Reflection for August 14, 2022
Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, translated from August 15
Lawrence N. DiCostanzo
Psalm 34 or 34:1-9
Today is the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, but we are celebrating the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, which is actually on the church calendar for tomorrow August 15. August 15 was chosen as the feast day because it is the day on which the Mother of Jesus has been honored for about 1600 or 1700 years.
It is hard to come to terms with Saint Mary the Virgin. I think the reason is that we do not really think about sainthood anymore. We’ve lost the knack of figuring out what saints are. So, we give the mother of Jesus a kind of nondescript name – “Saint Mary the Virgin” – we recite Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat, yet again, and, having done our duty, we move on .
But if we take seriously the line in the Apostles’ Creed about the “communion of saints,” we have to reclaim the idea of sainthood. We can start on this in two ways. First, we can consider how Mary is, in fact, the one most exceptionally important human in the history of our salvation. Second, we have to begin to see ourselves saints.
Mary has a number of names that relate her to us a little better than “Saint Mary the Virgin.” She is also known as Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Blessed Mother, and, in the Orthodox Church, the “God Bearer”. Throughout history, she has been an inspiration. For example, there are the great cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame. And the marvelous Salisbury Cathedral in England is formally known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Mary has also has inspired warmth. I think here of the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, to the intensity of Lourdes, to the impromptu shrine here in the USA at the corner of Platform Bridge Road and the Point Reyes Petaluma Highway in Marin. The shrine has not one, but two statues of Mary and it’s crowded to bursting with plastic and real flowers.
And Mary is deeply and naturally connected with Jesus. My mother automatically made the connection without thinking. When I told her that my daughter was pregnant with her first child, she said, “May her baby be as pure and beautiful as Our Blessed Mother’s.” The point is that Mary was wrapped in a beautiful marvel: She gave birth to Jesus and was therefore the instrument of the Incarnation. God chose her particularly, and he chose regular pregnancy, hard labor, the messiness of birth, and motherhood to come into direct contact with us.
If you think about it, Mary is, in fact, the great woman of the Bible. She is actually the greatest solely human person of the Bible. Well, I daresay that she might be the greatest of all people. Just read over today’s amazing collect: “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son . . .” And, so, maybe August 15, should be International Women’s Day.
Mary’s experiences blend with our experiences. That is, she makes us think about our own sainthood. Let’s start with the idea of the Call. In his Gospel, from the narrative of the Annunication, to the Visitation, to the Presentation in the Temple, and beyond, Luke, to my mind, is comparing and contrasting Mary with the great people of the Bible and how they responded to God’s call to each of them. I am looking at three men of the Bible here. They are Abraham who is really the father of us all, and Moses and the prophet Elijah who both appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration.
Each of these men reacted to God’s call in different ways. Abraham simply believed and then fretted and worried for years about getting a son. Moses was dragged kicking and screaming to do the job God wanted him to do and then took up an immense administrative task that consumed his life 24/7. Elijah kept on responding and standing up for God through deep exhaustion and fear and depression. (Genesis 12:1-5 and 15:1-6; Exodus 3:1 – 4:14; 1Kings 19:3-9)
In her call, Mary seems remarkably wide awake when the angel comes to her. She listens and then she asks the relevant and very practical question about sex and conception. When she got the answer – about the Holy Spirit – she was satisfied. She said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” but in our terms she way saying, “OK. Let’s do it.”
But. like us, Mary and Abraham and Moses and Elijah had to do a lot more than be present when called. They also had to endure. After the Visitation and the Magnificat, Mary ended up giving birth in a stable. And I am guessing that she did not have a proper midwife and that the stable was not exactly like the crèches in our churches at Christmas. She – and Joseph, too; let’s be fair – shared the labor of parenthood as Jesus grew in wisdom and grace. (Luke 2:40) At the Presentation in The Temple, Simeon makes sure that Mary realizes that her baby will be a source of sorrow for her, that a sword will pierce her heart. (Luke 2:33-35) Unbelievably and ghastly, she is at the Crucifixion of her own son. Can we imagine? And Jesus expresses his love and concern for her by making sure that John takes her as his mother. (John 19:25-27) She is present with the apostles after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:14) and by inference at Pentecost when she must have received the Holy Spirit for a second time. (Acts 2:1-3)
So, what about our own sainthood? How do we and Mary share companionship?
Well, we all have received a call. It seems to be always occurring. It is right in front of our eyes and right in our ears at least every Sunday. It’s in the messages of the Gospels and the appearance of the Kingdom. We can hear it in the situations we face every day – the grocery clerk, the other people in the line, the person who is hogging the ranger’s time at a national park. I venture to say that each of us in quiet moments or when we pause for a second have felt it in our hearts, in our very bones.
And, guess what? Each of us has already answered the call. That is why we are sitting where we are right now.
Our calls are individualized and special to each of us. No matter where we fit in the spectrum of the great calls of the Bible, no matter how we’d like to compare ourselves, we each have our own calls because we have our own lives. And the call of Mary was her call, not ours. But we definitely share with her the difficulty of living on earth.
In company with Mary, we saints do not have easy lives. We have to endure pain, sorrow, and fear. We feel sometimes that God is not present. We can even have our moments of peevishness, our moments of nastiness. I suggest that the challenge of living is the real context of the Magnificat which we heard again in today’s Gospel reading. Mary is speaking or singing or prophesying in the first flush of her happiness. But shortly afterwards, she is told that a sword will pierce her heart. And later on she goes on to witness her child’s crucifixion. We saints do not have easy lives.
Yet, I think that the Magnificat remained the foundation of Mary’s life. She knows that God is with her or at least she feels he was with her at one time. And she must have said the Magnificat over and over throughout her life, sometimes just to get through things – My soul magnifies the Lord, I am chosen, I am called, I am special. I am loved. And so we should hold hard onto her song in our own sainthood. Because sainthood is when we grab at and hold onto the mystery, the paradox of Love. Jesus, help us in all our trials and our joys. Help us find you in our hearts and in our bones. O Mary, be our companion in faith. Amen.