More from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's reflections on Mary.
Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new
Of Thine eternal Nature's old abode.
Suffer this mother's kiss,
Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings
Of any seraph wing.Thus noiseless, thus.
Sleep, sleep my dreaming One!
The slumber of His lips meseems to run
Through my lips to mine heart, to all its shiftings
Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness
In a great calm. I feel I could lie down
As Moses did, and die,* —and then live most.
I am 'ware of you, heavenly Presences,
That stand with your peculiar light unlost,
Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,
Unsunned i' the sunshine! I am 'ware. Ye throw
No shade against the wall! How motionless
Ye round me with your living statuary,
While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,
Continual thoughts of God appear to go,
Like light's soul in itself. I bear, I bear
To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes,
Though their external shining testifies
To that beatitude within which were
Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:
I fall not on my sad clay face before ye,—I look on His. I know
My spirit which dilateth with the woe
Of His mortality,
May well contain your glory.
Yea, drop your lids more low.
Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!
Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!
These prayers from the Catholic Greek Melkite Church open a different way of seeing Mary for Westerners like me. Please take this opportunity to pray for all the people of Lebanon, where many Melkite Christians live alongside other Christians, Muslims and Druze, all of whom would earnestly desire to live in peace.
The mystery hidden from all eternity that the angels could not know was revealed to those on earth through you, O Mother of God, when God became incarnate without mixing (of the two natures) and accepted the Cross out of obedience for our sakes and Adam was raised and our souls saved from death.
You gave birth without a father on earth to him who was born without a mother in heaven, a birth beyond understanding and hearing, So intercede, O Mother of God, for our souls.
Two prayers from the Melkite Liturgy, Theotokion for Saturday, 4th mode, and Tuesday morning Theotokion, 1st mode, translated by Kenneth Mortimer and published on The Pelicans website.
Sister Johanna was not thinking solely of the Annunciation when she composed this reflection, but the whole relationship between Jesus and Mary is there, as a newly germinated seed.
The woman who engages Jesus in this story receives his attention, respect, and a challenge. Our picture from the Baptistry of the Abbey of St Maurice, Switzerland, shows another encounter between Jesus and a woman – the Samaritan at the Well. Jesus is shown as the Word, his book showing Alpha and Omega, symbols to be engraved upon the Paschal Candle in ten days from now.
As Jesus was Speaking (Luke 11:27-28)
It happened that as Jesus was speaking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, ‘Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you!’ But he replied, ‘More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (see Luke 11:27-28).
Jesus’ behaviour to women is a study that goes far beyond what I can do in a short reflection. But I think it might be safe to say that in his conduct toward women Jesus is both straightforward and courteous. At times he is more the first than the second, and becomes surprisingly frank – but only with those women who reveal in the course of the conversation that they are capable of dealing with his frankness – and he seems to be unerring in knowing who they are ahead of time. Something in their glance, maybe? Or the way they stand? I don’t know. But in this instance, recorded by St Luke (11:27-28), Jesus takes the other approach. He is very gentle here in the way he corrects this woman’s words.
She is clearly a well-meaning person, but nonetheless, she only gets it partially right and Jesus is not really happy with what she says. This passage has often puzzled me; at first glance, I couldn’t find anything really wrong with her words. I wondered why Jesus found it necessary to add his bit. Why couldn’t he just let it go? After all, his mother was blessed. As I was pondering this seemingly small exchange and asking the Lord to enlighten me about it, it occurred to me for the first time that the words the woman uses in praise of Jesus’ mother may very well have been an expression that was common among pious Jewish women at that time – almost formulaic. A bit of research revealed that my hunch was correct.* It’s likely that these words were a saying used when it was clear that some woman’s grown son had turned out well. Even so, what is wrong with it?
As I pondered, the matter began to clarify. First I realised that, yes, Jesus’ mother deserves praise, always and everywhere, but Jesus was not content to let his mother be praised in words that failed to take in the full scope of her blessedness. She was not blessed merely because she bore Jesus and fed him. Such a blessing could apply to every mother who succeeds in bearing and feeding her child. But Jesus knew well and truly that no one had ever been or would ever be like his mother. Such faith as hers was unprecedented in religious history. The archangel Gabriel visited her, proclaimed her ‘full of grace,’ and gave her God’s message. She, in turn, gave her entire being, body and soul, to God in her response to the angel’s words, and she conceived Jesus miraculously, not by sexual intercourse, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. In every sense, and throughout her entire life, Jesus’ mother lived her faith in a way that was beyond the power of ordinary words to praise. And yet, here she was, being praised in a mere commonplace. Jesus knew he needed somehow to adjust the inadequate words that were cried out by this well-meaning woman – and without hurting her.
But even more needed to be said. (I wonder if Jesus groaned a bit inwardly on first hearing the woman’s words.) Although the words were mainly about Jesus’ mother, Jesus himself was misrepresented by them. He – unlike us in our wandering life-journey – never lost sight of his identity as Son, and of his mission to the world. Therefore, anything implying that he could be properly understood as, say, his mother’s ‘pride and joy,’ was so wide of the mark that it could not be allowed at all. It would confuse matters, not so much for Jesus, but for his followers. Because of who Jesus and Mary are, they had a unique relationship in an absolute sense. Jesus did not live in such a way as to fulfil an ordinary mother’s ordinary expectations – the episode of finding Jesus in the temple when he was twelve years old makes that clear (see Luke 2: 41-50) – if any clarity was needed after the extraordinary revelations of glory surrounding Jesus’ birth. Jesus loved his mother – and provided for her care with his last breath as he died on the Cross (see John 19:26-27) – but he is not the doting son in any common sense. And surely, by this time in Jesus’ adult life, his mother will have grasped – somehow – the unfathomable truth that her son was the Father’s Beloved Son, and that his mission as saviour of the world superseded all other claims, hers included. So, as I reflect, I become aware that we are not meant to pigeon-hole Jesus as this woman’s words seem to do. His identity and mission, as well as his mother’s identity and mission, are matters for deepest contemplation. We will never plumb their depths – certainly not in this life. Therefore Jesus and Mary exist, then and now, as a challenge to our cultural mores, our family customs, and even some of our religious categories. These woman’s words of praise unwittingly “shrink” both Jesus and Mary down to a size that seems more manageable, but, in doing so, she also makes Jesus and Mary too small even to recognise.
What was Jesus to do in this awkward situation? How to respond?
Masterfully, brilliantly, Jesus, in one sentence, managed to achieve everything. First, he was able to use some of the woman’s words, as if to tell her, ‘Yes, what you say is good. But together we can make it even better.’ (Few of us would object to that.) So Jesus keeps hold of her desire to give a blessing (thereby affirming her) and says, ‘More blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ In these words, Jesus praises his mother rightly, for she alone of all women heard the word of God through the Angel Gabriel’s message and opened her heart and body to a depth that was and remains unprecedented. She ‘kept’ the word of God by literally giving birth to the word of God. Jesus does not want to give a theology lesson to the woman here, but he leaves us with words of such profundity that they are still yielding treasures to us two millennia later. Second, Jesus opens up this blessing to apply it to all people, men and women alike – even the hapless speaker in our text. The motherhood of Mary is, in fact, a vocation open to every person who hears the word of God and keeps it. Jesus had, after all, been speaking to a crowd of people. (‘As he was speaking,’ the text says, ‘a woman in the crowd’ cried out.) Jesus is always keen to invite all people into the state of blessedness and joy that is one of the signs of the presence of the kingdom now, on earth. This situation gave Jesus the opportunity to teach a deep truth about the kingdom and invite everyone in. And lastly, there is an implication about Jesus himself contained in his words. Jesus is the word of God. To ‘hear’ the word of God and ‘keep’ it is to be in a dynamic relationship not merely with a biblical text, but with the person of Jesus. There is no greater joy, no greater blessing than that.
This is a biblical text of only two lines. Look at it closely and it tells a story, which, had it happened to anyone else, would doubtless have ended rather awkwardly. But it happened to Jesus, and without distressing any well-meaning actor in this story, he broadens its message to praise his mother rightly, and include all men, all women, and all time in a salvific blessedness that will endure even in heaven. Blessed be He!
On the feast of the Visitation, here is Fr Austin’s reflection on Mary, mother of God, and what that means for us.
When God chose to become part of Creation through the Incarnation, the motherhood of Mary was already implied. The Church says nothing about the course of her life from the day it began until the Annunciation. What happened during that time, what it meant to start life full of Grace we don’t know. It will have been ordinary, if only because ostentation and grace do not belong together.
Scripture does not primarily tell us of the dignity of Mary by recounting facts about her physical motherhood of Jesus, or say that Mary is Mother of God as a consequence of a physical event. It tells us what Mary did, and this shows her importance and dignity. Luke shows us Mary, becoming through free consent one who is blessed. Because the divine motherhood is described from the start, not simply as a biological event, but as taking place through a free, personal and grace-inspired act of faith, Mary is seen not simply with a private relationship to Jesus, but as inserting her into the wider story of redemption. She appears as a figure in history, like Abraham and other characters in the historical dialogue between God and Israel. We are simply told that this person was asked, and replied: be it done… Because of her consent, the Word became flesh, and Mary is Mother of God.
God created the world, and so everything belongs. But this creation can stand forever distant, or it can belong. Which of the two possibilities is actually realised is not finally decided by the fact of creation; it is only decided in the course of history. God created a world of free persons, and so a drama develops between God and the world. For God is not the only one who is active, producing the drama as though through puppets. God creates in freedom, so there actually does arise a dialogue between a free God and free human beings. From God’s point of view it is a dialogue always open; we can act freely as long as our history lasts, we can freely choose to respond in any way we like.
From a natural point of view God is free to choose to respond in whatever way; we do not know God will act in our regard. God could dissociate from us, or invite us closer. Happily, everything is very different from that. God has spoken clearly, definitively and irrevocably. This word has been spoken into creation, and it will not return to the Father without achieving its purpose. God’s intention has become flesh in our world. God has determined that the world itself shall be taken into eternal mercy, and that it now has a destiny that transcends its own natural one. Judgement is not God’s last word, but compassion; not isolation but intimacy.
Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury
The Word was made flesh because a girl of our race, listened, was apprehensive but cooperative and said yes, freely. This is the way God chose to become part of creation. Of course, Mary’s consent her willingness freely given is itself the fruit of grace. Yet though all this is the fruit of grace, yet it remains Mary’s own freely given consent. When God gives gifts they become precisely what is our own, completely identified with us. God gifts me with the ability to love worthily, yet with a love that is truly mine! It is as much mine as my life – since it is gifted from the same source.
Mary’s motherhood is by the grace of God alone, and her own free act, inseparably; and since this belongs intrinsically to the story of Redemption, it gives Mary a real relationship with us, since we are living within the history of redemption. To praise her motherhood is not to honour something belonging to her private life, but in the light of the context of the Incarnation, she is also mother to us.
Saint Francis tells us we are all mothers of the Lord – we have conceived through word and sacrament, now bring him to birth by the way you live.