Mary as Evangelizer: Reflections for Pilgrimages and Shrines
A great many people met Our Lord when he walked the earth. We know some of their names: the apostles, Martha and Mary and Lazarus. There are the unnamed groups, even crowds, who heard him preach, sometimes captivated by this itinerant rabbi who spoke like they had never heard before,
sometimes turning away from him, like the rich young man and the disciples who could not stomach the word of life, or his boorish townsfolk who rejected him Even those closest to him, the disciples, the blustering Peter, James and John (‘the sons of thunder,’ so ready to call down fire in defence of their master) — no wonder the Saviour said to Philip at the Last Supper: “Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me?” (John 14, 9)
There is however one conspicuous exception among the hearers of Jesus: Mary, the Mother of Messiah. The reproach the Risen Redeemer addressed to the two despondent disciples returning to Emmaus could not have been addressed to Mary: “. . .so slow to believe all that the prophets have said. Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?” (Luke 24, 25) The Blessed Virgin of the Gospels stands in joyful contrast to the lethargic response, the consistently slow grasp of even the chosen companions of Jesus. The earliest preaching about the Saviour took up his public life; this is evident in St. Mark, the oldest gospel, also in the succinct summaries of the good news in the Acts of the Apostles (for example, Peter’s sermon in the house of Cornelius the centurion, Acts 10, 36).
This essay takes up some of the scriptural insights on Mary as ‘evangelizer,’ from the synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark and Luke, following the order of their composition: so, first, her place in the public life of her Son, and then her role in his infancy and childhood. (A consideration of our Lady in St. John’s Gospel will be left to another time.) There is just a single public appearance of Mary common to Matthew, Mark and Luke; it is known as ‘the coming of the mother and the brethren,’ also as ‘the true kinsfolk of Jesus,’ and is told by Mark (ch. 3), Matthew (ch. 12) and Luke (ch. 8), each evangelist with his own interpretation. We look at the Lukan version in the setting of chapter eight. At the start of the chapter Jesus tells the parable of the sower; we recall our Lord’s explanation: “as for the part in the rich soil, this is people with a noble and generous heart who have heard the word and take it to themselves and yield a harvest through their perseverance.” Next St. Luke relates the short parable of the lamp, not hidden under a bowl or bed, but put high on a lamp stand that people may see the light when they come in. Only then does the evangelist give his version of ‘the true family of Jesus.’ “His mother and his brothers came looking for him, but they could not get to him because of the crowd. He was told: ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside and want to see you.’ But he said in answer, ‘My Mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practise.’”
St. Luke has reported this incident as the conclusion to the two parables, leading his reader to see in the mother of Jesus the good soil where the Word of life took solid root. For Mary is the woman of noble and generous heart who heard the word of God and put it into practise. This is typical Lukan language: ‘hear the word and keep it,’ as also at the Annunciation, “be it done unto me according to your word...”
The same St. Luke has left us also another allusion to the Mother of Jesus from her Son’s public life, in chapter eleven. A woman from the crowd, taken with the preaching of Jesus, calls out in biblical accents: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.’ (Proverbs 23, 24-25, reads: “May your father and mother rejoice and the one who bore you be filled with joy.”) One current edition of the Bible titles this passage: “the truly blessed.” Our Lord’s reply was: “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” We are still on the Lukan wavelength of hearing and keeping the word of God. The setting of chapter eleven of St. Luke helps us understand the short dialogue between Jesus and the anonymous woman. Her praise for Jesus with its oblique reference to his mother is in striking contrast to the negative attitude of the other bystanders. The evangelist has just told the story of the man whom Jesus has delivered from the devil of dumbness. The crowd wonders how it has been done: some say by Beelzebul, the prince of devils; others ask as a test for a sign from heaven. Our Lord explains the folly of supposing Satan would act against himself and he refuses the further sign for which they ask. The exuberant praise of the unnamed woman is counter-posed to the querulous witnesses of the exorcism. More than miracle or any other sign Jesus emphasizes faith in the word of God. Hearing and heeding the word of God is where the Mary of St. Luke excels. Another way of stating this, a favourite approach of Pope John Paul II, is the phrase of St. Paul, ‘obedience of faith,’ (Rom 16, 26), used for our Lady as well in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In St. Luke
We turn now to the infancy chapters of St. Luke. Their composition and background reflect the deepening awareness of the early Christians on the meaning of the Mother of Jesus. The New Testament bears witness to Mary as the Virgin Mother of the Word made flesh, and equally as the humble woman who was the first disciple of her Son, obedient in faith. She was the perfect pilgrim following in the footsteps of Jesus. The Second Vatican Council spoke of Mary’s ‘pilgrimage of faith,’ and Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have expanded our understanding of Mary’s model discipleship. Were we to be asked what single scriptural statement best describes Our Lady, we could hardly do better than the line, “Mary treasured all these things in her heart,” which St. Luke emphasizes by repeating it two times. That one sentence summarizes her response to the great things the Almighty did for her; those few words can serve as the Gospel description of her role as evangelizer. This was well said by Pope Paul VI in 1965: “Since Mary is to be rightly regarded as the way by which we are led to Christ, the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise.”
The Mother of Jesus treasured in her heart all the shepherds said when they came to Bethlehem; she did the same when her twelve-year old Son was lost and found in Jerusalem. On both occasions Jesus is the central figure, his Mother points the way to him. What is St. Luke telling us by using the word which we translate variously as ‘treasuring, storing, pondering, reflecting’? The term he chose means to search out a hidden meaning, to ruminate on marvellous happenings. The shepherds, representing the Jewish world, had spoken to Mary of her Son as ‘a Saviour.. Christ the Lord.’ In her pilgrimage of faith Mary had to work out the consequences of those exalted titles, for along with the joyful message of the shepherds were the cold facts of her Son’s birth. She could wrap him lovingly in swaddling bonds, but an animal manger was hardly the proper cot for a frail new-born, much less the Christ, the promised one, the heir and descendant of David the King. She would ponder the mystery of Christ the Lord with an animal’s crib for his bed. Eventually she would understand the sign of the manger for both the bread of life and as symbol of his rejection by those her Son came to save.
Beyond Bethlehem we hear no more of the shepherds who came to greet the Christ-child. We hear no more either of the unnamed others who were astonished at the report of the shepherds. Only the mother of the baby will reappear in his adult life. With the Passover visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve St. Luke concludes his account of the childhood of our Lord. We hear no more thereafter of Joseph, nor can we identify the anonymous relations and acquaintances in the party returning home after the festival. When Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple, ‘sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions,” a difficult dialogue follows.. “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you. Jesus answered: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” If the temple teachers were astonished at his intelligence and replies, how much more so must have been the deeply worried Mary and Joseph. Succinctly, as if to say, “how could they understand...?” St. Luke comments, “But they did not understand what he meant...” The focus then returns to Jesus, who went down with them to Nazareth and lived under their authority.., and increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with men.” St. Luke interjects the single line, “his mother stored up all these things in her heart.” Woman of prayer, she mulled over the events associated with her Son, the divine mysteries in which she was involved as Mother of the Christ, the holy one of God. As Fr. Raymond F. Brown has written: “Luke knows that Mary must have sought to interpret these events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and ultimately have succeeded, for she became a model Christian believer.”
Resurrection influence on Gospel picture of Mary
By the time Luke wrote his gospel a number of decades had gone by, and the first followers of ‘the way’ had come to be known as ‘Christians.’ These early faithful had been ‘evangelized,’ which is another way of saying they had received the good tidings of great joy, which they passed on to others in the catechesis of baptism, and celebrated in their public liturgy, especially the Eucharist.. The Gospels are irradiated with the light of the Risen Lord. As Mary and the other saints are, so to speak, bathed in the glory of the triumphant Saviour in the icons of Eastern Christianity, so in her Gospel appearances the holy Virgin is suffused by the radiance of her Risen Son. At the birth of John the Baptist the question was put: “What will this child turn out to be?” (Luke 1, 66). Long before Luke wrote his gospel, the woman who pondered in her heart had come to know the answer not only about the unexpected son of aged Elizabeth and Zachary but about her own son Jesus.
From Mary’s first appearance at the Annunciation in book one of St. Luke, his gospel, to her final appearance m book two of St. Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, before Pentecost, with the disciples in the Upper Room, s e is always shown to us as pondering the ways of G d, or in the language of the Second Vatican Council (1963) as inseparably joined to the saving work of her Son. One of the first to profit from Mary’s prayerful pondering was her Son. In the Old Testament book of Esther (ch. 4, 17) we find words that Mary might have pronounced in the same accents, and in turn transmitted to her child. At the time of King Assuerus of Persia five centuries before Christ, when her people were in terrible danger, Esther prayed: “As a child I was wont to hear from the people of the land of my forefathers that you, O Lord, chose Israel from among all the peoples and our fathers from all their ancestors, as a lasting heritage and that you fulfilled all your promises to them..” The quiet years at Nazareth were filled with love and learning. Mary introduced her Son to the traditions of the Jewish people; she taught him his first prayers. In his document, Catechesis in Our Time, October 16, 1979, Pope John Paul II reflected: “As he sat on her lap and later as he listened to her throughout the hidden life at Nazareth, this Son, who was ‘the only Son from the Father,’ ‘full of grace and truth,” was formed by her in human knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of God’s plan for his people, and in adoration of the Father. She in turn was the first of his disciples. She was the first in time, because even when she found her adolescent son in the temple she received from him lessons that she kept in her heart. She was the first disciple above all else because no one has been ‘taught by God’ to such depth.” Our Lady is the mother and model of catechists; she is a ‘living catechism,’ indeed in the phrase of the late Kilian Lynch, Carmelite prior general, a ‘living library.’ In the notes accompanying the new votive Mass of ‘Mary, Seat of Wisdom,’ there is this quotation from the twelfth century St. Bruno of Monte Cassino: “Mother most wise, alone worthy of such a Son! She kept all these words in her heart, preserving them for us and commending them to our remembrance, so that afterwards, through her teaching them, recounting them, proclaiming them, they might be recorded, preached throughout the world, and announced to all nations.”
In 1976 Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic exhortation on evangelisation, one of the most significant of his documents. He entrusted evangelisation “to the hands and heart of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.” A year later the synod of bishops took the themes of the Holy Spirit, our Lady and catechesis as their ‘message to the people of God.’ They concluded: “May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, faithful hearer of the Lord’s word, bring our efforts to a happy conclusion, and may the saving faith of Christ be leaven, salt, light and true life for the whole world. It was she who, as a faithful disciple of her Son, ‘remembered all these things, meditating on them in her heart.’“ Pope John Paul II, in his almost countless apostolic voyages, constantly visits the Marian shines. Through his addresses he has given the Church a whole Marian theology of pilgrimage, proposing the Mother of the Saviour as the first ‘evangelizer.’ In his first visit to Brazil, July, 1980, at the shrine of Our Lady of Nazareth at Belem (Portuguese word for Bethlehem), he spoke of the value of shrines, even for those who have been remiss in their practise of the faith. He appealed to our Lady: “Mother, you are the ‘new Eve.’ The Church of your Son., beseeches you that through your intercession the newness of the Gospel, the seed of holiness and fruitfulness, may never be lacking...”
The Holy See regards the apostolate of pilgrimages and shrines as so important that it has recently set up a special section at the Vatican. To the first world congress on the pastoral care of shrines and pilgrimages the Holy Father developed the theme that shrines celebrate popular piety. Here are two extracts from his address of February 28, 1992: “In a shrine a person can discover that he or she is equally loved and equally awaited, starting with the person life has treated harshly, the poor, the people who are distant from the Church. Everyone can rediscover his or her eminent dignity as a son or daughter of God, even if they had forgotten it.” “I entrust you and your ministry to the care of Mary, mediatrix of divine grace, comfort of the afflicted, star of the sea, help of Christians, refuge of sinners, Mother of those who go on pilgrimage from this earth to the eternal kingdom”