It is wisdom that the Church begins the New Year with Mary, the Holy Mother of God as its portal. For Mary is clothed in the wonder of history. She is the iconic feminine figure who has been shaped with maternal care from the most sketchy of Scriptures. Of her we know so little from the text. Even Paul only mentions her once in all his works and that is minimal. Mary would have it that way, self-effacing as she seemed. Paul’s words are in the context of her magnum opus: birthing the Savior. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption” (Galatians 4:4-5).
For Paul, Mary is nameless.
Not so today. In December of 2015, National Geographic placed Mary on its front cover with the banner, “Mary: The Most Powerful Woman in the World”. Time Magazine, in the March 21, 2005 issue, also placed Mary on its cover with the header: “Hail, Mary”. The news here brought the Protestant search for Mary into full view. And Newsweek selected Mary for its cover in an August 1997 issue.
I saved them all. My own love for the Blessed Mother is not without noting; and scripturally I have often wondered how a woman with such humble beginnings could become the most painted image reflecting and reinforcing social and religious change throughout all of history. There are brilliant artistic depictions of Mary at every point in her Son’s life. I have Fra Angelico’s Annunciation on a well-traveled hallway wall in my home. The Nativity, the discovery of her Son in the Temple, the wedding feast at Cana, Mary at the cross of her Son, Mary with the apostles at Pentecost, and countless portraits of the Madonna and Child—each with its own intimate beauty—find their way into ancient cathedral windows as well as into the desperate homes of the poor.
In recent times, the outpouring of devotion to Mary has swelled once again. Rev. Michael Gaitley’s do-it-yourself retreat in preparation for Marian consecration (33 Days to Morning Glory) boasts two million copies in print—including my own bookshelf and in the hands of countless people I know who want to “grow their spiritual lives” under the mantle of Mary, the Mother of God!
So, why is Mary so popular?
First, Mary loves us as her Son loves us. She has a knowing eye upon the world from her celestial residence and often enters history in order to forewarn the people that war and strife are at hand. Those warnings are accompanied by invitations to prayer and turning away from sin. She is a kind of prophetic female John the Baptist who senses imminent need among the people. In Kibeho, Rwanda, between 1981 and 1989, three young visionaries saw hideous images of genocide as Mary appeared to them, warning them of the horror that was to come. Mary called herself the Mother of the Word and stressed that people pray and turn from sin. The visions preceded the Rwanda massacres that began in 1994.
Anathalie, one of the children who saw the Blessed Mother said, “I was reciting the rosary and she called me by my name. I heard her say, ‘Nathalie, my child.’ She looked very beautiful indeed, between 20 and 30 years old. She spoke in Kinyarwanda in a very calm and soft voice. She was in a blue veil and white dress. She never told me why she chose me. She said she appears to anyone she wants, anytime she wants, anywhere she wants.” She never mentioned any particular religion, Anathalie said. “She only asks us to love her as much as she loves us.” Twelve years later, the Rwandan genocide happened and this child reported that she witnessed the blood bath that Mary showed her years prior. She managed to escape to Kenya. Alphonsine, the other visionary, became a monastic sister in Italy; and Marie Claire, the third child who saw Mary, was killed.
The Vatican has declared this vision valid.
Second, in our culture of materialism, narcissism, racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” that define a mindset of bias, Mary models for us compassion, mercy, and, above all, the embrace of the poor. She continues to sing her Magnificat announcing a God who casts down the mighty from their thrones and who lifts up the lowly. It was to a brown-faced poor Indian who lived in Guadalupe, Mexico, that she appeared in 1531. Mary asked Juan Diego to tell Bishop Zumarraga to build a church outside Mexico City. After a life-size image of the Virgin was miraculously imprinted on Diego’s tilma, the bishop complied. Juan’s mantle is encased in said cathedral even now as a reminder to the millions who go there that Mary comes among the poor, to draw all persons to her Son, Jesus. We know this Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Again, it was to a poor young girl in Massabielle, a grotto near Lourdes, France, that Mary came in 1858 . Here Mary overrode the skepticism of a Church hierarchy by appearing to a child, Bernadette. Mary asked that a church be built at Lourdes where waters would flow offering hope to millions who pilgrimage there each year. Here where Mary referred to herself as the Immaculate Conception, the wretched flesh and bones of men and women who suffer find their downcast spirits freed to hope once again.
Finally, Mary offers to the human soul respite in times of travail. Whether devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help or to the recently popularized Our Lady Undoer of Knots, people continue to supplicate to the Blessed Mother for her intercession. When at the wedding feast of life it becomes evident that there is a terrible lack, folks are wont to go to Mary and tell her, “There is no wine.” “There is no hope, there is no possibility, there is no solution, there is no peace, there is no love … but you who have recourse to your Son, Jesus, you can ask him and he shall take note of the situation on your behalf!” It is a strange perspective, but one that somehow gives hope to the despairing. Beneath the mantle of her love, there is love. Prayer uncovers it.
When the world turns its face away from God and the things of God, then it seems Mary comes, offering a corrective and an invitation to return to her Son, Jesus. Though the visions at Medjugorje that began in 1981 and continue today have not been officially approved by the Vatican, one cannot deny the fact that twenty million people that visited there and continue to visit there seek a closer walk with her Son. They may go seeking signs and wonders, but on their return, they have found Christ; they have found peace. Mary’s invitation goes further as well, warning the world that peace will topple if hearts are not cleansed. At Medjugorje, Mary refers to herself there as Queen of Peace.
It is consoling to know that Mary cradles the world still. It is consoling to know that in 1846, eight years before Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Sixth Council of Baltimore formally chose the Blessed Virgin Mary conceived without sin as the Patroness of the United States.
And now, as the leadership of our country changes hands and huge paradigm shifts are on the horizon, it is reassuring to know that this mysterious woman, who birthed Christ, identified among the poor, misunderstood, humble and yet victorious, continues to intercede for the very people her Son came to save.
Through the portal of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, the New Year begins. The arc of her life is bent toward love and a simple warning to take hold of Christ, her Son, Jesus, whose life was given over for us all.
Mary K. Matestic, MTS
Most Holy Trinity, we put the United States of America in to the hands of Mary Immaculate in order that she many present the country to you. Through her we wish to thank you for the great resources of this land and for the freedom which has been its heritage. Through the intercession of Mary, have mercy on the Catholic Church in America. Grant us peace. Have mercy on our President-elect and on all the officers of our government. Grant us a fruitful economy born of justice and charity. Have mercy on capital and industry and labor. Protect the family life of the nation. Guard the innocence of our children. Grant the precious gift of many religious vocations. Through the intercession of our Mother, have mercy on the sick, the poor, the tempted, sinners—on all who are in need.
Mary, Immaculate Virgin, Our Mother, Patroness of our land, we praise you and honor you and give ourselves to you. Protect us from every harm. Pray for us, that acting always according to your will and the Will of your Divine Son, we may live and die pleasing to God. Amen.
—An Act of Consecration for the United States from Prayers for All Occasions: From the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.