s answer seems so incomplete, so mysterious.

Surely, Mary would have liked to know more when the angel leaves her, never to return. There’s no daily message, no new briefing or renewed assurance by heavenly messengers. The years go by in Nazareth as the Child grows in wisdom and age and grace, but they’re years of silence. Like the rest of us, Mary waits and wonders and keeps these things in her heart.

That’s why we welcome her as a believer walking with us. She is an assuring presence. She calls us to believe as she did, without knowing all. She does not pretend to be an expert with all the answers. She has no special secrets known to her alone. “Do whatever he tells you,” is her likely advice as we ponder the mysteries of her Son.

 

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple

 

 

Mary temple

Mary, Presented in the Temple: Giotto

The Presentation of Mary, November 21,  is an ecumenical feast that originates, not in the bible, but in an ancient tradition of the church of Jerusalem. The tradition claims Mary was born near the temple in Jerusalem, where her father Joachim provided lambs for the temple sacrifices. He and his wife Ann were old and childless until they were blessed with a daughter whom they presented in the temple as a little child. The tradition is honored by Christian churches of the east and west.

The present church of St. Ann in Jerusalem, next to the ancient temple site, is where the tradition says Mary was born. Besides Jerusalem, Nazareth and a city nearby, Sepphoris also claim to be where she was born.

st.ann basilica

Church of St. Ann, Jerusalem

The Jerusalem tradition may have some support in Luke’s gospel, which says that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, a temple priest.  Could Mary’s family also be connected to the temple?

Luke links Mary a number of times to the temple.. Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph go there “when the days were completed for their purification,” (Luke 2,22) Luke also says Mary and Joseph brought Jesus as a child to the temple to celebrate the feasts. Mary’s Son calls the temple familiarly “my Father’s house.”

According to the gospel of James Mary was presented in the temple as a little girl and it gives the impression she lived there until her arranged marriage to Joseph. But the four gospels seem to place Mary far from the temple most of her life, in Nazareth. That’s where the angel speaks to her.    

We might say that for Mary the temple signifies God’s presence, where prophets speak and wisdom can be found. Like Jesus she loved that holy place, but like him she believed the temple of God can be found everywhere, (cf. John 4, 22-26), in Nazareth, Bethlehem, even on Calvary. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Paul would say later to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 3, 16) 

St. Paul of the Cross,  founder of the Passionists, had a great devotion to this mystery and dedicated his first retreat on Monte Argentario in Italy to the Presentation of Mary. He saw his retreats as places where his religious, like Mary, would find themselves in God’s presence, where they could pray, where they would meet prophets and teachers, where they would gain wisdom. 

Feast of the Birth of Mary (September 8)

st.ann basilica

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

The Feast of Mary’s Birth has been celebrated by churches of the east and west since the 4th and 5th centuries, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims, after experiencing feasts in these churches, began celebrating them in their own churches back home.

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Ruins of Bethesda and ancient church
Paralytic

The feast of Mary’s Birth was celebrated in a church built in the 5th century over the ancient pool of Bethesda, near the Gate of St. Stephen, just north of the Jewish temple. John’s gospel recognized this place:  “Now there was in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate, a pool in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of the blind, lame and crippled,”  (John 5,2) At this healing place, where pagan gods  like Asclepius and Serapis were honored, Jesus healed a paralyzed man.  

In the last century archeologists uncovered the ancient healing pool with its porticoes, parts of an ancient church and ruins of a temple of Asclepius (2nd-4th century) ..

Jerusaelm streets
Ruins of the Temple of Serapis
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Early on, the church over the ancient healing pool became associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Traditions from the 3rd century placed her home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.

Mary’s mother was Anne and her father Joachim, who provided sheep for the temple sacrifices, early traditions said. But they were looked down upon, because they were old and childless. Then, angels told them they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.

The Birth of Mary and stories of her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches. Mary’s birth is celebrated September 8 in the churches of east and west. Her parents are honored  September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 27th.

When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and built a new, larger church honoring St. Anne, the mother of Mary, southeast of the pool.

The present Church of St. Ann, today one of the most beautiful of Jerusalem’s churches, stands overlooking the remains of the old church and the healing pool,  a favorite destination for pilgrims today.

Jerusaelm streets
Church of St. Anne, interior

Readings for the feast of Mary’s Birth see her birth awaited by all her ancestors. The gospel, St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, begins with Abraham. Mary fulfilled his hopes and the hopes of generations before him by bringing Jesus Christ into the world.. “We commemorate the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary, a descendant of Abraham, born of the tribe of Judah and of David’s seed,” (Antiphon, 1st Vespers, Roman rite)

“This feast of the birth of the Mother of God is the prelude, while the final act is the foreordained union of the Word with flesh. Today, the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages…
Today the created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
(St. Andrew of Crete, bishop, Office of Readings, Roman rite)

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St.Ann and Mary, her child

This feast of Mary is the first great feast of the Orthodox year, which begins in September. Their calendar ends with the feast of Mary’s Dormition, on August 15th.

The Orthodox liturgy sees Mary as the mysterious ladder that Jacob saw in a dream reaching from earth to heaven. (Genesis 28,10-17) She is the way the Word comes down to earth’s lowest point, death itself, and returns to heaven having redeemed humanity. The Orthodox liturgy also associates  Mary with the miracle of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. She has a role in healing our paralyzed humanity.