HOMILY ON OUR LADY – SCHOENSTATT – 22ND OCTOBER 2017.
Delivered by Mario Joseph Conti, Roman Catholic Archbishop Emeritus, of the Metropolitan see of Glasgow.
The Title of this talk is “Mary, Bearer of the Word”, and it was originally given by invitation to commissioned Catechists of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and their colleagues from elsewhere at a reunion in the Eyre Hall of the Curial Offices on the 30th of September this Year, 2017.
Among the invocations to Our Lady in the Litany of Loreto is: “Ark of the Covenant”. This name for Mary may strike us as somewhat obscure in its aptness. Let us examine its significance.
The Ark of the Covenant, an acacia box covered in gold, contained the two tablets on which were inscribed the Decalogue. These ten words are the commandments by which the Jewish people were to live if they were to continue to enjoy the love and protection of the God who chose them out of all the nations for a splendid purpose, the redemption of mankind.
This precious box was the bearer of the Covenant which God made through Moses at Sinai. It bore the Word of God. It presented in time the timeless promise of the God Who Is.
There is a magnificent passage in the 2nd Book of Samuel describing the taking of the Ark into the City of David. It followed a failed first attempt. David having put to flight the Philistines, summoned the men of Israel, 30 thousand of them, according to the report, and went with the whole army to collect the Ark of God “which bore the name of the Lord of Hosts, who is enthroned upon the Cherubim”. “They mounted the Ark of God on a new cart and conveyed it from Abinadab’s House…David and all Israel danced for joy before the Lord with all their might to the sound of singing, of lyres, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals. When they came to a certain threshing-floor, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out and held the Ark of God. The Lord was angry with Uzzah and struck him down for his impudent action, and he died there beside the Ark of God. David was vexed.. He was afraid of the Lord that day and said, ‘How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?’”
Instead the Ark was conveyed to the house of Obed-edom, the Gittite..and “the Lord blessed Obed-edom and his whole household”. This having been reported to David “he went and brought the Ark of God..to the City of David rejoicing…”
There are hints of this incident in the visitation of Our Lady to her cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1, 40..) : “She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth…the baby stirred/leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed in a loud voice, ‘God’s blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb. Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me? ..Happy is she who has had faith that the Lord’s promise to her would be fulfilled!’ And Mary said: ‘My soul tells out the greatness of the Lord, my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’”.
Let me underline the revealing similarities: The Ark of the Covenant or, as it is described in this passage, the “Ark of God”, represented for the Israelites the presence of God, for God’s words were enshrined in it. David and his company “danced before the Lord with all their might”, for such was their joy.
Mary is likewise to be filled with joy at the Angel’s words: “The Lord is with you…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child to be born will be called Son of God”. Mary is given a sign to assure her, the conception of a child in Elizabeth’s hitherto barren womb. It is announced as showing “that God’s promises can never fail”. On the arrival of Mary the child (John the Baptist) leaps with joy at the presence of the Promised One.
Our immediate sense is of God’s marvellous actions in the wombs of both women, in Elizabeth’s case ensuring that she is able to bear a son to her husband Zechariah, and in Mary’s case to bear a child for none other than God himself. God’s love is active in every case of a human birth, since every baby is called to be a child of God; parents are privileged to share in God’s work of procreation, and in bringing a child into the world they must care for it lovingly, and teach it about God’s Parental love. The sixth month baby in Elizabeth’s womb is already able to leap with joy at the coming of a baby only days old in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Word was made flesh at her Fiat, at the moment of its conception.
Mary’s child is unique in having no human father; his father is God alone. To be called “Son of the Most High” is to be the Son of the Most High; to be “called Son of God” is to be the Son of God. If we are called children of God, says St. Paul, that is what we are, but we are that by adoption, whereas the child of Mary is son by his unique conception: The Angel Gabriel answered Mary’s question, “how can this be? I am still a Virgin” (I have not as yet lived as Joseph’s wife); “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”.
“Before their marriage” (i.e. before they came together) wrote St. Matthew (Matt, 1, 19), “she found she was going to have a child through the Holy Spirit”, and the truth of this was confirmed “when an angel of the Lord appeared to him (Joseph) in a dream and said ‘do not be afraid to take Mary home with you to be your wife. It is through the Holy Spirit that she has conceived’”.
The early Church was greatly troubled by conflicting explanations of the divinity of Christ (in the field of Christology). Some said that he was divinised at his Resurrection (he was a man who also became God); others that he was God in a human form (and therefore not truly man). The Council of Nicaea in 325, the first Universal Council of the Church, laid down the foundation of the Creed which we profess every Sunday, that “we believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and in One Lord Jesus Christ, born the only-begotten of the Father , that is of the substance (the being) of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, born, not made, of one substance with the Father (what in Greek is termed homousion) through whom everything is made in Heaven and on Earth…”
Further controversies over the nature of the union of the two natures in Christ, of his human and divine will etc, lead to further clarifications in subsequent Councils at Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, the latter in 451.
What is of particular interest to us who are focusing on Mary, Bearer of the Word, is what was defined at Ephesus; “If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel (Christ) in truth is God and on this account the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos)- since according to the flesh she bore the incarnate Word of God- let him be anathema”. The faithful picked up the title Theotokos, the Bearer of God, and proclaimed it with torches throughout the City, once famous for its adoration of the Goddess Artemis! Paul fell foul of the silversmiths who made silver shrines of Artemis, and there was a riot in Ephesus which the town clerk with considerable skill managed to quieten, so that Paul and his companions managed to escape with their lives. You can read all this in the 19th Chapter of St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.
While on the one hand the Church encourages devotion to Our Blessed Lady as Mother of God, as Bearer of the Word, Theotokos, she must make sure that adoration is given to God alone. (We venerate Mary – in the technical language of our Catholic Theology/Mariology; we do not adore her.)
Devotion to Our Lady is characteristic of Catholic practice, almost to ensuring that we have the true faith, which we share with the Orthodox Churches and to some extent at least with those Churches of the Anglican Communion who have preserved much of their Catholic antecedents. This devotion is not generally found in Presbyterianism, the free Churches, Baptist and Evangelical communities, despite the Sacred Scriptures carrying profound references to Mary and her faith, and despite her words in the Magnificat: “All generations will call me blessed for He that is mighty has done great things for me”.
Interesting however is the statement made in an important document of the World Council of Churches, “The Church – Towards a Common Vision” (2012): “The response of Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos) to the angel’s message at the annunciation, ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’ (Luke 1, 38) has been seen as a symbol of and model for the Church and the individual Christian. The faith and Order study document ‘Church and World’ (1990) noted that Mary is ‘an important example for all who seek to understand the full dimension of life in Christian community’ in that she receives and responds to the Word of God; shares the joy of the good news with Elizabeth; meditates, suffers and strives to understand the events of the birth and childhood of Jesus; seeks to comprehend the full implications of discipleship; stands by him under the cross and accompanies his body to the tomb; and waits with the disciples and receives with them the Holy Spirit on Pentecost”.
This was very much the intention of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who decided against having a separate constitution on Mariology. They said in the final chapter of the Great Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium,: “We have but one mediator, as we know from the words of the Apostle: ‘for there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all (I Timothy. 2, 5-6)’. The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power,…For all the saving influences of the Blessed Virgin Mary on men and women originate, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. In other words it pleases God that they flow from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rest on his mediation, depend entirely on it, and draw all their power from it”.
There was a strong devotion to Our Lady in Scotland in medieval days, and one powerful evidence of this is the survival of a beautiful crowned statue which survived the Reformation and is now venerated as Our Lady of Good Success, Our Lady of Aberdeen, in the church of Notre Dame de Bon Succes in Bruxelles. Here at Schoenstatt we have another image of Our Lady to which there is attached a lively devotion at Schoenstatt in Germany, – and in many places, and homes, throughout the world. By crowning it today we express our filial devotion to the Mother of Our Lord Thrice Blessed, praying to her for a share in those graces she received in abundance and which as a loving Mother she wants us to have also. We come back to the notion of her being a bearer of good things, indeed of the very best, of Him who is the Word, the Word made flesh, the Word of God.