A Pilgrimage of Grace

Understanding Mary, Mother of God

I arrived at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral this afternoon, triumphant but weary. I pressed through the crowds of gawking tourists and families ripe with strollers like the profit Jonah washed up on an empty beach. The doors of the cathedral were open wide facing the streets, and although I could not see the light pouring from the statuary and stain-glass, I could see the yellow vestibule in my mind. There, planted high above the alter would rest the Bishop’s seat and the images of ten thousand saints whose names remained to me a cacophony of grace. I quickly found the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe and of Saint Peter before kneeling quietly against the blaring noise.

My mother, dressed in a coat loaded with one too many water bottles and pretzels, assisted me in this gesture of penitence, hope, and gratitude. As I kissed my scapular and rosary in veneration, I heard a great assembly filing through the pews to my right. Situated before the altar, a young priest most likely in his thirties was preaching in Spanish. I was later told a bride and groom stood before that assembly beaming in the light of many candles, her fingers clasped lovingly in his. Soon they would embark on their vows of piety and honor. Soon a song, richer than the firmament and older than the walls of that hallowed place resounded from the altar. I  smiled deeply, letting the warmth of the occasion illuminate my mind.

I was unspeakably grateful, but for a very different blessing. An hour earlier, I had laid on yet another hospital table for my first MRI in three years. My ears were sore from the constant drumming of the machine. My head throbbed from lying in one compact place for so long. For over forty minutes I had grovelled in the belly of the whale like Jonah, only to be birthed once more into a world of life, joy, and sound. You can imagine my all too audible sigh of relief. I can say that I was triumphant because the ordeal was over and because it is generally believed that my condition is stable. But I am now all the more triumphant for the lessons I learned at my mother’s side. Before the feet of Mary and beside my own mother’s footsteps, I captured a glimpse of the everlasting bonds which bind parents to children and God to man.
My journey began as I slumped nearly half-asleep with my back toward the train- car window. I dreamed of the Holy Land, of the little town of Bethlehem where the Church of the Nativity houses the bare dirt floor where our Lord was born. I have never been there, but often while I am resting I imagine the cave pilgrims speaking under the main chapel and that shining spot where the infinite king lay as a slumbering infant. I am sure the infant Jesus awoke to find his mother’s voice. I stirred to find my mother still attentively reading to me from a dialogue of Saint Augustine’s, seemingly ignorant of my apparent lapse. I want to believe she grinned knowingly down at me from between her folio though.

At age 23 and a man in my own standing, I have to appreciate these little acts of love. Yes, it was practical for her to read this document. The dialogue in question was inaccessible. The reading of theology is always soothing to me. The desire for knowledge is, according to Augustine, a search for Christ. But none of those reasons prompted her to clutch the papers she sought to know. Rather, she read out of a mother’s love which is a love without thought of self, a love with no need for reason, a love to bind up the last rumblings of any argument. Surely, in this one small act of mercy, I caught a glimpse of the real Bethlehem and a portrait of our eternal Blessed Mother, who presides over the young and the old with the same quiet beauty, with the same joyful sorrow.

In Holy Scripture, we know that the apostle John knelt with Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, at the foot of the cross. There, according to the Gospel of John, Christ peered lovingly down at his mother and said, “Woman, behold your Son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” Why does John not refer to himself as John in the narrative? Why doesn’t he identify Mary by name in the passage? Is he simply being cryptic or does he have a mystical, symbolic reason? The last sentence of this passage records how John took Mary into his own house. The house and the family structure are at the root of the human experience.

There is nothing more human than the bonds between father and mother, husband and wife, between parent and child.  Some of our earliest depictions of religious art in the world depict a woman clothed with the sun clutching her own son, the sacred child, in her arms. We see this icon from all cultures, from all faiths and walks of life. Perhaps even these distant peoples already knew, as if seeing from afar, the way in which God would take on mortal flesh and partake of our need for tenderness.

In Jewish culture, the Mother of the King held a central role in the Davidic bloodline. Throughout the Old Testament,  profits, sages, courtiers, and noblemen would address their concerns to the king and his mother.  Already in the Old Testament, we see a foreshadowing of the role Mary would play in the new covenant. But here, at the foot of the cross, the role of Mary as the primordial mother is perfected. For up until this hour, the hour of the cross, Mary the daughter of Saint Ann and mother of Jesus had belonged, under Jewish Law and custom to the house of her eldest son. But now by his death and resurrection, Christ has willed all people to join him in his house which is the church and the coming kingdom.

Nailed hand and foot to the cross, Christ not only gives us his body and his blood, he not only gives us the fruits of redemption over the skull of Adam, he also grants us the intercession of his mother. Therefore when Christ says to John, “Behold your mother,” he is offering us to partake of his Holy Family, a chance to become sons and daughters of Mary just as John was called to make Mary his own. It was this same love I felt as I prepared for my surgery, my cross three years ago. It was this same love I felt today preparing for my exam, and it was this very love which I discovered at  Our Lady’s feet at Saint Patrick’s, kneeling at my own mother’s side.