Homily for New Dawn Conference

Isn’t it good to be here? Isn’t it good to have expressed our love of Mary so publicly? And how delighted I am that New Dawn Scotland should have chosen Our Lady of Aberdeen as their patron!

Today we honour Mary as Mother of the Church. This is the Mass we are saying. And today’s readings have just given us two pictures of Mary. Two snapshots. One from John from the foot of the Cross, the other from Luke in the Upper Room. One as Jesus is dying, the other in the wake of his Ascension. Two moments with only six weeks of historical time between them, but what a six weeks! And these are the last two pictures that the Bible gives us of Mary’s life. In the first Mary is given her spiritual motherhood and in the second we see her exercising it.

Mary is really the first Christian, and the most unconditional. If we go back to her Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), she’s the first human being to be evangelised. It was the first proclamation of the Gospel the angel brought her. She’s the first person to enter into conscious relationships with the three persons of the Trinity: she is told by the messenger of God the Father that by the power of the Holy Spirit she will become the mother of the Son of the most High. And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word’ (Lk 1:38). So she became the mother of the Lord, and the first human being to know the Word made flesh. She knew him – she came to know him – better than anyone else. As mother of a baby and a little boy, she’d have known every nook and cranny of his body, every mannerism, every expression of his face. St Thomas Aquinas says somewhere, ‘mothers are the greatest lovers.’ And there was never any mother so capable of loving, so ego-free as Mary. And there was never a child so divinely and humanly lovable. So here was the mutual love of the two holiest people imaginable – pure love at white heat. What must have been the intensity of Mary’s bond with her Son! But the greater the love, the greater the potential for suffering. And as her son becomes a man and begins his public life, the opposition mounts. How Mary must have felt that! Mary loved her people too, loved ‘Israel his servant’ (Lk 1:54), God’s chosen people, and she could see Israel’s representatives rejecting grace in person. Even he seemed to turn his back on her too. And so she remembered what Simeon had said: ‘a sword will pierce your own heart too’ (Lk 2:35). Perhaps as she stood under the cross, it looked like a sword to her, piercing her son and piercing her heart. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment. It was reserved for the lowest of the low, for slaves who had broken the law. It was known to be the most painful form of execution. In polite Greco-Roman society, it was never even mentioned. And for a Jew it was even worse. Because of a text in Deuteronomy, it was taken to be a sign of being accursed by God. So here is her son, her only son, her beloved son, the son she shared with God the Father, here he is in physical agony, in the utmost social degradation, apparently rejected by God. And Mary, with her sister and Mary Magdalene – three Marys – stood watching this, looking on the one who was pierced. And the words of Zechariah must have rung in Mary’s heart: ‘They shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born son’ (Zech 12:10). What an abyss of suffering must have opened up inside her! The greatest suffering after her son’s, all interwoven with his. The Book of Lamentations, those poems on the devastation of Jerusalem six centuries before Christ, are a kind of anticipation:

‘What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem?   What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion?

For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can restore you?’ (Lam 2:13).

And Jesus on the Cross, says the Gospel, ‘saw’ her. Heart spoke to heart. Out of his own suffering he saw hers. Their suffering was like a bridge joining them. And in the same look, he also ‘saw’ the disciple he loved. He saw him ‘standing beside her.’ And whenever Jesus ‘sees’ or looks, something will happen. And so here. He gives each of them a word. He asks each of them to look at the other. So he says to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son’ and to the disciple ‘behold your mother’. He gives them new eyes. He makes them see each other in a new way, as mother and son. He gives his mother another son and he gives the disciple his very own mother. He looks at them, speaks to them, and changes their relationships to each other. He looks at them together, speaks to them individually and changes who they are. It is an extraordinary moment. Pope Francis put it well in Evangelii Gaudium: ‘These words of the dying Jesus are not chiefly the expression of his devotion and concern for his mother; rather, they are a revelatory formula which manifests the mystery of a special saving mission’ (285).Mary, at the very moment her first motherhood is being shattered, is given a second motherhood. Her motherhood ‘according to the flesh’ is being lifted into the realm of the spirit. At the very moment her heart is broken, it’s enlarged. It’s enlarged by Christ’s words. It’s expanded to receive the beloved disciple. At the end of John’s Gospel we learn that this disciple ‘will remain until [Jesus] comes’ (Jn 21:22). He remains in all the beloved disciples of history. And therefore Mary’s motherhood remains, and expands. Under the Cross, Mary – the Woman par excellence – becomes the new Eve. She becomes the mother of ‘all who live’ (Gen 3:20) in the love of Christ, like that disciple. She becomes mother not only of Christ but of all who belong to him by faith and love, potentially therefore of everyone. She was the first to believe and carry Christ, the Church in person, and now she receives ‘the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus’ (Rev 12:17). She becomes mother of the Church. And what a Psalm prophesied of Jerusalem became true in her:

‘Of you are told glorious things,

O city of God!

“Babylon and Egypt I will count

Among those who know me;

Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia,

These will be her children

And Sion shall be called ‘Mother’

For all shall be her children”’

(Ps 86:3-5).

Out of the suffering of Christ come the blood and water of redemption. Out of the suffering of Christ comes the Resurrection. And out of the suffering of Mary comes her spiritual motherhood. It embraces all of us. This motherhood in the order of grace, said Vatican II, ‘continues until the fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she has not lain aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her motherly charity, 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’ (Lumen Gentium 62).

Then in the other reading, the first (Acts 1:12-14), we have a glimpse of what this motherhood means. We are now in the days after the Ascension and before Pentecost. Christ has risen. His followers are gathered together in the Upper Room, doing what he said, remaining in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit would come.  They were the New Dawn, in a way, waiting for God’s daylight, and the conversion of the nations. There are the eleven disciples, the women, Mary, Jesus’ brethren (meaning not blood-brothers, but kinsmen, relatives). And what they do is ‘join in continuous prayer’, persevere in prayer. They pray for the promise of the Father, for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The ascended Jesus is interceding in heaven before his Father for the very same thing. And here is the Church on earth, the first Christian community, joining in his continuous prayer. And at the heart of that prayer for the Spirit is Mary. Often representations of Pentecost show the apostles sitting together with the tongues of fire above them, and Mary in the middle. Surely that’s right.

‘With the Holy Spirit, to quote Pope Francis again, Mary is always present in the midst of the people. She joined the disciples in praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit and thus made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost. She is the Mother of the Church which evangelises, and without her we could never truly understand the spirit of the new evangelisation’ (EG 284). Mary and the Church, Mary and the other disciples, can never be separated.

Here is Mary’s motherhood in action. And that action is first and foremost prayer. It is prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit and all that will flow from that.

‘I consider it impossible then, wrote Bl. John Henry Newman, for those who believe the Church to be one vast body in heaven and on earth, in which every holy creature of God has his place, and of which prayer is the life, when once they recognize the sanctity and dignity of the Blessed Virgin, not to perceive immediately, that her office above is one of perpetual intercession for the faithful militant, and that our very relation to her must be that of clients to a patron, and that, in the eternal enmity which exists between the woman and the serpent, while the serpent’s strength lies in being the Tempter, the weapon of the Second Eve and Mother of God is prayer’ (Letter to Pusey).

Who, of all the people in the Upper Room, had the first, the longest, the most intimate memories of Jesus? It was Mary surely. She’s the only disciple to have known him all the way from his conception to his Ascension. As Mother of the Church, she keeps the Church grounded in that memory of Christ.

And if she was able to turn the stable in Bethlehem into a home for Jesus, just with swaddling clothes and love, what must her presence have done for the Upper Room? It’s she who can make our parishes and prayer groups and communities real expressions of the Church as mother, places of welcome, warmth and wisdom.

Leave Christianity to the theologians, and it will become an ideology, abstractions. Leave it to Churchmen, and it will become a business, forever in search of an unattainable efficiency. Leave it to all of us, it will – in the current climate – become a slush, niceness, social work with a little Christian custard on top.

Mary saves us from all this. Mary keeps our Christianity real, personal, warm, mindful, prayerful, bright, clear, unfudged, centred on Christ. Christianity is Christ: God giving himself. And Christianity, we can also say, is Mary: the gift received. And Mary is the beginning and the heart and the mother of the Church, of the community of believers.

‘Having entered deeply into the history of salvation,’ said Vatican II, ‘Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith; and when she is the subject of preaching and honour she prompts the faithful to come to her Son, to his sacrifice and to the love of the Father’ (LG 65).

So let’s try to be beloved disciples: making a place for Mary in our homes, in our hearts, in our lives

To end with Pope Francis: ‘At the foot of the Cross, at the supreme hour of the new creation, Christ led us to Mary. He brought us to her because he did not want us to journey without a mother’ (EG 285). We don’t!

St Andrews, 10 July 2014


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122