Thursday, 1 February 2018


3047 words, 15 min read

[The following is based on two talks given to groups of young adults in Barcelona and London in December ’17 and January ’18 respectively.]

Today I would like to share something with you about who Mary is for me and I will try to do that in three ways: say something about who she is, tell you about my relationship with her and reflect on what this relationship has taught me about what love is and who God is.

Who is Mary?

Instead of painting a comprehensive picture, I would like to focus on three moments in Mary’s life that I believe tell us a lot about who she is: the annunciation, the ~30 years she spent living with Jesus before his public ministry and her suffering at the foot of the cross. What I hope to do here is to highlight that Mary is more than an object of piety, that she is more than meekness and compliance and that she is an example for all Christians and people of good will, whether they be women or men.

But, let’s start at the beginning, which in terms of the Gospels is Luke’s account of the annunciation, where we are drawn into an event of courage, non-conformity and selflessness and where the very nature of the universe changes categorically. Mary, a young woman is presented with a startling request: to become the mother of God. She is unmarried and pregnancy would make her a social outcast, she would be rejected by her fiancee and would bring dishonour on her family, not to mention that she can’t even get her head around how this could possibly happen since she is a virgin. Yet, she takes a leap of faith and gives her consent. And everything changes. God, the uncreated, eternal, infinite, all powerful, while retaining all of these attributes, also becomes a clump of cells in Mary’s womb. Incarnate in the created, not only finite, but infinitesimal, not only weak but highly vulnerable. Mary’s self-giving, in spite of her doubts, reservations and incomprehension is immediately rewarded in a way that makes a hundredfold look positively mean.

In a recent homily on the feast of the Annunciation last year, Pope Francis drew parallels between Mary’s response to the Annunciation and our own reality today, when he said:
“Like in the past, God continues to look for allies, continues to look for men and women capable of believing, capable of remembering, of feeling part of his people so as to cooperate with the creativity of the Spirit. God continues to pass through our neighbourhoods and our streets, he goes everywhere in search of hearts capable of listening to his invitation and of making him become flesh here and now. Paraphrasing St. Ambrose [...] we can say: God continues to look for hearts like that of Mary, willing to believe even under the most extraordinary conditions.”

The second moment to reflect on is what the Gospels are silent about. The long years during which Mary, her husband Josep and their son Jesus lived together as a family. After the initial, extraordinary, cosmic drama of Jesus’ incarnation there followed decades of what I hesitate to call “ordinary” life. It couldn’t have been! Just imagine it - Mary, the mother of God, Joseph, a just man whom God chose to teach and raise his only son, and Jesus, God made man, all living in a small town in Palestine. Working, doing household chores, getting together with friends, being good, religiously-observant first-century Jews, being frustrated and angered by social and political issues, having to budget their resources with prudence, having worries and fears, hopes and dreams. Yet those who met them, who got to know them, must have felt that there was something special here. This family drew them in, they felt welcome there, they felt the warmth of how Joseph looked at Mary, how Mary took everyone as a member of her family from the first moment and how their son, Jesus flourished as a child, grew up to be a kind and friendly youth and developed into a wise, just and loving man.

This is a period in the life of Mary that Chiara Lubich also spoke about and where she saw the Holy Family as a real model for us to imitate:
“[It must have been a] family, whose members starting with a supernatural vision, seeing Jesus in others, end with the most down-to-earth and simple expressions typical of family life. A family whose members do not have a heart of stone but a heart of flesh, like Jesus, like Mary, like Joseph. Are there among you some who are suffering because of spiritual trials? They must be understood as much as and more than a mother would. Bring them the light with a word or by example. Do not let them feel the absence of the family warmth, on the contrary, let them feel it all the more. Are there among you some who are suffering physically? Let them be treated as favourites. It is necessary to suffer with them. Try to understand them right to the depth of their pain. Are there some who are dying? Imagine yourself in their place and do for them whatever you would have done for you up to the moment of your last breath. Is one of you rejoicing over some success or for any other reason? Rejoice with him or her so that the joy is not spoilt and the soul closed in on itself, but the happiness is shared by all. Is one of you going away? Do not let him or her leave without a heart filled with a single legacy: the sense of the family, so as to take it with them wherever they go. Never put any kind of activity, either spiritual or apostolic, before the spirit of the family.”
Finally, let us consider a third picture, which is that of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. There, above her hangs the mangled, broken, twisted and damaged body of her son, her own flesh and blood. She looks at him and sees the baby she gave birth to, the little boy who learned to walk, read, do geometry, the man who never stopped being her child and who brought heaven into the midst of the world, who announced the good news of God’s love for all, who cured the sick, who revived the dead and who was then betrayed and condemned to death by his peers. Such suffering may be unimaginable to us, but it is shared today by mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends of those killed in natural disasters, by illnesses, in wars and out of hatred. Yet, for Mary even this unbearable burden was only part of the story. She also saw her son cry out to his Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His physical and psychological torment culminated in a complete loss of that which made him who he is - his being one with the Father. Mary looked at her son lose his faith. She saw God without God. The God who changed the universe in her at the annunciation was now gone, leaving her son a mere husk of a man. What would I have done in her place? I, like the apostles, would have run and run far - seeing Jesus on the cross would have been unbearable beyond words. Yet, Mary stayed. She didn’t care about the cost to herself, what it would look like, what the consequences would be. She chose to be there with and for her son while utterly helpless in the face of his suffering. She had to stay, because it was in this moment that her son loved us most - giving everything, holding back nothing, showing us that he is there in all our suffering. And Mary’s response of silent unity with her son spoke volumes. It took courage, it ignored social disapproval and it was utterly self-less and self-giving.

Yet the question remains: why did they - Jesus in his forsakenness and Mary in her desolation - have to suffer so much? Here Chiara Lubich again proposes a key:
“How beautiful is Mary desolate in this turning of herself towards humanity to gather up the fruit of her son’s death – truly co-redeemer in this working together for the redemption of all. I see her with him running towards humanity which has become their god out of love for God! Both ready to leave everything for us. We too, like them, must leave God for human beings, must leave unity for the Jesus forsakens scattered throughout the world. Must make of unity our launch pad towards humanity. Must come, must live for sinners and not for the righteous – like him, like her.”
What is my relationship with Mary like?

When I say that I have a close relationship with Mary, I don’t mean to suggest something esoteric, elitist or extraordinary (although the extraordinary is to be found everywhere!). What I mean is that she is someone whose presence I seek and find in my relationship with others. It is not dissimilar to me finding a shared friend in my relationship with another friend, or finding my parents in my relationship with my siblings, or my wife in my relationship with my sons. Analogously, I find Mary in all my relationships, since she is the one through whom Jesus, in whom all relationships subsist, came to us.

When I meet someone new, I see her since she is the mother of all and recognising her reminds me that this person who is new to me is at the same time my sibling, to be cared for, to be welcomed, to be treated with lightness and warmth. When I find myself mindlessly in the midst of a routine, I glimpse her and the routine recedes into the background of a conversation with her - after all, a routine shared is a routine halved :). When I am troubled, when it is unclear to me what I should do, when what happens doesn’t make sense, I find her beside me, consoling me and leading me to her son. When I see exclusion, discrimination, injustice, I recognise her among the excluded, calling me to herself, giving me courage to join her. And when I see suffering, I see her son and her by his side, with space for me to stand beside her. Useless, impotent, but present and ready to look for the little that I may be able to do.

Let me give you an example to illustrate what I am talking about here. During the last months there have been many challenging moments at work, where I saw that my colleagues were struggling with the pressures they were under. One Monday morning, when I arrived at work, I saw a young colleague looking physically unwell, as pale as a sheet, another colleague injecting panic into every conversation and a general sense of defeat and disillusionment among all who worked on a project that my brother Peter and I are leading. The previous week some technical challenges emerged and the general feeling was that they could end up making our project completely collapse, after ten years of hard work and before it brought anything to the company. This was unquestionably a moment of crisis and I knew that the expectation was for me to lead, to drive, to persuade and ultimately to win! I certainly wanted our project to succeed, no doubt, but the question that kept going around in my head was: “What would Mary do here?” I saw my colleagues like lost children at that moment, who first of all needed to be loved. And who better to learn from than their mother! Mary would surely comfort them, tell them they were special and give them a hug. I couldn’t do that literally, but I set out to go around, talking to them one by one and making sure they felt my closeness, that they felt understood and that they knew that we were in this difficult situation together. It was a day spent alongside Mary and therefore a day spent recognising Jesus in all.

What does Mary tell us about what love is and who God is?

Finally, we can also look at the above and ask what it tells us about what love is and who God is. Here there are two aspects that I would like to focus on, both of which are expressed with particular clarity in a mystical vision of Paradise that Chiara Lubich had in 1949. At that point she and her friends had spent five years of putting the Gospel into practice in their daily lives and when they went on holiday to the Dolomites, Chiara started receiving intellectual visions. Speaking about one of them some years later, she described Mary in the following way:
“On that day I understood Mary, perhaps through an intellectual vision, as I had never seen her before. And now twelve years have passed since that day, but I still have the clear impression of the unexpected “greatness” that this discovery of the Mother of God in the Bosom of the Father made on me.
As the blue of the sky contains sun and moon and stars, so Mary appeared to me, made by God so great as to contain God Himself in the Word.
I had never had such a notion of Mary, but there her divine greatness (divine by participation in the divinity of God) was impressed upon my soul in such a way that I do not know how to say it again.”

God, who is Love, makes Mary, his creature, greater than himself to the point where she contains him. Yet, this extreme humility in turn adds to God’s greatness because it shows the measure of his love for Mary. The result is a virtuous cycle of love where my making myself small so that the other may flourish fulfils me too and makes me grow, which in turn adds to the greatness of the other person whom I love and so on. Asking here who is greater then becomes a misunderstanding, since the “greatness” that follows from love has no limit once the first step of making oneself “small” out of love is taken.

A second vision that Chiara Lubich received shows an image that sheds light on the relationships among the persons of the Trinity, Mary and all of humanity. Here I’d like to read you just one passage from it:
“The tree of humanity was [...] created in the image of God.
When, in the fullness of time, it blossomed, unity was made between heaven and earth, and the Holy Spirit espoused Mary.
Therefore, there is one flower: Mary. And there is one fruit: Jesus. And Mary, though alone, is nevertheless the synthesis of the entire creation in the culminating moment of its beauty when it presents itself as spouse to its Creator.
Jesus, instead, is creation and the uncreated made one: the Marriage consummated. And he contains Mary within himself just as the fruit contains the flower. Once the flower has served its purpose, it falls and the fruit matures. Even so, if there had never been a flower, then neither would the fruit have ripened.
Just as Mary is daughter of her Son, similarly, the flower is child of the fruit which is its child.”
To get a clearer reading of this mystical and poetic text, let’s listen to what reflections it inspired in Fr. Pasquale Foresi, one of Chiara Lubich’s closest collaborators, who in 2006 wrote the following:
“God is the Father who gives himself wholly in the Son, who in turn wholly gives himself back to Him. And their mutual love - the relationship that unites them among themselves - is the Holy Spirit. Being like God then means living this same Trinitarian dynamic with Him. [...]
Also to us, then, created “in the likeness” of God, must be given the possibility of giving God to God, that is, of returning to him as creatures truly capable of being like him.
This possibility took shape fully on earth, at a given moment in history, in Mary.
She is the creature who was made capable of generating in the flesh the Word, the second Person of the Trinity.
We must understand this prerogative of Mary in all its extraordinary depth, which makes it unique among all creatures.
Mary, being Mother of Jesus, is the Mother of the only human-divine Person of the Word, to whom she gives human nature, which in him unites in most profound and most perfect union - “without division” and “without confusion”, as the Council of Chalcedon affirms - with the divine one.
Mary is therefore, in the true sense, Mother of God. God has been able to bring about so much in her because of her free consent to the divine plan prepared from all eternity: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
At the same time, Mary, because conceived of by God as the one who in herself sums up the whole creation, has opened to creation itself the possibility of generating God.
This is how with her and in her the freedom of the human person reaches its truth and its fullness.”
What stands out to me here is the level of intimacy and unity between God and us, his creation, which has its pinnacle in Mary, the person whom God singled out in his relationship with humanity and who is at the same time one of us and one with God. Through God’s relationship with Mary we see the relationship we are all called to and in which we all already share through Mary. And again it also speaks about what love is, regardless of whether you believe in God or not. The relationship we are presented with between God and Mary is one where the lover surrenders to the beloved, risks their own plans by placing them at the mercy of the beloved, but ultimately arrives at a relationship of such unity with an other, who is so dramatically different from their self, that they both become each other’s source and fulfilment.