FOR ordinary Christians, there’s a sort of deep but distant reverence one might feel toward a Mother Teresa or a Padre Pio: so admirable in their sanctity, yet seemingly so far above us sinful mortals to teach us anything about struggling and failing against our sins and weaknesses every day or indeed every moment.
Even more so must be the unreachable-star regard for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God, immaculately conceived without the original sin burdening humanity; perpetually virgin before, during and after Jesus’s birth; and being sinless, spared from death and decay, and taken body and soul to heaven when her earthly life ended, the Assumption celebrated today.
Since the First Century, early Christians believed that Mary left this world and this life in Ephesus, on the southwest coast of present-day Turkey. Saint John, to whom the crucified Jesus entrusted His mother, is said to have brought her away from Jerusalem during the persecution of the faith, which began five years after the Easter events, and by the year 42, had led to Saint Peter’s crucifixion in Rome.
Christian tradition had it that the apostle and evangelist built Mary a house on Mount Nightingale, near Ephesus. In 1891, French abbot Fr. Julien Gouyet found the ruins, guided by the visions of German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). The house was restored and opened as a pilgrimage site cared for by the Franciscan religious order and visited by 1.5 million people yearly, including Muslims honoring Mary, called Miriam in the Koran.
Well and good. But having been blessed by heaven infinitely more than any other creature, from the moment of her conception till her last breath on earth, Mary is so uniquely favored, not even tempted as Jesus was in the desert, so as to be vastly removed from us descendants of Eve, with the sinful humanity she and Adam bequeathed to us.
And in our daily war against our fallen selves and world, it may often be more comforting to have a fellow sinner falling, rising and falling again on the slippery slope with us than an utterly spotless Madonna hovering above in dazzling light, unsoiled by the muddy earth, even as we intone, “Immaculate Mother, to you do we plead to ask God our Father for help in our need.”
Our Lady suffered with humanity
So is Mary just good for praying and kneeling, rosary beads in hand, but not the shoulder-to-shoulder lift we get from fellow fallen comrades-in-arms in our rearguard action against the daily assaults of human weakness and worldly allure?
Not so fast. In fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary, like our Lord, went through all the troubles of our human existence, so we can certainly look to her as a fellow sojourner, suffering as much, if not far more than you and me.
After all, how many of us have had to flee on mule to another country days after giving birth in amid unkempt beasts in a manger, with the king’s murderous soldiers searching for us? Or hearing from a revered temple sage that our only son would suffer and “a sword would pierce” our heart? Not to mention losing the young boy years later in the biggest city in the kingdom.
Then, of course, there was Calvary and all the gore before and after the Cross. Hearing the crowd call for our son’s crucifixion. Watching him lashed 40 times, then crowned with thorns that dig into his skull. Following him as he carried the instrument of his execution on the road to the hill of death.
Feeling in our heart every nail pounded into his wrists and feet, and every paroxysm of pain as his body tugged downward on the pierced extremities. And even after death had given Jesus peace, the horror of seeing the wounds on his mangled corpse and reliving again the agony of every bruise, laceration and spearing. Then finally consigning our lifeless son to the tomb and being enveloped by the indelible darkness of being alone.
Like us, Mary faced the test of faith
Okay, one might say, the Blessed Virgin can certainly stand with us in suffering the agonies and injustice of this world. But she’s lucky she never had to fight temptation, which we and even our Lord had to face, right?
Well, we don’t know that, since the Gospels don’t say much about Mary’s own trials. But there are a few things we can reasonably surmise.
First, the devil who didn’t spare the Son of God from his lures and blandishments, certainly would have even fewer qualms about trying to sway His human mother, though the Scriptures did not record these inducements.
Second, Mary had her uncomfortable moments with Jesus, admonishing the adolescent over His three-day disappearance, and turning to Him when wine ran out at the wedding feast in Cana, even if, as Jesus said, it was not yet His time.
Third and most important, Mary, like Jesus, faced the most difficult trial for every human being, which is life’s paramount challenge in the view of our faith: Will I believe and trust in God, and lovingly embrace His will?
So it was when the Angel Gabriel addressed her, when the Holy Family journeyed to Egypt and back to Nazareth, when Simeon spoke of future anguish for her and her Son, when that prophesy came to pass on Good Friday, and when the infant Church was persecuted after Jesus ascended to heaven.
Like Jesus at Gethsemane, Mary must have wished her tribulations away. But in the end, she reprised her Son’s loving obedience: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
As we face the very same trials of our faith, hope and love for God, Mary and Jesus are right beside us, holding our hands and hoping we too would give the answer they gave. Amen.