Mary, Mother of God (2016)
If, in the spirit of faith, we look closely at Mary’s life as mother in the Holy Family we can learn so very, very, much of the true nature and sublime secret of Christian holiness -- the holiness that alone can assuage the deepest of our human longings and fulfil the most sublime of our human aspirations – because, in Nazareth, Mary shared life with Jesus the Son of God, and that is, precisely, the essence of holiness, life shared with God: which means God’s love actively guiding and ruling us in our daily living. Let us therefore try to look more attentively at, and learn more deeply from, Mary as the Gospels show her as mother in the Holy Family at Nazareth.
The first essential point to notice is that Mary worked for the Child, constantly and diligently. However, she would have made nothing of that, considering it to be both her sublime privilege and joyous duty: and in truth, those works were not really hers but rather His because they were totally evoked by, and done simply and solely out of, love for Him. And in this -- the most basic aspect of her life in the Holy Family at Nazareth – Mary, by so selflessly loving Jesus in and above all things, totally reversed the primeval self-seeking of Eve and trod down most heavily upon the Serpent’s head. Here, Mary our model, is totally unique and uniquely deserving of all the gratitude, admiration, and love, of all faithful Catholics and Christians and of all, perhaps unknown but truly devoted, children and servants of God in Jesus.
Equally important is it, however, for us to note how Mary watched Jesus, for that watching led her to ever greater admiration of, and delight in, her Child; and by thus loving and delighting in Him she -- unknown to herself -- grew spiritually with her Child. In this respect, as she loved Jesus above all things, Mary is again the supreme model for all Christians, but also our individual, personal, inspiration … human pride has no place here. Here we can turn to and invoke Mary’s help in all our earthly needs and spiritual struggles for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth and for the establishment of Jesus’ Gospel as the norm and rule in our individual lives.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, growth in holiness is of supreme importance, but we should understand it aright. Holiness belongs to God alone, it is His gift exclusively, we cannot follow any discipline, any course of study, any code of ascetical practices, that will make us holy; the best we can do is seek to suitably prepare ourselves for receiving and embracing that gift of God should He, in His great mercy and goodness, ever choose to bestow it upon us. Our holiness is nothing other than a sharing – in Jesus and by the Spirit -- in God’s life, and, as such, can only be received, not obtained; and even then, because it is not a commodity that can be knowingly accepted like a Christmas gift, we can only receive a share in God’s life in so far as we humbly and faithfully co-operate with God, try to be with God, in our daily moment-to-moment living and loving. In order to grow in holiness, we must work and watch as did Mary, and with her help.
Working with Mary for Jesus -- doing for Him whatever is required by or adapted to our state of life and seems recommended to us by His Spirit within us -- is not, however, to become a conscious multiplication of good deeds done. Mary would have done all her household jobs simply for love of Him, loving Him in all things; and, as I insisted, she would have forgotten all about them once done. There can be no doubt about this; for, after all, did not Jesus teach His apostles:
Does (the master) thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.' (Luke 17:9-10)
This question of meritorious good works was one of the burning questions at the Reformation, when Luther and his followers were loudly asserting that we are saved by faith alone. The Catholic tradition was and is that our faith has to prove itself, or show its reality, by good works; but those good works are only possible for us thanks to God’s grace: they contribute to our salvation but they are for God’s glory more than ours. Mary, at home in Nazareth would do her full round of jobs for the Child in all his needs, her thirty-years-long round, gladly …. And, having done them, she would never give them a second thought. Jesus was her all, and she was all for Him; for all else she trusted absolutely in God’s good, loving, and gracious Providence! Any thoughts, solicitude, about herself would have been a betrayal!
Hezekiah – one of Israel’s famous, good, kings – fearing that he was going to die when still quite young, appealed to the Lord with prayer and tears, both of which came spontaneously. That was not all, however, he also came up with something he had thought about, a reminder to God of the good things he had done:
I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.
When the Lord replied, however, He alluded only to the prayer and the tears:
Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will add to your days fifteen years. (Isaiah 38:5)
The prayer and the tears would be answered not because Hezekiah had done so much for God, but because He, the Lord, was faithful: faithful to the promise He had given to ‘David your father’.
Hezekiah, in his self-solicitude, had not truly understood that our good works are themselves a gift from God: it is a privilege to be chosen to do something in the name of God, on behalf of God; but be very careful about saying that it was done for God. We might do it for family, for the poor, for some Charity, for the Church, but never should we do-things-for-God in that sense. He calls, chooses us, He gives us the opportunity to do some work by His grace for His ultimate purposes and for our own blessing and honour, but not for Him as though He would, in any way, be left indebted to us:
Who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
In Mary we have the perfect model for our work. In the home at Nazareth we are shown both the necessity and the importance of work, for Mary’s work nurtured the Child and made the house a home for Him, sustaining both Him and Joseph in their labours; but that work was an expression of her love, for her it had no meaning or importance other than love, nothing of itself to think about or boast of.
It is time for us now to turn our attention to watching with Mary.
It is St. John (to whose care Jesus committed His mother from His Cross on Calvary) who speaks most clearly of the sublimely close connection between that watching with love, that observing with delight, – which we have noted in Mary herself -- and holiness, which as I have said, is nothing other than our sharing life with God, our sharing in God’s own life:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2)
That is Catholic and Christian holiness: we shall -- John teaches -- be like God, that is, we shall be truly holy, when and because we can see Him as He is. Holiness is not something to be ambitiously desired, nor can it be earned or acquired by any number of good works of whatever sort; it is the unnoticed flowing over us and into us of the beauty, truth, and goodness we have come to see and to appreciate in God.
In their home at Nazareth, Mary saw Jesus as He was, she glimpsed Him, that is, not only in His sublimity, but she observed Him also in His needs: wanting comfort, guidance, and help in His earlier years, tired, hungry as He grew older; and therefore Mary both worked to help Him and watched for love of Him.
In His subsequent Public Ministry Jesus taught us, through His dear friends Martha and Mary, the necessity of and the true relationship between that work and watching so perfectly exemplified and lived out daily over thirty years by His beloved Mother. Martha, for her part, would be so absorbed working hard as she tried to satisfy Jesus’ needs -- as she saw them -- that she found insufficient time to sit quietly and learn from His teaching; Mary, on the other hand, ever watching, would allow herself to be drawn to Jesus’ feet and by listening there to His words learn how to know and love Him more, while – without any shame (to her sister’s great irritation!) -- relying on Martha’s work to help Jesus’ material needs (and her own as it would turn out on this occasion!).
In Jesus’ mother alone could work give full expression to her present love without impeding her watchful admiration and ever-unsatisfied hunger and longing to know and love Him better; her’s was a totally selfless gazing upon, and opening-up to, the loveableness and love of Him Who was for her and is for us the very source and summit of Life and Love.
As might have been expected with teaching so important, so essential, this had been foreshadowed by inspired words of the Psalmist, for example:
Delight yourself in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him. (Psalm 37:4-7)
Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honour him. (Psalm 91:14-15)
Now, our watching is somewhat different from that of Mary, for we are, most of the time, not directly watching Jesus, so much as watching-out for Jesus. The calm, up-welling, joy which characterized Mary’s watching of her Child can only very occasionally be ours, for we need to lovingly search, perseveringly pray, and patiently wait in order to perchance discover and experience something of the Personal presence of the Lord; and, even in such privileged instants, His presence to us is in no way so immediate as was that of the Infant, the Youth, and the grown Man, to Mary. In this we are part of the living Church which is, likewise, always seeking for greater appreciation of, and conformity to, the fullness of the maturity of Christ. There is never any absolute and complete certitude concerning God’s message and its meaning, and that is because God’s message is for all peoples of all times; consequently, no one age, culture, or people, can know the fullness of God’s Being and Providence, for each age is historically conditioned by circumstances and situations that are temporal and changing. That, however, is no detriment to us: for the fact that there is no cast-iron mould, no totally comprehended pattern or procedure, allows each and every one of us to appreciate and exercise our God-given freedom; for each and every individual has a personal destiny and calling to find God in his or her own time and setting.
However, we are neither self-sufficient nor loners, and therefore, to help all of us fulfil our destiny and answer our calling Jesus has bequeathed His Spirit to us in Mother Church, where we all are given teaching that is unique in both its certainty and comprehensiveness, along with sacramental grace that is divine in its purpose and power (especially that of Baptism and the Eucharist) whilst being adapted to, and readily available in, all our human situations and needs. Within those parameters of Mother Church’s teaching and God’s dispensation of grace, each of us is empowered, called, and guided, to find ourselves before God, to fulfil our individual destiny and calling, by interpreting our personal experience of life with an understanding gained from the Scriptures, which remain today what they were for the original People of God, the disciples’ supreme locus for vital contact of mind and heart with God the Father revealing Himself to us, and calling us back to Himself, in His Son and by His Spirit, through those sacred pages.
Looking back again at Mary in the hidden life at Nazareth, we can, therefore, learn how to go about our search for, and how to respond to, God in Jesus. Just as Mary first and foremost loved and delighted in Jesus, so that it was her love for, her delighting in, Him that preceded and guided all her thinking, so too, we must always work and pray in Mother Church, lovingly search and reverently study the Scriptures, look at and try to rightly interpret God’s great goodness to us personally throughout our lives; but all with one supreme purpose, and one overriding hope, in mind: that of being enabled thereby to recognize, appreciate, and love our God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- ever more truly, ever more fully.
We should totally admire, and whole-heartedly aspire to, the model Mary affords us as she worked for and watched Jesus when He was on earth. As regards our own work, we should forget all about it once it is done; with the watching, on the contrary, we should notice and treasure every little detail! What a strange contradiction!! Our working with Mary keeps fresh and wholesome what we already have; it is our watching with Mary, however, that opens us up to yet greater blessings God may still wish to bestow on us.
Work and forget, watch and treasure, such is Mary our Mother’s way; and may you, her Catholic children, thus learn to serve and come to delight in Jesus the Lord, our Saviour and God the Father’s Christmas gift to all!