As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Jesus took delight in Mary’s childlike simplicity, listening with loving attention and heedful of the “one thing necessary.” The world needs movers and shakers, but also contemplatives who pull the universe into the divine orbit by the active force of silence and stillness in union with God. Martha and Mary need one another, as the ear needs the eye in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14-26).
Who is this that comes forth like the dawn, beautiful as the white moon, pure as the blazing sun, fearsome as celestial visions?
New American Bible (Revised Edition)
Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?
Revised Standard Version
Who is this who looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as the bannered legions?
The Complete Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), ed. by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg
The poetic tribute of the Song of Songs to the “woman” radiant as the sun, moon, and starry legions paints an image of feminine strength radiating from the hand of the divine artist.
The obscure subject in the Hebrew phrase ă-yum-māh kan-niḏ-gā-lō-wṯ (אֲיֻמָּ֖ה כַּנִּדְגָּלֽוֹת) is variously translated as “troops,” “army,” “hosts,” or “legions” from its military overtones. The key word is dagal, a primitive verb meaning “to flaunt, raise a flag, or set up with banners” (Strong’s Concordance). It is cognate with the noun degel which means “flag, banner, or standard.”
The phrase also appears in Song of Songs 6:4. The New American Bible (Revised Edition) offers this footnote concerning the phrase it translates as “celestial visions,” which hides the reference to military banners:
Celestial visions: the meaning is uncertain. Military images may be implied here, i.e., the “heavenly hosts” who fight along with God on Israel’s behalf (cf. Judges 5:20), or perhaps a reference to the awesome goddesses of the region who combined aspects of both fertility and war.
In the context of the Church’s celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we honor the Mother of God whose blazing virginal strength inspires the confidence of children protected by legions of celestial hosts.
In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims, celebrating in these early churches, celebrated the same mystery in their own church when they returned to their homeland. The Feast of Mary’s Birth, celebrated September 8, is one of those mysteries.
Mary’s Birth was first celebrated in a church built in the 5th century over the ancient pool of Bethesda, near the Gate of St. Stephen, just north of the Jewish temple. John’s gospel pointed out this place: “Now there was in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate, a pool in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of the blind, lame and crippled,” (John 5,2) At this healing place, where pagan gods like Asclepius and Serapis were honored, Jesus healed a paralyzed man.
In the last century archeologists uncovered the ancient healing pool with its porticoes, parts of an ancient church and ruins of a temple of Asclepius (2nd-4th century) ..
The church over the ancient healing pool became associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, early on. Traditions from the 3rd century placed her home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.
Mary’s mother was Anne and her father Joachim, who provided sheep for the temple sacrifices, early traditions said. But they were looked down upon, because they were old and childless. Then, angels told them they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.
The Birth of Mary and stories of her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches. Mary’s birth is celebrated September 8 in the churches of east and west. Her parents are honored September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 26th.
When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and built a new, larger church honoring St. Anne, the mother of Mary, southeast of the pool.
The present Church of St. Ann, today one of the most beautiful of Jerusalem’s churches, stands overlooking the remains of the old church and the healing pool, a favorite destination for pilgrims today.
Readings for the feast of Mary’s Birth see her birth awaited by all her ancestors. The gospel, St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, begins with Abraham. Mary fulfilled his hopes and the hopes of generations before him by bringing Jesus Christ into the world.. “We commemorate the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary, a descendant of Abraham, born of the tribe of Judah and of David’s seed,” (Antiphon, 1st Vespers, Roman rite)
“This feast of the birth of the Mother of God is the prelude, while the final act is the foreordained union of the Word with flesh. Today, the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages…
Today the created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
(St. Andrew of Crete, bishop, Office of Readings, Roman rite)
This feast of Mary is the first great feast in the calendar of the Orthodox Church, which begins in September. Their calendar begins with Mary’s birth and ends with the feast of her Dormition, on August 15th.
The Orthodox liturgy sees Mary as the mysterious ladder that Jacob saw in a dream reaching from earth to heaven. (Genesis 28,10-17) She is the way the Word comes down to earth’s lowest point, death itself, and returns to heaven having redeemed humanity. The Orthodox liturgy also associates Mary with the miracle of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. She has a role in healing our paralyzed humanity.
Does a flower make pronouncements? Does it define itself? Does it box itself in with titles, names, and distinctions?
And yet, “not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:29)
A flower simply exists.
And its existence glorifies God.
There is no need for it to do more.
By its very existence it magnifies what cannot be further magnified: God’s Presence, God’s Glory, God’s Beauty…
“I’m a flower.”
“I’m a rose.”
“Look at me!”
Statements such as these we shall never hear.
Flowers are divinely indifferent to the world’s definitions and distinctions, to its approval and applause.
After all, it’s a person who receives the medal at an orchid show, and not the flower herself. No, her finely-placed petals would only be weighed down by such metallic-based ribbons.
What a gift it is to simply exist.
Flowers don’t cling to seasonal life.
When it’s time to go, they gracefully drop their heads and lose their pedals.
Never has there existed a man as poor as a flower.
Never has mankind so possessed the richness of fleeting, transitory, and momentary life.
It’s their genius to instinctively believe that death leads to new abundant life.
Flowers graciously receive:
Ladybugs, drops of dew. Beams of light, the relief of shade.
Flowers give and receive as if not a single thing has ever been made by man.
They welcome sun as well as rain.
They never cry over fallen fruit or a stolen piece of pollen.
They quietly applaud instead, rejoicing that their little ones have the opportunity to travel abroad—perhaps even the chance to help nurture a neighbor.
A flower, perhaps most of all, knows it place.
It never wishes to be bigger or thinner…greener or higher…it never dreams of being more like a tree.
A flower’s blessing is simplicity beyond you and me.
Christ is a flower.
He is the one true perfect eternal flower, through whom all other flowers partake, toward whom all other flowers reach.
Christ is a flower. His ways are not our own. He simply exists. Bowing His head. Dropping pedals. Feeding hungry bees. Giving and receiving. His identity is crucified—leaving nothing behind but being “qua” being.
If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
—Howard Hain . . (Dedicated to Brother Jim, a man who knew how to simply exist.)
Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss her?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” His disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
The Trinity is present in the second line of the couplet as breath (Holy Spirit), the Word (Son), and God the Father.
Beneath the discussion about marriage lies a primordial metaphysical truth: the essential unity of the human race in Adam/Christ beyond the division of the sexes. The virginity of Christ mirrors Adam’s original virginity stamped in the image of the Virgin Father, Virgin Son, and Virgin Holy Spirit. See the related post: Marriage, Christ and the Trinity.
Marriage on earth is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church, divinity and humanity in the second person of the Trinity. In the person of Christ, male and female, Jew and Gentile (individuating characteristics belonging to general classes) are integrated in the Body of Christ. Unlike monism, however, ultimate reality is simultaneously one and many due to unique, unclassifiable persons.
Jesus’ final words about eunuchs for the kingdom of God establishes the vocation of virginity/celibacy as an eschatological sign of the multi-personal unity of the human race in the communion of the Trinity.
On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church of St. Mary Major was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)
Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking a city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized Rome. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.
The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall. In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”
Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church. In 431, the Council of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said. The Christian world saw Mary as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine.
Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.
Mary’s title, Mother of God, does not make her a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.
St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.
In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.
She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.
The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th , began in this church in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.
Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.
Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.
Visiting St.Mary Major
The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this important church at a time when many visitors, especially from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.
The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.
The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child,”Salus populist Romani”, that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.
The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
We celebrate the Feast of Ann and Joachim today, parents of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The New Testament says nothing about them, but an early 2nd century document called the Gospel of James tells their story,
Ann and Joachim lived in Jerusalem, the ancient source says, where Joachim, a descendant of David and a wealthy man, provided sheep and other offerings for the temple sacrifices. The two had ties to Bethlehem nearby and Nazareth in Galilee.
They were well off but for twenty years disappointment clouded their marriage: they had no child. Even after vowing to dedicate their child to God, no child came. And so, at a time when children were treasured, they were thought poor. Descendants of David, they were blamed also for failing to continue the line the Messiah would come from.
Stung by criticism, Joachim spent more time in the mountains, brooding among the shepherds and their flocks. As her husband distanced himself from her, Ann too grew sad. God seemed far away.
In the garden one day, noticing some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree, Ann burst into tears: “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “birds build nests for their young and I have no child of my own. The creatures of the earth, the fish of the sea are fruitful, and I have nothing. The land has a harvest, but I have no child in my arms.”
At that moment, an angel of the Lord came and said, “Ann, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive a child the whole world will praise. Hurry to the Golden Gate and meet your husband there.”
At the same time, In the mountains an angel in dazzling light spoke to Joachim, “Don’t be afraid, the Lord hears your prayers. God knows your goodness and your sorrow and will give your wife a child as he did Sara, Abraham’s wife, and Hannah, mother of Samuel. You will have a daughter and name her Mary. Give her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb. Go back to Jerusalem. You’ll meet your wife at the Golden Gate and your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Joachim and Ann met at the Golden Gate to the temple, the place of God’s presence. They embraced as they spoke of the angel’s promise. Returning home, Ann conceived and bore a daughter, and they called her “Mary.”
When she was three years old, Ann brought Mary to the temple to learn the scriptures, to pray and take part in the Jewish feasts. She watched her father bring lambs to be offered in sacrifice. She grew in wisdom and grace in God’s presence.
When Mary approached marriage age– then 15 or so–her parents arranged for her marriage as it was customary. They sought the high priest’s advice, tradition says, and Joseph of Nazareth was chosen as her husband. Nazareth was then their home.
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she was to be the Mother of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived the Child.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. He was raised in a large extended family that included his grandparents, Ann and Joachim, who cared for him as a child.
No one knows just when or where Ann and Joachim died, but Jesus must have treasured them in life and on their passage to God.
The 2nd century Protoevangelium of James repeats a fundamental theme of the Book of Genesis: God promises Adam and Eve many children who will enjoy the blessings of the earth. God repeats the promise to an aged, childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, and again to Hannah, who bemoans her childlessness to the priest Eli in the temple. In the same way, God gives a child to Ann and Joachim. Mary, their daughter, brings blessings to the nations through her son Jesus Christ, born of the Holy Spirit.
Giotto’s 14th century illustrations (above) from the Arena Chapel in Padua. helped popularize the story of the parents of Mary in Italy, Europe and the rest of the western world.
It’s an important story for grandmothers and grandfathers. Like Ann and Joachim they have a big role raising the next generation. More than they think.
Faith gives life and sends us on a mission. That’s what it did for Mary, Luke’s gospel says.
Mary believes the angel who announces in Nazareth the coming of Jesus, and she’s empowered by the message. So, she sets out “in haste” for the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who also was with child. It’s not an ordinary visit. She goes “in haste” because she’s filled with a sense of mission. She hurries to Judea to announce good news to her relatives serving in the temple of God.
Faith is not a burden; it empowers us. It does not cripple us, it enables.
“Blessed are you who believed,” Elizabeth says to Mary.
“You too, my people, are blessed,” comments St. Ambrose, “ you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.
“Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ, but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”
As with Mary so with us, faith gives life and sends us on a mission..
Three years ago today we blessed our Mary Garden here. We will pray there today to Mary, Queen of All Creation..