By Connie Cissell
Queen of mercy
Queen of peace
Queen of angels
Queen of patriarchs and prophets
Queen of apostles and martyrs
Queen of confessors and virgins
Queen of all saints
Queen conceived without original sin
Queen assumed into heaven
Queen of all the earth
Queen of heaven
Queen of the universe
The Catholic Church’s exalted place reserved for Mary, Mother of God, is extraordinary. It is through her many apparitions that the modern world has come to know her. Although she is seldom mentioned in the Bible, except in the Gospel telling of the birth of Jesus and the explanation of some miraculous events, Mary’s role in the life of the church is integral. If it were not for Mary’s faith, she wouldn’t or couldn’t have given birth to the Savior. She is at once a simple and complex individual — there is Mary and Jesus as mother and child, and Mary as the Mother of the Universal Church. She is an advocate and, especially for women, a companion on their journey.
The Gospels explain events surrounding Jesus’ birth and his early years. Who else would be better equipped to translate those events than his mother? Mary must have played an evangelical role as she was the witness to the major events of Jesus’ life. Imagine a mother sitting with her son’s close friends and reminiscing about their life as a young family. Would that aspect have been any different for the Holy Family than it is today? The Gospels were Jesus’ disciples telling of the history of his life and they likely did this to reveal the story to the faith communities that existed at the time.
History and customs of that biblical time period tell us that Mary was likely a young teenager when she became betrothed to Joseph. At the time, being “betrothed” signified a period of engagement meaning Mary would have been Joseph’s fiance when she agreed to be the mother of Jesus.
Later, artistic renderings would show scenes like the annunciation depicted with flowing garments, a beautiful setting with marble and other accouterments. It is likely however, that Mary would have been leading an ordinary life helping her family and working hard like the rest of the young women of her time. One of the most extraordinary parts of Mary’s story is her acceptance of God’s will for her life and her compelling the rest of us to live as one human family.
According to Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph, Pope Paul IV did much to highlight the importance of understanding to Mary at time when media, culture and sociological issues were beginning to paint tradition as outdated and irrelevant. Pope Paul wrote in his apostolic letter Marialis Cultus, “…she is held up as an example for the way in which, in her own particular life, she fully and responsibly accepted God’s will (Lk 1:38), because she heard the Word of God and acted on it, and because charity and a spirit of service were the driving force of her actions. She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples.”
Although the nature of Mary and her relationship to the world was largely defined in a patriarchal view, modern women have gone beyond this image of Mary. Clearly today’s women can identify with Mary on many levels. She is not only the ideal woman, but she is a sister, someone who understands what it means to struggle with poverty, sickness, raising a child and watching that child grow and also the excruciating pain of loss at Jesus’ death on the cross. On the other hand, women can also relate to Mary as a woman of deep faith and spirituality who did indeed abide by God’s will for her life and was filled with joy because of that obedience.
A simple and beautiful message regarding Mary can be found in Henri Nouwen’s little book, Jesus & Mary: Find Our Sacred Center. The book is actually a homily from Father Nouwen and it was written at a time when he first discovered his own connection with Mary, the Mother of the Child Jesus. Nouwen wrote that when Jesus said to his disciple John, “Behold, your mother,” he gave Mary to us.
“We need Mary to find our way to the joy and peace of the children of God,” Nouwen wrote.
He describes the seriousness and intentness that pervades people today. What Mary does is to bring that child-like love into our lives. All the preoccupations about the church and the future of the world can lead us to carry a heavy sadness, Nouwen said. This sadness prevents people from experiencing the peace and joy that comes from being a child of God.
“You know as well as I that when our words are full of warnings, our eyes full of fears, our bodies full of unfulfilled needs, and our actions full of distrust, we cannot expect ever to create around us a community that shines as a light in the darkness,” Nouwen said in his published homily. “Jesus has given her to us so that she can guide us as we try to shake off our sadness and open the way to true inner peace,” Nouwen continued.
While Mary lived out God’s will for her life and was the vessel of the baby Jesus, she also experienced incredible anguish. She has two very human experiences that are timeless — she helped create human life and she was there when that life was taken away. Mary’s example shows the world that one experiences true joy and glory in God and at the same time experiences suffering and sorrow.
Nouwen explains this deep lesson by calling to mind the pieta — Mary holding the broken body of her Son.
“There we can see our vocation to open our own arms to those who suffer and to let them discover that, in communion with Jesus, they can live their anguish without losing their peace,” Nouwen wrote.
The many apparitions of Mary validated by the church continuously bring her closer to the human family. By her consistent message of love, she brings the whole world together.