by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“When the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s sons and daughters.” Galatians 4: 4-5
We Christians honour Mary because of the unique role she played in the story of God’s love for humanity. While we have come to apply to her many titles, arguably the greatest compliment paid to her came from Jesus himself while he was speaking to a large crowd. A message was passed to him that his mother and other relatives were outside and wanted to catch up with him. (see Matthew 12: 46-50) Then, looking over the heads of the crowd in front of him, Jesus used the interruption to ask a rhetorical question which he immediately answered: “But who are my mother, my brother, my sister? It is the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Some have incorrectly interpreted this as a reprimand to his mother and relatives for interrupting him. Rather it was a glowing compliment in which Jesus stated that Mary’s greatness lay not in the fact that she was his birth mother, but in her unwavering adherence to everything that God had asked of her. Nobody has been Mary’s equal when it comes to listening to God’s word and acting on it. The message, of course, for all of us is to direct our attention to developing a listening heart to the Gospel of Jesus.
The start of a new year has long been associated with our being encouraged to stop and reflect on resolutions we might make to rid our lives of habits and practices that are physically, emotionally and morally detrimental. We are encouraged to make alterations to the ways in which we live and relate, so that we will do better at respecting ourselves and all those around us. The Church helps us to do this by holding up to us Mary as a model worthy of imitation. That’s why the liturgical celebration at the start of the calendar year is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. It invites us, in imitation of Mary, to integrate into our lives the things of God.
In the course of history, we Catholics have demonstrated a tendency to err in the direction of over-sentimentalising our devotion to Mary. We have turned her into the essence of nurturance, full of sweetness and gentleness, ever ready to advocate for us with her Son. I don’t want to deny that those are some of Mary’s qualities. But, at the same time, it is important that we don’t overlook the fact that she was a normal woman, toughened by the experiences of living under the rule of foreigners who had occupied the land into which she was born and in which she grew up. She was hardened by having to witness, without protest, the way in which the Son she had loved into life was disregarded, then labelled as a threat to religious and civil stability and, finally, unjustly tortured and executed. Earlier, she had witnessed the slaughter of countless babies done to death by a deranged king who saw in infants a potential threat to his position and power. She endured, with her husband Joseph, life as refugees in a strange country in order to protect their son. Bitter experience had toughened her and, at the same time, had taught her compassion and given her an ability to reach out to others who had experienced grief and trauma similar to hers. So, she was there to encourage and guide the small group of disciples who, we are told, gathered in fear mixed with hope in the Upper Room before the first Pentecost. First among equals, she earned the title as the first and foremost disciple of Jesus. As a model for our discipleship, we need not look beyond Mary.
At the end of May 2021, Pope Francis spoke of his devotion to Mary under the title of “Undoer of Knots”. He told of how he had discovered in a church in Augsburg in the 1980s a painting done by the German Baroque artist, Johann Schmidtner (circa 1700). It seems that the painting had been inspired by a treatise on faith written by St Irenaeus fifteen hundred years earlier. In the course of that treatise, Irenaeus had written: “Mary, the Virgin is found to be obedient, saying: ‘Behold, O Lord, your handmaid. Be it done to me according to your word.’ Eve, however, was disobedient; and, when yet a virgin, she did not obey…Having become disobedient, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also, Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race… Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses. – Against Heresies). When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he promoted devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots. It became popular in Argentina and Brazil.
We know from experience that we can tie ourselves up in emotional knots and in confusions we create for ourselves in our relationships and even in the way in which we pursue the practice of our faith. Miscommunication and insensitive use of language all too often lead to strained relations between friends and among families. Even in the practice of our faith, we can fall into thinking that we have a responsibility to put our energy and effort into earning God’s approval. We lose sight of the fact that God’s love for us is both everlasting and never diminishing in intensity. That inevitably ties us up in knots. They are knots we can safely put in the hands of Mary, the woman whose faith kept on keeping on.
As we move into 2023, we might do well to turn our attention to Mary as one whose approach to the ups and downs of life can help us to make constructive adjustments to how we might walk in the footsteps of her Son and our brother.