The Virgin Mary, the Mother of God – let’s start at the beginning! For me, that is a little statue of Mary, which belonged to my father. It’s 10 inches high but the arms, holding a precocious, blond infant, are too far up the body and so Mary looks disproportionately tall! Not a good first impression, though the blue robe and sweet face suggest tenderness and gentleness.
Has my understanding of Mary evolved beyond that statue and my early, unfulfilled ambition to be Mary in the Nativity Play? Back then, there seemed something questionable about Anglicans dwelling too long on Mary, particularly in statue form. I couldn’t avoid the statues and paintings of the Virgin, which crowded round me, when I spent a university term in Seville. I loved Murillo’s depictions of Mary – more blue mantles -the same celebration of innocence and acceptance – and now – I saw compassion.
I edged closer to better understanding when I visited Lourdes. Here, Mary seemed less passive–she had appeared to Bernadette and spoken! She had asked for a church to be built on the site of her apparition. The healing ministry of Lourdes still so potent today, made Mary proactive – someone who thought, reasoned and spoke. I reassessed her final words to Gabriel “ Let it be with me according to according to your word”; saw them as active as well as trusting and accepting.
Getting an adult grip on Mary takes time. How did an adolescent girl of those times and that context come to terms with mysterious Gabriel’s terrifying and dangerous message? Intelligent and deep-thinking, she questions “How can this be?” How willing, how determined and how strong she must have been to accept God’s will for her in the face of all the shame and disgrace that would follow – striking her, at the core of the future which lay before her as Joseph’s wife. How much faith and trust would you need to endure the danger and physical hardship of the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of your child in a stable?
And this was just the beginning. Forty days after the birth, in the Temple in Jerusalem, Simeon confirms that Jesus is God’s promised Saviour but then warns Mary starkly, about a sword which will “pierce your own soul too”. Twelve years on and a distraught mother is searching for Jesus, lost on the return journey from Passover celebrations in Jerusalem. When Jesus explains that he had remained in the Temple because he had to be in his Father’s house, his parents are said not to understand, yet Mary “treasures all these things in her heart”. Perhaps, that word “treasures” explains how she faced subsequent events – secure in the belief that Jesus’ is God’s son. The last time Mary speaks out is, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, when she tells the servants “Do whatever he (Jesus) tells you”. We know little more about Mary but she is with the women on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and she stands at the foot of the cross.
So where do I go from here? Well back to the beginning – not to the little statue – that was only my beginning – but to Mary’s beginning – to the Magnificat – the powerful passage from Luke, where Mary proclaims her understanding of the God who has called her into being and into his service. An understanding of God’s love for the weak, powerless, impoverished and starving; a conviction of God’s faithfulness and an immense outpouring of joy in doing God’s will.