Tag Archives: Mary

The Cross of Confusion

Mark’s Gospel describes growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, but growing numbers also find him hard to understand, the gospel says.

VATICANCRUC

Scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.

Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves too. They may be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but ordinary people of Galilee find him too much for them.

Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.

Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, Mark’s early stories announce the story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.

Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome facing a surprising brutal persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually singled out Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Rome’s Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds his followers they must follow him without always understanding.

Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.

The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.

Mary, the Mother of God

Virgin and Child

The Feast of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1) is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church as the Christmas celebrations end and a new year begins. This feast begins a month named for the Roman god Janus, the two faced god who looks ahead and looks back. Mary connects us to the world ahead as well as the world of the past, and so we pray to her “that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

Christian churches of the east have a similar feast at this time honoring the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. .

“Marvelous is the mystery proclaimed today
Our nature is made new as God becomes man;
He remains what he was and becomes what he was not,
Yet each nature stays distinct and undivided.” Canticle, Morning Prayer

Mary’s Son who came “in the fullness of time” blesses all time:
“The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you,
and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!” (Numbers 6, 22-27)

On this feast of Mary, the Mother of God, I think of a PBS special “What Darwin Never Knew” produced awhile ago on Nova. I don’t remember or understand a lot of the program’s scientific material, but its description of DNAs and embryos caught my attention.

According to scientists, embryos from different living beings–humans, animals, birds, fish– appear remarkably alike at an early stage of development, as if they were from the same source. Then, something triggers a different development in each species. Humans sprout arms and legs and begin human development. The other species develop in their own way.

A few years ago, I visited an exhibit called “Deep Time” at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington which described the development of the earth through 4.5 billion years. One section described our development as human beings from 4.5 billion years ago. Our human species developed over time in an evolving world.

In Mary’s womb, the Word became flesh, connected with the world of the past and the world of the future. Early theologians, like St. Irenaeus, say the Word became truly human, and therefore went through the same process of development as we do. They also say the Word had to assume all that he would redeem. Can we say that in his early embryonic journey in Mary’s womb the Word assumed the creation he would renew? The embryonic journey is a sacred journey that needs to be cared for and recognized.

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Elizabeth says to Mary before Jesus’ birth. (Luke 1,42) At that moment, the Word of God gave the promise of redemption to another infant– Elizabeth’s son John. Was that promise also communicated to the rest of creation in Mary’s womb, by the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us– Jesus Christ, maker and Savior of all?

December 22: The Magnificat and the Benedictus

Mary concludes her visit to Elizabeth today praising God, who is “mighty and has done great things to me.” Her Magnificat is part of St. Luke’s beautifully crafted narrative of the infancy of Jesus Christ in the first two chapters of his gospel, preparing for the Christmas feast.

After John the Baptist’s birth, his father Zechariah also praises God. “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel. He has come to his people and set them free.”–his Benedictus. (Luke, 1:67-79)

We pray Mary’s “Magnificat” each day in the church’s evening prayer, thanking God for the blessings of the day. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.God has come to the help of his servant Israel, remembering his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” Like Mary, we rejoice in God’s promises and wait for their fulfillment.

In the church’s morning prayers each day we pray Zechariah’s Benedictus, which ends the silence and darkness of night and welcomes a blessed day.  “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

The gospel mysteries become our mysteries. No matter what the day, we end it singing God’s praises with Mary. No matter what the day, the Dawn which is Jesus Christ blesses our world and guides our steps, even if we come slowly to belief, like Zechariah.

Commentators on Luke’s gospel say that Luke probably uses Jewish Christian prayers, applying them to Zechariah and Mary. The New American Bible says: “ Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story.”

The Magnificat and the Benedictus, attributed appropriately to Mary and Zechariah, are our prayers too. Daily prayers.

Gracious God,

Let me not doubt your promises, your tender mercies, but let me rejoice in them as Mary and Zechariah did, and look for their fulfillment, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

December 21: The Visitation

Visitation

We’re fortunate these last days of Advent to read St. Luke’s entire Infancy Narrative with its rich description of the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus.

Today  Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth after the angel’s great announcement. She travels to the hill country, to a town of Judah “in haste,” Luke says. She goes “in haste” not in panic or fear.  She visits Elizabeth to share the mysterious gift of God, hastening for joy.  The Visitation is one of the joyful mysteries of the rosary.

In the first reading for Mass today Mary speaks to the Child in her womb in the joyful words of the Song of Songs:

“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!

“O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice, 
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”

                                         

As they come together to share what they have been given, Mary and Elizabeth are believers, rejoicing.  “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled,” Elizabeth says to Mary.

The two women tell us about faith in their simple meeting. Faith is something to rejoice in. It’s meant to be shared and shared eagerly. The two women are pregnant and don’t yet see the life they carry within them. Like faith, the life within them is hidden from their eyes. And so it is with us.

Their meeting is a communion of saints. They share gifts of God not yet seen. 

“The women speak of the grace they received,” St. Ambrose says, “ while the children are active in secret, unfolding the mystery of love…”  As the women speak to each other, another meeting goes on within them as the infants in their wombs meet.

Is that true with us too? God works within us, beyond our understanding, as we live by faith.   “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith,” St. Ambrose says, “You also are blessed because you have heard and believed. A soul that believes both conceives and brings forth the Word of God… Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The World Waits for Mary’s Reply

The world waited for Mary's reply, St. Bernard says:
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.
Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word…
And Mary says, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.'”

Our Lady of Guadalupe

December 12th is the feast of Our Lady Guadalupe, which recalls the appearance of Mary on a hilltop near Mexico City to Juan Diego, a humble Mexican laborer, in 1591, ten years after the Aztec Empire was crushed by the colonial armies of Spain. Mary appeared dark skinned, with native features and in native dress, not at all like one from the colonial powers. In appearing like them, Mary helped many of the native peoples accept Christianity.

Keep this story in mind when the next discussion on immigration comes up.It’s a strong reminder of Isaiah’s ancient call in our Advent readings: God wishes all to be his children.

Pope John Paul II said this about St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, whose feast is celebrated December 9th:

“He has lifted up the humble. God the Father looked down onto Juan Diego, a simple Mexican Indian and enriched him not just with the gift of rebirth in Christ but also with the sight of the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a role in the task of evangelizing the entire continent of America. From this we can see the truth of the words of St Paul: those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen – those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything.

“This fortunate man, whose name, Cuauhtlatoatzin, means “the eagle that speaks,” was born around 1474 in Cuauhtitlan, part of the kingdom of Texcoco. When he was an adult and already married, he embraced the Gospel and was purified by the waters of baptism along with his wife, setting out to live in the light of faith and in accordance with the promises he had made before God and the Church.

“In December 1531, as he was travelling to the place called Tlaltelolco, he saw a vision of the Mother of God herself, who commanded him to ask the Bishop of Mexico to build a church on the site of the vision. The bishop asked him for some proof of this amazing event.

“On 12 December the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego once more and told him to climb to the top of the hill called Tepeyac and pick flowers there and take them away with him. It was impossible that any flowers should grow there, because of the winter frosts and because the place was dry and rocky. Nevertheless Juan Diego found flowers of great beauty, which he picked, collected together in his cape, and carried to the Virgin. She told him to bring the flowers to the bishop as a proof of the truth of his vision. In the bishop’s presence Juan Diego unfolded his cape and poured out the flowers; and there appeared, miraculously imprinted on the fabric, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which from that moment onwards became the spiritual centre of the nation.

“The church was built in honor of the Queen of Heaven. Juan Diego, moved by piety, left everything and dedicated his life to looking after this tiny hermitage and to welcoming pilgrims. He trod the way to sanctity through love and prayer, drawing strength from the eucharistic banquet of our Redeemer, from devotion to his most holy Mother, from communion with the holy Church and obedience to her pastors. Everyone who met him was overwhelmed by his virtues, especially his faith, love, humility, and other-worldliness.

“Juan Diego followed the Gospel faithfully in the simplicity of his daily life, always aware that God makes no distinction of race or culture but invites all to become his children. Thus it was that he enabled all the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the New World to become part of Christ and the Church.”

Pope John Paul II

Feast of The Immaculate Conception

Some question why Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has such a big place in our church. The words of the angel in Luke’s gospel, words we often repeat in prayer, are an answer: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”

Mary is full of grace, gifted by God with unique spiritual gifts from her conception, because she was to be the mother of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.

She would be the “resting place of the Trinity,” and would give birth to, nourish, guide and accompany Jesus in his life and mission in this world. To fulfill that unique role she needed a unique gift. She would be free from original sin that clouds human understanding and slows the way we believe in God and his plan for us.

“How slow you are to believe” Jesus said to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus made that complaint repeatedly as he preached the coming of God’s kingdom. “How slow you are to believe!” “What little faith you have!” “Do you still not understand!” Human slowness to believe didn’t end in gospel times. We have it too.

Mary was freed from that slowness to believe. “Be it done to me according to your word,” she immediately says to the angel. Yet, her acceptance of God’s will does not mean she understood everything that happened to her. “How can this be?” she asks the angel about the conception of the child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  But the angel’s answer seems so incomplete, so mysterious.

Surely, Mary would have liked to know more, but the angel leaves, never to return. There’s no daily message, no new briefing or renewed assurance by heavenly messengers. The years go by in Nazareth as the Child grows in wisdom and age and grace, but they’re years of silence. Like the rest of us, Mary waits and wonders and keeps these things in her heart.

That’s why we welcome her as a believer walking with us. She is an assuring presence who calls us to believe as she did, without knowing all. She does not pretend to be an expert with all the answers. She has no special secrets known to her alone. “Do whatever he tells you,” is her likely advice as we ponder the mysteries of her Son.

 

 

Do Whatever He Tells you

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple

Mary temple
Mary, Presented in the Temple: Giotto

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple, November 21,  is an ecumenical feast originating in Jerusalem in the 6th century. A new church, honoring Mary, was built for pilgrims  by the Emperor Justinian near the ruins of the Jewish temple where tradition said Mary was born. Other early traditions place her birthplace in Nazareth or Sepphoris, a city close by.

Artists like Giotto lent support to the Jerusalem tradition by their popular portrayals of Mary introduced into the temple by Ann and Joachim, her mother and father. (above) 

Luke’s gospel may support the Jerusalem tradition by noting that Mary’s  cousin Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, a temple priest. Luke also says  Mary and Joseph were familiar visitors to the temple. Forty days after the birth of Jesus , they went there “when the days were completed for their purification,” (Luke 2,22) They  brought Jesus to the temple as a child to celebrate the feasts. For Jesus the temple is  “my Father’s house.” 

Yet the church celebrates this feast not so much to recall an historical event but rather Mary’s gift for “listening to the word of God and keeping it.” (Luke 11:28) For Mary the temple was a place of God’s presence. Like Jesus,  she believed the temple of God was everywhere, in Nazareth, Bethlehem, even on Calvary.(cf. John 4, 22-26) “You are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you,” St. Paul reminds the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 3, 16) 

St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, was greatly devoted to this feast because he began his 40 day retreat to discern God’s will on this day. He experienced God’s call to found a community during those holy days. Afterwards, he dedicated the first retreat of his congregation on Monte Argentario to the Presentation of Mary and returned there year after year to renew the grace he received then. St. Vincent Strambi, his biographer, writes:

“Whenever possible, Paul kept the feast in the Retreat of the Presentation. How often, even when old and crippled, he would set out from the Retreat of St.Angelo, traveling over impassible roads in the harsh days of November, to Monte Argentario, where he would celebrate the feast with great recollection. It would be difficult to describe the days he spent there. His heart seemed to melt like wax in a fire because of his love for the Mother of God and his gratitude towards her.  As the feast drew near he was so full of joy that the air around Monte Argentario seemed to breathe a sweetness similar to what the prophet Joel describes: “On that day, the mountains will drop down sweetness and the hills flow with milk.” On the day of the feast, he seems totally penetrated with tender devotion.  Even on his deathbed, he recalled, “The day of the Presentation was always a holy and solemn day for me.” 

Please pray for the Passionists, the community he founded that, like Mary, the Mother of God, we may hear God’s word and kept it.

Feast of the Birth of Mary (September 8)

st.ann basilica

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

From the 4th century the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. One of the churches was built near the ancient pool of Bethesda, just north of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

John’s gospel pointed out the 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) Jesus healed a paralyzed man at this healing place, where pagan gods  like Asclepius and Serapis were honored.

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. By the 5th century, Mary’s birth was celebrated here and Christian pilgrims, returning home, celebrated the feast of her birth in their own churches September 8.

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Ruins of Bethesda and ancient church
Paralytic

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) ..

Jerusaelm streets
Ruins of the Temple of Serapis
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Early Christian traditions from the 3rd century placed Mary’s 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, the 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 stories of the birth of Mary and her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches of the east and west, which celebrate this feast together today September 8 . 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.

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.

The Queenship of Mary

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“Christians live from feast to feast,” St. Athanasius said. The church’s feasts are linked to each other through the year, and all are linked to the great feast of the Resurrection of Jesus.

The feasts of Mary follow the pattern of the feasts of her Son, who associated her with his saving work. As we do with the feasts of Jesus Christ, we follow Mary’s feasts through the year. We learn the mysteries of God little by little, year by year.

She was blessed from her conception. ( Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8). We celebrate her birth 9 month later. (The Nativity of Mary, September 7). Her death and assumption into heaven are celebrated Augustus 15th. The Feast of the Queenship of Mary, August 22, is part of the mystery of her assumption into heaven. Introduced into the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church in 1955, the feast celebrates the privileged place of Mary in heaven. She “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 59)

Royal titles were commonly given to God and those anointed by God in the Old Testament; Christianity continued the pratice, giving royal titles to Jesus and Mary. She is called queen in traditional Christian prayers like the Hail Holy Queen (Salve regina) and Queen of Heaven (Regina Coeli):

“Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in the valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show to us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Mary is a queen, but also a mother. She is the Mother of God, Mother of Jesus Christ, Mother of us all, the New Eve, given to us by her Son from the Cross through his disciple John.

Mary knows her greatness is from her Lord, as she acknowledges in her Magnificat:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. He who is mighty has done great things to me; holy is his name.” ( Luke 1:46-55)

Fra Angelico captures Mary’s humility in his portrayal of her (above), bowing before her Son, her hands closed in prayer. The saints below her know that honors given to her are a reflection of the graces promised to humanity.

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”