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Seasonal Reflection

MARY, WOMAN OF FAITH
by Pat Bearsley, SM

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the surprising effects of the Second Vatican Council on the life of the Church in recent years has been the dramatic drop in practical devotion to Mary.

And this is all the more surprising when we recall that the Council itself spoke most beautifully of Mary in the last chapter [8] of its great Constitution on the Church.

Moreover, Pope Paul VI actively encouraged devotion to her by proclaiming her "Mother of the Church" and recommending a contemporary form of devotion most eloquently in his apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus (1974).

The official teaching on Mary has never been better.

What seems to have been happening in the years since Vatican II is a change in our appreciation of Mary and her role in the world today. Changes in appreciation of Mary do not occur in isolation. Typically in the history of the Church changes in devotion to Mary follow changes in other areas of Christian life and theology. If we look to significant changes in the Church since Vatican II, we can see at areas where developments have influenced our perception of Mary and her place in our life today: the Church's perception of Christ, of herself, and of the needs and aspirations of people in the world today.

Jesus Christ
Advances in our understanding of Mary have commonly followed developments in the theology of Jesus Christ. Her most glorious title, "Mother of God" (Theotokos – literally "God-bearer") was not immediately recognized in the early Church. (The Scriptures do not mention it.) It was only after three centuries of discussion and debate on the divine and human natures of Christ that the Church as a whole felt confident enough to proclaim that Jesus who is truly human is also truly God (Council of Nicea, A.D. 325).  And then since Mary is truly the mother of Jesus, she must also be the Mother of God (Council of Ephesus, A.D. 431).

An early 20th century icon of  Our Lady of Vladimir, Russia
An early 20th century icon of
Our Lady of Vladimir, Russia

For the century prior to Vatican II the predominant Christology in the Church was "high" – that is, it emphasized the fact that Christ was God.  Thus his power and justice – his kingly titles – were important to Christian consciousness. Similarly Mary was exalted as his partner in salvation (though subordinate to him) and she was hailed as Queen.

However, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council theologians reacted against what seemed to be insufficient attention given to the humanity of Jesus. In recent times Christology has tended to be "low" – that is, it emphasized the fact that Jesus was human like us. And the aspects of him that appeal to us most today are the ones that stress his humanity – for example, that like us he had to suffer and die, that he was a friend to the poor, consoled the unhappy and forgave the sinner.  In our wretchedness, pain and unhappiness we turn to him as our friend and our support.

Woman of Faith
The ancient title for Mary, "Woman of Faith", has new meaning for us today. Mary's spiritual journey had much in common with our own.The Gospels portray her as someone who travelled a road that was often hard and shrouded in obscurity. The "sword of sorrow" foretold by Simeon (Luke 2.35) did not pierce her heart only on Calvary.  By associating herself so closely with the Saviour, she too suffered all the contradictions that he was bound to cause.

The Pietà by Michelangelo St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
The Pietà by Michelangelo
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Mary did not always understand what was happening. She had to ponder the events of her life to see God's hand in the darkness (Luke 2.19, 51). At times she misunderstood and had to be challenged by her Son, as when she reproached him for staying behind in Jerusalem (Luke 2.41-50), and when she pointed out to him the lack of wine at the Cana festivities (John 2.1-10).

She had to separate herself from the love of her life, Jesus, when he set out on his public ministry, leaving her home alone in Nazareth, and again most cruelly when on the cross he gave her over to become the mother of someone else (John 19.25-27).

But despite the darkness, the doubt and the not-knowing, Mary never wavered in her commitment to God. "Let it be done to me according to your word" may have been said only once (Luke 1.38), but it summed up her attitude at the Annunciation and right throughout her life. She was completely at the disposal of God, and if at times she could not see the fullness of God's plan for her, that did not cause her ever to withdraw her consent or hedge her commitment with reservations or qualifications. There were no "ifs" or "buts" with Mary.  Her faith was whole-hearted and strong. She did not turn back or seek an easier path, even on Calvary when all seemed dark and her hopes dashed.

La Vierge de Miséricorde by Jean Miralhet Chapelle de la Miséricorde, Nice, France 
La Vierge de Miséricorde by Jean Miralhet Chapelle de la Miséricorde, Nice, France

This is a Mary we can all relate to. Fully human, she too had to suffer.  Her life path was not lined with roses. At times it was very difficult.  She knew joy, but she also suffered greatly.  She had to live by faith, and at times, (like us) she wondered what God was up to, what God was doing with her life...

We too are like that. We have our joys and our sorrows. At times we feel God is very close to us and we are confident that we know what is being asked of us. But at other times God seems very remote. Things happen to us which don't seem to fit the original plan (as we understood it), and which are hard to reconcile with God’s abiding love for us. There are times of pain, darkness and anguish. We are thrown back on faith alone. All other comforts and support are taken away.

It is in times like these we need someone like Mary, who went through what we are suffering and who knows what it is like. We need the "Woman of Faith."

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This is a Mary we
can all relate to.  
Fully human, she
too had to suffer.  

She had to
live by faith,
and at times, (like us)
she wondered what
God was up to,
what God was doing
with her life...

It is in times
like these we need
someone like Mary,
who went through
what we are suffering
and who knows
what it is like.

We need the
"Woman of Faith."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy this brief
Gregorian chant
"Virgo Dei Genitrix"
in honor of the
Blessed Virgin Mary.

Virgo Dei Genitrix / Virgin Mother of God

Virgo Dei Genitrix
(Virgin Mother of God)

Virgin Mother of God,
the One whom the
whole world cannot contain
was enclosed in your
womb and became human.

True faith in your
beloved Son who removed
the sins of the world,
and your virginity
remained whole.

You are the Mother
of divine love,
the world cries out to you:
Come with aid,
O blessed one,
and help your servants.

Great glory be to the Father,
equal glory to the Son,
great glory to
God the Holy Spirit.

+ Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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