How can Mary help us? How can she help us in our journey through life, in our Christian life? How does she help our lives towards fulfilment, happiness, heaven? Because the evidence is that she does. Surely, each of us has some story to tell in that respect. The testimonies are many. The earliest known prayer to Mary comes from more than 1800 years ago, and it’s a cry for help: ‘We fly to your protection, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our needs, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.’ This is what she does. She is Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the Help of Christians. The testimonies are many. They come from the campesinos of Latin America, suffering under callous landowners. They come from the Christians suffering under Islamist terror in the Middle East. They come from the Christians of China denied their religious freedom. They come from believers undergoing the consequences of natural disasters. The testimonies are many. They come out of the hardships and joys of ordinary life – from the whole of Christian history, from all human sorts and all human conditions. ‘By her motherly love, said the 2nd Vatican Council, she cares for the brothers and sisters of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home’ (LG 62). This is the experience. The presence of Mary in our minds, hearts, prayer is like a relief, a refreshment, a cleanness, a lightening of the atmosphere. It’s as if what people so often experience at her shrines, in Lourdes or Loreto or Czestochowa or Walsingham or Fatima or Guadalupe or Sheshan in China, or what we feel on her feast days, carries into daily life whenever we remember her. And we want to share this experience too. We, here and now, we Christians in the north of Scotland in the second decade of the 21st c. How may Mary help us now? How can she help us in our Christian life, in our pilgrimage to the house of the Father?
Let’s see if we can find an answer in the readings. Surely, the Gospel gives it. “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, ‘Happy the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked!’ But he replied, ‘Still happier are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’” This wasn’t putting his mother down. He was saying, ‘I’ll tell you what I really love about my Mum. Sure, she carried me for nine months. Sure, she fed me at her breast. I can’t be grateful enough. But in and beyond all of that, there’s something more. There’s a greater blessedness – a continuing blessedness that didn’t stop once I could feed myself and walk on my own two legs, a blessedness you can share too. My mother heard the word of God and kept it.’ Only one woman could be Jesus’ biological mother, but all of us, men, women, children can do this: can hear the word of God and keep it. All of us can share that blessing, that beatitude. It is the Christian life in a phrase. It’s the whole Bible: hear the word and keep it. The whole of Mary. The whole of our faith. ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’
So here is one way – perhaps the first way, the basic way – Mary can help us, here and now. She lived in the truth, at the heart of the Gospel, and brings us back to that, recalls us, again and again, to the essential. She re-focusses us. She heard the word of God and kept it.
Our God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a God who has, as it were, stepped out of his mystery, out of his transcendence, out of his silence and “spoken”. ‘God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.’ God said, “Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves”’. And so it was. ‘Male and female he created them’. And ‘God blessed them, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it’. He said to them. The God who speaks had made someone he could speak with, who could speak back to him, who could hear the word and keep it. So the Old Testament begins. And how does the greatest Gospel of the New begin? ‘In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’ We know how it goes on: ‘The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory.’ ‘And to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.’ And how does the First Letter of John begin? ‘Something which has existed since the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have watched and touched with our own hands, the Word of life – this is our theme.’ How does the Letter to the Hebrews begin? ‘At many times in the past and in many different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in our time, the final days, he has spoken to us in his Son.’ ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ That was the vocation of Israel, and Mary brought it to perfection. The angel was sent to her with a word of God, and she said, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.’ She conceived the Word. She gave him flesh. She watched him, she touched him, she heard him, she saw him, she kept him. She treasured what the shepherds said at his birth and pondered it in her heart. She remembered what Simeon said about the sign of contradiction and the sword for her heart. She kept the words of her 12 year old son and stored them in her heart. She told the disciples at Cana, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ She kept her station at the Cross, and she heard her Son’s dying words and took the beloved disciple into her heart. And she hears our words too, our cries, our needs, and she keeps them and us in her heart. ‘That’s what I so love about her,’ says Jesus, and what I love to see in you.
How can Mary help us? Here’s one way at least. Recently, the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas received an honorary doctorate at the University of Aberdeen. His speech was simple: ‘Do not lie!’ How blessed if, Mary-like, we can be a people who don’t lie, but hear the word of God and keep it.
A people who love Scripture, read the Gospels, ponder on them, always finding new things.
A people who give the obedience of faith to the Word of God carried through the centuries by the Church, who try to believe, want to believe.
A people in whom the word of God is alive and active, hollowing out a humble and contrite heart and taking flesh in more and more of what we do and say.
A people who carry God’s word in our conscience as a personal gift, a light for our steps, a personal call calling for faithfulness.
A people who don’t give in to every political correctness or latest fashion, but are nourished by this secret manna from heaven.
A people whose faith is not a stick to beat others, who don’t keep it for themselves, but as a treasure for others, as light and salt, as Jesus himself.
A people in whom the word goes back to God as praise and eucharist, like Mary’s Magnificat.
A people in whom Mary sees herself: hearing the word of God and keeping.
(Pluscarden Abbey, Sunday, 25 June 2017)