Delivered by Seminarian Jack Green to IGNITE Youth at Saint John XXIII Catholic Parish, Stanhope Gardens on 28 May, 2017.
I think it is quite fitting that in this month of May – the month the Church has traditionally set aside in honour of Our Lady – we think a bit about where Mary fits in the life of faith. Of course, it would be natural for us to look at the great impact she has had on music, art, devotion, and literature. After all, it is this great woman, about whom some of the best music has been written; it is this woman who has appeared in some of the finest paintings in western art; it is this woman who has inspired the building of beautiful churches and shrines; it is this woman who has lived in the hearts of Christians for over two thousands years.
Yet I would like to start in a way that makes the grand statements I just made seem a bit odd. I would like to turn to a passage of scripture that I’m sure you’ve all heard before. You can find it in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 8) and Matthew’s (chapter 12):
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Many Catholics tend to squirm a little at these words. They take a quick glance at the shrine of Mary erected in the church, or they guiltily remember that last rosary they prayed and wonder whether the Church has got it all wrong on Mary. After all, there does seem to be a big difference with the way Jesus treats Mary in this passage and the way the Church treats her: Jesus didn’t write a song about her, or paint her, bow to or kiss her statue, and he certainly didn’t pray to her. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to let her in the room. Isn’t all the Catholic stuff about Mary a bit over the top, you may ask?
And it is a good question to ask. So, to begin to clear it up I want to take you to what a great saint of the Church said about the passage we just read. St. Augustine commented on it by explaining that Jesus does not distance himself from Mary. Instead, he uses the opportunity to make a point about faith. ‘Mary is more blessed’, he says, ‘in that she grasped faith in Christ than in that she conceived his flesh’. Again he says, ‘the maternal relationship would have been no profit to Mary, if she had not more happily borne Christ in her heart than in her womb’.
Finally defeating the critic he says, ‘Should the Virgin Mary not have done the will of the Father, she who by faith believed, by faith conceived?’ In other words, Augustine explains that Mary’s importance lies not primarily in her natural motherly relation to Jesus (though that is important) but in her spiritual union with him – in the fact that she first had faith before she had Christ in her womb.
So we need not worry that Jesus is condemning Mary in this passage and we’ve completely missed the mark on Mary. In fact, we can conclude from the words of Jesus and from what we know of Mary elsewhere in the Gospels that Jesus is effectively calling her the model disciple because she, above all creatures, showed faith in God by accepting the Angel’s message in the Annunciation.
In this talk I want to explore that idea of Mary as the Model Disciple, and to do so under three activities: praying, preaching, and pointing. Now, some of you may be wondering what I mean by pointing. Fear not; we will come to it. What I hope you can see by the end of the talk is that all three activities are interconnected and that placing ourselves at the feet of Mary, endeavouring to learn from her, we will be better equipped to do all three too.
I – Mary at prayer
So, the first stop in this talk is to see Mary as a prayer and I don’t think there is a better place in scripture to see that, than Luke’s Gospel. For there we frequently find Mary ‘pondering’ and ‘storing things up in her heart’. At the Annunciation, for example, we are told that Mary was greatly troubled that the Angel called her ‘full of grace’ and responded by ‘pondering’ or ‘wondering’ what it might mean.
Again, when the Shepherds come to see the Child Jesus and recount the great signs they had seen of the Angels we are told that Mary responded by ‘treasuring these things up in her heart and pondering them’.
A third time, after she loses Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem and he goes down to Nazareth with them, we find Mary ‘treasuring these things in her heart.’ The question is: what is it to treasure something in your heart and to ponder over it; what is Mary doing in all these scenes?
The answer is really quite simple: praying.
So many of us would not immediately think of that, however, because we are used to vocal prayer, prayer that is predominantly spoken or sung. We very rarely think of prayer as meditative or contemplative, prayer as silence.
Yet, that is precisely what Mary is doing here. In response to these unbelievable events she does not exclaim, or shout for joy, she does not sing, or say anything. Instead, she turns inward in silence and ponders over them.
Here Mary shows us the true meaning of prayer.
See, prayer is not so much what prayers one says, or how many times one says them; it’s not so much about how well one sings the prayer or how long one prays for. Certainly, all these things are important: we need the help of certain set prayers like the Rosary to keep us on track, and we need to try to sing well, at least so other people aren’t seriously disturbed by us, and we do need to set time aside for prayer. But the real core of prayer, the crux of it, is interior union with God.
That is, an awareness that God lives in us, that we can speak to him and listen to him in our hearts. That is what Mary had and that is what we, you and me, can have if only we want it, if only we ask for it.
In fact, it is in this prayer that Mary shows herself to be the true disciple. For what does Our Lord say when he teaches the disciples about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel (6:6)? ‘[W]hen you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
That is precisely what Mary does; she enters the secret room of her heart and speaks to God there. It doesn’t mean that she stops going to the temple or synagogue. Jesus is not advocating what so many think he is here; he is not saying ‘don’t go to church’. Instead, he wants us to develop our hearts into a secret room where we can go and meet him, converse with him, listen to him, and remain with him. That is the way Mary prayed and with her help we can pray in the same way.
In order to do that, however, we need to change a lot. The first thing to do: put away the earphones, at least sometimes; turn the radio off, at least for some of the car trip; turn off the TV or computer, at least for some time during the day; don’t scroll through your news feed when you have five minutes spare!
See, this kind of prayer Mary shows us is prayer not suited to our times. We live in a society that values being busy, that bombards us with noise and images, that inculcates habits in us that make this kind of prayer really difficult. So, the first thing we need to do to develop this kind of prayer is to develop a more silent kind of life: a life of fewer distractions and less noise. That way, we can turn to that secret room, as Mary did, and ponder over things there.
The second thing to do is to set aside time each day to do it. A great way to do this is to set time aside at the end of each day for what is called an examination of conscience. Here we can set aside 10 minutes maybe to go over what happened in the day, like Mary pondering on the events around her, talking to Our Lord about them, asking for his mercy, his guidance, his help.
I promise you, if you do this everyday, you will notice a huge difference in yourself and your interaction with others. Developing this kind of prayer will lead you in the footsteps of Mary and ultimately form you into the kind of disciple she was: a faithful disciple of Christ.
II – Mary preaching
Now, something common to many of the early disciples of Christ was preaching. John the Baptist, for example, drew people from all over Judea through his preaching (Matt. 3:5), and a great part of the early Church’s activity was taken up by preaching. Yet I don’t think too many people think of Mary as a preacher.
We can find no long speeches addressing large crowds, like we can with St. Peter at Pentecost (cf. Acts. 2:14-42); nor can we find any account of Mary going around the countryside proclaiming the Gospel as we can with the apostles after they received the Holy Spirit. Yet she was there; she received the same Spirit. In fact, if you collected all the recorded words of Mary found in the Gospels, you would probably get no more than half an A4 page (at a guess).
Yet for all that, if we look properly, we can see that Mary did preach, and preach very well. To see that, let us turn again to the Gospel of Luke – I think you’re beginning to see that if you want to know about Mary you have to read Luke’s Gospel. There we find the scene of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth where the older one, Elizabeth, speaks those prophetic words to Mary that we recite whenever we pray the Hail Mary (cf. Luke 1:39-55). Notice how Mary responds, though:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever
Some of you, I hope, will recognise that as the prayer ‘the Magnificat’ which people like me and Fr. John pray every evening when we pray the Divine Office. But it is not simply a prayer, it is really Mary preaching to Elizabeth. For what, after all, is preaching but the witnessing to others about the saving mystery of God in the world? That is precisely what Mary does here. Notice she calls God ‘my Saviour’ – something that will recur in Christian preaching from then until the present day.
Notice also, how she cites several things God has done in the world: ‘he has done great things for me…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…he has filled the hungry with good things.’ All these things are instances of God’s action in the world and Mary stands before her cousin Elizabeth and boldly proclaims them to her. Sure, it’s not in front of the thousands of people in Jerusalem like Peter’s sermon, or in front of all the philosophers in Athens like St. Paul (cf. Acts. 17:16-34); it is in front of an old woman in a small village in the hill country of Judea – a backwater of the Roman Empire. But it is preaching nonetheless.
Here we can learn something very valuable for ourselves. So often as young people we think big, we make grand plans, and hope that they succeed. That is a good thing; being idealistic is great. And when we start to get into our faith a bit more, we do the same thing: we want to go and convert the whole of China, or stop all abortions, or come back from WYD and make the best youth group there’s ever been.
Again, these are all really good, noble desires.
But sometimes we forget that God often asks us to preach in little, unnoticed ways: a kind word to a stranger, a correction to our friend who is leading us astray, or simply confidently telling someone that we are Catholic and we love it. This is how Mary preached: in small, simple ways, but boldly. And notice something: we are still reading things she said today, two thousand years later. See, it’s often the little things we say, a strong word, a kind word, a judicious word that people remember and it’s this that Mary teaches us.
From her we learn that following Jesus Christ and preaching him to the world involves the willingness to be small, to do small things with a big heart for God. A great book in this regard is St. Therese of Lisiuex’s A Story of a Soul. It is really essential reading for every Catholic, I think.
But before we move onto Mary as a pointer, there is one more thing we can learn from Mary as a preacher. The Magnificat proclaimed to Elizabeth is actually very similar to a prayer Hannah prayed in the Old Testament upon somewhat miraculously conceiving a son. So much so that Mary is almost quoting it in some places. What this tells us is that Mary knew her Scriptures, she knew her faith. She didn’t start preaching without anything in the tank, as it were. She spoke what she first received, learnt, knew. There’s an old saying: you can’t give what you don’t have, and that is entirely true when it comes to preaching.
For us, then, that should be impetus to start getting to know our faith better and better. If we want to start sharing the truth of Christ with others then we must first think: what am I going to tell them, what do they need to hear? And if we can’t answer those questions then we won’t be nearly as effective as we could be, not only in preaching Christ, but in being his disciples too.
III – Mary pointing
So from prayer to preaching we have seen that Mary offers us an example of what it is to be a disciple of Christ, and now it remains for us to look at Mary as the pointer. Now, as I suspected at the start, some of you may be wondering what ‘the pointer’ means. Well, one need look no further than the Magnificat we were just speaking about. There we find Mary instantly shifting the focus from herself to Almighty God. ‘My soul glorifies THE LORD’, she says.
Again, she rejoices in God ‘for HE has looked on the humble estate of his servant.’ And finally, the great reason behind why we call Mary ‘Blessed’: ‘HE who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is HIS name.’ Mary points, but never to herself; she always points to God.
This is particularly evident in her famous last words. It’s interesting to do a google search on famous last words and see the kind of legacy people leave behind at their deathbed. Some talk about drink; others, their husbands or wives; or some just leave with a joke. Not Mary. Mary’s last words tell us all we need to know about her. Do you know what they are?
‘Do whatever he tells you.’ (John 2:5)
These words, of course, come from John’s Gospel and that famous scene at the wedding at Cana. We know the story: the wedding has run out of wine, Mary informs Jesus, he says some mysterious words about his hour not yet having arrived, and still unflustered, full of faith, Mary turns to the servants and says, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ She does not speak another word in all the Gospels. Instead, she utters these words and falls into silence, appearing again at the Cross, but even there without a word. Instead, she leaves us with nothing other than a command to obediently follow her son, Jesus Christ.
We can often forget this, particularly when we come to the question of Catholic devotion to Mary. Protestants and misinformed Catholics alike look at all the titles we give Mary, for example, and are left scandalised, thinking that we give her too much honour. But, that is to forget that all the titles of Our Lady really speak of her relation to Jesus.
Take any title: Ark of the Covenant, for example. Well, who is the New Covenant? Jesus Christ. Mary becomes the ark by having Christ in her womb. Again, think of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom. Who is the wisdom that comes from God? Jesus Christ.
When we think about it, Mary’s whole life, her very existence is a pointing to our Lord. In fact, that’s the point of meditating on the mysteries whilst praying the rosary. Mary helps us there to think about the life of our Lord.
I think in this we find a really important lesson to learn from our Lady: to live a life for Jesus. It’s a basic point, I know, but an extremely important one. Perhaps we should hope that like our Lady, people will not think of us, speak of us, remember us without also thinking about Jesus Christ. That should be our hope: that our lives may be a great witness to Jesus.
That’s a really scary thought to entertain, however. Why? Because it involves a lot of sacrifice on our part. It means changing our behaviour, our likes and dislikes, our friends, perhaps, or for some people I know, their jobs, their livelihood! And that is very scary. Mary leaves us with a sure way of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, but it’s not an easy way.
That, however, does not mean we should give up or lose heart, for whatever God asks of us, he will give us more than enough help to do it. We can find a hint of this if we go back to the Wedding Feast at Cana. For what happens after Mary gives this command to the servants? They are told to go and fill some jars with water. I can imagine on their part, they would have been thinking, ‘Why on earth would we fill these jars with water.
It’s going to make us look really stupid.’ But notice what happens: they do it anyway in obedience to Jesus and Mary and rather than return looking ridiculous, they witness first hand the first great sign or miracle in John’s Gospel: the water turns into wine. Now, those servants did something very courageous in obeying Jesus and Mary; they did something risky and uncomfortable, but they were not left red in the face. No, Jesus gave them more than they could have ever hoped for and that is precisely the same with us.
This command from Mary to ‘do whatever he tells you’ certainly involves sacrifice on our part, but it is not a sacrifice in vane. The promise that goes with this command is that in following Jesus’ call wherever it leads us, we will be lead to a fulfillment; a flourishing that is beyond what we could have imagined. But get ready for a life that is not all about you; get ready for a life lived in reference to Jesus Christ, a life that constantly points to him.
That, I think, is a good point to finish on, for after all, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is, in the words of St. Paul, to live a new kind of existence (cf. Rom. 6:4): a life for Jesus. What I have tried to do tonight is to show you how Mary is a key example of that.
Through her prayer we learnt to develop for ourselves a silent, contemplative prayer so as to have an intimate union with Jesus. Through her preaching, we learnt that however small the task set before us, we ought to proclaim Jesus boldly in it.
Through her pointing we learnt that to be a disciple of Jesus is to live a life always with reference to him. So I leave you with these three Ps, as it were: Mary the prayer, the preacher, and the pointer. I pray that you will all have the courage to keep trying to live like Mary, praying, preaching, and pointing. If you entrust yourselves to her, she will help you do this; she will never let you down.
Delivered by Seminarian Jack Green to IGNITE Youth at Saint John XXIII Catholic Parish, Stanhope Gardens on 28 May, 2017.