Mary’s undivided response to God
(Readings: Apocalypse 11:19; 12:1-6, 10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56)
Introduction to Mass
Today’s feast expresses our belief that when Jesus’ mother reached the end of her life on earth she was taken into God’s company without the delay or the period of purification that we have to expect in our own case. Mary’s total co-operation with God’s grace was unique in the whole history of salvation, and so her entry into eternity was also unique. In spite of that, the prayers for today’s feast remind us that the life Mary already enjoys is what God intends for all of us without exception.
To begin Mass we think of the ways that we’ve failed to appreciate the fullness of salvation God offers us and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
Today’s feast is one of the many in the course of the Church year that express the honour and esteem in which Jesus’ mother has been held among his followers since the earliest days of Christianity.
It’s important to acknowledge that. Devotion to Our Lady isn’t a piece of exaggerated Catholic mythology that doesn’t really belong to “proper” Christian faith.
The truth is that even the very first generation of Christians recognised how appropriate it was to hold Mary in esteem, because of the unique role she had played in the history of God’s dealings with humanity by agreeing to become the mother of the Saviour.
This was their main insight: the more the first Christian communities grew in their awareness of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, God-made-man, the more they recognised the unique part his mother had played by bringing him into the world, and they honoured her accordingly.
This meant that even by the time Saint Luke came to write his gospel, which was certainly no later that sixty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mary was already being seen in the way that Luke portrays her. “Of all women you are the most blessed,” he reports Elizabeth as saying, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured by a visit from the mother of my Lord?”
This was how the earliest followers of Christ thought about Our Lady.
Mary’s opinion of her own importance, on the other hand, was far from high. In the same gospel passage she describes herself as a “lowly handmaid” to God. Her attitude was that she was a servant, someone owing duties to a master.
That didn’t mean that Mary saw herself as an inferior, or as someone who was powerless who didn’t object to being exploited, the way we might construe the relationship of servant and master.
What Mary meant by that phrase was that she recognised her complete dependence on God. She was expressing her complete openness to the influence of God’s grace and her complete willingness to cooperate with God’s plan of salvation, without in any way seeking her own advantage or pursuing her own self-interest.
She doesn’t say: “I’m part of God’s big plan, so I’m special”. She says, “the Lord has done great things for me”. And everything else she goes on to say to Elizabeth is about God and the nature of the salvation he offers, not about herself.
That was the essence of what the Church later came understand as Mary’s sinlessness – the fact that her “yes” to God was total and undivided. There was something unique about the purity of Mary’s response to God that marked her off even from the other great figures of salvation history.
Christ’s appearance in history, after all, involved the co-operation of several individuals, any one of whom might have refused to respond to God’s appeal: Elizabeth and her husband; their son, John the Baptist, Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband; Peter and the apostles, Saint Paul, and others. As we know, some of these individuals were people who overcame great moral and spiritual flaws to become persons of great faith and holiness.
But from the earliest times Mary was seen not only as someone who belonged to this group but as someone who was unique in level of her openness to God’s grace. And it was from that basic conviction that all the later reflection arose about Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her eventual Assumption into heaven.
Having said all that about Our Lady’s unique status in the history of salvation I suppose it’s also important to avoid distorting what it actually means. Ultimately God wants every one of us to enter into eternal life with him. In that regard, Mary is just “one of us”.
The communion of life with God that we believe Mary is already taking part in is no different from the future that God wishes for all of us. That’s why the text of today’s Mass describes her as “the beginning and pattern of the Church, a sign of hope and comfort to the rest of us on our pilgrim way”.
We always have to come back to the fact that, however exalted a role Christ’s mother played in God’s plans, she was a creature and human being like the rest of us, not a goddess or a divine figure. Fundamentally we’re all invited into the same close relationship with God that she was – and we’re invited to share the same destiny. That seems to be the point of what Saint Paul is saying in the second reading today.
Those would be my thoughts on the significance of today’s feast. Everything in the content of the Church’s faith is geared to helping us find God, to know him and to share his life. That’s true of the particular beliefs the Church entertains about Our Lady and the Christian faith as a whole would be poorer without them.