The ‘Mary’ month of May
Fr Peter CSWG on Mary’s contribution to the mission of the Church
What other month than this one could be called ‘Mary’s month’? May spells – at least in the northern hemisphere – Nature’s return to a rich profusion as all the lavish and colourful blossoms surge forth into seemingly limitless life after the bleak somnolence of winter. Nature’s fullness at this time symbolizes the superabundance of life in God, what St John in his Gospel calls ‘eternal life’.
Fullness of life
It is this ‘superabundance of life in God’ that, we believe, was Mary’s own possession throughout her life, thanks to her faithful obedience. So great was that faith that an Orthodox prayer of the Lenten Divine Office speaks of Mary as ‘the unshakeable foundation of our faith in Christ’. Those are powerful words that will resound harmoniously in the ears of many Western Christians.
For some Christians, however, such a statement can seem perplexing. They ask, what is Mary’s contribution to her Son’s mission, to the conversion of hearts and Church growth? It is puzzling because when we ponder Scripture, the record there is rather sparse, though we note Mary’s presence at her Son’s most significant moments. What kind and quality of life could justify such extravagant expression?
Dependency in mission
The key, I believe, lies in a short phrase in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘And Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’ [Luke 2.19, 51]. She ‘pondered’ the events of her Son’s ministry in silence and stillness, in the solitude of her heart, as she offered everything to God in the continuous prayer of her heart. For the heart of Mary was contemplative. It is here we find the meaning of her silent life and witness within the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel. It is the place of silence and stillness of prayer that continues in the Church’s ongoing mission.
To understand Mary, we have to listen to her Son. Speaking to his disciples of the ripeness of the world for conversion – ‘the fields,’ he remarks, are ‘white for harvest’ – the Lord underlines their dependency on others, the men and women of faith and prayer that have gone before, the great saints of the old covenant: ‘One sows,’ he says ‘another reaps.’ ‘I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured and you have entered into their labour’ [John 4.36–8]. In other words, everything is grace, all is God’s gift.
In the Church’s mission to the world, it is well always to remember we are entering into ‘the labour of others’. We are simply servants – and ‘unprofitable’ ones at that – so there is ‘no room for boasting’; all comes from God.
The outer success of the apostolic ministry of conversion and proclamation (kerygma) of the Word in missions, mass rallies, conversions, pilgrimages and youth camps, ‘fresh expressions’ of ‘being Church,’ rightly engages our full attention and endeavour. Yet what enables this ‘seed’ of the Word to establish itself, to germinate and bear fruit? It is the silence and stillness of Mary’s unceasing prayer in the solitude of her heart.
The outward apostolic life – the sowing of God’s seed-word – is invariably dependent for its fruitfulness on the inner life of prayer, and ultimately on the grace of contemplation, on the heart’s silence and stillness before God in prayer, in the offering of all things to him. This continuous lifting to God of people and events brings the Church’s mission in direct and continuous relation to him.
Of course there will always be ‘many things to be done’, so the ‘Martha’ in us needs reminding that attending first to the Lord does not fail that work in any way. On the contrary, it guarantees its fruitfulness, for ‘apart from me, you can do nothing’ [John 15.5].
We need reminding of this continually; otherwise we so easily lose our way. Mary is our reminder, to let the Lord himself be the centre of the Church’s mission and evangelism.
Our Lady guards the Church
Mary guards this contemplative disposition for the Church’s mission to the world, and for the inner life of each Christian with its fulfilment and completion in contemplation.
Evangelism requires this because faith involves, not simply an initial conversion of our life, but the total transformation of our being into union with Christ. This transformation is a lifelong and exacting work through prayer in union with Christ.
Mary’s union with her Son was complete, lacking in nothing: it spanned every moment of her earthly life. That union through her purity of heart rendered her will wholly surrendered, enabling the outer labour of her love. Everything hinges on that union, and the same is true for us. As the Lord reminds each one: ‘Abide in me’.
It is this that makes the earlier Orthodox prayer ring true. Mary is our ‘unshakeable foundation’ because in her, wholly united to her Son and all he is doing, everything including ourselves is offered to God for its fruitfulness. We her children seek to grow into the union with Christ she possessed all her life. Mary’s gift is likewise God’s promise to each one of us. ND