Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Today we celebrate the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a day to remember and honor Mary the Mother of Jesus. Since the very beginning of the Church, Mary has had a firm hold on the Christian imagination. She is celebrated as the one human being who was totally responsive to God. And, by her complete openness and welcome to the mystery of God, she gives the Son of God human flesh and brings him into our world. What a gift Mary has given to the whole human family.
But sometimes, in our wonder at the impact Mary has had on the human family, we can lose sight of the fact that she was a frail human being who didn’t always understand what was happening to her, just like all of us. Down through the centuries many theologians and spiritual writers have reflected on her perfection, her sinlessness, her all-encompassing virtue. So often in art she is depicted as the beautiful Madonna, peacefully at rest in the ethereal light, smiling benignly down upon the perfect baby who certainly is not crying but rather smiling gently in his contentment. Beautiful images all and expressing a truth about who Mary is.
But in the Gospel stories we find not a passive, placid, contented Madonna, but a woman who from her teen years was fully engaged with a challenging and often enough painful life. Whether we recall the very beginning when she asks the question of the Angel Gabriel “How can this be?” or imagine Mary coping with the consequences of her pregnancy outside of marriage, or the anxiety she must have experienced as she had to give birth away from home and family, or the pain and fear of fleeing her home and of becoming a refugee in Egypt to save the life of her son, or the stress and fear she must have experienced for her Son as opposition and hostility to him solidified around him, or the final tragedy of his arrest, torture, crucifixion and death. In all of these experiences and more, Mary was constantly challenged to trust in God’s faithfulness to her in the face of extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
Yet it was her all-encompassing openness to God and unwavering trust in God’s fidelity that is so beautifully expressed in our Gospel this morning. After three days of frantically searching for her lost 12 year old son and his simple excuse, “did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” Matthew comments that “they did not understand.” Then, he concludes that Mary, Jesus’ mother, kept all these things in her heart. Indeed, this pondering incomprehensible things in her immaculate heart becomes a life-long habit for Mary, the faithful disciple of Jesus.
Strangely enough it is not so much in her perfection that Mary is so deeply loved and such a great model for us, but is, rather, in her response to the very difficult and tragic experiences in her life.
Most all of us have trust issues, even with God. We have those issues because what is happening to us at a given moment of our lives often doesn’t make sense to us. Figuring out how to respond is even more difficult. And then, of course, there are those experiences of misunderstanding, disappointment, and even betrayal. Events in our lives can easily overwhelm us and fill us with fear. It is in times like these that the life of Mary can speak to us. She was battered by many tragedies in her life and was, I’m sure, often afraid. Yet, her steadfastness in remaining open to the mystery of God and trusting in God’s faithfulness never wavered. She was present from the beginning to the end and beyond, into the life of the early Church. She is the true disciple. As we remember and honor her today, may each of us ask God to help us in our lives to never lose heart and trust that God is with us.
Fr. Michael Higgins, C.P. is the director of retreats at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.