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Mary, Untier of Knots

Seasonal Reflection

THE CHANGING FACE OF MARY
By Patrick Bearsley, SM
(adapted for use on the web)

A quick trip down the centuries of Christian devotion to Mary is like walking through an art gallery hung with portraits of the same person painted by different artists. Each painter sees the subject differently, but each portrait is a true likeness, capturing different facets of the mystery of that person.

And so it is with Mary. Her image in Christian consciousness is constantly changing. She is always recognizably the Mother of the Lord, but one age will emphasize one facet of her personality or role in salvation, and at another time some other aspect receives prominence.

Already in the Gospels this variation can be seen. In Mark's Gospel (the earliest) she is barely mentioned, and in the one brief incident where she makes a significant appearance, the reader is left with an ambivalent impression of her (Mk 3.20-21, 31-34). In Matthew's Gospel she remains a shadowy figure – Joseph is much more prominent in the story of Jesus' infancy – but she does have an important role as the mother of the Saviour. Luke gives the most detailed portrait of Mary, presenting her both as disciple and mother – one who wholeheartedly accepts the word of God and thus becomes the mother of the Lord. John invests her with strong symbolic significance in his Gospel, presenting her as not only the mother of Jesus, but also the mother of all disciples (Calvary), ever on the watch for their welfare (Cana).

MaryBut the Gospels were only the beginning. In the early centuries of the Church appreciation of Mary continued to grow. In the second century Justin the Martyr was hailing Mary as the "new Eve", a theme taken up a few years later and greatly developed by St Irenaeus. Taking their cue from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, these early Fathers saw that if Christ was the new Adam, repairing the damage caused by the sin of the first Adam, Mary was the new Eve, who by her obedience cancelled out the disobedience of the first Eve. Just as Eve was the mother of all in their human nature, Mary was the mother of all in their redeemed nature. Eve brought death to the world; Mary brought life. And so on. This is a theme that has resonated down through the ages and is beautifully captured in one of the verses of the ancient hymn Ave Maris Stella:

AVE to thee crying
Gabriel went before us;
Peace do thou restore us,
EVA's knot untying.

In the Middle Ages –the age of chivalry– it should not surprise us that Mary took on features associated with those courtly times. She became known as "Our Lady", the symbol of chaste love. Minstrels sang of her beauty, poets extolled her virtues, and the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux waxed most lyrically of all. "Our Queen", he exclaims, "has gone before us; she has been so gloriously received in heaven that we, her pages, can follow with confidence in the footsteps of our Lady."


La Madonna di San Sisto
Artist: Raphael • Oil, c. 1512

The Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a great florescence of the visual and literary arts. Religion too was caught up in this glorification of the human spirit and it is no wonder that Mary took on another guise.  She now appears as the tender mother caring for her child, as depicted in so many wonderful paintings of the Madonna and Child by such artists as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael.  But it is not only Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is so warmly portrayed. She is also seen as the mother of us all. We are her spiritual children and she lavishes on us the same loving care and devotion she showed towards Jesus.

And then in later times when the Church was beleaguered by the forces of rationalism and materialism, she turned to the image of Christ the King to inspire her in her battles against evil. Mary naturally appeared in relation to these concerns – sometimes as a valiant Queen standing at the right hand of her Son, and at other times as the mother of mercy in contrast to the Christ of justice. He was stern and strictly just in his judgments on the world, but we poor sinners still had hope by turning to Mary who could smuggle us into heaven, hidden in the folds of her all-embracing mantle. This is unsound theology but it had great appeal in the nineteenth century. It is known to have had a profound effect on the early Marists, particularly on Father Colin.


Mary, Undoer of Knots
Artist: Johann Georg Schmidtner • Oil, c. 1700

And in the 20th century the Church held up Mary and the Holy Family of Nazareth as the model of strength for the Christian family.  She was hailed by Pope Paul VI (in Marialis Cultus, 1974) as the perfect disciple and woman of faith, and by the U.S. Bishops (in Mary in the Church: Behold your Mother)1 as the model of the liberated woman.  For Pope Francis the 300 year old German painting of Mary, Undoer of Knots evokes special devotion.

And so it should not be surprising for us if we should find that today we are beginning to see Mary in a new light and to relate to her in ways different from the ways our forebears related to her. Given our history and tradition, it would be surprising if we did not.

A  Universal Example
Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the church as an example to be imitated... for the way in which in her own particular life she faithfully and responsibly accepted the will of God because she heard the Word of God and acted on it and because charity and a spirit of service were the driving force of her actions. She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ's disciples. All of this has a permanent and universal exemplary value.
– Pope Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, 35.

1 U.S. Catholic Bishops. Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith. In Mary in the Church: A Selection of Teaching Documents, 5–51. Washington, DC:  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc., 2003.

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A  Universal Example

Our Lady of Le Puy
Our Lady of Le Puy

Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the church as an example to be imitated…
for the way in which in her own particular life she faithfully and responsibly accepted the will of God because she heard the Word of God and acted on it and because charity and a spirit of service were the driving force of her actions.

She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ's disciples. All of this has a permanent and universal exemplary value.

– Pope Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, 35.

 

A fresco of a black Madonna and Jesus in Axum Cathedral, Ethiopia
A fresco of a black Madonna and
Jesus in Axum Cathedral, Ethiopia

 


Schutzmantelmadonna
(Protective Mantel of Madonna)
Austria, c. 1460



Bébé,
(ou Naissance du Christ à la tahitienne) (Baby, The Birth of Christ in Tahiti)
Artist: Paul Gauguin • Oil, c. 1896



Pieta
Artist: William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Oil, c. 1876

 


Our Lady
Artist: Laura James

(read more about artist)

 

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