In the second of this series of teaching editorials on Mary, we will explore Mary’s role as a disciple.
At first, that may sound a bit odd to us. If Mary is the Mother of God, how can she also be a disciple? In the 1974 apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultis, concerning the development of the proper forms of devotion to the Blessed Mother, Pope Paul VI described Mary as “the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples.” The church teaches that she is the ultimate model of faithful discipleship because of the way that she consistently cooperated with God’s will.
Scripture records very little about the Blessed Mother, but the few lines in the Gospels that mention her paint a distinctive picture. In Luke, the accounts of the Annunciation and Visitation (Luke 1:26 – 56) provide us with much of the information we have about Mary and the strength of her faith.
When the angel Gabriel appears to her, she is startled by his unusual greeting — “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” — and must ponder what his message could mean. Although she very pragmatically questions how it can be possible for her to conceive and bear the Son of God, she accepts Gabriel’s explanation and agrees to be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit. What an amazing response to a life-changing request! By this acceptance, Mary demonstrates great courage and utter faith in the mystery of God’s designs.
Most people tend to be skeptical of claims that seem “too good to be true” and yet Mary replies to the most remarkable claim of all — that she, a humble young virgin, would conceive a child who would be the Messiah — with a mature and calm certainty that any of us would be hard-pressed to emulate.
Her assent is unconditional and freely-given, even when so much remains unknown to her. How many of us would be as willing to have our lives turned upside down without more information or some sense of security? In his folk song describing the Annunciation, John Bell paints the scene: “No payment was promised; no promises made; no wedding was dated; no blueprint displayed. Yet Mary consenting to what none could guess replied with conviction: ‘Tell God I say ‘Yes!’ ”
The unequivocal “Yes!” that Mary gave is the perfect response of a faithful disciple. Without knowing the future, without assurances that all would be well, and trusting solely in God, she opened herself to God’s plan. She allowed God to use her as the “handmaid of the Lord” without setting limitation or restrictions.
And as if that radical gift of self was not enough, she immediately traveled to her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, who was carrying the unborn John the Baptist. When Mary meets Elizabeth at the Visitation, the young mother-to-be offers a great hymn of praise to God. The title of Mary’s Canticle, commonly called the Magnifcat, is taken from its first words: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
It is a powerful prayer of praise for the goodness of God which the church has incorporated into its daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. It is the prayer used in the evening, recalling how God has provided for humankind by protecting the poor and being faithful to his promises. Mary’s praise becomes our own as we echo her gratitude. This is one of the tasks of a disciple: to acknowledge the master and give thanks for all that one has received. Mary gives us an excellent example to follow in her splendid prayer.
When our Blessed Mother declares that she is a servant of the Lord, she expresses the truth that all disciples must embrace: God is above all else. The powerful witness of her surrender to the Holy Spirit illustrates the humility to which all of us are called. Even she whom “all ages will call blessed” is not greater than the one she serves. Once she assents to God’s request, she takes on the unique position of being both mother and disciple.
In the events leading up to and following the birth of Jesus, her attitude is one of acceptance, reflection, and prayerful receptivity. Throughout her son’s public ministry, she remains steadfast, even to the foot of the cross. She does not draw attention to herself but to God’s mercy and love. Her focus is always on Jesus. What better model for faithful discipleship could we find?
Maureen Grisanti Larison is the Coordinator for Adult Formation and Initiation for the Archdiocese of Louisville.
*This article was edited 5/9/14.