In the Lady Chapel of the church of Notre Dame du Finistère in Brussels stands a statue of our Lady holding the infant Jesus. It’s made of wood, oak, and the figure of Jesus of beech. It’s just over 4 feet 4 inches high, 134 centimetres. And the statue is venerated under the title of Our Lady of Good Success.
We know the story. The statue has been dated to the 15th c. It may have begun life in the Cathedral of St Machar in Aberdeen. At the Reformation, it was protected from destruction, and in the 17th c. shipped to the Low Countries for safe-keeping. For many years it was venerated in an Augustinian monastery in Brussels. Then came the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and more destruction. Again the statue was hidden till in 1814 it found its present site in Notre Dame du Finistère.
And this, of course, is the statue known to us as Our Lady of Good Success and Our Lady of Aberdeen. We have never been able to retrieve the original, but since the late 19th c. many copies have been made. The oldest, I think, is the one in the entrance hall of Bishop’s House. It has been there since 1895 and came by courtesy of the Sacred Heart sisters. There are other copies here: in St Peter’s down the road, Our Lady of Aberdeen, Kincorth, St Mary’s, Blairs, St John’s, Fetternear, St Nathalan’s in Ballater and St Peter’s, Buckie. There is also an icon written by Br Aidan Hart and reproduced on today’s leaflet. Tomorrow the statue from St Peter’s will be carried through the streets of St Andrews for a Mass in the ruins of the Cathedral there. New Dawn Scotland have adopted Our Lady of Aberdeen as their patroness.
We don’t worship statues. We venerate them because of who they represent. They are signs, pointers, reminders, icons, windows on heaven. They express our devotion and stimulate it. By way of this statue we venerate the mother of Jesus. We venerate her here as Our Lady of Aberdeen or Our Lady of Good Success. She is now the principal patron of the city and diocese. Her feast day is today, and has recently become a feast for all Scotland.
That we venerate this statue, tell this story, keep this feast means something. It’s a sign, first, of the rebirth of the Catholic faith in this part of the world since the 19th c. Late medieval Aberdeen was a place deeply devoted to our Lady. The cathedral in Old Aberdeen was then dedicated to St Mary as well as St Machar. What we know now as King’s College began as St Mary’s College, and the present King’s College Chapel was (and is) dedicated to our Lady in her Nativity. Bishop William Elphinstone, who died 500 years ago this year, had what’s called the Snowkirk built as the parish church of Old Aberdeen. The remains now enclose a cemetery. It was called the Snowkirk because dedicated to our Lady of the Snows, after the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. That church had captured the bishop’s heart during a visit and he wanted Aberdeen to have a smaller edition of it. Then there’s the Bridge over the River Dee, the Brig O’Dee, first built by Bishop Gavin Dunbar, Bishop Elphinstone’s successor. It’s Aberdeen’s link with the south. Again and again, attempts to bridge the Dee had failed. But Bishop Dunbar chose the right spot, as history has proved. He is said to have attributed this to Mary’s guidance. That is why there was a chapel to our Lady down by the river. And why when the church in Kincorth was built about fifty years ago, it was dedicated to our Lady of Aberdeen. Then, if you visit Provost Skene’s house and go up to the top of it, to what’s called the Painted Gallery, you will discover a series of paintings from the 17th c. which seem to represent the mysteries of the Rosary. Our Lady is prominent. And this from a time when Aberdeen was supposedly Protestant!
How deep run the currents of history and how surprisingly they can resurface! The ‘old faith’ has returned and, please God, like our ancestors we know that Christianity without Mary is somehow chilly and diminished. And this awareness has taken the form of devotion to Our Lady of Aberdeen. ‘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). She doesn’t distract us from the essential; she keeps us focussed.
But there’s something more. This statue / story / feast are a sign of God’s care for us. Through them, Christ is saying to us what he said to the beloved disciple in today’s Gospel: ‘behold your mother’. It’s so full of pathos and has such depths that scene! Jesus, certainly, is providing for his mother. He’s being a dutiful son. He’s keeping the 4th commandment, Honour your father and mother. The family was the only social security in those days. Now clearly, Joseph was dead by this time. And here is Mary’s only child dying before her eyes. No man to provide for her, then. So Jesus gives her his beloved disciple. He’s given the task of looking after Jesus’ mother. And in turn he takes her to his own home. But in the very same act Christ is providing for the disciple too. ‘Behold your mother’. This means he will be cared for too. He’s a disciple and if a disciple liable to suffer hostility for being such. He’s a disciple who’ll become a public witness, an apostle – no easy task. And so he’s given the companionship and tenderness and wisdom and holiness of the mother of Jesus. This is the disciple Jesus loved. And this gift of his mother is a sign of that love. And so it is for us. Our Lady of Aberdeen, of Good Success – this statue / story / feast – can be read as a sign Christ is looking at and loving us. He’s doing now what he did then. He’s entrusting us to one another. He’s seeing us as disciples, as witnesses and apostles. There’s a mission for us, here and now, and Mary will be beside us as we look for it and live it. ‘He took her to his own home’ – and into his heart and life. Let’s do the same: we can only be enriched and comforted and strengthened if we do.