Kieran Fenn fms
Veneration of the Blessed Mother has been a central characteristic of the Catholic tradition.
Consider some of the following aspects of past and present devotion to Mary:
- Gang members tattooing images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their backs as a shield against their rivals’ bullets;
- Pilgrimage sites that annually draw hundreds of thousands;
- Icons that weep fragrant oil, statues that weep tears and ghostly images that appear on unlikely places;
- Museums filled with pictures, statues, tapestries and ceramics depicting everything from Mary’s Assumption into heaven to her ‘fishing’ souls into paradise using a rosary for a lifeline;
- Crowns of flowers during May in parish schools; novenas in honour of the Miraculous Medal or the Seven Sorrows; and the once-ubiquitous rosaries wound around the hands of the faithful at Mass or as they rest for a final viewing before the coffin is closed.
We have been reflecting on Mary in this column for almost two years. This gives the attentive reader some ideas on emerging directions and trends. In the next few reflections we will draw together some of these threads.
Mary in her life
Murdered Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero once said that ‘faith which is lived in isolation from life is not faith’. It could be said that a Mary that is isolated from life is not a Mary for today.
By the middle of last century the mother of Jesus had been frozen in time, trapped in images created by Renaissance artists and placed on a pedestal.
Every age creates its own picture of Mary. In the early 21st century we need a new appreciation of Mary that is faithful to the teachings of Vatican II yet respectful of the varied and rich traditions we have inherited.
This woman of courage and strength should have a central place in our spirituality. But we have to develop a new language to describe her, a theology of Mary that is suitable for today.
We have reflected on the struggle to achieve this in the monumental shift in approach to Mary that took place at Vatican II. We could well lament that we have lost the woman behind the devotion; we praise her miracles and forget her person.
‘Mary is very like us, fully a member of God’s people and on our side. Mary lives as one of us, first among the faithful, but one of us’ (Lumen Gentium 54).
To deny that Mary’s life was a genuine human journey thus removing her from the ranks of humanity is unfair to her and to us. She was not, and never will be, divine. Pope John XXIII said, ‘The Madonna is not happy when she is placed before her Son.’ To persist in applying titles to Mary that appear to give her the qualities of God brings confusion rather than clarity.
The human face of Mary
Mary was a Jewish woman of her day who observed the Sabbath and all the practices associated with the special fervour of the anawim, or poor of Yahweh, among whom she was numbered.
Here was a woman who searched, felt anxious, laughed and cried, did not understand everything. She lived through the human lot that falls to us all: tears, distress and bitterness, courage and greatness, agony and death. She was probably illiterate, like the vast majority of people of her day.
First century life in a hill country village such as Nazareth depended on agriculture. Mary would have spent four to five hours a day working with others in the fields around the village.
Nearer home was a small family plot of vegetables and fruit trees, work that fitted in with caring for her children and those of the wider family with whom they lived.
Add to this cooking, processing grain for bread and the storing of food for winter. The face of the Mary of history is a human one. Perhaps it is easier to relate to her as one who shares our life and work than as a semi-divine being, so different from us!
Our challenge is to gently take Mary down from her pedestal and place her within the human condition and the communion of saints of which she is an honoured member.
To bring her down to our level is not to undermine her importance. We recall her as a young Jewish woman, wife and mother of a peasant tradition living in a war-torn region who faced difficult decisions.
St Thérèse of Lisieux reminds us that we love Mary not because the Mother of God received exceptional privileges, but because she lived and suffered simply, like us, in the dark night of faith: ‘For a sermon on the Blessed aVirgin to please me … I must see her in real life … They [writers and homilists] show her to us as unapproachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proofs of this from the gospel…’
Mary was a daughter of this earth; she had human passions and joys. She shared all of our human concerns. She waited expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. As an individual, she made difficult choices in life with courage and grew, in time, to be an elder in the budding Church.
She is our sister in faith.
Cunningham, Lawrence. There’s Something about Mary. Claretian Press.
Johnson, Elizabeth. Truly Our Sister. Continuum.