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Millennium Moment
Mary of the Ages

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Mary: A Model for All Ages
by Gloria Hutchinson

"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery," wrote Francis Bacon three centuries ago. Contemporary sculptor Frederick Franck would agree. His stunning metal statue of Mary opens to reveal the face of Christ within her cloak. However, Mary's own face is blank. Why? "Because she is potentially every woman, every man," says the artist. And that is a mystery worth pondering as we prepare for the third millennium.

It is a mystery few Catholics would have grappled with before Vatican Il (1962-65). In pre-conciliar times we kept Mary on a pedestal, emphasizing her privileged uniqueness. We were so busy craning our necks to look up to her that we missed out on her presence at our side. Insisting on her singularity, we kept her at a safe distance.

'Look again'

But the Fathers of Vatican II offered new advice. Paraphrasing Lumen Gentium, they said: "Look again. Mary is a human being who, like us, needed to be redeemed by her Son. She is a model who goes before us, guiding our pilgrimage of faith. She assures us that we too are capable of fidelity to God's call." In his 1974 "Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary," Pope Paul Vl urged Catholics to "see how Mary can be considered a mirror of the expectations of the men and women of our time."

Far from being a timid, submissive or passive woman, the Blessed Virgin, Paul Vl wrote, was an "active witness of that love which builds up Christ in people's hearts." In emulating her, we learn how to live the will of God fully and responsibly.

While sacred art deepens the mystery, it also draws us into communion. By focusing on four dissimilar works of Marian art, we will consider our own response to four of her exemplary qualities: interiority, prayerfulness, trust and hope. "Looking at art," Sister Wendy Beckett advises, "is one way of listening to God."

A model of interiority

She sits on a low bench with an open book on her lap. The halo is extraneous, an artistic convention. Holiness is communicated through the composure of her face, the welcoming gesture of her right hand, the slight bow toward her visitor. In Fra Filippo Lippi's "The Annunciation," Mary is a model of interiority. Aware of the God who dwells within, she is neither unhinged nor disconcerted by the spectacle of a winged messenger kneeling among the flowers in her garden.

The artist has placed a small dove slightly in front of Mary where it is connected by invisible lines to the book (an anachronistic symbol of the word of God) and to her womb. "Behold," says Gabriel, "you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus" (Lk 1:31).

Mary considers. She questions. She decides. "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). Jesus will be conceived in her because she is fully prepared to receive him. Her stillness in the garden foreshadows his silent coming in the manger. An anonymous poet says:

He came all so still,
To his mother's bower
As dew in April
That falleth on shower.

                       ("I Sing of a Maiden")      

Can the image of being impregnated by the Holy Spirit speak to men as well as to women? Surely it can, just as images of Jesus doing "masculine" things like quelling the storm and evicting the money changers speak to women. William J. O'Malley, S.J., observes that before God we are all "feminine." He adds: "God comes to us every day, as to Our Lady, and says, 'Conceive my son in you today.' Sadly, most of us are too busy trying to prove ourselves, to ourselves, to do what we were made to do" (America, May 9, 1998).

Mary models for us what we were made to do. The person who sits quietly before the Lord for some portion of the day becomes receptive, expectant, ready to conceive the Son. Pope John Paul Il has suggested that the time leading up to the Great Jubilee be lived "as a new Advent" (On the Coming of the Third Millennium, #23). By identifying with the pregnant Mary—the Advent figure par excellence—we open ourselves to what the Spirit is saying to the Church and to us on the verge of the new millennium.

Whenever we find ourselves slipping back into the "Mary on a pedestal" mentality, we can picture ourselves practicing her interiority (her stillness, her presence, her listening) and conceiving the Son for those who await his coming through us.

A model of prayerfulness

Enshrined in a basilica, the unusual self-portrait depicts an indigenous woman at prayer. The world knows her as Our Lady of Guadalupe. But those who live in closer proximity like to call her "la Morenita," the little dark one. She imprinted this portrait on the tilma of Juan Diego in response to his bishop's demand for a sign that would prove Mary had actually appeared to an ordinary peasant. Thus assured, the bishop builds la Morenita's requested basilica at the foot of Tepeyac in Mexico City. And thousands of pilgrims come flowing in from the countryside to join her in prayer. "I am the mother of all the inhabitants of this land," she had said.

Long before her appearance at Tepeyac, Mary made it clear that she was a prophetic advocate for the poor. The Latin American bishops, in their 1979 document on evangelization at Puebla, call our attention to her forthright prayer: "In the Magnificat she presents herself as the model for all...those who do not passively accept the adverse circumstances of personal and social life and who are not victims of 'alienation'...but who instead join with her in proclaiming that God is the 'avenger of the lowly' who will, if need be, 'depose the mighty from their thrones."'

Mary's prayer proves that she was no passive observer of injustice, content with the given social and economic structures. She shared Jesus' mission to "proclaim liberty to captives" and to free the oppressed (Lk 4:18-19). Her Magnificat challenges us to get in touch with the reality of our time, and to honestly assess how we are embodying Christ's glad tidings to the poor.

How are we in our parish preparations for the millennium emulating Mary's example of giving "full expression to the longing of the poor of Yahweh" (On the Coming of the Third Millennium, #48)? Are we praying, "The hungry he has filled with good things" (Lk 1:53), and then going home to our overstocked refrigerators? How are we actively lifting up the lowly? (Think: Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Relief Services, Bread for the World, Literacy Volunteers, your local soup kitchen or shelter for the homeless.)

Whenever we find ourselves slipping back into the "Mary on a pedestal" mentality, we can look long and knowingly on any depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She urges us to see ourselves in her prayerful face, and to believe in our own goodness.

A model of trust

No parent of an adolescent could encounter William Holman Hunt's painting "The Finding of the Savior in the Temple" without uttering a sympathetic, "I've been there before." The artist portrays Jesus as a strong-minded 12-year-old who has been holding his own with teachers old enough to be his great-grandparents. Mary's right arm is draped over her son's shoulder while he appears to be restraining her left arm with his extended hand. She presses her forehead to his in a gesture that says, "What's going on in that head of yours?"

Her expression, however, tells us what we need to know. Mary's eyes are locked on her Son's—as they will be at Cana when he seems to refuse her intercession for the wedding couple (Jn 2:4), at Capernaum when he appears to reject her by asking "Who is my mother?" (Mt 12:48) and at Calvary when he "gives her away" to John with "Woman, behold, your son" (Jn 19:26). Mary has given her "fiat" and will bear the consequences.

"Vision," Jonathan Swift wrote, "is the art of seeing things invisible." Mary had the vision to trust Jesus even when he looked like a complete failure. She had the vision to trust him when his kingdom did not materialize overnight. She did not deny or abandon him when the powers of temple and state aligned themselves against him.

Whenever we find ourselves slipping back into the "Mary on a pedestal" mentality, we can return to the Gospel stories of Mary as a young mother fleeing with husband and child into exile, as the distraught parent of an unfathomable adolescent and as a disciple whose faith was repeatedly tried by an unlikely Messiah. No bright-winged angel appears on any of these occasions to reassure her that all will be well. Like us, she has to trust and walk on in God's will.

A model of hope

Her arms are lifted in welcome, while above her a magnificent red falcon spreads its wings in an echoing gesture. Her black braids frame a face on which astonishment, inner strength and hope min- gle. "Lakota Annunciation," an icon by FatherJohn Giuliani, represents Mary as a Sioux maiden in a buckskin cape. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by the falcon, a communicator of sacred power. The young woman and the emblematic bird radiate promise. It is a promise we can all claim: "...and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:33).

Emily Dickinson calls hope "the thing with feathers." It is, however, not the sparrow struggling against the wind. "Lakota Annunciation" wakes us to the reality of hope as a muscular theological virtue (power) imparted by the Spirit and manifested progressively in the life of Mary. She is a poor woman in a downtrodden nation. Her people live under the Roman thumb. Their attempts at rebel- lion have been squashed. Yet Mary, like Abraham before her, believed, "hoping against hope," in God's promises. (See Romans 4:18.)

We know from Mary's experience as well as our own that hope does not immunize us against doubt, suffering or spiritual setbacks. Her humanity left her vulnerable to misunderstanding Jesus' mission, enduring the stress of his conflicts with religious authorities, bearing the devastation of his humiliating death. Can any parent who has witnessed his or her child's violent death doubt that the green shoots of hope in Mary's heart were trampled and nearly extinguished at Calvary? Yet she endured. And when the early Church gathered to pray for the Spirit's coming, she poured out that same heart in confident expectation.

Whenever we find ourselves slipping back into the "Mary on a pedestal" mentality, we can remember that she did not become the perfect disciple in one fell swoop at the Annunciation. Like her son, she grew in wisdom, grace and age.

God's work of art

If we see ourselves as God's works of art ("I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;/Wonderful are your works"—Ps 139:14), we will honor Mary as God's masterwork. We will treasure the mystery by which she is "potentially every woman, every man." We will emulate her interiority, her prayerfulness, her trust, her hope. For she is an accessible model for all ages.

Gloria Hutchinson is author of Praying the Rosary: New Reflections on the Mysteries and many other books. She is a series editor for A Retreat With... book series from St. Anthony Messenger Press.


Sr. Marie Therese Archambault

She is the Black Madonna of Monserrat, to whom St. Ignatius turned at his time of crisis. She is Our Lady of Czestochowa, whose scarred right cheek symbolizes the suffering of the Polish people. She is Our Lady of Guadalupe, who bore Indian features when she appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico City. She is the Lady who has appeared throughout the world, throughout the centuries, with messages of hope and challenge.

Mary, the Mother of God, is a wisdom figure who speaks to men and women of all cultures for all time, says Sister Marie Therese Archambault, O.S.F., who was born in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation. (It is the same reservation on which Sitting Bull was born.)

"There are so many viewpoints about Mary, so many responses to her," says Sister Marie Therese, a member ot the Hunkpapa tribe of the Sioux nation.

But however one views her, she continues, "Mary lived her whole life pondering. Her example calls us to take a contemplative view toward our lives. We don't know the meaning of our lives until we begin to find time for silence."

It was at her own mother's knee that Sister Marie Therese first learned about Mary as a source of consolation. Her mother was a mere child herself, only 12, when she was separated from her parents, taken from her Indian reservation, cut off from all her traditions and sent off to Oregon to complete her education. It was then and there she developed a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother, one she passed on to her children.

Although a good number of Indian people are not Catholic, those who accept Christian beliefs do honor Mary, says Sister Marie Therese. To them, "Mary is a model of help, consolation and compassion. She is a woman who experienced the death of her Son."

In addition to part-time teaching (Native American studies, spirituality, Scripture) and retreats, Sister Marie Therese works with her fellow Native Americans. In Denver, she serves as liaison between Catholic parishes and Indian families who have left the reservation and migrated to cities in search of new opportunities. Her focus is on those who seek to deepen their spirituality as both Catholics and Indians, thus enriching both traditions.

— by Judy Ball



Mary of the Ages

Almost every country has its special shrines that honor Mary and draw crowds of the faithful in search of some comfort, a miracle, a message from the mother of Jesus. Two of the most famous Marian shrines are at Lourdes and Fatima. In recent years, pilgrims have flocked to war-torn former Yugoslavia to honor Mary at Medjugorje. Earlier this summer, more than 100,000 people marked the 200th anniversary of a reported Marian apparition in central Vietnam as wary Communist officials looked on.

Today, Marian shrines of another sort can be visited in cyberspace. The Marian Web page, part of the University of Dayton's Marian Library (http://www.udayton.edu/mary/main.html), receives more "hits" than any other Web site at UD. Established in 1996, the Marian Web page offers yet another way to encounter the woman who continues to touch the world.

Whatever the age, Mary is "Our Lady of the End Times," the university Web site reports, "a caring instrument of the Holy Spirit who constantly intercedes for us before God. By her life, her activities in heaven and the many reports of her reappearances today, Mary has given the Church a message of hope and redemption."



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