On September 12 the Church celebrates the feast of The Most Holy Name of Mary, a memorial which is unknown to many because it is optional on the liturgical calendar. We have a number of well-known feasts of Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Mother of God, Mother of the Church, and her Assumption into Heaven; we celebrate her under many titles such as Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima, (and many others). Simply put, after Jesus no one dominates the liturgical calendar the way Mary does. Her presence is everywhere, it seems, and so celebrating a feast which emphasizes the holiness of her name is appropriate. While this feast and most of the others are not holy days of obligation, I do think we should be aware of these celebrations and titles for Mary because they tell us something about her. This particular feast, The Most Holy Name of Mary, reminds us that names are indeed doorways to our identity insofar as names are intimate and connote deep meaning. Therefore through this feast we are honoring Mary, but also getting to know her better.
The name Mary (Miriam) was rather common in Israel, so of itself the name had no real importance although it was the name of Moses’ sister, as recorded in the Old Testament. We don’t know for sure, but we can guess that her parents chose this name for her because of their faithfulness to God and the rich spiritual history of Israel. We also know there were other women named Mary in the gospels, such as Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary the wife of Clopus. Therefore, we might wonder how the name of this particular Mary is any different from the other women called by the same name. The answer lies in her identity, not just in the word ‘Mary;’ it is the woman who possessed the name that renders it sacred. Mary was, in fact, a most remarkable woman, one who was considered so pure that at the Annunciation the angel who greeted her did not utter her name as a sign of his reverence toward her,* and yet in her humility, she paid homage to him!
Names are rooted in one’s personality and identity. Knowing a person’s name changes everything in the way we interact with them; our interaction becomes more personal and draws them closer to us. Names are also intimate. Think of Moses on the mountain when God passed by and pronounced His own name. “The Lord came down in a cloud and stood with [Moses] there and proclaimed the name ‘LORD.’ So the LORD passed before him and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing His love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin...!’” (Exodus 34:5-8) The word LORD is written in all caps to designate that God’s utterance of His own name was so holy that Moses would not even pronounce it, leave alone attempt to write it: to make any attempt to repeat it would take away from the awe of hearing His name. But it is in the description of God’s characteristics which follows that Moses attempted to reveal something of the identity of who this good and gracious God really is.
In the same way that Moses knew the sacredness of the name of God, when the angel Gabriel greeted Mary he revealed his attitude toward her. He said: “Hail, favored one!” In not saying her name, he imparts to us that he recognized how special she was for God to have chosen her to be the mother of His Son. Gabriel knew he was addressing the one conceived without sin, yet who was completely free in her response. After her humble, but courageous ‘Let it be done’ the angel left her; Luke tells us that she pondered the meaning of everything that had happened. (Luke 1:26-38) Strangely, the angel is not named in the birth narrative found in Matthew’s Gospel when the focus on Jesus’ birth was more on Joseph than Mary. Instead he was referred to as the “angel of the Lord,” though it is safe to say it was indeed Gabriel. (Matthew 1:18-25)
In light of the angel not addressing her by name, it is of interest that in the gospels, Jesus, who no doubt called her ‘Mother’ while He lived with her, publicly addressed Mary twice, and neither time did He refer to her as Mother or even as Mary: instead He called her Woman! He did this at the Wedding in Cana and as He was dying on the cross. But both times it was meant as a term of the greatest reverence and respect. He was acknowledging that Mary’s courage and humility, her purity and her willingness to suffer for His sake and for our salvation, places her above all other women. It is clear Jesus dearly loved her and that He wanted her to know what she meant to Him as her Son and as her God.
Given all this, there is no reason for us to be hesitant to address Mary by name, however. Holy as she is, in saying her name we are acknowledging her identity as the humble and ever pure mother of our Lord and we are accepting her invitation to intimacy with her. Although the knowledge that she was never touched by the stain of sin may make it feel like she is somewhat inaccessible, the opposite is true: she desires that we become so close to her that we do say her name, and that we say it whenever we need her intercession. It must give her joy when we say: “Hail Mary, full of grace,” not because she has a ‘big ego’ and loves to be honored, but because in saying this greeting we are acknowledging all that God has accomplished through her. Thus we are actually glorifying God for giving us such great gifts by allowing her to be put at our service: in her humility and love, she wants to serve us through her intercession. And in that same humility, Mary would want us to remember that while we do revere her greatly and consider her name holy, we do not worship her. (We venerate her; worship is reserved for God alone.)
Throughout the years, Mary has given us great insight into her identity in addition to what the gospels reveal about her. She has appeared many times since her Assumption into Heaven and she has been given numerous titles based on these appearances. She has declared that she is the Immaculate Conception and she has repeatedly called herself our mother; she has openly cried, smiled, warned, and prayed, but always, she comes in service and with love. She serves God, but she is always respectful of the ones to whom she appears. For example, she speaks and dresses according to the customs of the ones to whom she appears, asking them to share messages with her children. Thus, we learn that it is important to address everyone we meet with similar respect and even with reverence. Perhaps remembering that Mary’s name is holy will help us bear in mind that every person’s name should be spoken with reverence and kindness because to that name is attached the identity of the person who bears it, and thus we are addressing their dignity as a brother or sister. In addressing another, we should always remember that they are a child of God, beautiful to behold and precious in His sight. Each one is a loved sinner, as are we. In these times in which a lack of respect and even abuse of one another seems rampant, we need to call upon Mary more than ever to intercede for us that we might treat others the way Jesus taught, with love, mercy, and respect. With her as our model and with the names of Mary and Jesus on our lips and in our hearts, perhaps we can also be bearers of respect, kindness, mercy, and love, standing against the hatreds and vitriolic words which seem to flow freely today. Perhaps we are being invited into deeper discipleship by praying for the reparation of sin, by being an example of Christian love, and by being true children of our Mother.
Revering Mary’s name as holy, therefore, is to recognize everything about her identity and her role in bringing salvation from God through her Son. ‘Mary’ is more than a word; her name brings to mind an entire understanding of who she is and what she continues to offer us. Calling on Mary by name reminds us to imitate her so that we become a healing presence, living what we pray. Therefore, let us have faith in God, and cling to our mother Mary, saying her name repeatedly as a prayer. She can offer us her mother’s heart, the pathway to being a disciple of Jesus and a way to coming to know, love, and serve her God and ours with deeper love and commitment. Hail Mary! Holy is your name!
May we greet Mary every day with the words: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” May we take Mary as our role model, our confidant, and our intimate friend, so that she can respond: “I am with you and the Lord is with you, too!” May we remember that there is the power of humility, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love in her name: Mary! May we always give Mary her greatest joy, which is to lead us to her Son Jesus! And may we learn to respect and love others in the same way Mary teaches, that we may bring healing and peace into the world! Let us meet in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary! Peace!
© Michele L. Catanese
* From the September issue of Magnificat, page 156, this is a quote from St. Lawrence of Brindisi. (1559-1619)
If you are interested in Marian apparitions, there are many sites out there. I am only adding the one about the first apparition in Zaragoza, Spain. I have been to the shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar; the Church is quite beautiful.
Note: The next post will be on Tuesday, September 25.
1. This is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Maesta. Although the word 'maesta' translates to 'majesty,' I chose this icon because it spoke to me of holiness and simplicity. It is simply Mary; no words, nothing but her image. You can find it at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/maesta-224-william-hart-mcnichols.html. (A reminder that I have his permission to post his icons and images on my site.)
2. This is a photo I took at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth in Galilee, Israel. I thought it was appropriate to show the spot where the angel greeted Mary with the words, "Hail, favored one!"
3. This image is by Fr. William Hart McNichols, called The Hebrew Name of Yahweh-adam Kadmon. I thought it was fitting here because it is the Hebrew letters of God's response to Moses at the burning bush: "I AM WHO AM." Presumably this is not what God called Himself when He spoke His name to Moses in the passage I mentioned (Ex 34) but it is who God says He is: He is one who has always existed. http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/hebrew-name-of-yahweh-adam-kadmon-183-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. This is my favorite work of Fra Angelico, The Annunciation.
5. I took this photo in Ireland, near Adair. I chose to use it here as a scene of beauty, but which symbolically speaks of accessibility. The canoes make the beauty of the lake accessible from another vantage point.
6. This is a depiction of St. Juan Diego seeing the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, Mexico in 1531. I chose to use it here because it is a good example of Mary appearing in the garb of the person to whom she has appeared. She was dressed as a peasant and spoke the same dialect as Juan Diego.
7. This is one of my photos, taken near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I chose to use it here as an example of the beauty of God's gifts to us, particularly the beauty of the holiness found in Mary.
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Heart Speaks to Heart