Mary: Model of Discipleship for the Third Christian Millennium

by Msgr. Peter Elliott

Looking at Mary as a model that Chrisitans can imitiate their life upon as disciples of Jesus.

John Paul II spoke to us of Mary and the Third Millennium:

“Mary, who conceived the Incarnate Word by the power of the Holy Spirit and then in the whole of her life allowed herself to be guided by his interior activity, will be contemplated and imitated during this year above all as the woman who was docile to the voice of the Spirit, a woman of silence and attentiveness, a woman of hope who, like Abraham, accepted God’s will ‘hoping against hope’ (cf. Romans 4:18). Mary gave full expression to the longing of the poor of Yahweh and is a radiant model for those who entrust themselves with all their hearts to the promises of God.” Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 48.

The Holy Father spoke to a Church where many people want to be apostles, to go out and do this or that, but they do not always want to be disciples first. The way of discipleship is not easy. Humility is required of the disciple, to follow, to learn, to obey, to be conformed to the will of the Master, to imitate the Master. But to be a disciple is the prerequisite of being an apostle, and that takes time. It also calls for prayer, reflection, meditation. Let us enter the school of Mary to listen to her and learn from her. To use the Pope’s words let us contemplate and imitate her.

The Way of Discipleship

Mary’s discipleship is expressed simply in some of her few recorded words in the Gospels, which reveal her, as the Pope’s puts it, as “the woman who was docile to the voice of the Spirit”. In Saint Luke’s infancy narrative at the Annunciation Our Lady says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). In Saint John’s Gospel she turns to the servants at the wedding feast of Cana and says: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5).

Notice the similarity between these expressions of faith. Both evince a total trust in God. Both show faith conceived in Mary’s heart, Christian discipleship. Saint Augustine suggested that her discipleship surpasses even her divine Motherhood.

Total trust in God is not easy for us largely because we live in a future oriented world. We are always thinking about the future. We peer into the future. Much of our mythology is about the future. We listen to “futurologists”. Some of us even seem to live in the future. But Mary’s word expresses the present moment. The immediacy of her act of faith is open to any future. “Let it be done to me according to your word”. This is unconditional trust. This is the beginning of costly discipleship.

But note the difference between these two expressions of faith, at Nazareth and Cana. They are key words spoken in two different situations but separated by many years. At the Annunciation a young woman is responding to the wonderful message any Jewish girl would long to hear, that she had been chosen to be mother of the Messiah. God takes the initiative in asking her to be mother of the Messiah. She responds with the “fiat”. “Let it happen…Let it be so..”

At Cana we find quite a different situation. Mary is a mature woman, perhaps approaching fifty years of age. She takes the initiative, first in interceding with her Son, “They have no wine”, then in not being deterred by his apparently severe reply, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” I if anyone called their mother “woman” it would be an insult. But in this scriptural narrative context the word “woman” is not a rebuke. Jesus, the new Adam addresses Mary, the new Eve as “woman”. She knows that this is the chosen hour for his ministry to begin in his first miracle. She is in partnership with him in his work. She knows he will not refuse her. So, reversing the Adam-Eve disobedience in the Genesis narrative, she calls for obedient faith when she says to the servants at the wedding banquet, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”

It sounds simple, but obedience is not easy. To imitate the obedience of Jesus and Mary is not easy. To be obedient to the Master is not easy. The spirituality of the “Imitatio Christi”, imitating Christ, introduces us to obedient faith, for the disciple seeks to be like the Master. But imitating Christ needs to be interpreted carefully because we can be misled by the world’s version of “imitating someone”.

Let me take an unusual example. I recall that my elegant (and very Victorian) grandmother amazed our family back in the ‘Sixties when she sheepishly mentioned that she was a fan of “Mr. Presley” and had seen all his films! Elvis was a skilled entertainer and actor, and some people still take a great interest in him. But what is perplexing is the number of adult males who try to imitate Elvis. Some of them are rather convincing “look alikes”, some are grotesque, but none of them are “the real thing”. There is something pathetic about it all, because here we see imitation reduced to the level of copying, an attempt at some kind of personal photo-copy of another human being.

That is not what we mean when we say we are called to “imitate Christ”. None us can ever rise to his perfection. Slavish imitation is not what the loving Lord Jesus asks of his disciples. He opens his Heart to us and says “Learn of me….” He calls to us, “Follow me!” Mary is our guide on that journey for her school is his. Yet she reminds us that we cannot do it by human efforts. We need the power of the Spirit working in us, what we call “grace”. The heart of the Good News is that God’s abundant and amazing grace has been given to baptized believers. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”, to use Saint Paul’s beautiful language in Romans 5: 5.

Without grace the following of Christ is impossible and so it was in her life. “The almighty has done great things to me….” God takes the initiative. Grace triumphs
over our frailty. There was a long journey between Nazareth and Cana, and there were further terrible steps still to be taken.

The Language of Discipleship

The world of the new Millennium will need faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, men and women humble enough to know that first they must follow him and learn in his school, as Mary did, before they can go forth and share in the mission of his Church. Following and learning requires a rediscovery of “interiority”, of meditation, of the interior life.

Mary’s certainly meditated. In Saint Luke’s remarkably rich infancy narrative we find two references to this meditation: “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) Then, after the finding in the temple and the family’s retun to Nazareth: “and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

Through meditation on what God was doing in her family, she knew her Son, not only as a mother knows a child, but as the Mother of the Redeemer knows the mission and mind of the “one sent into this world”. Her union with the Holy Spirit guided her meditation. We return to the Holy Father’s words in the apostolic letter: Mary “conceived the Incarnate Word by the power of the Holy Spirit and then in the whole of her life allowed herself to be guided by his interior activity.” The Holy Spirit is the inner guide, the indwelling presence of God in us, the Spirit overshadowing Mary and working through her and through every disciple.

We reflect on the Holy Father’s words to us, that Mary is “a woman of silence and attentiveness”. The silence of meditation, mental prayer, the prayer of watching and waiting, involves attentiveness to the Lord, listening, discerning. So ultimately, we learn in the school of Jesus and Mary that the language of discipleship is silence.

The Cost of Discipleship

He did not spare his Mother from the cost demanded of those who follow him. “If anyone would follow me, let him take up his cross…”

The cost of discipleship is found in her immaculate heart. It is a pierced heart. At the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the old prophet held the Desire of the Ages in his arms and no doubt he looked into the eyes of Mary when he said: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Yet, as the Pope puts it in his letter on the Millennium, this Mother of Sorrows is “a woman of hope who, like Abraham, accepted God’s will ‘hoping against hope’ (cf. Romans 4:18).”

It was with hope that this strong woman took her stand on Calvary and there was given to us as our Mother, the new Mother of a new humanity, the Church. Again as at Cana, Jesus addresses Mary with that basic Genesis word “woman”. The language has the nuance of the great archetypes of creation. On Calvary the Son of Man and the Woman reverse what our first parents caused. The curse is lifted, the wound is healed, the loss is restored. The new mother, the second Eve, becomes “our life, our sweetness and our hope”.

Here we touch on the mystery of Mary as “Co-redemptrix”. This title in no way means she was equal to the one Redeemer, for she herself was redeemed by his anticipated merits in her Immaculate Conception. Nor does it mean that she shares in the work of Redemption by her own power. She is a human being given a special grace to share in her divine Son’s work of Redemption. Here she is a pattern for millions of faithful disciples, a pattern for all of us in the Church. Like Mary, in a similar and lesser sense, we are called to be “co-redeemers” in and with Jesus the one Redeemer. Our work as Christians extends his work of redeeming, healing, reshaping the wounded and broken world around us.

Mary teaches us that the cost of discipleship is a share in his cross. That means doing the will of the Father, being one with Christ crucified, as she was. But here the obedience we first learn in striving to imitate Christ takes a more concrete form. Each day we say “thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer. We talk about conforming to the holy will of God. Do we mean it?

The way of discipleship involves conforming to the will of the Master who is at one with will of the Father. In the end it means self abandonment to Divine Providence, “letting go” of self and letting the Spirit take over and that requires penitence, penance, conversion.

The Crown of Discipleship

In the Book of Revelation, chapter twelve, we find the final marian theme in the Christian Scriptures. In a celestial vision “a great portent” or “great sign” appears, the woman crowned with the twelve stars, clothed in the sun, with the moon at her feet, the woman who brings forth a man child, the woman pursued by the diabolical dragon who seeks to devour her child. There are some fascinating overlapping images here in the vision.

The woman in glory is Mary, Queen of the Universe, hence glorified by the great cosmic lights. At the same time she is a figure of the Mother Church triumphant. Again there are nuances here linking Mary to Eve, because the expression “the woman”, implies that Mary is the second or new Eve because she is the mother of all men and women reborn in grace through baptism, freed from the curse of Eden, original sin. The apocalyptic vision of Mary presents her as the supreme model of Mother Church and she reveals that the children of the Church will be finally triumphant in their perennial struggle with evil. She is the “great sign” of hope for all of us, “a woman of hope who, like Abraham, accepted God’s will ‘hoping against hope’ (cf. Romans 4:18).
But the glory of Mary is not something we only contemplate, encouraging as it is. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, she did not set aside her motherly role once she entered heaven. Her motherhood now extends to all through her prayer and love. Cf. Lumen Gentium 62. Children welcome this appreciation of Mary’s compassionate love for us. Adults find it a great comfort, especially in the worst moments of human experience.

Finding the Balance: “Both…..and”

In the past, particularly in the immediate post War era, there was a tendency to exalt Mary which ran the risk of making her a somewhat remote figure, especially with an emphasis on regal titles such as “Queen of the Universe”. That era was followed by an over reaction to this trend, just after the Second Vatican Council, when a reductionist mariology emerged. Mary became only a good human example for us to copy, and later on some more extreme feminists even said she was not a good example.

Today we need to maintain balance, between the glory and power of Mary and her role as the model of Christian discipleship, between invoking her help and following her example. This runs parallel to the healthy tension that should exist between divine transcendence and divine immanence, that is, between the omnipotence of God and his intimacy with us and his work within creation. I like to put this in a broad context of what I call the “both…and” understanding of Catholicism.
The rigid “either…or” position is a characteristic of heresy, especially when it involves the exaggeration of one truth at the expense of another. But Catholicism is replete with the subtle balance of “both….and”. The orthodox Catholic way is so much wider, broader and more inclusive than any heresy, and much more interesting. Heresies and heretics are so boring!

In an instructive contrast to error, the vibrant truths of our Faith often involve a constant reiteration of the principle of “both…and”. Here are some examples:

God is both transcendent and immanent;
Jesus is both God and Man;
he rose again both in his body and his soul;
the Mass is both Sacrifice and Meal;
priests are both ministers of sacrament and ministers of the word;
the Church teaches both Faith and Morals;
we are saved both by Faith and good works;
the sources of Revelation are both Scripture and tradition

“Both…and” can involve necessary balance, a healthy tension, paradoxes, contrasts, challenges, mysteries, all the drama and excitement of Catholicism We apply this “both….and” principle to what the Church teaches about Our Lady.

Mary is both Virgin and Mother.
Mary is both Queen of Heaven and the Maiden of Nazareth.
Mary is both intercessor for us and our example in discipleship.

Mary presents both glory and humility, the triumph of what is of little account in this world. She lived in an obscure corner of a great Empire. She was unknown in her lifetime, except in her family, her village and among the disciples of her Son. Yet in her own hidden life, the prophetic words of the Magificat are fulfilled and the world’s agenda is turned upside down. God does put down the mighty, exalted the lowly. God continues to vindicate the poor and calls us to make that first option in their favor.

Mary, Mother of the Poor

The poor, the oppressed, the illiterate ones, understand and treasure Mary’s motherly protection. Her greatest champions on earth are not found in the ranks of clergy, theologians, intellectuals or prosperous Catholic lay people. Her champions, known only to God, are found elsewhere, where they live and pray, where some of them struggle just to keep alive.

If you would seek those who are close to Mary , look in the shacks of Manila or in the crowded barrios that cover the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro. Journey to the remote plains of Africa, or wait in the scented gloom of village chapels across Greece, Russia, Armenia. You will find Mary loved and honored in the din and lively confusion of family apartments in Cairo, Bagdad and Damascus. You will see the oppressed believers in Cuba, China and Vietnam turning to Mary. They, the little ones of this world, look into her eyes and find a Mother’s love. This Mother never forgets her most helpless and vulnerable children. How fiercely they will defend her, these champions of her reign, these little ones known only to the Father. Do they not challenge us? Is not their trust in Mary a call for our compassion, our justice?

Mary and the Future

We seem to live in a highly charged apocalyptic age, which was the case one thousand years ago among apprehensive Europeans who knew a new Millennium was about to begin. As it was in AD 999, so it was in the final year of that Second Christian Millennium, 1999. People of varying degrees of expertise, sanity and balance bombarded us with their predictions, their warnings and their fears. Already late Twentieth Century popular Catholic fiction abounded with vivid apocalyptic themes, handled with much imagination and usually well-written. Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah is not only evocative and entertaining but instructive. At his best, the late Malachy Martin can paint a convincingly dramatic picture of a time of crisis. The literary genre indicates the wider social mood; it is not merely a message to be pressed or unraveled by a few experts.

It is natural for us to speculate about the future but para. 2115 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that we should be free of superstitions and responsible in this regard. There is a place for an apocalyptic dimension in our Faith, although I would prefer to describe it as eschatological rather than apocalyptic.

Disciples are following the Lord “somewhere”. After all, he has promised us a dwelling place in eternity. We are on a pilgrim journey, forward, through the events of time and space, on into the next world, into the Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity is teleological, that is, it points to an end (telos), a specific future, a final fulfillment with purpose, not to unknown darkness or cosmic chaos. However, that the future is coherent, that it involves the reign of Christ the King and the triumph of his Mother’s immaculate heart, reminds us sharply that we are “pilgrim people” on a journey of faith and trust, not a herd on a stampede of fear and despair.

This is why we all need to be very prudent about the flow of private revelations allegedly coming from the Blessed Virgin herself in these early years of the Third Millennium. The Church allows much freedom here, at least in regard to circulating material on such phenomena and in allowing people to promote or explain the events. But if the official policy is tolerant, it should be understood not as blanket endorsement for alleged appearance of the Blessed Virgin. It is an invitation for each of us to practice mature discernment and responsibility in these matters. That includes the use of reason and common sense. We are meant to make up our own minds, not to get carried away and certainly never to construct the content and practice of our faith around private revelations. That can turn discipleship into bondage.

As I have presented it, discipleship patterned after Mary is to join her, to follow her example in the light of Divine Revelation, contained in the Scriptures and Tradition and proposed in the teaching of the Church. Following the minute and at times never-ending instructions of some private revelations is not the path of true discipleship. Certainly, we can and should respond to the essential content of those major apparitions approved by the Church, for example Lourdes and Fatima. The revelations involved in these visions of Our Lady have been judged credible by the Church precisely and only because they are in accord with the normal fonts of Revelation, such as the Gospel of Christ. They call us to live the Gospel through prayer and penance, and in no way do they contradict or add to the teachings of the Church. Moreover, even Church approval of certain private revelations does not bind anyone to believe in them.

Therefore, so as a true disciple like Mary, we go forward walking in faith and trust, not like a slaves stumbling on in fear and trembling. The disciple looks forward confidently because he or she can look back gratefully. The future triumph of Christ and his Mother rests on what God has already accomplished in history, in the Incarnation, in the Redemption, in the Resurrection. Mary participated in those events in her Son’s life, first as the Mother of God Incarnate, then as the Woman standing at the cross, finally as the Queen assumed in her own risen body into heavenly glory. In her life the whole story of the Church was anticipated, foretold, previewed.

Therefore, like her, already we have begun to participate in the saving acts and events of Jesus through the transforming grace of the seven sacraments, especially the living Bread of eternal life, the Eucharist. This should remind us that, while a pilgrimage site of apparitions may be moving even instructive, just around the corner in your neighborhood and mine is the holiest place. There, a flickering lamp calls us to the challenging reality of God personally among us, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, in the tabernacle of our churches. Let us go there to the Lord in the Eucharist, with Mary. Let her lead us there, to that Upper Room where the disciples gather “with Mary the Mother of Jesus” wrapped in a silence that speaks more loudly than words.

The Holy Father John Paul II, in his apostolic letter for the Jubilee Year, pointed to Our Lady and said:

“Her motherhood, which began in Nazareth and was lived most intensely in Jerusalem at the foot of the cross, will be felt during this year as a loving and urgent invitation addressed to the children of God, so that they will return to the house of the Father when they hear her maternal voice: ‘Do whatever Christ tells you.’ (cf. John 2:5)” Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 54.

May we all return to the “house of the Father”. In the school of his Son, may we learn to be better disciples, doing what Christ tells us. In these early years of the Third Millennium of Christianity, may we be filled with the Holy Spirit, to carry out some new apostolic work, some mission for others, in the beautiful land of Australia.

Above all, let us resolve to encourage and support one another, with the love and compassion of Jesus. None of us makes the disciple’s pilgrimage alone. We need each other, because we pass through time together as a pilgrim people. Mary is always beside us as we journey forward, until, in the words of Saint Thomas More, we hope to “meet merrily in heaven “.

© Published by permission of Msgr. Peter Elliott 2001