Thursday, December 29, 2016

To see the Mother is to see the Son



Solemnity of Mary Mother of God 2017

There is a story that has become ingrained in Church tradition, that it now forms part of the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church. It is the story of the multi-talented St Luke – apostle, evangelist, gospel writer, doctor and artist; and his encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Our Lord. Although the details vary with the telling, the basic premise of the story is that after the crucifixion, Mary went to live with the Beloved Disciple, John. There she met St Luke and knowing he was an artist, asked him to paint a portrait of her with Jesus as a young child. In order to make the portrait all the more poignant, she suggested he use the top of a cedar or cypress table that had been made by Jesus when he worked as a carpenter in St Joseph’s workshop. While being painted, the Blessed Lady is said to have told St Luke the stories of Jesus’ life that he later incorporated into his gospels. Thus one could say that the gospel of St Luke may have possibly been an edited version of the original oral gospel narrated by Our Blessed Lady Mary that was never written nor published.

But today, when I speak of the gospel according to Mary, I am not referring to the version written by St Luke, but rather to the manner in which the Church uses Mary as the primary visual aid to teach her flock and the world about the good news of Christ. The Gospel of Mary is perhaps the most tender and yet most profound gospel of Our Lord. She is the key for us to understand, to penetrate the very mysteries of the person and ministry of Christ himself. The Church uses the titles of Our Lady to expound the deeper mysteries of her son. And why would she do this? Well, it would be good to consider an analogy from pedagogy and art.

Have you ever tried to describe a work of art which is a masterpiece, without having the actual painting in front of you? We can only imagine the frustration experienced by both the speaker and the listener. From the age of cave-men right down to the modern classroom, it is a proven fact that the learner better understands and retains knowledge when ideas, words and concepts are associated with images. People need to see in order to learn. Our brains are wired to rapidly make sense of, and remember visual input. More so, when it comes to beauty. It is so much more important to see beauty with our own eyes rather than to attempt to conceptualise it from the description given by another. It is close to impossible to visualise a piece of art unless the painter translates and transfers the image in his mind onto a piece of canvas. This is what the four Marian dogmas attempt to do. They help us visualise and in fact enflesh the very mysteries of Christ. That is why we can safely say that these Marian dogmas are essentially Christological. They have as much to say about Christ as they do about Mary.

Today’s feast invites us to contemplate one, perhaps the greatest, of the four great Marian Dogmas, Mary, the Mother of God. This title is not simply honorific, a piece of flattery which seems to border on idolatry. Are we claiming that a mortal person has been raised to a rank which is superior to God? This is certainly not the intention of the Church. This title takes us beyond the biological fact that Mary was a biological mother. This, however, is more a statement of Jesus’ divinity than of Mary’s maternity. It tells us about the nature of her Son. The answer to the question: “Was Mary the mother of God?” is found in the question “Who and what was Jesus Christ?” The two questions are as inseparable as are, Mary and her Son.

When we answer the question “Who was Mary’s Son?” and base our response on what the Scriptures tell us, there is only one answer possible. He is truly Man, without diminishing the fact that He is also truly God. He possesses the nature of God and the nature of man. His two natures do not make Him two different persons. He is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, true God and true man. This therefore is the full meaning of the Mother of God - She gave, to an invulnerable God of miraculous power, the vulnerability of a body which could suffer, die and save. This is the fact of the Incarnation and the core of our Christian Creed.

This is what we affirm whenever we recite the Creed. At the point where the congregation bows in unison, we affirm this vastly important article of faith – the Incarnation, which in the new translation reads like this, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” The bow attests to this most significant event – it is as if the whole drama of salvation hangs on just this thread. For without Mary, God’s entrance into history would not achieve its intended purpose. That is, the very thing that matters most in the Creed would be left unrealised – God’s being a God with us, and not only a God in and for Himself. Thus, Mary stands at the core of the profession of faith in the living God, and it is impossible to imagine it without her. It would be no exaggeration to say that she is an indispensable, central component of our faith in the living, acting, loving God. The Word becomes flesh – the eternal meaning grounding the universe enters into her. There would be no masterpiece to speak of, or admire, or made visible to the world, without the canvas on which it was painted.

And so we honour her today by her greatest title, because it was she who gave us our Saviour, the Mother of the Saviour, the Mother of God. This truth is at once so outrageous, and yet so essential to our faith and to our salvation that it caused massive theological rows in the earliest times of the Church’s history which was finally settled in the Council of Ephesus in the year 451 A.D. But, today, the title has once again become controversial, even for us Catholics. Perhaps, due to attacks from Protestants, we have become embarrassed of such titles being accorded to Mary or to any other human person. How could a mere human give birth to God? And yet, it is precisely this preposterous belief that forms the basis for our celebration of Christmas. God did not become man in a vacuum. He did not beam Himself down from the heavenly heights and materialise in human form. In order for Him to assume our humanity, the Blessed Virgin Mary truly had to give birth to God. It is because we can see the Mother, that we can truly say that we have seen the Son, we have seen God.

Of course, we are not saying that Mary brought God into being. If this was the case, then together with the Protestants we have much cause for concern, because it would mean raising a mere creature to a level above her Creator. This is not what the Church teaches. Mary did not exist before God, but she existed before God took human nature in her womb. Although Mary is the Mother of God, she is not His mother in the sense that she is older than God nor the source of her Son’s divinity, for she is neither. Rather, we say that she is the Mother of God in the sense that she carried in her womb a divine person—Jesus Christ, God “in the flesh.” 

The Son and the Mother thus form a unity. This explains why from the start they were called the new Adam and the new Eve, although we are very clearly aware that Jesus, as the Son of the Eternal Father, stands on an entirely different level from Mary, who is a simple human being. But even though Mary’s holiness and role in salvation's history depend entirely on the saving grace of God and Christ, we must insistently emphasise how intensely the Son wanted to be dependent on the Mother, how much of Himself He wanted to owe to His Mother. As much as the Incarnation is the gratuitous work of God which only God alone can perform, Mary’s role in the Incarnation can never be trivialised or neglected. Without a human mother, the Son of God could not fully be human whilst still retaining His full divine nature. A masterpiece owes its visible value to the canvas on which it was painted, even though the art and the material on which the same was painted are never on the same level. Together, Mary and Jesus both illustrate vividly how God has truly become one with man and man, one with God. 

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