Blessed Virgin Mary (15 August)

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There’s some debate about who might actually win the title of “most photographed woman in the world” – one plausible candidate would be HM The Queen. But if there were a title for the woman with most paintings or most statues made of her, then I suspect the winner would be the Blessed Virgin. From among the many depictions of Mary, I have an artwork in mind for each of today’s three readings, and one other work of art on a theme left out of today’s readings. I have included links to each of these on the same page as the text of this podcast.

First – in order of where these episodes come in the story of the Virgin’s life – is a mid-fifteenth century fresco by Fra Angelico. In the fulness of time, says St Paul, God sent his Son, born of a woman: the annunciation by Gabriel, the empowering grace of the Spirit, and the faithful and obedient yes that made Mary the Mother of God. Both Gabriel and Mary bow in mutual reverence, yet their eyes meet across the frame: the messenger of God is as deeply respectful of the one to whom he brings his message as she is of him. There is, I suspect, a sense that if God is truly in our encounters with others, they will always be deeply respectful. One legendary account of the fall of Satan is that his pride refused to accept that a human woman would, through this annunciation, be set on the path to become Queen of Angels, a physically embodied person be raised more highly than beings of pure spirit. Gabriel has no such qualms: human and angel, embodied person and spiritual presence meet in mutual respect, and shared obedience to God.

Then – as I hear the words of the Magnificat in the gospel – I think of a church courtyard in the village of Ein Karem, traditional birthplace of John the Baptist. Here, the plaques on the walls contain the words of Mary’s song in many languages, and at the front of the courtyard is a sculpture of two women. Elizabeth, mother of the Baptist, showing remarkably little for the sixth month of pregnancy, Mary still slender. This very human moment of two relatives delighting together in their pregnancies, bumps nearly touching, Elizabeth also describes as “the babe in my womb leapt for joy”. In this meeting of the cousins, Elizabeth, getting on in years, Mary still a teenager, God is there, recognised in the womb, in the human joy and in the promise of liberation Mary sings about. Again, we are reminded: divine and human are not opposites but we find one in the other. Look, says this sculpture, God is in the ordinary.

Sticking to the order of Mary’s story, we should here note what is lost from our readings: the note of suffering – the sword that Simeon prophesies will pierce Mary’s soul. Being highly-favoured, most blessed among women, is not a path to a pain-free life, or joys without sorrows. According to tradition, at some point in Jesus’ teens she is widowed, but however painful that was, it remains overshadowed by worse. The third work of art can be seen in St Peter’s Basilica: Michelangelo’s exquisite sculpture of the Pietà, Mary holding her grown up baby, nursing the dead adult as she once cradled the living child. God is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. There is no legion of angels to come and stop the crucifixion.

But the final image, and our first reading, is about how Mary shares in her son’s triumph, how she is raised with Christ, how ultimately love has the last word, and sorrow is transfigured by joy. For St Paul writing to the Romans suffering with Christ is the guarantee of being glorified with Christ. The picture I have in mind is the great altarpiece in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, Titian’s Assumption that leads your eyes up to heaven with Mary. Mary’s assumption is told as a story illustrating what Jesus’ resurrection does for humanity. Ordinary life is made extraordinary. Earthly human bodies are not a shell to be shucked off like a chrysalis, far less a prison the soul can escape from as some philosophers have thought, but bodies are part of our fundamental human identity to be transfigured by God’s spirit. God never despises the ordinary, because he recognises that it is not ordinary, it never has been – because it has been, it is, and it will be God’s own handiwork.

Today we honour a girl from an obscure hill village in a Mediterranean backwater of the Roman Empire who offered her body and blood to God, that her Son might offer God’s body and blood to the world. There’s really no such thing as ordinary.

Links:

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which of these four moments in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s story do you engage with the most?
  2. Does contemplating a picture or statue help you read the biblical text with fresh eyes?
  3. What helps you find God in the very “ordinary” moments of life?

 


Page last updated: 3rd August 2021 4:41 PM
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