Preached in the Holy House at Walsingham during the St. Asaph pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The inspiration for this sermon was the Litany of Loreto (see here).
This is one of the shortest Gospel readings in our lectionary and yet it contains one off the Lord’s most profound commandments, spoken to us in the agony of his final breaths: ’Behold your Mother’. Our pilgrimage, this very shrine, is an attempt to fulfil this command. When I brought a Methodist friend to Walsingham she said to me, playfully, that I was a bit obsessed with Mary and accused me of loving her more than Christ. No no no, I said, Mary is to Christ as the moon is to the sun – she is a reflection of the radiance of Christ. Everything we say about Mary draws our attention to Christ, her Son and Saviour. The fact is, you can barely glimpse at the sun for a half a second, yet you can stare all night at the moon, if you want. This can be true of Christ, whose intensity can overwhelm us and the demands of the Gospel on our life seem too much – yet we can always gaze on Mary, pondering with her the greatness of her Son. In this homily, I want to ponder who Mary is in the story of God’s salvation, using images from the Old Testament.
It is right to find images of Mary in the Old Testament because she is the summing up of the whole people of Israel! Mary is the flowering of faithful Israel – she is the result of God’s resolve, despite everything, to form for himself a people after his own heart, a people who would be a blessing to the world and from whom would come the Messiah. Israel in its totality is like Mary – designed and shaped to give birth to the Messiah. That means that, in Mary, we can read the whole Old Testament! The Old Testament is the story of a long pregnancy – a people whom God was preparing to bring Christ into the world.
Mary, the new Eve. Think back to Genesis 2 – Eve abandons paradise when she seeks to grasp for herself the power of God, she wants to eat the fruit of the tree and appropriate to herself the knowledge of good and evil. Eve wants to be the Lord of her own life, the ultimate judge of right and wrong. This is original sin – passed on in a million different forms to all the children of Eve – the sinful desire to make ourselves like God, we see it everywhere in our culture – but, when we do this, we fall apart, our communities fall apart and we make ourselves alien to God. But, God doesn’t give up. The story of Israel, the story of the Old Testament, is God’s faithful attempt to reverse the momentum of Eve’s sin – he tries over and over again to form a people as his friends, those who would accept his life and law as a gift and flourish under its influence.
Then we come to the Annunciation – where Mary hears the angel she says, ‘let it be with me according to your word’. Eve grasped at being God and became the mother of all sinners. What does Mary do? Mary reverses this original sin – she acquiesces to God – she accepts his will – she allows God to plant his word deep within her. And, in that moment of acceptance, Mary becomes pregnant with God’s own life. In a similar way, all of us, members of the body of Christ, when we accept God’s will – when we say ‘let it be’ to God’s word, God’s life takes root in us.
Eve’s grasping blocked the flow of grace – blocked the flow of the divine life in the world – but Mary’s acceptance allowed that life to flow again into the world for its salvation. As the Church Fathers say, the AVE of the angel is the reversal of EVA: Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.
Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.
Friends, behold your mother! The New Eve, who is the fountain from whom grace flows into the world. That’s why Shrines of Mary are known as places of miracles and holiness, because Mary has unstopped the well of divine grace and given us access to the divine life! This is why it is not just a insignificant detail that the apostles prayed with Mary as they awaited the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – they knew that through Our Lady’s prayer that the grace and power of the Spirit would come!
There is a second way in which Mary sums up and fulfils the Old Testament – she is the new and greater Ark of the Covenant. During the Exodus, Moses places the tablets of the law into the ark as a sign of God’s presence among his people. In the same way, the Word of God is placed within the ark of Mary’s body. She becomes the ark of God’s presence. By extension, Mary is the new and living temple! Think of the temple, with its Holy of Holies, the place where God was pleased to dwell; where people came to commune with him. Mary now, who bears God incarnate in her womb, is herself the new temple!
Sisters and brothers, never grow tired of spending time with Mary – the ark of the covenant. She is able to lead us most powerfully to Christ – when we kneel before her, we kneel before the ark of the covenant, the place where God is pleased to dwell. The most beautiful way this is revealed in Scripture is when the pregnant Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her pregnant cousin and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb, dances for joy! The word used here is the same as that used of King David when he dances before the Ark of God in the Book of Kings. Mary is the cause of our joy, because she brings the joy of Christ to us and calls us to rejoice at his presence.
Mary is all the culmination of all those holy women in Israel’s history who became mothers against all odds – we can think of the nameless mother of Samson, who was infertile but became a mother through her prayer. Or Hannah, mother of Samuel, who prayed day and night for a son. Then there’s Sarah, wife of Abraham who, in her extreme old age, gave birth to Isaac, father of Israel. Or even Elizabeth, Mary’s own cousin, who was infertile and advanced in years, yet became pregnant with John the Baptist. The Virgin sums up and gathers up all these women and together they preach a simple message – new life comes from radical trust in the Lord, for whom all things are possible.
Behold your mother who says to us that, when we stand at the end of our strength, at the limits of our hope, God can still act! When we say ‘let it be with me according to you word’ that’s when the divine life can flow and nothing will be impossible.
Finally, in her Magnificat, Mary is the greatest prophet – she is the new Ezekiel, the new Isaiah, the new Daniel, the new Amos!
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy.
Neither Isaiah, nor David, nor Amos, nor Malachi ever spoke so eloquently of the coming of the Messiah – Mary sums up all the prophets of Israel and sings this great Biblical truth, which has been sung by the Church every evening from the beginning!
My friends, Jesus used his dying breath to give the holy Mother to us as our example and source of unfailing help. Draw nearer to her in our final days here, learn from her and ask her prayers – discover in her the reflection of her Son and the unsealed fountain of all grace. Gaze at Mary, for she is the reflection of all Israel and the perfect image of her Son,
to whom be glory and praise for ever.