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 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.
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) ..
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.
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)
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.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, welcomes us to this church, the largest and most ancient of her many churches in Rome. On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church 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 the city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized the city. 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. The Christian world then saw her as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine. 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 title does not make Mary 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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
The pope raised some eyebrows a month or so ago when he saw a little baby crying in its mother’s arms as he was going through the crowds in St. Peter’s Square in his pope mobile. “Give the baby something to eat, Madam,” he was reported to have said to the baby’s mother. Breast feeding in St. Peter’s Square! It seems he did the same thing last week on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Sistine Chapel when he baptized 35 infants. “If your baby is hungry, don’t be afraid to feed it,” he said to the mothers there according to reports.
In one of the magazines, an art historian wrote asking why should we be surprised at the pope’s words. Catholic artists have pictured nursing Madonnas for centuries. That’s what Mary did.
I spoke about Mary to priests on retreat from the Austin diocese this morning. We easily forget Mary’s fundamental role in the life of Jesus.
“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” “Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”
Her role meant more than giving him birth. The apocryphal gospels often picture Jesus as showing signs of divine powers growing up, but the church condemned them because they negate the role of Mary and Joseph and the whole extended family that raised him in Nazareth.
Mary especially raised him as his mother. She did all those things a mother does for an infant, a young child and an adolescent. She fed him and took care of his basic needs. Her motherly care embodied a spirituality that’s still fundamental for the advance of human life.
The church makes her motherly spirituality its own.
If you extrapolate Mary’s spirituality to a wider arena, as I think Pope Francis does, you have to be concerned with the children of God in our world who hunger. We have to feed them. We can’t let poverty weigh them down with worries and cares. We have to relieve global poverty.