Mary, Mother of God.
I will introduce my subject with a story taken from John Moschus, who was born in the middle of the 6th. Century and who, early in his life, became a monk in Palestine where he lived for ten years. Then he set out on his great voyages, undertaken with the aim of visiting many monasteries in order to gather together the traditions of monasticism and also the memories of the holy monks who had lived there. Here is one of the stories he tells.
One of the monks told us that the priest Theodore of Aeila told him that a certain monk, a true ascetic, lived as a recluse on the Mount of Olives. The demon of lust was troubling him. One day when he was being terribly tormented, the monk’s patience began to wear somewhat thin and he said to the demon, ‘How long will you thus go on destroying my peace? I have grown old in your company, depart from me.’ The demon then appeared before his very eyes and said to him, ‘Swear to me that you will tell no-one what I am going to say to you, and I will no longer make war against you.’ The monk swore, ‘By Him Who dwells in heaven, I will tell no-one of what you are about to say to me.’ The demon continued, ‘You stop venerating this icon, and I will cease to torment you.’ Now the icon represented Our Lady, the holy Mother of God, carrying our infant Lord, Jesus Christ. The recluse said to the demon, ‘Let me reflect on the matter.’ Then, the following day, he went to the priest Theodore of Aeila – the same who told us all this – and explained to him all that had transpired. The priest said to the recluse, ‘In truth, you made a mistake in swearing such an oath; but you have done right in telling me about it. For it is better for you to visit every singly house of prostitution in the town rather than give up honouring our Lord Jesus Christ with His Mother.’
Do the old priest’s words puzzle you ... scandalize you? Let me try to explain his meaning so far as I can discern it.
There are many men swept away by their passions, falling time after time, being driven from one excess to another, and yet they honour and reverence the thought of the Mother of God. They are too weak to resist their clamouring desires, but too good to gainsay the hold which Our Lady has over them; because, in the depths of their hearts, they love that which they think they cannot imitate ... the purity, the humility, the simplicity, the modesty, the boundless goodness ... which they see personified in her. Hardly knowing why, they reverence her because the central core of their heart is warm and sensitive to what is beautiful and true.
There are other men whose behaviour is much more composed, but they do not honour Our Lady because they do not love the virtues of which she is the personification. Though they be lowly and lead orderly lives, yet they have no love for the grandeur of humility, cannot gaze in wonder at the beauty of purity, nor be struck with awe at the dignity of Our Lady’s simplicity. The centre of the heart of these men is cold and hard.
Now you can see what the old priest meant when he advised the recluse never to give up honouring his ikon of Our Lady: far better to have a turbulent yet sensitive, loving heart, than a calm but cold one. And speaking thus he did but state the same truth as Pope Paul VI in Sardinia, where he said, ‘If we wish to be followers of Christ, we must be followers of Mary’. For if the spirit of Christ be in a man, that man will not fail to show filial devotion to Our Lady, for Christ is eternally the Lord and Saviour, yet also eternally the Son of Mary.
But what about the many non-Catholic Christians who for so long have had little devotion to Our Lady?
The spirit of Christ cannot develop to full perfection in souls cut off from the plenitude of Christian truth. So close are the bonds that unite Mary and the Church that our love for one is an integral part of our love for the other. Without a love for, an appreciation of, the Church and her function, one cannot venerate Mary fully, for she is the perfect manifestation and ultimate realization of the mystery of the Church, which, in the virginal purity of her faith and by the overshadowing power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, ever brings Christ to life in the souls of men, ever builds up the Mystical Body of Christ, nourishing and teaching her offspring with her sacraments and her doctrine, just as Mary cherished and taught her divine Son. Therefore, we read in the book of Sirach (24:11s.), as used in the liturgy, that Mary is the peculiar possession of the Church, that it is our particular privilege as Catholics to be able to love and honour her fully in the spirit of Christ:
IN THE BELOVED CITY (Jerusalem, Mother Church) LIKEWISE HE GAVE ME A RESTING PLACE, AND IN JERUSALEM WAS MY DOMINION. SO I TOOK ROOT IN AN HONOURED PEOPLE, IN THE PORTION OF THE LORD WHO IS THEIR INHERITANCE.
It is life in the Catholic Church that brings forth devotion to Mary, as perhaps converts will most easily recognize, for in and through the Catholic Church, Mary becomes most fully our mother and we her sons and daughters (John 19:26s.):
WHEN JESUS SAW HIS MOTHER, AND THE DISCIPLE WHOM HE LOVED STANDING NEAR, HE SAID TO HIS MOTHER, ‘WOMAN, BEHOLD, YOUR SON! THEN HE SAID TO THE DISCIPLE, ‘BEHOLD, YOUR MOTHER!’
Thus, devotion to Mary is to be considered as necessary not as if the merits of Christ were not alone the sufficient cause of supernatural life in His disciples, but rather as a spontaneous consequence of that Christ-life in a Catholic soul. And yet, devotion to Our Lady is not merely a spontaneous manifestation of a life already possessed, it is also a means to the attainment of what is still hoped for and aspired to. For Mary is the most Christ-like of all the members of the Church, and her example and intercession are meant to lead us all most efficaciously to Our Lord.
And being thus inspired by her example we are impelled to invoke her intercession ... and how rightly, as we see from the Old Testament.
As you know, the Kings of Israel were meant to be in some measure figures of the Messiah, and amongst the chiefs of these kings was Solomon, endowed with God-given wisdom, and whose rule brought peace. The mother of the king also held a very special place in Israel’s thought; indeed, she appears to have had a regular official status, which in part accounts for the frequency with which the name of the mother of the king is recorded, and the importance attached to some of her actions, cf. 1 Kings 15:13 (2 Chron. 15:16); Jer. 13:18, 29:2; 2 Kings 11:3 (2 Chron. 22:12). The semi-royal state of Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, is shown in 1 Kings 2:19 where we are told that Solomon sat on is throne and set a throne for ‘the king’s mother’ at his right hand.
Now, Adonijah -- Solomon’s elder brother -- had naturally expected that the kingdom would be his on the death of his father David. Indeed, he even had his followers proclaim him king before David was yet dead. You will all remember how it was only through the intercession of Bathsheba on her son’s behalf with the aged David, and that of Nathan the prophet, that the throne actually came to Solomon. But Adonijah knew the authority and influence of the Queen Mother, and so he ... who had almost seized the throne before her son, came to Bathsheba to ask her to obtain a favour for him from Solomon: a costly favour, the hand of Abishag the Shunamite, David’s concubine. What a generous, understanding, person was Bathsheba, she was certainly no listener to courtly gossip or watcher of events taking place there! She saw nothing wrong with the request of Adonijah (!!) and so in all simplicity -- you might say, purity of heart and mind -- she approached the King, her son, on behalf of his elder, thwarted, half-brother. The King rose to meet, and bowed down, to his mother and said:
Make your request, my mother, for I will not refuse you. (1 Kings 2:19)
But on hearing the request, refuse her he did ... either because his hold on the throne was too insecure, or else because he had not the forgiving heart of his mother. But the point of the story for us is the confidence that Adonijah, of all people, the son of another wife of David and the supreme rival to Solomon for the kingship, had in the intercession of the mother of the King. His estimation of her generous character was not misplaced.
Now, all these things were, as St. Paul says, but a figure of the things to come in this Christian era. We can, indeed we most certainly should, approach Mary the Queen of Heaven with absolute confidence, for she is incomparably good; moreover, she is not only mother of the King but also our mother at the King’s behest. We need never fear that she will suffer such a refusal as Bathsheba at the hands of Our Lord and King; for the sceptre of His rule is eternally secure, none may rise against Him, and His heart is not less generous than that of His mother.
Therefore, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, let us rejoice in our Catholic privilege of being brought up to honour Our Lady fully; for to be Christian we must also be Marian, as Pope Paul VI said. Let us advance in our vocation by the light of her sublime example, and ever invoke her aid till the likeness of Christ her Son be fully formed in us, for His glory, her honour, and our salvation. Amen.