In the Hail Mary we ask Mary to pray for us sinners, “now and at the hour of our death.” These are the two most important moments in life. We have the past and the future, for sure, but they’re far less important than now and the hour of our death.
“Now” is the time we live in, the present moment. Whether it’s a time of joy or sorrow, a time of satisfaction or disappointment, a time of sickness or health, it’s the time we have to love, to give, to endure, to act, to live.
“The hour of death” is God’s time, when God brings us from this life to the next. It may be instantaneous or prolonged, but it’s the time when God who gave us life takes this life away.
Both of those moments benefit from faith. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a believer who trusted in the power and presence of God through these same moments of life. They’re challenging moments.
After the angel left Mary in Nazareth, no other angel came; she walked by faith from the Child’s birth to the death and resurrection of her Son. As we face the mysteries of life, we ask her in our weakness to be with us as a believer and a mother, who knows the goodness and power of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ her Son.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church of St. Mary Major was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)
Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking a city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized Rome. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.
The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall. In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”
Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church. In 431, the Council of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said. The Christian world saw Mary as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine.
Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.
Mary’s title, Mother of God, does not make her a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.
St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.
In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.
She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.
The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th , began in this church in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.
Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.
Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.
Visiting St.Mary Major
The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this important church at a time when many visitors, especially from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.
The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.
The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child,”Salus populist Romani”, that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.
The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.
We celebrate the Feast of Ann and Joachim today, parents of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The New Testament says nothing about them, but an early 2nd century document called the Gospel of James tells their story,
Ann and Joachim lived in Jerusalem, the ancient source says, where Joachim, a descendant of David and a wealthy man, provided sheep and other offerings for the temple sacrifices. The two had ties to Bethlehem nearby and Nazareth in Galilee.
They were well off but for twenty years disappointment clouded their marriage: they had no child. Even after vowing to dedicate their child to God, no child came. And so, at a time when children were treasured, they were thought poor. Descendants of David, they were blamed also for failing to continue the line the Messiah would come from.
Stung by criticism, Joachim spent more time in the mountains, brooding among the shepherds and their flocks. As her husband distanced himself from her, Ann too grew sad. God seemed far away.
In the garden one day, noticing some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree, Ann burst into tears: “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “birds build nests for their young and I have no child of my own. The creatures of the earth, the fish of the sea are fruitful, and I have nothing. The land has a harvest, but I have no child in my arms.”
At that moment, an angel of the Lord came and said, “Ann, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive a child the whole world will praise. Hurry to the Golden Gate and meet your husband there.”
At the same time, In the mountains an angel in dazzling light spoke to Joachim, “Don’t be afraid, the Lord hears your prayers. God knows your goodness and your sorrow and will give your wife a child as he did Sara, Abraham’s wife, and Hannah, mother of Samuel. You will have a daughter and name her Mary. Give her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb. Go back to Jerusalem. You’ll meet your wife at the Golden Gate and your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Joachim and Ann met at the Golden Gate to the temple, the place of God’s presence. They embraced as they spoke of the angel’s promise. Returning home, Ann conceived and bore a daughter, and they called her “Mary.”
When she was three years old, Ann brought Mary to the temple to learn the scriptures, to pray and take part in the Jewish feasts. She watched her father bring lambs to be offered in sacrifice. She grew in wisdom and grace in God’s presence.
When Mary approached marriage age– then 15 or so–her parents arranged for her marriage as it was customary. They sought the high priest’s advice, tradition says, and Joseph of Nazareth was chosen as her husband. Nazareth was then their home.
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she was to be the Mother of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived the Child.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. He was raised in a large extended family that included his grandparents, Ann and Joachim, who cared for him as a child.
No one knows just when or where Ann and Joachim died, but Jesus must have treasured them in life and on their passage to God.
The 2nd century Protoevangelium of James repeats a fundamental theme of the Book of Genesis: God promises Adam and Eve many children who will enjoy the blessings of the earth. God repeats the promise to an aged, childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, and again to Hannah, who bemoans her childlessness to the priest Eli in the temple. In the same way, God gives a child to Ann and Joachim. Mary, their daughter, brings blessings to the nations through her son Jesus Christ, born of the Holy Spirit.
Giotto’s 14th century illustrations (above) from the Arena Chapel in Padua. helped popularize the story of the parents of Mary in Italy, Europe and the rest of the western world.
It’s an important story for grandmothers and grandfathers. Like Ann and Joachim they have a big role raising the next generation.
A novena preparing for the Feast of Saints Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus, July 26 has begun, reminding us of the role parents and grandparents play in raising children. A few years ago I visited the ancient ruins of the temple in Jerusalem from the time of Jesus where Jewish women were fervently praying with their daughters before the temple’s western wall.
Ann and her daughter Mary must have prayed here too.
The picture above is a model of the temple from Jesus’ time at the Israel Museum. Tradition says Ann and Joachim were closely associated with the temple and may have lived nearby. An ancient church honoring St. Ann stands today near the Pool of Bethesda, near the temple. There, a paralyzed man was healed by Jesus. (John 5, 1-18) That’s the church below.
A statue of Ann and her daughter Mary is in the Jerusalem church. Ann is teaching her daughter at her side.
What is she teaching her? Some statues show her teaching Mary the scriptures. I’ve seen a statue, like the one below, showing Ann teaching her the ABCs and numbers. That’s what parents and grandparents do, isn’t it? they teach children life’s basics: how to live and how to pray.
Still true today. Parents and grandparents, the next generation is at your side. Ann and Joachim pray for us; show us the way.
Jesus said to his apostles: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The way of the Cross is paved with losses one after the other. In searching for the pearl of great price, illusion after illusion peels away until we arrive at the dimensionless core: nada. We brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it (Job 1:21).
Losing our life to find it is essentially giving up what was never ours to begin with. Not a breath or a heartbeat is our own achievement. We are, at bottom, ex nihilo—created out of nothing. At the border between being and non-being the mind disappears into a cloud of unknowing and can see no further, as Ultimate Reality lies beyond the dyad of thinker and thought.
If the possessive pronoun “mine” is really an illusion, we are simply stewards of time, life, relationships and circumstances. Each person is dealt a certain set of cards to be played in a limited space of time.
We did not choose our parents, culture, epoch, blood type, height, race, gender, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Our individual selves in this world are fragments of Adam, borrowed elements for the exercise of our personal freedom in this journey to our eternal Source. Returning in Christ to the Father, we become whole and distinct persons, possessing in common the union of all fragments as our own Body. What is possessed by all is possessed by none. “All mine are thine, and thine are mine” (John 17:10).
Familial ties belong to our fragmented, biological condition. Persons transcend and encompass all tribes, cultures, nations and tongues. Even the biological role of the Blessed Virgin Mary was provisional and limited to her earthly sojourn. In communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mary is an indescribably glorious person transcending the root of Jesse and the Davidic line.
To the woman who said, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27) In no way was Jesus diminishing the role of Mary—the Theotokos was the exemplar of all those who “hear the word of God and keep it”—but her physical motherhood was put into perspective. Neither Jesus nor Mary are Jews in heaven, but persons transcending all cultures. From Our Lady of Guadalupe to Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of Fatima to the Black Madonna, Mary is Mother to all nations and races.
Apparitions to humankind necessarily use forms and names in order to reach our limited mode of knowing. Communion in the Trinity transcends the dyad of motherhood and fatherhood, but we are like children being gathered into the bosom of the Father.
Divine love (agape) gives parents, children, siblings and friends the freedom to follow Christ wherever he wants to lead them. Clinging to our loved ones and boxing them in to satisfy our own needs is against reality. A child born into the world is not ours, but the Father’s. By letting go, we flow with the grace of the Holy Spirit through Christ to the Father.
Spiritual motherhood and fatherhood are universal: we may offer a “cup of cold water” to Christ’s “little ones” anytime, anywhere, opening our hearts to the family without boundaries.
Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 139, Acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80
Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works. (Psalm 139:13-14)
King David sang with lyre and harp the mystery of his origins. Like a loving mother, God stitched him with needle and thread in his mother’s womb.
The prophet Isaiah received his name and mission “from my mother’s womb” to be “a light to the nations.”
John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:15, 79).
The greatest of the prophets, the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14), Zechariah’s son was the first to be sanctified in the womb by the Holy Spirit, marking a turning point in salvation history. The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation, inspired David’s psalms, and spoke through the prophets anointed the Forerunner of the Son of God in Elizabeth’s womb.
At six months of age, before his body was fully formed, John’s spirit was whole and awake before reason or the senses knew the light of day. At the voice of Mary, John “leaped” in his mother’s womb “and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).
Mary, full of grace and the Holy Spirit, was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb in preparation for her role as the Mother of God.
The Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was neither sanctified in the womb nor immaculately conceived, but beyond conception itself, though language must grasp at the graspable to express his beginningless beginning. The only-begotten of the Father was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s immaculate womb, uniting in his Person divinity and humanity, heaven and earth.
The new Eve, the new Adam, and the new Elijah closed the Old Testament and opened the New. The Holy Spirit, who was known only vaguely in the Old Covenant took center stage in the Acts of the Apostles after Pentecost. From womb to womb down the centuries, the Spirit of truth has led us back to the Eternal Womb of the Father from whom all persons originate.
The spirit longs to soar beyond history to the eternal principle from which everything originates. Beyond the Story (history), beyond time and eternity, beyond the beyond…
“No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18).
After Christ’s revelation of the thrice holy Trinity, new light is shed upon the entire arc of salvation history, especially the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This meditation sketch explores the thesis that Mary and Mother Church image the Divine Person of the Father in being the font of new persons.
Consider Mary’s virginity. From her womb, the Son of God received his human nature and became for us the Son of Man, yet without change to his divinity. His immutable identity as the only-begotten Son of the Father—his Person—remained intact. In Mary he is conceived not by the seed of man, but by the Holy Spirit. In other words, his entrance into our world bypassed the dyadic union of the male and the female.
This theological truth suggests that the hidden “who” or person of each of us is also transcendent to that dyadic union. Our final destination in the transfigured and deified state is communion in the Trinity, in which persons “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
Masculinity and femininity are two complementary halves of one human nature, but the person of each man or woman is whole and entire, transcendent to nature. Consider the Person of Christ who is neither male nor female, as divinity transcends the dyad. He lived his earthly life as a first-century Jewish man, but his hidden “who” remained in triadic communion without ceasing.
Before proceeding, let us review the distinctions between person, individual, and nature within humanity. An individual has a certain height, weight, gender, culture, giftedness, etc., but persons embody the entire human nature—the entire Body of Christ—really and mystically. In common parlance, we use the word “person” when we mean “individual,” but in theological terms, they have distinct meanings which cannot be confused in the case of Christ. In the Trinity there are no “individuals,” as each Person contains the whole divine nature in its entirety.
Salvation is on the line if these two meanings are not clearly distinguished. A guiding dictum in patristic theology (reflections by the Church Fathers) states: “What has not been assumed has not been saved.” We believe that Christ assumed human nature and saved it. If the Person of Christ is not distinguished from his existence in time as an individual, then what is saved is only the masculine, Jewish portion of humanity.
In Scripture, the language of the dyad is employed to speak of the relationship between man and God—the Church is the “Bride of Christ.” Humanity is “betrothed” to God in “marriage.” St. John speaks of the “marriage of the Lamb” in Revelation. For most of salvation history, and for all of the Old Testament, God is conceived as one, not Trinity. Man is in an “I-Thou” relationship with the one God. The God revealed by Jesus Christ, however, is both one and three. Dyadic language points to the union between the divine and human natures, but our communion in the Trinity as persons requires another approach.
It is noteworthy that the Third Person of the Trinity is not revealed to us with a gendered name. The name “Holy Spirit,” unlike “Father” and “Son,” transcends the dyad. This supports the revelation of Christ that heavenly communion transcends marriage. Names are given to us during our earthly sojourn, and we reverence the Persons whose names we invoke. In our heavenly state, there will be no need for words and addresses, as we will all be of one mind and heart in the love of the Trinity.
The thesis sketched here, if based on sound principles, requires more development. The point of this essay was to explore the idea that Mary and the Church give birth to persons in the Womb of the Father, fit for eternal communion in the Trinity. The Church’s font of baptism, also like a “womb” in which we are born “of water and the Spirit,” makes us adopted children of the Father. The Father is a Virgin, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his work, On Virginity, highlighting the passionlessness of Christ’s eternal birth. The revelation of the Trinity deeply enriches our meditation on who we are as persons and our destiny for eternal communion in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
On the Monday of Holy Week John’s gospel (John 12,1-11) calls us to a meal honoring Jesus in Bethany following the resurrection of Lazarus. It’s the last meal mentioned in the gospels before the Passover supper. The gift of life that Jesus gives his friend leads to a sentence of death.
Faithful Martha serves the meal; Lazarus newly alive, is at the table. But the one drawing most of our attention is Mary, their sister who, sensing what’s coming, kneels before Jesus to anoint his feet with precious oil and dry them with her hair. “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”
The precious oil is an effusive sign of her love and gratitude; it also anoints Jesus for his burial. Only in passing does the gospel mention that evil is in play here. Judas, “the one who would betray him,” complains that the anointing is a waste, but his voice is silenced. Believers are honoring the one they love.
How fitting that Holy Week begins with this gospel when, like Mary, we kneel and pour out the precious oil of our love upon him who pours out his precious life for us.
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.
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.
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.