The best class I ever took was a particular Liturgy course in graduate school. The professor was so good that there were times in class in which we would ask him to pause because we were all so moved that we needed to rest in what he had just said. In fact, I even learned from him during the final exam, as strange as that sounds. It was an oral exam in which the entire class of about a dozen people sat in a circle and answered questions in a discussion. We each added something to the discussion of a particular question and were graded on our level of participation, the quality and accuracy of what we said, etc. At one point I realized that even his questions were 'aha' moments for me. It was an incredible experience.
During that class the professor emphasized that one could know what the church teaches even if all we did was truly listen to what was being prayed at Mass, especially the prayers being said by the priest. He was ‘unpacking’ the meaning of the saying "lex orandi, lex credendi." (This literally translates as "the law of prayer is the law of belief." Basically it means what I said above: what we pray reflects what we believe.) Therefore I began to listen more attentively at Mass in order to truly pray with the priest rather than to be passive. As our professor said, "You are about to say 'Amen' to it, so don't you want to know what you just said yes to?" Excellent point! As a result of listening more closely, a line from one of the Eucharistic preface prayers for the season of Advent has stayed with me. It goes like this: "And Mary bore Him in her womb with love beyond all telling." In that prayer the Church is indicating the depths of the mysteries of the role of Mary as the mother of Jesus, of the One whom she is bearing, and the mystery of love itself.
This week we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As I reflected on what this feast is about, the line from the Advent liturgy came back to me: Mary bore Jesus in her womb with love beyond all telling. Each year the feast of her Immaculate Heart comes one day after the celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They come in tandem for a reason. We associate these two feasts with each other as a celebration of two loves that are one. Jesus came to love us beyond imagining by dying and rising for us, but without the love of Mary and without her pure heart, Jesus could never have come into the world. God needed someone to be the mother of His Son and to have the love which is the very nature of His Son flow within the mother's own body. So God chose Mary as that mother.
Mary was always filled with purity and love. God chose her before she was conceived in her own mother's womb. That may be confusing, but if we think of it from God's perspective it becomes clearer. God needed a fitting mother for His only Son to come into the world and for her to raise Him until He was ready to embark upon His ministry. This woman would have to be the best mother possible and she would have to be without sin so as to be a pure vessel. Being His human parent she would have to be free from sin in order to have His conception become possible. She had to be pure and without original sin so that the Son of God could reside within her during the pregnancy. He was to be fully God, but also fully human. However, the Son could not inherit original sin since sin means being apart from God and is contrary to the very nature of God. Therefore she had to be freed from it. Furthermore, since God is not bound by time or space as we are, He anticipated that Mary would be the one: He anticipated her yes, even though she was free at all times to say no. In this anticipating of her role, knowing she would say yes in full freedom, He made her conception in her mother's womb to be pure and immaculate to prepare her for motherhood of Jesus. That is, she was conceived without sin and remained free of sin her entire life. This is a mystery, and therefore we cannot fully understand it.
God created Mary with a pure and immaculate soul which is reflected in her pure and immaculate heart. She grew up loving God with a deep love and a total commitment. So when the time came for the angel to greet her and to ask her if she would be willing to be the mother of God's own Son she said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Immediately she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and she was impregnated with the Son of God. It is beyond imagining what the moment of that infusion of love was like. And it is beyond all telling what her loving response must have been from that moment ever onward. The gospels describe to us how immediately Mary became Jesus' first disciple. She obeyed God's word, she served her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant, she allowed Joseph to decide how he would respond to her, and she served God throughout her life, spending much time in reflection and prayer as well as learning from Jesus how to be the best disciple she could be.
With all that Mary did to raise Jesus and living with Him until He was around 30 years of age, it should not surprise us that she loved Him so deeply or that she loved all He loved so deeply. His love must have coursed through her veins throughout her life, given that His Sacred Heart had beaten within her and their blood was the same blood for the nine months she held Him in her womb. When Jesus was dying on the cross He entrusted us, the church, to her. (He did that when He told John, “Behold, your mother,” and to her, “Behold, your son.”) This is why it is fitting that in the Hail Mary prayer we ask her intercession for us at the hour of our death. Having been at the cross she knows what it is to be with someone beloved at the hour of death; she, too, loves us with that same love. He entrusted us to her and she is with us.
It is no wonder, then, that after her death Jesus asked Mary to continue to minister to us as Queen of Heaven, the first and greatest of the saints. She has appeared numerous times to help us to hear God’s message more clearly. Often she is warning us of dangers to come if we do not pray and repent. She tells us what we should do to pray for those who need help, to intercede for those on the wrong path, or to pray against evil running rampant in the world. Her messages are delivered with love because she knows God does not want to lose any of His children. She is a sign of the mercy and compassion of Jesus, but she is also filled with that same love and therefore she is more than merely a messenger. That she has an Immaculate Heart means that she is the perfect messenger because she embodies the love with which the messages are sent: in many ways she has become the message. And she listens to our prayers, bringing them to her Son. She loves us as a true mother who wants nothing more than to be with us in Heaven forever. She wants this because her dearest love, Jesus, wants this.
Let us never forget nor be confused: Mary is not God and she is never to be worshiped. Rather, she points us to her Son. She has done this all of her life through her deeds and words, and she continues to do it through her time in Heaven. She is clear on her role which is to intercede for us to Him. She is to be venerated for her holiness and for her unique role, but she would never want us to try to put her on equal footing with her Son. At the center of love is humility because love is always about the ‘other’ and never about being self-centered or self-serving. Mary is most humble in pointing us away from her and to Jesus, her Son. Therefore we can learn to love better by following her lead. We can pray for humility so as to love others better by being open, merciful, compassionate, and generous. We imitate Mary by spending more time with Jesus in our prayer, and to consciously try to follow Him in our day-to-day activities. We can learn through her to be a more dedicated disciple.
May we celebrate the Immaculate Heart of Mary with gratitude for having so caring a mother! May we ask Mary to intercede for us that we may be more like her in loving and pointing others to Jesus! May we ask Mary to intercede for all those who have been entrusted to our care, all those who have needs, and for peace in our world! May we turn to her as a model of prayer and reparation for the sins of our world! And may we ask her to inflame our hearts with love of God! Let us continue to meet in the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photo of the two roses is mine.
All of the icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. I am partial to his Marian icons so that is why I have used three in this entry. I must note that I have permission to share his work, for which I am very grateful. His icons and images can be found at his website fatherbill.org. Click on any of the links to get the pages desired.
The first icon is Mother of God Mystical Rose and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/175-mother-of-god-mystical-rose
The second icon is Mother of God Similar to Fire and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/221-mother-of-god-similar-to-fire
The third icon is called Mother of God Asking for Humility and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/172-mother-of-god-asking-for-humility
Remember, I get nothing from posting Fr. Bill's work except the joy of promoting beautiful iconography so that others might have joy of viewing them and praying with them also. All of his work is copyrighted material, so if you would like copies of these icons or to obtain some books which contain many of his icons, do go to his website in order to purchase them.
Heart Speaks to Heart