When I visited England back at the end of October, I had the great opportunity to see my great-nephew, Alfie, who had just been born. It was interesting to see the deep bond forming between him and his mother, and his father. She held him close to her, and seemed to regard him as totally fragile, afraid to hand him over to anyone else, unless they were to drop him. I suspect every new mother feels that about their first-born, probably even Mary felt that about her child, Jesus.
I had the chance to Zoom my family over the last week and wish them a happy Christmas. My great-nephew was amongst them, and it seemed that his mother no longer worried quite so much about him being dropped. She had begun to relax and settle into motherhood and enjoyed seeing her son bounced amongst different pairs of arms. Of course, when Alfie got upset for some reason and started to cry, back he went into his mother’s arms and she was miraculously able to calm him down in an instant. I got some fascinating insights into the bond between Mary and Jesus as I watched Alfie and his mother, and I imagine I will have many more rewarding moments like those. At least I hope so.
Of course, so many authors and composers have written and sung about this sacred bond between mother and child. We have been told stories about the fierce instinct that will lead a mother to lay down her life and take incredible risks to safeguard and protect the life of their child. I have shared a few times how, since I first came to Canada, in 1992-93, for a sabbatical year, then returned to England, then came back to Canada to live a few years after that, that every parish I have worked in has been dedicated to Mary. When I came over in 1992, I was based at St Mary’s, in Ottawa, whilst also working out at a neighbouring parish, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. When I went back to England, I was assigned first to the parish of St Mary and St Michael, then to the parish of St Mary of the Angels. In 1996, I came back to Ottawa to live and was based for a year at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Then I moved with my community, Lift Jesus Higher, to a closed down parish in Vanier, dedicated to Our lady and the Holy Spirit. When we moved on from there, it was to a parish called St Ignatius, which seemed to break the cycle, till I discovered that originally that parish was dedicated to Mary before having its name changed. From there, we moved to St Louis Marie de Montfort parish, and even here the link to Mary was clear, since St Louis Marie had, as is well known, an ardent devotion to Mary.
Along the way, it began to dawn on me, that this was more than just a coincidence, this continued association with parishes named after Mary. It occurred to me that maybe my own mother, seeing her son leave England to a foreign country, had asked Mary to keep an eye on him, and make sure he didn’t get into trouble. And this was Mary’s way of assuring her that she was on the job. The link between me and Marian parishes ceased when I came to be pastor of St Philip’s and St Clare’s, where I have been eleven years. Thinking about it, I can only put this severing of the link down to one of three possible reasons: 1) I no longer need Mary’s protection, which I can discount straightaway. I will always need, and you will always need, brothers and sisters, Mary’s protection and care; 2) My own mother has given up on me, which I can also discount right away, as mothers never, ever give up on their children; so, 3) my mother is now in heaven herself, and has told Mary that she can look after me herself from here on in!!
I don’t know which is the right reason, but this association of Mary with my priestly ministry has always fascinated me. It was good to read some years ago about Don Gobbi and the visions and locutions he had from Mary, which led to him founding the Marian Movement of Priests, from which I learned about Mary’s special concern and patronage over priests. Nowadays we have the Spiritual Motherhood of Priests, where women are given the name of a priest to intercede continually for. I have read a few books about Marian apparitions which have taken place in many different locations, often poor and insignificant, to various people, often children and women, often themselves poor and insignificant. Always Mary presents herself as a spiritual mother, concerned with her children, wanting to guide them towards renewed devotion to her son, Jesus. She wants to spread her mantle of love and protection over the people and their country. Ukraine is one of those countries. There, Mary is honored on October 14th each year as Our Lady, Queen of Ukraine, on this day, she is particularly honored as Protector, with the title Pokrova, or “Cover”, seeing her as the one who “covers” Ukraine with her protective mantle. This is going on even today (story of “diamond lady” appearing to 45 people over 18 days buried under rubble from a Russian missile blast).
One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Mary Did You Know?” – children sung it on Xmas Eve in the 4.30pm Mass in the hall, and Nicole sang it during our Xmas Midnight Mass. The song captures the wonder of the birth of Jesus, and, reflecting on who Jesus was: Son of God, Savior, Miracle Worker, Prince of Peace, the song asks “How much did Mary really know about this? “Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk in water … would one day heal a blind man … when you kissed your little child, you kissed the face of God…Mary did you know?” Of course, Mary received a lot of information about her child to be from the angel Gabriel at her annunciation, at the very least that her son would be both human Messiah, but also God’s own Son. But how much did she understand about what that all meant? And so, the most important words in our gospel today say this: ”Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart“. In her heart …Mary wasn’t a theologian, or philosopher, but she knew more, she understood more than a million theologians or philosophers, because she prayed, she pondered what was happening, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit, who revealed so much to her in her heart that transcends most of our so-called “knowledge” about Jesus and his significance for the world and our lives. That same Spirit, by the way, as our second reading reminds us, is given into our hearts, at our baptism, so that we have the same heart-knowledge, heart –understanding about Jesus, and about his heavenly Father, so we can cry out “Abba Father” and know that we are intimately, passionately known and loved by God as his sons and daughters. And we will grow in that heart – and head-knowledge of these sacred mysteries if we learn to cultivate that relationship with Jesus and his Spirit in silence, in pondering, and in prayer, faith and love, as Mary did.
I have always intrigued by one question about Mary and her son, Jesus. Why do we not read in the gospels about Jesus appearing to his mother after his resurrection? The New Testament tell us that he appeared to the Apostles, to Mary Magdalene, to Paul, to 500 disciples at one and the same time, but no mention of Jesus showing up and letting his own mother know. She who saw him die in such anguish on the cross, who had his dead and broken body placed in her arms and wept over him as he was laid to rest in a tomb –didn’t she deserve to be told that he had risen? As I have pondered myself over these matters, I have come to the conclusion that there are three possible answers to that question: 1) Jesus did appear to Mary when he rose from the dead, and she kept it secret for the rest of her life , even from St Luke and St John; 2) Jesus did appear to Mary, and she told either Luke or John, and they didn’t bother to record it in their gospels, as their focus was on Jesus, not on her; and 3) Jesus didn’t need to appear to Mary to show that he had risen from the dead, because she already knew!