Beholding the Mother of the Church
This year we celebrated a new memorial instituted by Pope Francis honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of the Church. Celebrated the Monday after Pentecost, it is a fitting memorial given that Mary was in the center of the 120 people in the Upper Room gathered in prayer on what was a major Jewish feast day. The apostles had been instructed by Jesus to remain praying in that place until the Holy Spirit came upon them. They did not know the day or hour that the Spirit would come, but God in His wisdom chose a day when Jerusalem was crowded with people who had come for the feast of Pentecost, thus enabling thousands of people from around the world to witness the event. In the account found in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles are described as spilling out into the Temple praising God and speaking in many languages, understood by all those peoples. However, we should not miss the emphasis given by Luke (the author of the Acts) about the role of Mary. Besides the apostles, she is the only person mentioned by name, something which reveals the reverence shown to her as the mother of their Lord and as the center of the community. Under the title of Mother of the Church, we are reminded that Mary was in the center of this group doing what she does best: praying and interceding for those she regards as her children.
It was the desire of Jesus that we have this relationship with Mary. In his gospel, John wrote that as Jesus was dying on the cross He entrusted His mother to us when He addressed her saying, “Woman, behold, your son.” Note the comma after the word ‘behold’ and the lower case ‘s’ in the word ‘son,’ a reference to John, not to Himself. The intention of Jesus was to offer John to Mary as proxy for the entire church. Thus we see that Jesus entrusted the Church to Mary so as to make her our Mother. And of course in His love for her, Jesus also entrusted Mary to the care of John when He also said: “Behold, your mother.” Therefore, if we take the intention of Jesus’ first statement to its logical conclusion, Jesus is also telling us, His church, to take care of Mary! (John 19:26-27) In other words, we are to regard her as our mother with the love of children and to never forget her role in bringing us closer to Jesus. She always points us to Jesus, never to herself, yet He in turn wants us to be aware of the perfect mother we have in her. It is clear He wants us to love her just as He dearly as He does; and fittingly, Mary’s intercession for us is made with the same love she has for Jesus.
In the Acts of the Apostles Luke emphasizes that the community of believers had taken Jesus at His word to “behold” Mary as their Mother. Luke names the 11 remaining apostles – (this is just before Matthias is named as the 12th) – and goes on to say: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers.” (AA 1: 14) Then a few verses later in his account of the Pentecost event Luke subtly reminds us again of the relationship of all these people to Mary: “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together.” (Acts 2:1, italics mine.) This reminds us that Mary is still at the center, thereby fulfilling the request of Jesus that she be as mother to the newly formed Church empowered by the Holy Spirit. It all comes full circle in Mary. Furthermore, we must not forget that Mary was already full of grace, having been freed from sin when she was conceived; and again at the Annunciation, it was the Holy Spirit who became her spouse, overshadowing her so that she became pregnant with Jesus. That Mary is our mother as Mother of the Church seems to have been God’s intention from the beginning. To this she said ‘yes’ freely: her yes was not only to the difficult task of being mother to Jesus, but to forever taking on the role of helping all her children who comprise the Church.
The new celebration of Mary as Mother of the Church, then, is a cause for much joy; it also provides an opportunity for deeper understanding of the Church, of the Pentecost event, and of the role of Mary given as a gift to the Body of Christ. My own reflection upon all this was enhanced during a short vacation in the mountains of Colorado during the weekend of Pentecost. As I prayed the Rosary* on my daily morning walk, I was reminded of Mary as mother through meditation on the various Glorious mysteries. While walking, I routinely crossed paths with people who were going about the activities of their lives. The people were exceedingly friendly, so every encounter meant there would be a short break in the prayer in order to interact. What I came to realize was that these pauses were never an intrusion, but rather they became part of the prayer, making it richer. For example, there was a Japanese woman with two small children all of whom seemed to barely speak a word of English; she became as Mary to me and the children as the first Christian community, when the little ones would wait for me and wave joyfully as the mother bowed slightly, though a word was never spoken. There was a woman walking her Siberian Huskie: she would greet me with a comment about the beautiful weather, wishing me a day to match. There was a jogging man and woman who would smile and one or the other would say something along the lines of “Good morning! Fantastic day, isn’t it?”
Even though these short interactions occurred during a time of prayer, these folks became part of the mysteries. The Japanese woman and her children were linked to Pentecost because while we did not speak the same language, we understood each other; the woman with the dog was joined with the Assumption of Mary because her joy was contagious and uplifting; the jogging couple reminded me of the Queenship of Mary and thus our home in Heaven when we will be united as brothers and sisters worshipping God as one family. All of these encounters made the Rosary come alive. The people were enfolded into the prayer, teaching a powerful lesson about our purpose as disciples: we are children of the Father, entrusted to Mary by the Son, empowered by the Holy Spirit as one family, the Body of Christ. This unexpected experience was so enriching that I encourage reflection in this way upon the various events in the life of Jesus and Mary, taking the prayer into daily life, letting those whom we encounter add depth to the mysteries and thus, add beauty to our spiritual lives.
The doctrine that describes Mary in her role as Mother of the Church has always been taught, but now it is being brought to our attention in a new way.** The addition to our liturgical calendar serves as a reminder of her role, but it also encourages examination of our relationships with family, friends, and strangers alike, and to help us reflect on what it means to be children of God. Mary as Mother of the Church encourages the opening of our hearts to others, welcoming the stranger, and offering mercy to the one who is difficult to love. The memorial also helps us to realize that as a mother Mary understands her children because there is nothing we experience that she did not know in her own life. She knows the joys of being a spouse and raising a child, but also what it is to suffer the pain of losing her only Son; she knows what it is to see God’s hand in creation, but also the search for clarity when pondering things in her heart which were beyond understanding; she knows what it is to have an extended family in the Church, but also what it is to seek community when we are in need of companionship.
Therefore let us do as Jesus requested by ‘beholding’ Mary as the Mother of the Church who can unify us as brothers and sisters under her care. By uniting our intentions with hers through offering prayer for the world and in imitation of her humility, prayerfulness, and love, we will be acting as faithful children. Through her example, we can develop an expanded understanding of family to include those of various cultural practices, personalities, and nationalities such as the ones who were present at that first Pentecost. And we can accept her care when we turn to her with our prayer intentions, or are in need of wisdom or comfort. Let us rejoice in such a great gift, continuing to grow as one Church, one family, one Body of Christ.
May we always know that we can turn to our mother Mary as members of the Body of Christ! May we rejoice in having Mary as a caring mother and intercessor who brings all our petitions to Jesus! May our meditations on the various mysteries in the Rosary, the events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, be enhanced by seeking to bring our daily experiences into the mysteries! May we be like Mary, always pointing others to Jesus! And may we come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be one Church family united by the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of God! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* How to pray the Rosary - http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/rosaries/how-to-pray-the-rosary.cfm
** An explanation (with footnotes) that shows historical references to the role of Mary as Mother of the Church is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Paragraph 963)
Note: Next post will be June 18.
1. This is a recently completed icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. The icon beautifully portrays the centrality of Mary in the gathering of men and women on the day of Pentecost, with her hands outstretched in prayer and the Holy Spirit falling upon her, as seen by the dove representing the Spirit and the tongue of fire over her head representing the fire of love, the power of the Spirit falling upon all of them, as reported by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. You can purchase copies of it, if desired, in one of many mediums at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/the-blessed-virgin-mary-mother-of-the-church-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
(Remember I gain nothing from endorsing Fr. Bill's work except the joy of sharing it. All of his work which appears in my blog is used with his permission.)
2. This is the work of Paul Cézanne, called Farm in Normandy. (1882) I chose it because it made me think of the early Christians hidden in prayer awaiting the descent of the Spirit upon them. The farm house in this painting is hidden behind the beauty of the trees, just as the 120 were hidden in the beauty of prayerful waiting.
3. This photo was one I took while in Silverthorne, Colorado. This particular sunset was the most striking one of our entire stay as it turned out, so I was glad to have been able to capture it. It is as if the fire of the Holy Spirit is falling afresh upon the world. I pray that would be true!
4. I took this photo while I was on one of my daily walks in Silverthorne, as mentioned in the text. The reservoir beyond with the mountains was a stunning sight during my daily walk.
5. This painting is called Saint-Hilarion by Arthur Lismer (1925), one of the Canadian artists referred to as "The Group of Seven." I was drawn to the small cluster of houses around the church, a sight which is very common in rural France. http://www.group-of-seven.org/Saint-Hilarion.html
6. This is a painting by Richard Boyer which was painted in homage to Vincent van Gogh. It is called Le café de Van Gogh à Arles. I chose it because cafés are places where friends gather to share food and drink: in short, they share fellowship and community. You can find it at http://france.jeditoo.com/Paca/arles-van-gogh.htm.
7. This is a close-up of the figure of Mary from the icon of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church by Fr. William Hart McNichols, mentioned above. I chose to enlarge this section so that we could 'behold' Mary better. Her eyes are turned toward us and her hands are open, not only to accept the Holy Spirit, and not just in the orans (prayer) gesture, but in an invitation to us to come into her arms, too, as her children.
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