“Woman, behold, your son” (Jn 19:26).
On the Cross, our Lord gave to his mother the disciple he loved, the one closest to him. In doing that, he opened the gates of her heart. He gave her a second, wider, universal motherhood. He made her mother, not just of one man, however dear, but of all disciples, of “all who belong to Christ”. He established her as a new Eve, “mother of all the living”, of all who live by his Holy Spirit.
And in keeping this feast of our Lady of Aberdeen, our Lady of Good Success, our Lady of Good Succour, it’s this motherhood we celebrate: a motherhood “in the order…in the economy of grace”, as Vatican II puts it (Lumen Gentium 61, 62), a motherhood in the Spirit, her motherhood in the Church, her motherhood of us who are the Church, of the life of Christ her son within us and among us. The disciple is told: “Behold, your Mother”. Look at her, recognise her, acknowledge her. Accept her motherhood. There’s so much “seeing” in that scene by the Cross. Jesus “saw” his mother standing there and the disciple he loved”, and he called on her to see her new son and bade him see his new mother. A triangle of vision. And open to us.
In spring, in May or early June, we celebrate the solemnity of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the Birthday of the Church. The day after, we now keep the memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church. And then as we enter the verdant, warm, fruitful time of the year, different calendars offer us a variety of Marian feasts: Our Lady of Perpetual Help on 27th June, Our Lady of Consolation on 4th July, Our Lady, Mother of Providence in some communities today, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 16th July. It seems like needless multiplication. But these different feasts and titles are the scattered evidence, as it were – scattered through time and place in the hearts of believers – of one single reality: of Mary’s spiritual motherhood. Just as summer unfolds itself in many ways, in greenness and flowers and fruit and grain, so likewise the motherhood of Mary – in many titles and places and stories and feasts.
In the warmth we relax, and we can relax into the warmth of Mary.
Fathers can sometimes be remote, caught up in their work or their public life; but the trademark of a mother is being close. Close biologically, physically, especially at the beginning of her child’s life, but close personally, biographically, often for the whole of life. Our own sense of self, of being the individual we are, is mysteriously tied up with our sense of having a mother and with our mother’s sense of us. The beloved disciple – John – was an insightful man, and when he hears Jesus say to him, “Behold, your mother”, he “took her to his own home”. He lives henceforth under the same roof as her, physically close to her and she to him. But he takes her, the Bible literally says, “into his own”. He allows her to become part of his personal life, to be spiritually, biographically close to him. He allows himself to be seen and watched and understood by her, to be cherished and “grown” by her. He lets the motherhood she had lived in relation to Jesus continue, extend and expand itself into a motherhood towards himself. Out of that closeness of Mary, I believe, there came in time the Gospel of the beloved disciple, the Gospel we call the Gospel of John, a Gospel that takes us so close to the inmost essence of Jesus.
Today’s feast, then, invites us into this kind of connection – closeness – with Mary.
And strangely the link of our Lady of Aberdeen with her statue, an image, is part of the same thing. From the 2nd century the Church has venerated pictures, icons, images of our Lord, his mother, angels and saints. In the 8th and 9th centuries, in the movement called Iconoclasm and again at the Reformation, there were violent reactions against this. Indeed, that’s why the original statue of our Lady of Aberdeen had to be bundled away to the Continent and is where it is now in Brussels. It’s why some of our former medieval Cathedrals and abbeys are in ruins or, if still whole, are stripped and bleak. But the Church has always upheld the practice of creating, using and honouring images. We are not fixated on them in themselves; we don’t “worship” them. But as the 2nd Council of Nicaea said in the 8th c, and the Council of Trent repeated in the 16th, the honour we show an image or a statue passes on, “transitions”, to the person it represents. And why, why, would our Christianity be painfully impoverished were all this art and devotion swept away? Because the Word has become flesh, has “come to his own”. And the art of the Church can be a vehicle of this closeness. He has entered our world, and our world is material and physical as well as spiritual and invisible. And we are creatures of flesh and blood, made of bodily stuff, and seeing and smelling and feeling the material things around us. “God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.” And so, as Nicaea II said, we don’t “detract” from this beauty. We allow the images of Christ, our Lady, the angels and saints, to help us “remember and long for” what, for whom they bring close to us, God incarnate touching our lives. (Cf. Definition of Nicaea II). We are back to closeness. We are back to motherhood. In 1531, in Mexico, St Juan Diego heard Mary say, “Do not fear this illness… or any suffering. Am I not here, I who am your mother?” Those last words are written over the entrance to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. 1531, by the way, was the year Bishop Gavin Dunbar of Aberdeen died, the bishop most linked to our Lady of Aberdeen. In its own way, our statue too says, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?”
It’s true too, isn’t it, that the story of the statue echoes the history of our faith in Scotland since the 16th c? The statue went into exile, as the faith and our Church did too in relation to mainstream Scottish society. And there in many ways we remain, marginal, with new forms of banishment always emerging. At the same time, though, that original statue has, since the 19th c, been reproduced and brought back, been set up in this Cathedral and elsewhere. And now, thanks to Archbishop Mario conti, the feast has been extended to all of Scotland and, too, the image honoured at the New Dawn Conference created. Awareness of our Lady of Aberdeen has passed beyond this diocese. There are meanings and messages here. The narrative of decline we keep grinding out is not the whole story. Mary walks with us through our history; she stays close to us. And she’s inviting us now, not to hunker down in the past or be resigned to irrelevance, but to find new forms to express and live our faith, to create new outposts of prayer and make fresh efforts of outreach. A new dawn.
“Behold your mother.” Today we remember the motherhood of Mary. Her fruitful summerhood. Her closeness. Her closeness to Christ, closeness to us. The closeness to God she longs for us to share.
St John Paul II once said, “The history of every human being passes over the threshold of a woman’s motherhood” (Mulieris Dignitatem 19). It’s thanks to the courage and love of the woman that this threshold is crossed, not without pain. May our Christian history pass through the threshold of Mary’s motherhood. May her love and courage help us cross the thresholds facing us, and we be born anew in faith and love.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 9 July 2021
Also for participants in the New Dawn Conference