Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB homily at online Mass for the 7th Sunday of Easter:
I’d like to focus on today’s 1st reading, and on one element of it. It follows from what we heard on Thursday. Today we see the apostles coming down the Mount of Olives, from where Jesus had ascended, re-entering the city and making their way to the Upper Room. They were staying there, says the reading. It was their “pad”, their base. It’s tempting to call it their Jerusalem penthouse, being an Upper Room. There they engage in serious prayer, with the women, with Mary the mother of Jesus and with Jesus’ “brethren”. Jesus, on parting, had told them to “wait” in Jerusalem “for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), the Holy Spirit. They interpreted that “waiting” as praying. And there they remain until the feast of Pentecost – perhaps some nine or ten days later –when the promise is fulfilled and their prayers are answered. We keep Pentecost next Sunday.
The reading gives a vivid glimpse of these first disciples. This is “the first Church”, the first gathering of believers for prayer. They are our spiritual forefathers and mothers. They’re the cell from which the body has grown.
And there is “Mary, the mother of Jesus”. It can’t be by chance that she’s there and that she’s mentioned. And I don’t think she’s there as an add-on, or an “also ran”. In Eastern icons of the Ascension and of Pentecost, she is often set in the very middle of the apostles and the others, the central figure after Christ and the Holy Spirit. So, here is the first “cell” of the Church, and at the nucleus of it is our Lady – “in the heart of the Church”, “in the midst of the assembly” (Ps 22:22).
Think of a courtyard and in the middle of the courtyard a well. And from that well, the household draws clean, refreshing water. That is what it must have felt like for this first Christian “household”, with Mary there. This is what it can be for us, especially in this month of May, especially as we wait for Pentecost.
What did her presence bring? Let’s explore this a little.
I think the first thing would just have been joy. Our Lord’s Ascension had conveyed that anyway (cf. Luke 24:52). Where there’s sin, there’s sadness, and in Mary’s there’s no sin. And therefore there’s joy. There’s a transmission of joy. Regina caeli, laetare! “He has risen as he said!” This comes to her and is passed on; we talk of “infectious” joy. If you go to the great Marian shrines – Guadalupe or Lourdes or Walsingham or Medjugorje – you can sense it, something positive in the atmosphere, light and uplifting. So it must have been in that Upper Room. So for us whenever we invite Mary into our own community.
Then, mustn’t there have been something very reassuring about her presence? Salve radix, salve porta! “Hail, Root; hail, Gate.” Mary was the gate through whom the Lord entered the world. She’s the root – the daughter of Israel – from whom he sprang. And her presence must have rooted that early community. Mary went back to the beginning. She’s the only person in the Gospels who’s there at the beginning – her son’s conception – and the end – his death, and now, after the Resurrection and Ascension. She’s the one with the longest memory. She had had the treasure in her heart and been pondering more than 30 years. She knew her baby in a mother’s way. She knew the growing boy. She knew every bend in the road of his life, as it were. She saw him go out on his mission. She’d witnessed the joyful beginning, water into wine. She had noticed everything, been baffled by many things, hurt by some, other times so full of pride and delight. And she’d been at the foot of the Cross. What she hadn’t seen firsthand – she had had to stand back – she’d have garnered from Peter and the others. She wouldn’t have a let a crumb of it fall on the ground. In my own family, it was my mother who kept the family photos. The Gospels have been called the “memoirs of the apostles.” But before the written memoirs, there’s memory, and her memory – full, deep, intimate. Her presence in that room was like an anchor for the others. In St Luke’s mind – from the Annunciation on – she is the first believer, the first disciple. And she’s still there. And she’s still the one – in the heart of the Church of heaven and earth, in the midst of the assembly – who has this whole memory, this insight, this love of her Son. After Pentecost, she would understand even better and she would share, with Luke and John, for example. And when we say the Rosary, we are surely tapping in to her memory, walking with her through Jesus’ life.
So she’s there as joy. She’s there as memory. And she’s there as unity too. In how many households, isn’t it the mother who holds things together? Peter is there, of course. He’s the leader, the rock, the shepherd, and so on. But that kind of authority needs a complement, something motherly. And Mary provides it. It’s a motley crew in that Upper Room. It’s significant that Jesus’ “brothers” are there. It is an article of the Catholic faith that Mary did not have other children after Jesus; so, as has long been said, these were probably cousins, part of Jesus’ wider, extended family. We know the names of some of them. We know that after his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to one of them – James, his “brother” (1 Cor 15:7; not the two apostles of that name). But this wider family had had major difficulties in coming to terms with their “crazy” cousin (cf. Mk 3:21). And now they are there, with the others. They are on board. They are now part of Jesus’ spiritual family as well. And surely Mary was there to integrate them. Still today, if Mary is allowed in, she’ll bring together. Love of Mary is one of the great bonds between us Catholics and those Eastern Christians not yet in full communion with us: well over 300 million of them: the Orthodox, the Copts, Ethiopians, Syrian Christians, Armenians and so on. We all venerate her, feast her, pray to her. In Lebanon, further still, since 2010, the 25th March, the Annunciation, has been a national holiday, deliberately chosen because it could be marked by both Muslims and Christians – sometimes even side by side in Marian shrines. I ask her too now that she hold us together as the Church, as go through and come out of this pandemic.
In the Church of all times and all places, Mary brings joy, Mary roots us in the memory of Jesus, Mary creates unity among believers. And lastly, with the Eleven, and the women, and the wider family of Jesus, Mary prays for the “promise of the Father”, the coming of the Holy Spirit. This praying was a firm and peaceful hoping. It was “waiting”, as Jesus had asked his disciples to do. As a young woman Mary had shared Israel’s waiting for the Messiah. As pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she waited for her child to come to full term. When he left home, she waited for the upshot. On Holy Saturday, she waited for the Father to answer the cry of her dying son. And now, in the heart of the Church, she waits for the promise of the Father, the coming of the Holy Spirit. She can teach us to wait now – hoping and praying and never despairing of mercy, waiting for the many, many things we all hope for, waiting for the Kingdom of God to come. She can help us wait, too, for public worship to be restored.
May is her month. Pentecost falls on the 31st May this year. The Holy Father has encouraged us to pray the Rosary at home these May days. With Mary in our own upper rooms, with Mary in the heart of the Church, with Mary joyful, remembering, uniting, waiting, let’s pray together for the coming of the Spirit of God.