WelCom June/July 2023
Fr James Lyons continues his exploration of the titles of Mary, Mother of Jesus, as prayed in the 1531 Litany of Loreto. In this issue: Mary as ‘Spiritual Vessel’ and ‘Vessel of Honour’.
The English language uses the word ‘vessel’ to describe anything that holds something else. A ship, a cup, a glass, a shell… are all vessels, shaped by design to be carriers.
A very similar word of Celtic origin, ‘vassal’, describes ‘a humble servant’, also known as ‘a retainer’. In Feudal times, a vassal was a holder of land on behalf of a Lord or Master.
It is easy to see how these two words might be applied to Mary of Nazareth. She was a humble servant (vassal), and this handmaid of the Lord carried in her womb (vessel) the yet-to-be-born, Jesus.
Mary is indeed a ‘Spiritual Vessel’. It is not only her womb that does the carrying. Her whole being was given over to God. The Word of God took flesh within Mary and her life, in company with Joseph and Jesus, witnesses God’s presence in every human situation and circumstance.
St Paul uses ‘vessel’ to illustrate how fragile life is. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he writes we are earthenware vessels, or clay jars [see 2 Cor.4:7], holding the treasure that is our faith in Jesus. Without the power of God working in us, we are nothing. Mary, too, is human, fragile, but she is imbued with the Holy Spirit, holiness personified, her flesh becoming the very means by which God enters our world.
But we hold this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.– 2 Corinthians 4:7
The Litany of Loreto honours Mary as a Spiritual Vessel, recognising both the holiness of her life and that of the gift she carried in her womb.
To ask this Spiritual Vessel to pray for us, is to seek to follow Mary’s example of sanctity.
• Mary saw herself as a handmaid of the Lord, a person who put service of others ahead of self-service. Her time and energy were lovingly and trustingly folded into God’s plan for her. She pondered deeply and her discernment led her life to its wondrous fulfilment. She can guide the life of each person to the same conclusion, appropriate to each one.
• Whatever you are designed to carry has a spiritual dimension. You can discover this through Mary whose spirituality was shaped by the family, social and religious environment of her time. Her example of faithfulness can help each of us know ourselves in relationship to God, to one another and to the whole of creation, and find joy in the work of service.
• Each of us is already a spiritual vessel. Made in the image of God, our DNA is essentially holy! Ponder the mystery surrounding the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Motherhood of Mary, all components of her vessel, and let her guide you to see the makeup of your own.
In honouring Mary as Spiritual Vessel, you honour the gift that is your own life.
Mary, bearer of the Word that gives life.
Cup of blessing for our world.
Wine for our time.
You carried Jesus with a mother’s love.
You poured him out as the gift that serves.
O blessed among women.
Hold me in the vessel of your love
and in the mantel of your care.
Mould me through the Word you carry
to be a vessel for your service.
Mary, Spiritual Vessel,
pray for us.
Vessel of honour
He aint heavy he’s my brother! Words from a song that supported peace marches and human rights demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s, reminding us that no burden is too heavy when it’s carried with respect and love. It’s especially light when you can identify with your load as though you were carrying yourself.
At another level the carrier is seen as inferior to what is being carried, yet finds honour in the task. Slaves bore emperors on bejeweled thrones. Until the 1960s, popes were carried in liturgical processions on a chair (Sedia) that symbolised their authority as the Successor of Peter. Even today victorious teams are carried shoulder high by proud and grateful supporters. It is considered a great honour to be chosen to carry the Olympic torch, or to lead a country’s representatives into an international arena carrying that nation’s flag.
The National Honours are bestowed on certain individuals for exceptional achievement or service, for life-risking courage, for selfless, voluntary involvement in their community. Such an ‘Honour’, usually in the form of an insignia and/or title, is a universal mark of respect and gratefulness.
With the title Vessel of Honour, Mary of Nazareth is seen as fulfilling a role that is both commonplace and of unique privilege. She became a ‘Vessel’ with her ‘Yes’, her ‘Fiat’ that said, whatever you ask of me I will do! We are all vessels, carrying within us gifts of life and faith; we also carry the seeds of new life and the Spirit enabling faith to flourish. We share this in common with Mary of Nazareth.
She is a Vessel of Honour like all mothers; carrying her child even beyond the life of the child. The time in her womb is the beginning of an unending journey of bearing and serving.
No matter how precious the vessel, it is the contents – like the wine in the cup – that give pleasure to the moment of rejoicing. Planes and boats and trains only exist because of the cargo and passengers they carry, just as an empty cup is valued only for what it can carry and the Olympic torch is nothing without the flame. A flagbearer without the flag is just one of the crowd.
For Mary, her child is Jesus – Saviour. He is God’s gift of love to the world, and Mary is the one who carries him for God, for us. It is her privilege, unique and glorious, to be the cup from which is poured life-giving blood – for the life of the world.
Mary is indeed a Vessel of Honour par excellence! Of all vessels she is the most blessed. Honoured in the person she carries, honoured too in her call to carry, and deeply aware of the honour: The Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. [Luke 1:46-55]
Like each of us Mary is also a vessel of clay, created and moulded in God’s image. As St Paul tells us, we are earthenware vessels, carrying a priceless treasure. [2 Corinthians 4:7]
But Mary is the perfect image, carrying the world’s redemption in her womb, and its life in her hands.
A Vessel to Honour
My body, my vessel,
carrying my life, my hopes,
my dreams, my memories,
my one and only self.
Unaware of the privilege
you hold my very essence,
made to measure,
companioning my faith.
A vessel to honour
with grateful reverence,
and gentle love
imaging humble service.
May I know the sacredness
the binding force of love
and the rich treasure
that defines me.
Mary, Vessel of Honour, pray for us.