Historic and Modern Mary
Mary is the mother of Christ, and as such, she is our mother. So, what is it about the Blessed Mother that compels people to seek her intercession? Who is this woman, born more than 2,000 years ago in a remote Palestinian village, who still captures our hearts? And how can her life affect ours today?
MIRIAM, THE MOTHER OF GOD
In his article, “The Historical Mary,” Fr. Robert Maloney, CM, writes that Mary was “actually called Miriam, after the sister of Moses,” and was most likely “born in Nazareth, a tiny Galilean town of about 1,600 people, during the reign of Herod the Great.” For the most part, the townspeople were poor peasants, tradesmen, and farmers; it was certainly not a place of wealth, commerce, or power (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” ~Jn 1:46) The rural inhabitants made up “ninety percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the state and the small privileged class.” At least half of their earnings were given for the Jewish triple tax: “…to Rome, to Herod the Great, and to the temple.”
In Nazareth, the people respected the laws, valued their customs, traveled to Jerusalem for the major religious feasts, and spoke Aramaic “with a Galilean accent.” The culture outside of Nazareth was strongly influenced by the Greeks and Romans, so the townspeople would have regularly heard Latin and Greek in the streets, and Hebrew in the synagogues.
As someone steeped in her Jewish tradition, Mary would have followed all the practices and laws of her time. Her life would have been simple, ordinary, and hard-working. Like most women of her day, who were expected to teach their children about God and their religion, Mary would have known the Hebrew scriptures and would have maintained the home as a place of prayer.
Living in a rural village, she would have spent a majority of her time carrying water from the well; spinning and weaving cloth; making and washing clothes; cooking food; and caring for family members, both nuclear and extended. To run the household, she had to be physically and mentally strong. As Fr. Maloney notes, “It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at thirteen. As a peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea while pregnant; of giving birth in a stable; of making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so; of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims; and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years.”
MARY, THE PERFECT DISCIPLE
But Mary’s strength wasn’t solely physical. She had a tremendous spiritual tenacity.
In the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:26-38), Mary freely agrees to participate in God’s plan, even at the risk of her own life. A betrothal was almost identical to a marriage in ancient Israel, and, according to the law, a betrothed girl, who had relations with someone other than her intended husband, could be stoned to death. Mary’s “be it done to me according to your word” is an undaunted “yes” to bear a child that was begotten of the Holy Spirit, not of Joseph. She knew the law and what her “yes” could entail, but she also knew God and His word—and she knows that He was trustworthy. In her first recorded encounter with God, Mary heard His word and acted on it, even though the outcome could have been disastrous.
At the Visitation (Lk 1:39-56), Mary is the example of perfect discipleship. Upon hearing the news of her cousin, Elizabeth, she immediately leaves the comfort of her village to serve her elderly relative, who is also miraculously pregnant. Once again, we see Mary’s strong interior disposition, this time expressing itself in concrete action for someone in need.
At the Wedding Feast of Cana (Jn 2:1-11), Mary is attentive to the people around her. When she became aware of the couple’s predicament, she quietly helped them by approaching her Son. Not only did she act as their intercessor, she was their source of encounter; Mary brought the love and power of Jesus to the couple in their moment of crisis, while also pointing the couple toward Him. And throughout this event, she remained in the background, shifting the focus to her Son.
Standing at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25), Mary shows us that her “yes” to God through the angel wasn’t conditional. When almost everyone else had left Him, Mary stood by Jesus with John and Mary Magdalene. She saw her Son hanging on the cross, His body mutilated from brutal torture. It was not a moment of glory for her but one of unfathomable agony. Yet in humble tenacity, she didn’t turn back from the plow (Lk 9:62) or grumble against God. Instead, she quietly accepted what Jesus had allowed to happen—and what He had predicted.
Throughout her life, Mary continually assented to God’s will, receiving the joyful and painful moments equally. In her interior fortitude and faithfulness, she gave strength to those around her.
MARY, OUR MODEL
In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the Apostles and Disciples gathered around Mary; together, they waited for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). With Mary, and in imitation of her, they heard the Word of God tell them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, and then acted on it. As they gathered in prayer and anticipation, we can safely assume that any necessary daily tasks or needs that arose within the group were handled by Mary with understanding, humility, and care.
When we gather around Mary, she guides us to hear God’s word and act on it, as well. She points us to Jesus and helps us glorify Him in our lives by serving one another in humility and thoughtfulness. She helps us discern what is essential and release ourselves from the superfluous, teaching us to focus on the necessities. She assists us in our commitment to God’s will, even in difficult moments. In essence, she enables us to become better disciples of Christ. And she who, with Joseph, raised Jesus to love God and neighbor perfectly, shows us how to become children of Nazareth— more peace-filled, selfless, gentle, and compassionate. Our life may be filled with the mundane, but, in her company, it can become Christ-like.
It is evident that authentic devotion to Mary encompasses every facet of our lives—not just our moments of prayers. At its core, devotion is about relationships. Thus, true devotion to Mary creates a relationship with her—and with Jesus— and it strengthens our will to serve Him. It widens our hearts, deepens our understanding, and gently pulls us into the sacramental activity of the Church. In this new, broadened horizon, not only do we pray to Mary, we start praying like her.
We bring to Mary our trials, our fears, and our hopes.
THE ROAD TO MARY AND JESUS
How do we start this devotion, this transformation? Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we journey the path of understanding, of sacrament, and of transformation through the Eucharist, through scripture, and through prayer. Yet there’s one more element that will help us on this road, i.e., a powerful sacramental in the Church.
IT’S THE MIRACULOUS MEDAL
The Miraculous Medal has its origins in 1830, when our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Catherine Labouré in Paris and asked her to produce a medal based on Mary’s instruction. Mary told St. Catherine those who wear the medal “…will receive great graces. They should wear it around their necks. Graces will abound for those who wear it with confidence.”
History has proven her words to be true. The first Miraculous Medals were created in 1832, and due to the widespread reports of miracles and conversions, it soon became known as the “Miraculous Medal.”
Shortly after distributing the Miraculous Medals, Fr. Jean-Marie Aladel, CM, the spiritual director to the Sisters of Charity at the Rue du Bac where St. Catherine had resided as a novice, wrote that the Miraculous Medals “are restoring peace and unity in families rent with discord; in fact, none of those who wear them fails to feel their salutary effect. […] The King had a number struck in silver for himself and his court and family, and ordered a million for distribution during the outbreak of cholera, with the result that it is held in honour in nearly every house and many of the churches.”
Since the Miraculous Medal’s beginnings, the Vincentian family has promoted devotion to Mary and her medal. Within St. Catherine’s lifetime, more than one billion Miraculous Medals were made and circulated to the most remote corners of the world. Only ten of the original medals are known to exist, and The Central Association of the Miraculous Medal houses one of them.
But the Miraculous Medal does not merely belong to the past, it belongs to us, as well. Wearing it with trust and love, and asking our Blessed Mother, “the first among the saints, to pray with us in our need,” we can expect to receive graces for ourselves and our loved ones.
In Germantown, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was Fr. Joseph A. Skelly, CM, who tirelessly promulgated the devotion to Mary and her Miraculous Medal throughout the United States. And, it was he who built a Marian shrine within the Immaculate Conception Chapel.
When visitors walk through the doors of Mary’s Shrine, they immediately sense her presence and tranquility. They are awed by the beauty of the architecture and art. They feel welcomed.
As Mary made her home in Nazareth a place of prayer, she makes her home in Germantown one, too. She creates a peaceful atmosphere for worship and meditation—for silence, healing, and comfort. Mary’s Shrine is her home, and because she is our mother, it is ours, as well. She eagerly awaits us to come home and relate to her as a child to a much-loved mother. We can bring to her our trials, our fears, and our hopes, which she will turn into graces for us, for those we love, and for all humanity.
Mary’s Shrine is also a place of pilgrimage. We are a pilgrim Church and a pilgrim people. Like our brothers and sisters who followed Moses out of Egypt, we traverse through a terrain we don’t fully know or understand. In our trials and difficulties, we need a place of peace and worship where we can rest in God and be assured of His love and help.
And, of course, Mary shared our human condition, as well, living her own pilgrimage of faith.
In her company, and through a personal relationship with her, we, too, will progress in our earthly journey. With Mary’s help, our lives will be imbued with an abiding trust in God, a deep commitment to Him, and a strong love that expresses itself in justice, as well as contemplation. And at the end of our lives, we will discover that she’s helped us become miniature icons of her Son, Jesus.