Saturday, June 20, 2009

His Mother Kept All These Things In Her Heart

In the spring and again in the fall of the year, the ecclesiastical calendar includes feasts which celebrate the great love of Jesus for his disciples, and invites us, as members this very human Church, to follow his example. Nearly three weeks after Pentecost, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, a feast that points to Jesus’ constant love for the Father and for the Father’s children, that is, for us. It is no coincidence that this celebration comes close after Pentecost, when we are drawn to contemplate the relationship between the great love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father, and how that mutual love is personified in the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In autumn, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross, which focuses on the love of Jesus for the children of God’s creation, a love which is fulfilled in his Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection, the redemption of the burden of our sins, and promise of eternal life, accomplished by his death on the cross. Once again, it is no mere coincidence that the piercing of the heart of Jesus is the primary focus of the September feast.

It is also no coincidence – there are none, in God’s plan – that the Church sets aside a day, closely following the springtime celebration of Jesus’ love, to honor the heart of Mary, and again, in the autumn, we remember Mary’s great suffering, witnessed principally, but not uniquely, in her fidelity at the foot of the cross, but from the very beginning of the story: The Prophecy of Simeon at his circumcision; the flight into Egypt, the loss of Jesus in the Temple, the meeting with Jesus on his way ato the Cross, his Crucifixion, his piercing by the soldier’s lance, and his burial.

If we look closely at these liturgical diptychs, we will see that the Church celebrates Jesus with a Feast, and the Mother of Jesus with a Memorial, placing their contributions to the work of salvation in the correct, albeit imbalanced, perspective. More significantly, though, we should see these twin celebrations as a sort of dance between Christ and the Church. In both memorials of Mary, the Church invites us to observe at the same time the generous response of Mary herself, and an expression of her role as a model for every merely human disciple of Christ. It is in her generous and fully human response that God is most fully honored. Through the centuries, the Church has honored Mary most wisely whenever she is portrayed as fully human, a maiden invited to accept an enormous responsibility; the mother of a newborn in flight for her own life and that of her son; the parent of a teen who is asserting his individuality; the widowed mother of a son who has been condemned to capital punishment on false pretences. Mary’s heart is the heart of the Church at its most authentic, beating with fragile hope and courage that is sufficient for God to accomplish God’s great plan of salvation – if we are open to the voice of the Spirit, and faithful to our commission to allow God’s work to truly be our own.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which is the epistle of Saturday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time, he tells us that he could boast about his mystical experiences, but he would prefer to boast about his weakness and his difficulties, since it is Mary’s very human lack of parental attention understanding, that form the perfect setting for the revelation of God’s power. It is not Paul’s mystical experiences which make him a great apostle – an effective messenger of God’s word. Rather, it is his difficulties, his failures, his “thorn in the flesh” that compel him to turn to God in order to accomplish the mission of apostolic witness. It is not Paul’s work that glorifies God; it is Christ’s work completely through Paul’s limited humanness.

There may well be no other place in human endeavor where boastfulness is not merely tolerated, but mandated, as in the tasks of preacher and teacher. I know whereof I speak when I say that, were I to boast of my weakness, there are students who left my catechism classes with little grasp of the subject, the parishioners who left the church after Mass wondering what I was talking about, and how it related to their own lives – or who didn’t even recognize that they we called to their own vocation as disciples of Jesus and members of God’s people. Looking back on the experiences of nearly forty years, I could boast as loudly of my failures as Paul does of his. But I’m not sure I possess sufficient courage – or humility – to confidently boast that my weakness is His glory.

What a blessing it is, then, to have this memorial of Mary’s success at embracing her failure She went home from a trip to the big city, and left her boy behind for a few days. When she found him, she questioned his behavior and was lectured by her teenage son: Didn’t you know that I have to be about my Father’s business? [He wasn’t talking about carpentry, either!] It is difficult to imagine a parent boasting about such a thing.

But Mary gives us a simple lesson in how to be Church, by listening to her Son, by loving him when he seems unreasonable, by allowing her fallibility to become the state on which God’s glory is proclaimed. It is not in righteous certitude, but in humble faith, that she gives her heart to be the temple of god’s love, where she pondered the mystery of His desire for her. It is possible for us to become the Church that Mary, mother of Jesus, and Paul, preacher to the gentiles, are witnesses. Perhaps, even in our own weakness – just perhaps – God’s glory will be made manifest.

Fr. John L. Sullivan, Springfield Massachusetts

Eileen Burke-Sullivan, Theology Department, Creighton University

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