God’s Children Need a Mother (audio recording)

Benjamin Homilies

 

On September 23rd, 2013, I gave a formation conference to the St. Joseph (Green Bay) community of Secular Discalced Carmelites OCDS.  Here is an edited recording of that conference.

The first part of the conference explained how the holiest object in all of Judaism, the Ark of the Covenant, prefigured the place that Mary would have in the People of God which is the Church.  The second part looked at the natural world in order to show that Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of all His children.

 

N. B. The following notes were prepared for this conference, but the recorded conference does not follow these notes.

 

I. Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant

I want to explain Mary’s role in the Church by using an image of Mary that we find in the Old Testament, and this the Ark of the Covenant.

There are a few passages in Scripture which indicate that Mary is the ark of the New Covenant. The way St. Luke describes Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth (Lk. 1:39-56) has some clear parallels to the way that the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem by King David (II Sam. 6:9-16; see also I Chron. 13:9-14). The ark remained in one place for three months, Mary remained with Elizabeth three months; King David leaped and danced as the ark came to Jerusalem, John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb; David said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (II Sam. 6:9), and Elizabeth said, “And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43).

The other clear indication that Mary is the ark of the New Covenant is in the book of Revelation. Revelation 11:19 says, “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple”, and the immediate next passage says, “A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1).

There are three key ways that the ark of the covenant prefigured Mary:

1) Why the ark was made: so God could visit His people

The Ark of the covenant was a wooden box.  The Ark was a box 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ cubits wide and 1 ½ cubits high (a cubit is the distance between a man’s elbow and the end of his fingers). The ark was overlaid with gold on the outside and inside. No one could touch the ark, and so they carried the ark with two poles that ran through four gold rings.

The Ark had a lid made of pure gold. On either side of this lid were two golden cherubim angels with their wings facing one another, and their faces looking down towards the lid. The golden cherubim were the only exception to the rule that no graven images could be made.

The lid was called the cover, or the propitiatory, or the “mercy seat.” The idea of mercy is included in the name propitiatory, but “mercy seat” is a little confusing because God did not use the ark as a seat. From the description in Exodus 25:22 and several other passages, it is very clear God did no sit on the lit or even stand on the lid, but that God appeared in a cloud above the ark without ever touching it.

During the lifetime of Moses, God would appear to him in a cloud above the ark and speak to Moses and give him directions and instructions. The ark was the meeting place between God and the people of Israel.

Mary is the meeting place between God and the entire human race, not because of her own holiness, but because she carries Christ in her womb. In his own person, Jesus Christ brings about a perfect union between God and human nature because Jesus is true God and true man. Mary is the throne of God, the ark of God’s presence among the whole human race.

Mary is much greater than the ark, because while the ark was a meeting place, Mary is the dwelling place of God. In the Old Testament, God did not remain remain permanently above the ark, but He would come and go. The Bible says that when it was time for them to leave Mount Sinai, this is how they departed:

So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey, and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, whenever they set out from camp. And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Num. 10:33-36).

God’s presence does not come and go from Mary, but God remains with her. Jesus says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him” (John 14:23). Jesus goes on to say, “Abide in me, and I in you…He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4,5).  Mary abides in God, and God abides in her. Because Mary never committed any sin, she never gave God a reason to leave her heart, and so God dwelt there in total peace.

 

2) What the ark contained: law, bread, and the priestly rod

Three things were contained in the ark: a golden urn holding manna, Aaron’s rod that had blossomed, and the tablets of the covenant (Hebrews 9:4).

 

The tablets of the covenant

God saved the people from Egypt in order to make a covenant with them. God said to them, “You have see what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:4-6). God also promised that he would protect and bless the people of Israel, and drive out the people living in Caanan in order to give them a good land to live on (Ex. 23:20-33).

The tablets of the law were the terms of this agreement; the law was the bond that united God with the people of Israel. The tablets of the covenant were placed in the ark, which functioned as the meeting place between God and his people. The law, resting in the ark, was a perpetual reminder to God of what he had promised to do for the people of Israel.

 

The jar of manna

The people of Israel crossed the Red Sea in Exodus 14. In Exodus 16, they began to complain that they missed the food they had enjoyed in Egypt. In the evening quail came and covered the camp, and the morning the people had manna to eat (Ex. 16:13-15). Moses had Aaron take a jar, fill it with manna, and place it before the Lord (Ex. 16:34). The people of Israel ate the manna for the entire tie that they wandered in the desert, for forty years. The manna did not stop until the day they were able to eat the produce of the promised land (Joshua 5:10-12). The manna was a reminder of the miraculous way that God had taken care of the people and provided for them.

 

Aaron’s rod which blossomed

In Numbers 16, a rebellion broke out against Moses and Aaron, led by three men, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Their rebellion was based on this: “All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then to you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).

These words ought to sound very familiar to us. This was one of the main lines of argument behind the Protestant rejection of the hierarchy, that all the people were holy. This was also one of the main arguments of the liberal movement for why we needed to expand the role and authority of the laity at the expense of the priesthood – because all the people are holy.

Moses did not argue against these men, but instead he said, “The Lord will show you who is holy.” To make a long story short, God punished the rebellion in a very strong way.3 God then commanded the tribes of Israel to take 12 rods, one for each tribe, and write Aaron’s name on the rod of Levi (Num. 17). Moses put the rods before the Lord, and the next morning the rod of Aaron had budded, and made blossoms, and had produced ripe almonds. The miracle was a sign that Aaron and the Levites were in their role before the Lord because of God’s own choice, and not because of their own arrogance.

This story also tells us that the rod that budded was a sign of true holiness before God, and in particular it was a sign of the true priesthood.

 

What the ark continued in symbolism, Mary contained in reality.

Jesus Christ is the fullness of the law; He is not just the Word of God written on tablets, but the Word made flesh. In His own person, Jesus replaces the law, because He is the living bond between God and the human race.

Jesus Christ is the true bread come down from Heaven. Through the gift of his own Body and Blood, Jesus nourishes the people of God on their journey through the desert of this world towards the promised land which is Heaven (see John 6:47-59).

Jesus Christ is the chosen one, the anointed one, the only one who is truly holy before God. Jesus is the true priest of the new covenant.

So, the symbolic items that the ark carried prefigured the true reality that Mary carried in her womb: the living law, the true bread, and the eternal high priest.

These three elements also indicate the three great gifts that Jesus Christ has given to his Church: the law, the manna, and the rod indicate the Gospel, the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

This means that the greatest gifts contained in the Church were contained in Mary first, and it is through Mary that they were given to the Church. Not only the Gospel, the Eucharist, and the Priesthood, but every other good thing in the Church has come from what Mary contained in her womb.

All this grace entered our world through Mary’s Immaculate Heart; Mary received Christ into her heart and into her body on behalf of the whole human race.

 

3) The ark prefigured Mary because it protected the people of Israel and guided them into the promised land

The Exodus is a story of encounter with God. By His power, God brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and led them to Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai, they people of Israel made the Tent of Meeting and the Ark so that God could journey with them. Whenever Israel would break camp, Aaron and his sons would cover the Ark with cloths and then take down the tent of meeting, which was called the Dwelling or the Tabernacle.

The Bible says that when it was time for them to leave Mount Sinai, this is how they departed:

So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey, and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, whenever they set out from camp. And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Num. 10:33-36).

The people of Israel entered the Promised Land from the east; the eastern boundary of the land is the Jordan river. When they arrived at the Jordan river, the priests carrying the ark went first. As soon as their feet touched the waters of the Jordan, it stopped flowing and backed up, just as the Red Sea had done (Josh. 3:14-17). The priests stood in the middle of the Jordan river until all the people had passed over. When the last of the people had passed over, the priests walked out of the Jordan and the river resumed flowing.

The New Testament is a story of the encounter with God-made-flesh. This climax of this encounter was on Mount Sion, that is, Jerusalem. On Pentecost Sunday the Church sets out from that mountain; she begins her journey through the desert of history in order to arrive at the promised land, which is Heaven. We arrive at the promised land by passing over the waters of death.

Just as the ark went with the people of Israel and led them forward, so Mary goes with her children and leads them forward.

 

II. God’s children need a mother

Devotion to Mary is central to the life of the Church because Mary has been given a central role in the work of salvation. What has made Mary’s vocation so abundantly clear to me has been the recent debates over same-sex marriage, because every child needs a father and a mother. God created this world with the idea that every child would be raised by the man and woman who had cooperated in conceiving them. In our broken world, this does not always happen, but that is what God intended from the beginning.

The pattern of salvation mirrors the pattern of creation, and so all we need to do in order to understand Mary’s unique vocation is to connect two simple truths:

– Children need a father and a mother.

– God has adopted us as His children.

What follows from this? God’s children need a mother. God, of course, did things the right way: before adopting millions of children into His family, God found a woman, chose her, and formed her to be the mother of His children. Remember that Mary is not equal to God. Mary is a nobody, a nothing, a poor little girl. Compared to God, Mary is hardly more than a bit of dust. If Mary is remarkable for anything at all, it is for being so very small. The Second Vatican Council said, “She stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from Him” (Lumen Gentium n. 55). In other words, if there is any way that Mary stands out, it is as the most poor and humble among the poor and humble of the earth. Mary is the one who speaks the deepest truth about herself when she says that God has looked with favor on His lowly servant, and has lifted up the lowly. Mary is the servant whom God has blessed, the lowly one whom God lifted up, she is the empty one whom God filled with Himself. God raised Mary to such a great height that He made her His own partner in the work of redemption. Mary’s is God’s partner in the work of redemption. God wants us to give her the attention that God Himself has given her.

In order to understand what God is doing, I want to give you a powerful image. Think of the entire human race as one body, one human body. How does every human body begin? With a single fertilized egg, that then divides into two cells, and into four cells, and so on, until there are trillions of cells. How does the human race begin? Genesis chapter II says that the human race began with just one person, Adam, and out of his rib, God made Eve. So this “one cell”, Adam, then split into two cells, Adam and Eve, and these two cells gave rise to the whole human race.

In a similar way, God began the work of redemption with one single cell: Jesus Christ. Out of Christ, God formed Mary, to be His partner in the work of redemption. These two “cells” have given rise to the whole Church. This means that all the Blessed in Heaven will owe their eternal life to Jesus Christ and also to Mary.

Now, Mary could have been born with all the graces needed to carry out her mission, but instead, God allowed those graces to come through Jesus Christ. Remember that it was not until Jesus was 30 years old that He began His public mission. What was Jesus doing for the first 30 years? The most important thing that Jesus did during this time was the work of training, teaching, and forming His mother.

I recently celebrated a funeral, and the son of the lady who had died was speaking. He was actually adopted, as were his three siblings, since his mother and father could not have children of their own. He started his reflection on her life by saying that children raise their parents; children teach their parents how to be parents. He said that it took them about twenty years to raise their mother. I have to agree with this.

I am the oldest of seven children, and it took us a while to train our parents. My younger brothers were raised by better parents because we had taught them how to be parents.

God chose Mary as the mother of all of His children, and this meant that God would need to teach her how to be a mother. Jesus Christ became her Son in order to teach her how to be a mother.

The Bible has given us a little glimpse of His work in the story that St. Luke tells us of the time when Jesus was lost in the Temple. It took Mary and Joseph three days to find Jesus, and when they did Mary confessed the state of her soul: she was troubled about why Jesus had done this to them and admitted that she and Joseph had been anxiously searching for Him (Lk. 2:48).

Jesus responded to her anxiety in a way that is amazingly innocent but incredibly challenging. Jesus did not apologize because He had done nothing wrong. Jesus did not sympathize or admit that Mary had a right to feel anxious. “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” As far as Jesus is concerned, He was sitting in His father’s house the whole time while Mary and Joseph were looking around the yard, wondering where He was. Jesus was constantly challenging His mother to see the world on a spiritual rather than a human level. Jesus was constantly speaking the Word of God to her, and Mary was constantly receiving this words, cherishing them in her heart, and growing in faith because of the nourishment of these words.

The Second Vatican Council teaches us that Mary made progress throughout her life. This is what Lumen Gentium says,

In the course of her Son’s preaching she received the words whereby in extolling a kingdom beyond the calculations and bonds of flesh and blood, He declared blessed those who heard and kept the word of God, as she was faithfully doing. After this manner the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth. Finally, she was given by the same Christ Jesus dying on the cross as a mother to His disciple with these words: “Woman, behold thy son” (LG 58).

With these words in mind, we can divide the live of Mary into three periods. The first part, from her birth until the Annunciation, Mary was formed in the faith of Israel and prepared by grace to receive the Messiah. In the second part, Mary received the Lord Jesus Christ and, through Him, she was formed in faith. This was her Novitiate, that lasted about thirty years. At the cross, Jesus gave Mary her active mission, which was the mission to be the mother of His disciples. When Jesus said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” it was the gift of a new mission.

Mary is the spiritual mother of every soul reborn in baptism. What is true of Mary in particular is true of the Church in general, and vice versa. The virginity and motherhood of Mary and the virginal purity and motherhood of the Church are two aspects of the same reality.

Architects will make scale models of the buildings that they are proposing to build, so that clients can easily see what the building will look like once it is built.

Mary is God’s scale model of the Church: the perfect image of all that the Church will be when her purification in history is complete. Everything that God first gave to Mary is then shared with the whole Church. The whole Church is becoming that pure, immaculate, and glorious virgin mother, as the Church grows on her own pilgrimage of faith.

I just said that God began with Jesus Christ, and out of Christ He formed Mary, and it is through this man and woman that God has formed the whole Church. We can also describe this same work in the opposite way: God began with Mary, and out of Mary God formed Jesus Christ, and through this man and woman God has created the whole Church.

The Second Vatican Council describes Mary’s role in the incarnation in this way:

The Father of mercies willed that the incarnation should be preceded by the acceptance of her who was predestined to be the mother of His Son, so that just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life. That is true in outstanding fashion of the mother of Jesus, who gave to the world Him who is Life itself and who renews all things, and who was enriched by God with the gifts which befit such a role. It is no wonder therefore that the usage prevailed among the Fathers whereby they called the mother of God entirely holy and free from all stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature. (LG 56)

Remember that in the beginning, when God created the Heavens and the earth, he gave man dominion over the earth (cf. Gn 1:26). God so totally respected our authority over the earth that He ?Himself would not enter the earth until man welcomed Him, until man said “Yes” to His coming. Mary is the one who, on behalf of the whole human race, said “Yes” to God. Since it is in our heart that we say Yes or No to God, it was through Mary’s Immaculate Heart that God entered the world and brought us salvation.

Her motherly heart not only leads her children but also helps to form them. In the natural world the father and mother both contribute to the conception of a child, but the mother is the one who carries the child in her womb. The mother, using the power God has given her, nourishes her child and creates a fertile space in which the child’s body can be formed. The mother gives birth to the child and feeds the child with her own body, but she also nourishes the child’s soul with her tender words, her caresses and her expressions of love.

The spiritual life happens in a similar way. God is the source of all life, but God has entrusted our pilgrimage through life in a particular way to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. This is why a consecration to Mary’s Immaculate Heart is so important for us who are still walking in the desert. Her Immaculate Heart leads us and protects us. Mary stands among us, keeping the waters of sin and death at bay until the last of her children have crossed over and entered Heaven. Mary’s work will be done when the last of her children enters Heaven.