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Mary Icon of the Church

Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm.

A very easy question to ask, but a difficult one to answer is, what is the Church? Even more difficult is, what is the Church for? Try answering the first one, by completing the sentence, “The Church is...” What did you come up with? It is relatively effortless to come up with a name for the Church, such as the People of God/the Body of Christ. It is much more difficult to come up with a statement that locks into the heart of the Church.

That is bad enough, but today many people would say, why bother? The Church has in some ways a bad name: there are divisions and scandals; people are drifting away because what the Church offers no longer seems important to them; some people find the Church too authoritarian for the values of our society, whilst others feel that it has given up on its birthright; others will find the Church deficient in upholding or promoting what they consider to be critical rights and values.

I would like to approach the Church today from the perspective of Mary. I speak of Mary as the icon of the Church. An icon is a sacred image that draws us into the mystery of God and his love. To speak of Mary as an icon is to come to reflect in calm and peace. An icon is not penetrated with the casual glance we give to a newspaper heading, or a seaside photo. To appreciate an icon takes time; we must ponder before the icon so that it can speak to us. My contention is that to reflect before Mary in prayerful contemplation is to be drawn into what is most central about the Church. Mary is a figure of beauty and repose; she is a symbol that is calm and serene; she is a woman at once tender and strong. We cannot contemplate Mary aright if we come with a loveless ideology, with anger and recrimination against other members of the Church. Today we come to Mary so that she can teach us the most profound truths about the Church.

But what is the Church we come to learn about from Mary? Remember the sentence: “The Church is...” When we hear the word “Church,” do we think of our parish, about the pope, about the sacraments, about catechists, about teaching or handing on the faith? Unfortunately today not many people think of the Holy Trinity when they hear the word “Church.” Yet it is in the Trinity that the Church has its deepest roots. In fact if we want to think rightly about the Church, we should start with the Trinity. To grasp the heart of the Church we need to begin with Trinitarian love. I would put it to you that the most important things about the Church can be summed up in four short phrases: The Church is quite simply: “Trinitarian love poured out on the world; manifested in the Paschal Mystery; celebrated in the Eucharist; shared with the world.” Four short phrases, but very dense ones. What I propose to do is to reflect on these four little phrases, but to do so looking on the figure of Mary. Above all she is the one who knows the love of the Trinity that has been poured out over the world; she experienced in the depths of her being the Paschal Mystery of her Son; she can teach us about the Eucharist; she is the model of the Church sent forth in service and evangelization. It is Mary then that can help us to ponder and to tease out the meaning of the definition I have given of the Church: Trinitarian love poured out; manifested in the Paschal Mystery; celebrated in the Eucharist; shared with the world. It will be obvious that this vision of the Church is far removed from what interests the media about the Church. It is also far above the things that preoccupy people about the Church like papal teaching, the level of consultation in the parish, the personality of the bishop, parish priest or Eucharistic minister. Though faith is of course one, and we cannot neglect any revealed truth without imperilling the whole, nevertheless we have become engulfed in secondary truths of the faith, rather than what is primary. There is surely something wrong when people get worked up by questions of authority and never marvel at the wonder of the Trinity; there is something quite odd surely about the number of right-wing groups in this century which have invoked the patronage of the Virgin Mary. I think, for example, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a group in Boston in the 1940s who believed that everyone who was not a Roman Catholic was destined for hell. Its leader was excommunicated by Pius XII. Again, we have allowed ourselves to a rather serious extent to have become bogged down, if not in trifles, at least in what is peripheral. Our vision of the Church is too often pragmatic, dreary and angry. We need to lift up our eyes to the beauty which is at the heart of the Church. And Mary, who is supremely the beautiful one, is a sure guide.

Trinitarian Love Poured Out

One of the loveliest passages of the New Testament, a text used by the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours in Monday Evening Prayer, is the opening of the letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14). The present pope used the same passage to open his major encyclical letter on Mary, Redemptoris Mater (1987). It is a majestic sweep from eternity to eternity, the whole divine plan of the Father, manifested in the Son and brought to fruition by the Spirit. It is called quite simply “the mystery” (Ephesians 1:9; 3:9). This great plan is brought into our world by creation, but especially by re-creation in the Son through the Spirit. This plan begins to unfold in the apparently simple story of the annunciation as told by Luke (1:26-38); rather more than unfold, it is all there in kernel. We approach this text with Mary; indeed it is a daily prayer in the Church which we pray in the Angelus which recalls the central truths of this event.

We ponder the Annunciation with Mary; she leads us into Trinitarian love. There was an apparition in Rome in 1947 which is little-known outside Italy. It occurred at Tre Fontane, the place of the martyrdom of St. Paul, where three fountains were said to have sprung up at the three places where his head hopped at his martyrdom. Bruno Carnacchiola was a militant seventh-day Adventist. He was plotting to assassinate Pius XII and was preparing an article against the Mother of God. The Virgin appeared to him and on the first occasion said one word, “basta!” (enough!). She subsequently gave her name as “Sono colei chi habita nella Trinita” (I am the one who dwells in the Trinity). We can find a not dissimilar idea in Irish devotion about Mary. Irish culture in some ways is much more matriarchal than British society. When in Irish Mary is called Bean ti na Trion6ide (The Housewife of the Trinity), it is implied that she is a servant of the Trinity in caring for all on behalf of the Trinity; she, as it were, sets the tone in heaven and earth. The Church, moreover, must continually and ever more deeply be patterned on Mary.

We look for a moment at the Annunciation story to see what it might tell us about the Church, about Trinitarian love poured out. To begin with we should notice the small scale of the event: the angel comes to Nazareth which was a village of a few hundred people. Quite simply God does not think in our way; we would surely have the angel come to a major metropolis like Rome, Corinth or to one of the centres of civilization like Athens. Already we are learning something about God’s ways and about what the Church must be. It is not great in the eyes of the world, but small, weak, almost insignificant, but of immense importance from God’s perspective. The angel brings a word from the

Father: Gabriel greets Mary with two mysterious words, chaire kecharit6mane instead of the normal Hebrew salutation, “peace Mary.” The angel’s address gives as it were a new name for Mary, “Rejoice O Graced One” (Luke 1:28). These are God’s continual words also to the Church: despite it weakness and constant failures, the Church is the graced one, and is called upon to rejoice. That call is particularly apposite today I spoke recently with a theology professor at one of the leading Roman universities there who remarked about the sheer heaviness and gloom that one senses about the Vatican despite the fact that the Pope himself frequently speaks about hope and the renewal for the coming millennium. But rejoicing cannot be turned on at command. We only exult if we have a reason. If we are td rejoice, if we are to be light-hearted and at peace, we need to look to the deepest ground of the Church. Like Mary, the Church is graced and it is covered with God’s love. All is well, we can indeed celebrate.

But there are difficulties. Mary sensed problems too. Luke indeed is careful to tell us that Mary was deeply disturbed at greeting at the angel’s greeting (Luke 1:29). In fact Mary not knowing or being disturbed is a theme in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel (see 1:29.34; 2: Mary receives reassurance from the angel, “You have found favour with God.” If instead of looking at the problems of the Church, we too were to listen to the word of God, we also would be reassured by the hope and promise of the great mystery which is the divine plan.

The angel goes on to proclaim the future destiny of the child:

He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:32-33).

She is told therefore that the glorious, royal messianic prophecies are now to be fulfilled. Her Son will be Lord of all. We will see later how he will be king and how these triumphant prophecies will be fulfilled through the words on the Cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Luke 23:3.37-3 8). Again we see reasons for raising our eyes in hope and rejoicing. Instead of the pessimism and depression afflicting the Church, we are to contemplate its Lord, Jesus. We become pessimistic when we look at ourselves; we can be optimistic and confident when we look at the Lord. So too with the Church. With Mary we are being invited to look to the lordship of Jesus as the ground of our hope. Jesus is Lord; evil will not have the last word; the gates of hell will not triumph over the Church, weak as it may appear to be at times.

But Mary is still confused, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). We can easily grasp her perplexity. She is engaged to Joseph and there is a wedding in the offing. She asks equivalently therefore, “What am I to do? Mary – Joseph? Break off the engagement?...” She is given the only answer that will ultimately satisfy:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (Luke 1:35).

Mary is to be enveloped by the Holy Spirit: it is God who ensures that God’s plans are fulfilled. We are invited to look in the same direction. The tasks facing the Church are indeed immense, and when we look around us, we are struck by weakness. We will not solve problems by condemnation or harsh invective. It is the gentle Spirit, the One whom St. Catherine of Siena loved to call “Clemency” or Mercy, that will support us.

Even though Mary was all-holy and perfect in the virtues of faith and hope, God still looked on her weakness as a human and gave her a sign to sustain her faith and hope: her elderly cousin Elizabeth is now pregnant. It is not just any sign, but a miracle; a wonder moreover to make Mary rejoice in the good fortune of her cousin. The Church is given great

promises and reassurances. But we are not left without signs and wonders to strengthen our weak faith, and to console us in difficulties. I wonder what is the great sign that God gives us today? It is not in great rallies, or impressive buildings, nor indeed primarily in remarkable Church leaders. The great sign, the only convincing sign is love. When we look at the Church with unjaundiced eye, we see so much love, the sheer goodness of people, their generosity in family and social life. We see too so much heroic love of God in ordinary people. As long as such love is being produced by the Holy Spirit, we need never be pessimistic about the Church. And in case there is any doubt, we are given the word of the angel to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” This statement is found several times in the Bible when there is some situation of human impossibility (e.g. Genesis 18:14; Jeremiah 32:27; Job 42:2; Matthew 19:26). Again we are being told to look towards God and not to be focused on the problems that surround us.

Alter this Trinitarian revelation of God’s promises and invitation, Mary pronounces herself doule, a slave or servant, “Here am I, the servant, or rather slave, of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Here is her complete act of faith in the word, the command, the promise of God. The Church is nothing if it is not a Church of faith. Faith here is not a narrow presentation of dogmas or truths, but a total commitment which of course involves belief, but also demands hope and commitment. If it is to be modelled on Mary, the Church must constantly say a complete “yes” to what God says, commends and promises. Once again, a Trinitarian vision of the Church lifts up our minds to God and the wonders of his plan. Already in the first phrase of our definition of the Church, “Trinitarian love poured out,” we have an answer to much of the pessimism and despondency which surrounds the Church today.


As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."