Saturday, June 22, 2024

Mary: The First Disciple

March 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Images of Mary Today

Mary is mentioned for the last time in the New Testament in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There she is pictured with the Apostles, praying and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This last glimpse of her evokes a powerful image that has been retained faithfully in the Church’s memory down through the ages.

It is also a liberating image. By testifying to her presence in the midst of the Apostles, Luke is freeing us from the temptation to limit our appreciation of Mary to her relationship with her Son during his earthly life. Placed as she is on the first page of Church history, Mary from then on can never be separated from the Church, even though it would take centuries of reflection before her precise relationship to the Church would become clear.

In an earlier article we saw that one of the major influences affecting the way we perceive Mary today was the Church’s appreciation of Christ and his place in the life of believers. A second major influence has been the Church’s perception of herself.

Ever since the time of St. Ambrose in the late fourth century Mary has been seen as a model of the Church. At first sight this seems implausible. Mary is a single person, whereas the Church embraces a multitude. How could Mary compare with a hierarchically structured body, made up of Pope, bishops, clergy, religious and lay people?

However, to be looking for similarities on this level would be a mistake. One must look more deeply into the Church in order to see how it can have Mary as its model. At heart the Church is a mystery – a mysterious union of believers with the risen Christ (his Mystical Body), alive with the Holy Spirit and adorned with his gifts. This inner reality lies beneath the visible structure of the Church. It is a mystery, but we can penetrate it a little with the help of Mary.

Bride and Mother
For the deepest mystery of the Church has traditionally been expressed by the twin symbols of “Bride” and “Mother”. The Church has been known equally as the “Bride of Christ” and as “Mother Church”. These symbols expressive of her deepest nature find their concrete expression in the figure of Mary, who was both virgin and mother. On this level then Mary can be a model of the Church.

St Luke in his Gospel portrait of Mary certainly shows her as both virgin and mother, but he also
provided us with another truth about Mary which links these two traits together. He portrays her as the model disciple, the one who perfectly exemplifies Jesus’ teaching about what it is to be a true disciple. At the end of his parable of the sower and the seed he explains: “as for the part in rich soil, this is people with a noble and generous heart who have heard the word and take it to themselves and yield a harvest through their perseverance” (Luke 8;15). Soon afterwards Jesus talks of his mother and praises her for being one of those “who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (8:21). Thus Mary is given to us as the model of what it means to be a Christian, a disciple.

Indeed every time he mentions Mary, Luke associates this idea of discipleship – receiving a message from God and responding to it generously – with her (cf. 1.45; 2.19; 2.51;11.27-28).

But the most important Gospel episode where the three themes of discipleship, virginity and motherhood all come together with reference to Mary is his account of the Annunciation (1.26-38). Here he tells of the moment of the Incarnation, when the Word of God took flesh in the womb of Mary.

God spoke to Mary through an angel. Her reply was that of a disciple who lives by faith. It began with a natural fear when God dramatically irrupted in her life, then passed through a puzzlement at what was actually being asked of her, and finally came to a wholehearted acceptance: “Let it be done to me according to your word”.

This whole-hearted giving of herself to what God was asking of her was a virginal act – an act of total and integral self abandonment to God the Beloved, giving the whole of herself to whatever the Beloved might ask of her. This integrity of personhood and giving of self totally to God is of the essence of Christian virginity. It is also of course asked of every Christian disciple.

Mary s consent was also a generative act – the act whereby she became the mother of God. As St Augustine so acutely observed: “Mary did not have intercourse and conceive; instead she believed and conceived”. Thus through her one act of faith and total surrender to God – the act of a disciple and virgin – Mary conceived and became the mother of God.

She earned the glorious title of Virgin-Mother, because she was first and foremost the perfect
Disciple. Through hearing the word of God in Faith (discipleship), Mary was able to give herself wholly to God (virgin), and thus she conceived the Word of God in her womb (mother).

This deepest mystery of the reality of Mary is reflected in the deepest mystery of the reality of the Church.

Models of the Church
Throughout the ages the Church has seen itself in a variety of ways. St Paul stressed the unity of the Church with the Risen Christ by likening it to a body. The Church is Christ’s Mystical Body: Christ is the head and all the various members of the Church are, as it were, the limbs and organs which perform their functions to ensure the well-being of the whole body.

In later centuries, as the Church became a political power in the West, it saw itself as a model for civil society, superior to any merely natural society of course, but inextricably interwoven with it all the same. Its hierarchical structure was stressed: the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was the head of this society, and the bishops shared in his authority.

The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed that the Church is necessarily hierarchical in its structure, but at the same time proposed another model as reflecting more adequately its inner nature. The Church sees itself as the new people of God chosen by him as was Israel of old, and bound to him by a new covenant, which is Jesus Christ. And like the Israelites of the Exodus the Church is a pilgrim people, journeying from slavery (to sin) to the Promised Land (of heaven). Although the Church is made up of people already redeemed by Christ; nevertheless they are still people who experience the hardships of the journey. They have not yet arrived at their destination, and are still beset by temptation and occasional lapses into sin. Nevertheless, they are sustained by the Spirit of Christ who gives them confidence to live in the hope that at the journey’s end they will be united in the embrace of his loving Father.

Together with this renewed awareness that it is really a people chosen by God, the Church has also deepened its appreciation of the fact that it is a communio – a communion of believers united round  Christ and bound together by the bonds of love and fellowship. It is the community of disciples, of those who believe in Christ and wish to follow him in the path of his Gospel.

Community of Disciples
Recent biblical studies have brought to light the full richness of what it means to be a disciple as revealed in the New Testament. Discipleship does not involve simply a relationship with Christ the teacher (Rabbi) – the “vertical” dimension – but also a bond of fellowship with all the other disciples – the “horizontal” dimension. Through their relationship to Christ, disciples find that they are bound together into one family, one communion, “united in heart and mind” (Acts 4.32).

The Acts of the Apostles gives us a vivid picture of the Church in the early years immediately after Pentecost. All were united in one fellowship, “faithful to the teaching they received from the apostles” and bound together by the Eucharist and prayer together (Acts 2.42). “The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (Acts 2,44-45). Here is a true community of disciples something which the Church today still looks to as an authentic expression of its own true nature.

And at the heart of this early Church community we find Mary. “All these (the Apostles) joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus…” (Acts 1.14).

Disciple and Apostle
Although the mention is brief, it does tell us a lot. In the days after the Resurrection those who believed that Jesus had risen from the dead gathered together in community to pray and prepare for the coming of the promised Spirit. Those listed by name were the Apostles, who had known and lived with Jesus before his death and who were the “official” witnesses to his resurrection. Mary too is listed, the only other person mentioned by name. And she knew him best of all, for she knew him all his life, not just during the time of his public ministry.

Although we are not told explicitly of an appearance of the risen Jesus to his mother, there is no doubt that Mary too was a witness to the salvation wrought by her Son. The fact that she is gathered together in the community of believers and mentioned by name with the other witnesses testifies to this. Moreover when we look at the crucifixion scene in John’s Gospel, we see that Mary and the Beloved Disciple are both witnesses to the saving events of Calvary, which in John’s vision also constituted Jesus’ “hour” of glory. Luke for the last time in his writings is thus affirming that Mary is at one with the disciples of the Lord, and indeed that she is at the heart of the community of disciples.

Moreover, from this little mention in the first chapter of Acts we know that Mary was one of those who first received the Holy Spirit when he came down upon that little community in such dramatic fashion on that first Pentecost Sunday. Mary was present when the Church was born, when that little group of disciples became the mystical Body of Christ, living by the life of his Spirit and continuing his work of salvation in the contemporary world.

For the Spirit dramatically changed them from being merely disciples of the Lord to being Apostles of his word. Before his death Jesus had chosen them for this task (Mark 3.13-19), and after his resurrection he solemnly commissioned them to spread his Gospel throughout the world (Matthew 28.18-20; Acts 1.8). But they had not changed within. They still remained much as they had been while Jesus was with them. In fact they were worse. They were timid frightened men, huddled together behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20.19).

But once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed. They really did become what the Lord had asked them to be. They became Apostles in action, not merely in name, going out into the streets of Jerusalem and preaching to all and sundry in language that all could understand. And such was the power of their word that we are told three thousand were won over to Christ that day (Acts 2.41 ).

But Mary too received the same Spirit of Apostleship.  We are not told that she took to the streets proclaiming the Good News, but the same Spirit did fill her heart with burning zeal for the cause of her Son.  She too longed to make sure that the salvation won for all by Jesus did reach to the ends of the earth.  Thus she fully deserves her title, “Queen of Apostles.”

The theme of discipleship as found in the New Testament has proved to be a rich source of inspiration for modern Christians seeking to come to terms with the role of Mary in their lives today.

Many find they can relate closely with her on this basis, because she is one of them – a disciple of the Lord – who has had to follow the same path that they are treading now.  Moreover, discipleship places Mary firmly in the midst of the Church, the community of disciples.  She is no longer seen in isolation from us, exalted far above the heavens, but rather she dwells deep in the heart of our Christian community, as we struggle to live the Gospel and ensure that it is preached throughout the world.  Mary, the disciple and apostle, is truly our model, showing us what we are called to be.

– This third in a series of articles on the changing role of Mary, by Father Patrick Bearsley, SM.

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