24 May 1988 | LITURGY
Date: 24 May 1988
The first words of St. John's Gospel tell us that the One who was with God in the beginning and who was God became flesh and lived among us. God entered our world and shared our human experience.
Christians are invited to recall this coming of God among us as human history approaches the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. This also brings to mind the woman Mary - his mother through whom God "became flesh".
In God's plan - a plan in which we are all called to share - these two are inseparable.
Our thoughts easily go back to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. It is there we immediately encounter the figure of Mary of Nazareth, who was prepared by God from the first moment of her existence to be a worthy mother for the Son.
Although we do not know the date of her birth, she obviously was born at least fourteen or fifteen years before she conceived Christ. To mark this significant event - the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Mary - Pope John Paul II called the whole Church to observe a Marian Year from Pentecost 1987 to the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1988.
Down the centuries Christians have reflected on the relationship between Mary and her Son and what it means for them. The present Marian Year has given us an opportunity to do the same.
As we enter the last years of the twentieth century, we are aware that despite two thousand years of Christian endeavour the full impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ is still far from realised.
The knowledge that we might be entering the third millennium with the majority of the world's population having no allegiance to Christ urges us to work even harder for the coming of God's kingdom so that everyone will know the salvation won for them so long ago.
In today's world where the threat of our self-destruction is no pretence, the task of evangelisation - spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ - is now more urgent than ever.
This Marian Year is also an opportunity to renew our devotion to Mary, the Mother of God.
For various reasons, external devotions to her seem to have fallen away in the years since the Second Vatican Council. To recall us to a proper appreciation of Mary and her role in the story of our salvation and in the life of the Church, Pope John Paul recently wrote a special letter: The Mother of the Redeemer in the Life of the Pilgrim Church (Redemptoris Mater). In it he directs our thoughts to the preparation made two thousand years ago in the person of Mary. By looking to her we can see how we too can prepare for the coming of the fullness of God's kingdom.
Pope John Paul II presents Mary as a model of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ.
Mary is an ageless figure in the life of the Church. She has always been there and she is still a powerful presence in the hearts of believers.
But devotion to Mary changes at different times and in different cultures. The Pope realises that the Marian piety of the past does not always speak so eloquently today. There is a need to present her in a fresh way to today's Christians.
By contemplating the Scriptures, and the living tradition of the Church, in the light of the world in which we live, we find that Mary still speaks in a voice in tune with our times, and we learn to show our devotion to her in words and symbols sensitive to our age.
In Mary, the Church has always seen a reflection of its own nature. The Church is the community of the Lord's disciples, a pilgrim people, journeying through time towards God's kingdom.
Mary has already made this journey. She embodies the goal of our own journey - a sign of hope to all who travel the same path of faith and continue the work of Christ today. For Mary is the Woman of Faith, the Disciple of Christ, and the Mother of the Lord.
In this year of Mary we are reminded of the way she co-operated in the work of our salvation. We are called to co-operate with her in bringing that salvation to people everywhere.
But here in New Zealand we have an added reason for claiming 1988 as a Marian Year.
One hundred and fifty years ago the first Mass celebrated on our soil by Jean Baptiste Pompallier, the first Catholic bishop to New Zealand, was offered in honour of Mary the Mother of God. It was a Saturday, 13 January 1838. At the conclusion of Mass he dedicated our whole country to Mary under the title of her Assumption. Six years later, in 1844, Mary became the principal patron of New Zealand under the title, Help of Christians.
The significance of these symbolic beginnings should not be lost on us today.
In dedicating New Zealand to Mary in her Assumption, Bishop Pompallier placed our country under the protection of Mary as she is now - alive, body and soul, rejoicing in the happiness of God's kingdom.
Mary is a real person, living in the present - not an historical personage who lived for a time, only to become a faint memory in the pages of history.
Although we relate to Mary as she is now, living gloriously in heaven, she is still the same person that we find in the Gospels. The Blessed Virgin continues to "go before" the people of God. Her exceptional pilgrimage of faith represents a constant point of reference for the Church, for individuals and for communities, for peoples and nations, and in a sense for all humanity (Redemptoris Mater, 6).
Where she has gone we hope to follow.
As Help of Christians, the greatest aid Mary can give is to show how to receive the Good News of Salvation and how to live a fully Christian life in the Spirit of her Son. For Mary is truly one of us.
A redeemed person like us - although perfectly redeemed from the first moment of her existence - she too had to live by faith. She knew hardship and sorrow, joy and peace. Things were not always clear to her and she had to ponder the mysterious ways of God in her heart (Luke 2:19,51). At times she did not understand and had to be brought to a new understanding by her Son (Luke 2:48-49; John 2:4).
Her faith, although never weakened by sin, was nevertheless like our faith ö a clinging to God even when the way was dark and fraught with pain.
The heart of Mary's faith is shown by St Luke. In his account of Jesus' great parable of the sower and the seed, he deliberately brings Mary into the story, just after Jesus had explained what the parable meant. His disciples were nonplussed and wondered what all the talk of seed falling on stony ground, among thistles, and on rich soil could mean.
Jesus patiently explains each image to them, ending with the description of the vocation of all Christians: "As for the seed in rich soil, this is people with a noble and generous heart, who have heard the word of God, taken it to themselves, and have yielded a harvest by their perseverance" (Luke 8:15).
Then Jesus holds his mother and family up as examples of "those who hear the word and put it into practice" (8:21). They are living examples of seed in rich soil.
And this indeed is the heart of Christian life - listening to what God is asking of us and then responding to it with all our heart. As Mary did. This is the secret of her holiness and the path we are called to follow if we are to be disciples like her.
Pope Paul VI declared:
The Virgin Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the Church as an example to be imitated not precisely in the type of life she led, and much less for the socio-cultural background in which she lived and which today scarcely exists anywhere. She is held up as an example to the faithful rather for the way in which, in her own particular life, she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God (cf Luke 1:38), because she heard the word of God and acted on it, and because charity and the spirit of service were the driving force of her actions. She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christâs disciples (Marialis Cultus, 35).
Mary is not only the first disciple, she is also the first apostle. The Litany of Loreto hails her as "Queen of Apostles" Her vocation in life - her mission - was to bring the Saviour into the world.
She was the one who first showed the Messiah to the Jews when the shepherds came to visit on Christmas night (Luke 2:8-20). And at Pentecost Mary too received the Holy Spirit with the other disciples (Acts 1:12-14) - the Spirit of power who transformed that little group of frightened disciples into a band of fearless apostles who rushed out on to the streets of Jerusalem and preached the Good News to such wondrous effect that three thousand were won to Christ that day (Acts 2:41).
Every Christian is called not only to be a disciple of the Lord, but also an apostle sent to bring his gospel into the world. Our Christian faith is not a gift intended to be locked away in a person's heart. It is meant to be shared.
The responsibility of evangelisation does not rest simply on the priests and religious and missionaries in the Church. It is the responsibility of all Christians.
By our baptism we are all called to be apostles of Jesus Christ to bring his Good News and salvation to the world in which we live.
Mary gave a beautiful example of this at the Annunciation and Visitation.
As soon as she accepted her vocation to be the mother of the Messiah and the Word had taken flesh in her womb, she set out to share her good fortune with her cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). Her "baptism" - her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ within her - immediately became a gift to be shared with others.
She quite literally brought Christ to others. She proclaimed the Good News that they, too, in their turn are called to share in the ministry of her Son.
And so transparent was her bearing of Christ that he was able to sanctify those whom he met even though he was hidden in her womb. He could be recognised in Mary and he was able to work his saving power through her presence.
Similarly every Christian is called to bring Christ to others - to enable him to be recognised in them and to do his saving work through them.
Christians exalt Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos - the God-bearer). This is her most glorious title and the one which expresses her highest dignity.
The Church cherishes the tradition of calling Mary the Mother of God because it safeguards the central mystery of Christian belief - the Incarnation of the Word of God. Jesus is the Son of God, and therefore equally divine with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But he is also fully a human being, because he was "born of a woman, born a subject of the Law" (Galatians 4.4). Mary is thus the mother of him who is both God and man. By calling her the Mother of God, Christians are affirming both his divinity as Son of God and his humanity as the Son of Mary.
Mary in her lowliness and poverty is the one chosen by God to bring to earth the infinite riches of the Son of the Most High (cf. Luke 1:32,38).
She is that place in creation where the Creator becomes a creature.
In Mary, creation touches its Creator and a broken world is reconciled with its God. The child of her womb is both God and man, and in him we find our peace (cf. John 16:33; Ephesians 2:14). God chose to enter our world in the likeness of Mary. In choosing her as mother, God chose to be a human being like her, with all the traits a son takes from his mother.
Giving birth to Jesus was not the end of Mary's motherhood. It was only the beginning.
Throughout his growth to manhood she nourished and cherished him, taught him compassion and love, and passed on her own wisdom and virtue. Those who helped form the human character of Jesus - Mary and Joseph - in a certain sense shaped the revelation of God to the world.
Moreover, as mother, Mary was united with Jesus in his work of redemption.
The world could have been saved by Jesus alone. But instead he chose to associate his mother with his work of obedience to his Father's will, an obedience which led to the ignominy of death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:8). Mary also had to walk a painful path. Ever faithful to what was asked of her, she too was pierced by the sword of suffering (cf. Luke 2:35).
At the wedding feast of Cana "the mother of Jesus was there" (John 2:1) when he began his public ministry with a miracle that revealed his glory and confirmed his disciples' belief in him (John 2:11).
At the supreme moment on Calvary when Jesus surrendered his spirit to the Father (cf. John 19:30), Mary was there too.
Standing loyally at his side, she suffered intensely the agony of a mother forced to watch her only son die most cruelly. But this pain was not without fruit. Her compassion was caught up in the passion of her son, the Saviour, by which the world was redeemed.
Christians have venerated Mary not only because she is the mother of their Saviour. They have also looked on her as their mother.
Seeing his mother and, loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother: "Woman, this is your son." Then to the disciple he said.- "This is your mother." And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home (John 19:26-27).
On one level Jesus provided for the care of his widowed mother, soon to be left alone in the world, with no family and no security - truly one of the Poor Ones of Yahweh.
But at a deeper level Jesus called Mary to a new vocation as mother of all those who would come to believe in him, all his disciples. In other words, he was calling her to be the mother of his Church.
And ever since that moment Christians have looked on her as truly their mother.
This is more than pious sentiment. It goes to the very roots of Christian belief. For our faith teaches us that by our baptism we were adopted into the family of God.
By making Mary mother of the beloved disciple (who represented every true disciple), Jesus was making himself our brother since he was sharing his mother with us - Mary.
The maternal nature of Mary speaks to the hearts of people everywhere.
A mother loves each of her children with a unique personal love. She does not "lump them all together". Her children stand equal before her. She loves each child for the person it is - not for merit or beauty, talents or achievements.
And if one of her children is weaker or poorer than the others, then her care and concern for that one is all the greater.
Many Christians instinctively feel this about Mary. They have always responded warmly to her, taking to her their worries and troubles, turning to her in their distress.
They donât have to earn her love; it is enough that she is their mother and they are her children.
She will not turn them away, That is not a mother's nature. No matter how wretched they might be, no matter how sinful, they know Mary is always welcoming and forgiving. She will intercede with God and pray on their behalf.
She is the Mother of Mercy and Compassion, the Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted.
Even though Mary's love is undoubtedly very great, it is but a reflection of the love that God has for us. God's love is, of course, infinitely great and it exceeds our human powers of understanding (cf Ephesians 3:18-19). It is revealed most fully in Jesus Christ, "the love of God made visible" (Romans 8:39).
But we can see an aspect of it reflected in the tremendous love that Mary has for her children. In Mary we catch a glimpse of the "maternal" side of God's love, which she calls us to continue revealing in our relationships with each other.
In recent times Christian thinkers have been discussing more and more the "feminine dimension" in God. God is neither male nor female, but we tend to think of God in masculine terms and images, thus obscuring the full richness of God's nature and the relationship God has with us.
Scripture shows a God "of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6; Psalms 103:8).
Yet popular devotion has often seen God in terms of justice and power, and transferred appreciation of the more tender qualities to Mary.
This is a mistake.
Mary must not be seen in contrast to God, as if God were the severe, strict and just father, and she the tender, merciful and loving mother
Mary's love should lead us to a deeper appreciation of God's love, which is infinitely greater. As the Lord says: "Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the child of her womb? Yet even if she should forget, I will never forget you" (Isaiah 49:15).
Although God is neither male nor female, all that is truly human, both masculine and feminine, has its origin in God. Mary helps us to appreciate the "feminine" side of the divine nature. She reveals the maternal face of God.
We cannot fully understand the nature of Mary's motherhood unless we try to see it in the light of her discipleship.
St Augustine, a fifth century bishop and theologian, once wrote: Maryâs relationship as mother would have been of no profit to her if she had not more joyfully borne Christ in her heart than in her body (De Sancta Virginitate, 3).
Here St Augustine accurately reflects Jesus' own teaching.
In their accounts of Jesus' public life, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Mary's visit to Jesus while he was busy teaching.
In Matthew's version, when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were outside and wanting to have a word with him, Jesus rather surprisingly replied: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" He then stretched out his hand towards his disciples and declared: "Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:46-50; also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21).
Jesus makes it clear that in his scale of values those closest to his heart are the ones who "do the will of my Father" They are more important to him than those who claim kinship merely through ties of blood. His disciples are his true family.
Luke, in his account of the same incident, is at pains to show that Mary is included in Jesus' true family: My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice (Luke 8:21).
But the reason for his esteem of her is not because she is his mother (in any merely natural sense), but because she listens to the word of God and cherishes it in her heart; in other words, because she too is a true disciple.
In the words of St Augustine: Mary full of faith conceived Christ first in her heart before conceiving him in her womb (Sermo 215, 4).
He also said that Mary did not have intercourse and conceive; instead she believed and conceived (Sermo 233:3-4).
In other words, the human act whereby she conceived her son was not an act of loving union with her husband, but an act of loving faith in God. "Let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38) said Mary speaking as the true disciple who hears the word of God and keeps it. And immediately the word was made flesh (John 1:14).
Even this act of Mary's faith was made through the power of the Holy Spirit who "overshadowed" her (cf. Luke 1:35).
This mysterious "overshadowing" does not simply refer to the creative power of God fashioning the Son in human form in the womb of Mary. It also suggests the very presence and power of God within Mary, enabling her to respond wholeheartedly and without reserve to what was being asked of her.
Just as it is only through the power of the Spirit that we are able to cry out in faith "Abba! Father!" (cf. Romans 8:15), so it was only through the power of this same Spirit that Mary was able to say her "Yes" in faith to God.
The Holy Spirit did not take away her freedom or responsibility for her own actions.
In consenting to become the Mother of God, Mary was not just the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit speaking through her, nor was she a passive recipient of God's favour, a puppet dancing on the strings of divine manipulation.
Rather she was a free responsible woman, who knew what was being proposed to her and was prepared to accept the consequences of her response. It was her act of faith. She acted out of her freedom and integrity as a person and a daughter of God.
And it was important that the Incarnation should come about in this way. Only through the free consent of a creature could creation itself share in the working out of its own redemption.
God paid creation the supreme compliment of associating it with the work of salvation. This, happened through Mary whose free and utterly human response in faith enabled our broken world to meet its Saviour in the child of her womb.
And so Mary's conceiving of Christ was on her part; first and foremost, the act of a disciple - an act of hearing the word of God, and keeping it.
In Mary these words take on a profound meaning. For the "word" she heard from God was not merely the message from the angel, but the very "WORD" of God - God the Son, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
And "keeping it" means that she conceived and nurtured this Word deep within her being. The Word was with God and the Word was God·the Word was made flesh and lived among us (John 1:1,14).
As a person of faith - a disciple and an apostle - Mary has power to touch our deepest concerns and aspirations. She speaks - to men and women alike of what it means to be a Christian in today's world. For God still speaks to us, and it is the vocation of each Christian to listen and allow the word to shape their lives.
An attentive reading of the Scriptures shows "how Mary can be considered a mirror of the expectations of the men and women of our time" (Marialis Cultus; 37).
She was not a timidly submissive woman, but fully a person in her own right, even though subject to the conventions and culture of her own time and place.
The Gospels portray her as a strong and courageous woman, a wife and mother, going out to others (Visitation), concerned for their welfare (Cana), loyal in adversity (Calvary), and persevering in her devotion to Christ.
Although deeply religious, she did not indulge in a piety repellent to others. Rather, she was open and straightforward in her relations with God.
God dignified her by consulting her - not over some trivial everyday matter of no consequence - but about an event of world-shattering significance. And Mary responded frankly and openly, asking questions and not hesitating to express her emotions and feelings (cf. Luke 1:26-38).
Only when she was satisfied that she understood what was being asked of her did she consent to what God was proposing. She was free and responsible in her dealings with God. And in this she set a pattern for all Christians for all ages.
But Mary's commitment to God did not cut her off from the world in which she lived. Like the prophets before her and the saints who came afterwards, Mary's love for God spilled over in a love that embraced everyone.
As a true disciple, ever ready to hear and accept the word of God, Mary realised that God could speak to her equally well in the words of an angel or in the events and the people she met every day. She had one ear open completely to the Lord and the other open completely to those, around her.
As a mother she was totally devoted to her Son, but not in any exclusive way. At a time when her natural motherly instinct would have been to take her Son down from the cross and nurse him in her arms, she was asked to let go and open her arms to a multitude of other children: "Woman, this is your son ... This is your mother" (John 19:26-27). Her motherly embrace is open to all.
Mary is a practical woman. She knows the needs of those around her. Her love for God is so strong that she is impelled to show a practical love for others.
As soon as she hears that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is pregnant with her first child, Mary sets out on a hazardous journey across the hills to care for her until her son is born.
At Cana she notices that the wine for festivities has run out and she draws her Son's attention to the newly-wed's plight (John 2:3). When she notices that Jesus is missing, she doesnât sit around bemoaning her loss, but immediately goes looking for him (Luke 2:41-50).
Pope Paul VI wrote:
The figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary does not disappoint any of the profound expectations of the men and women of our time, but offers instead the perfect model of the disciple of the Lord: the disciple who builds up the earthly and temporal city, while at the same time being a diligent pilgrim towards the heavenly and eternal city; the disciple who works for that justice which sets free the oppressed and for that charity which assists the needy; but, above all, the disciple who is the active witness of that love which builds up Christ in peopleâs hearts (Marialis Cultus, 37).
St Luke sees in Mary the pure voice of authentic Old Testament spirituality.
The longings and aspirations of a people oppressed for centuries by foreign domination - the Poor Ones of Yahweh - find their voice in Mary. She transcends these yearnings and brings them to fulfilment in giving birth to the Saviour whom they have hungered for, and who will set them free from their oppression and misery.
The Poor Ones of Yahweh are those who have nothing of their own, no security and no wealth, and who, in their desperation, turn to God as the only one who can answer their needs. Mary in her "nothingness" exemplifies all the poverty of her people.
Notable among the Poor Ones of the Old Testament were those noble Jewish women who were reproached for being barren, since motherhood and childhood were so highly prized in the culture of their day.
In their unhappiness they cried to God for help and their prayer was heard. They each conceived a son who was to become a hero in the nation and a forerunner of the Messiah.
One thinks of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who in her old age gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7). Then there were Rebeccah the mother of Jacob (Genesis 25:21), the mother of Samson (Judges 13:2-25), and Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-20), whose great hymn of praise (2:1-10) anticipated Mary's own Magnificat.
Finally we recall Elizabeth, whose own pregnancy was so intimately linked with the coming of the Messiah in Mary's womb (Luke 1:5-25).
Mary stands with all these great women of her race. She became a mother in an even more remarkable way than they did. Her virginal conception of Jesus was unique and brought about through the power of the Holy Spirit who "overshadowed" her.
Mary longed and hoped for the Promised One, the Messiah, even more ardently than her forebears. In her the long wait would come to an end.
When at last he came to life within her, Mary's gentle heart naturally burst forth in a song of joy and exultation.
In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) we hear the true prophet's voice: like the prophets of old, Mary is totally committed to God and totally committed to her afflicted people. Fidelity to one is fidelity to the other. Anyone deaf to the cries of the poor is also mute before God. But Mary cries out. She praises God and intercedes for her people.
Her Magnificat is the perfect expression of all that was best in Old Testament spirituality. It also anticipates the liberating message of the Messiah, for Mary sings her song in the same spirit as Jesus later proclaimed his Good News of salvation, quoting Isaiah: He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lordâs year of favour (Luke 4:18).
The backdrop to the Magnificat is the tragedy of a world that is riddled with sin and injustice - an obstacle to God's plan for people to live together in peace. This was true of the Israel of Mary's day. But her song is not limited only to her country and time. It is universal and timeless. God's "mercy reaches from age to age" (1:50), "to Abraham and to his descendants for ever" (1:55).
Mary seems to identify herself with her people, oppressed by the yoke of foreign domination.
Her song moves from her personal experience - the Almighty has done great things for me (1:49), to the great things he has done for the poor and the victims of injustice - he has exalted the lowly (1:52) and filled the hungry with good things (1:53).
Mary is filled with a messianic joy. God has become the Saviour (1:47) and has looked kindly on his lowly servant (1:48). Mary has become the first of the redeemed, for Jesus Christ the Redeemer dwells within her. She realises that she is free and she exults in this new freedom given her by the child in her womb. She is a free woman.
Mary is totally dependent upon God and completely directed towards him and, at the side of her Son, she is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe (Redemptoris Mater, 37).
In this Mary is the prototype of us all. That is why "every generation" will call her "blessed" (1:48). For our personal salvation is found in Christ living in each person through baptism.
We too become radically free with the freedom which Christ himself enjoyed, for "if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). And Jesus' freedom was truly a radical freedom - complete and total to the roots of his being, so that even his death was not an imposition from alien forces, but something he freely chose to accept (cf. John 10:17-18).
So much of the spiritual journey of Christians is a struggle to realise the radical freedom that is theirs because of the Christ-life within them. There are many forces today that conspire to delude us with illusions of freedom. Consumerism and advertising bombard us with a bewildering array of "choices" that force us to want - and to buy.
Selfishness takes subtle forms by preaching a philosophy of self-fulfilment. This often masquerades as spirituality, but in reality panders to one's needs and desires. It neither admires nor encourages self-offering or sacrifice.
Poverty, racism, the social stigma attached to minority groups, to the aged, sick and mentally handicapped, all conspire to prevent a true realisation that Christ has set us free.
It is the task of Christians to oppose these unjust forces and bring the oppressed to a realisation of their true freedom and dignity as human persons loved and saved by Jesus Christ.
Mary knew this. She experienced her own freedom. As a cherished daughter of God, she knew her dignity.