Back in February of this year Pope Francis gave the Church a new feast day. Every year the day after Pentecost is now the memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, has urged priests to make celebrating this memorial a priority and he said that the readings the Church chose for this feast “illuminate the mystery of spiritual motherhood.” So I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on these readings and discover what it means for Mary to be our mother and the Mother of the Church.
The Church gives us two options for the first reading, one of them is from the Acts of the Apostles (I’ll get back to that one) and the other is from Genesis (Gen 3:9-15, 20). This second option is the story of when God confronts Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit. During that conversation with our first parents, God turned his attention to the serpent and made this remarkable statement:
“Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals and from all the wild creatures; On your belly shall you crawl, and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”
This is the first prediction of Mary and Jesus in scripture. Adam and Eve sinned only minutes before and God already has a plan for how he’s going to fix things. The serpent (representing the devil, sin, and death) will be delivered a fatal blow to the head by a descendant of Eve.
There were only two women in all of human history who did not have original sin, Eve and Mary. Both women were given the choice of either obeying God or turning away from Him. Eve’s choice brought sin into the world whereas Mary’s choice brought Jesus (the destroyer of sin and death) into the world. Eve, whose names means “mother of all the living,” gave birth to sin and death. Whereas Mary gave birth to the Messiah and, in turn, the Church. For, as St. Leo the Great says, the birth of the Head is also the birth of the body.
This brings us directly to the gospel reading for the day. It is St. John’s account of the crucifixion (John 19:25-34) where Jesus is hanging on the cross and sees his mother. The gospel says:
“Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”
The beloved disciple is likely John himself, but he remains unnamed and thereby represents all of the disciples who Jesus loves, in other words, the whole Church. While hanging on the cross Jesus gives his Church one last gift, a mother – his mother. And Mary doesn’t hesitate in taking on her motherly role.
Now we make it back to the other option that the Church gives us for the first reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:12-14). This reading takes place immediately after Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus told them that the Holy Spirit was coming but he didn’t tell them when. So the apostles went back to the upper room in Jerusalem and waited. The reading says:
“When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying…[and] devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
Mary was here encouraging and praying with this small band of people who would go on to become the first bishops and pope. Mary was already full of grace and the Holy Spirit from the annunciation all those years earlier, so she sat with the apostles and, according to Archbishop Roche (Secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship) “she who knew more about the Holy Spirit was helping them to persevere, and to pray, and to make a space for the coming of the Holy Spirit in their own minds and hearts.”
So what does all this mean for us? This feast is another reminder for us to turn to Mary and ask for her motherly help. At times when we feel distant or angry at God we can cry out to Mary and ask her to intercede for us and pray for our hearts to soften. And when we’re desperate for the Holy Spirit we know we can ask Mary, who is full of grace, to pray for a greater outpouring of the Spirit on our lives. This feast is one more opportunity to turn to Our Mother and say, as the Responsorial Psalm says, “My home is within you.”
[Image Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.