A woman went to church to take her burdens to prayer.
A workman in the choir loft, thinking he would have some fun, called out in a booming voice: “I am Jesus, the Lord.” To which the woman answered, “Hush! I’m talking to your mother.”
Here’s another story: A girl, a troublemaker at school and home, kept pestering her mother for a red bike for her tenth birthday. “Do you think you deserve it?” her mom asked. “Of course I do!” she snapped. “Well, why don’t you ask God about that?” her mother replied. The girl stomped upstairs, sat down, and started to write a letter to God. But finding no way to tell God that she deserved the bike, she tore up one letter after another until finally she ran down the stairs and over to the church. “A good sign,” her mother thought. But when the girl got there, she took the statue of the Blessed Mother, hid it under her cloak, and ran back to her room. Then she wrote her final letter: “Dear God, I got your mama. If you want to see her again, send the bike!”
We laugh at these stories, not simply because they are ridiculous, but because there is a grain of truth in them. Many Catholics prefer to go to Mary rather than directly to Jesus or the Father. Protestants see this as a detour that elevates Mary above God. As for the statue thief, she thought that if she kidnapped God’s mother, God would have to act.
When we correctly understand Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation, we see that far from her leading us away from Jesus, she makes him more real for us. I am reminded of the time I saw a bandana-coiffed Croatian woman in Medugorje holding the hand of a life-sized outdoor statue of Mary. She was talking to Mary as if to her next-door neighbor. When she finished her conversation, she released Mary’s hand, turned to go, hesitated, and turned back, as if to say, “Oh, yes, and I forgot to tell you something else.” Here was a woman who was, I’m sure, in intense contact with God but who felt more comfortable pouring out her heart to another woman. That woman was also the Mother of God, but her feminine humanity was inviting and readily accessible.
Revelation in History and in the Heart. God’s revelation comes to us in two ways. There is what we can call his objective revelation, that is, the events, facts, and historical circumstances God used to reveal himself and his plan for the world. We read those things in the Bible. Even the existence of the Bible itself is one of those objective, historical acts of God revealing himself. The most dramatic and central act in this revelation was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. When Pilate washed his hands and let the soldiers drag the cross-bearing Nazarene to Calvary, little did he realize that he was anchoring in history an event in which he, the Roman procurator, would be remembered by name for the next two thousand years—in fact, every time Christians recite their creed.
But that objective side of revelation, that anchoring of revelation in history, would have been as useless as a bottled message bobbing in the ocean if there were not the subjective side of revelation, that is, revelation as it is received by human hearts. “‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.... We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10, 12).
The Holy Spirit makes God’s external revelation happen within us. That is what Jesus means when he speaks of the Holy Spirit as the revealer: “He will take from what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15). Of course, this supposes that we have the receptivity of faith. But once faith is there, the whole drama of salvation history is played out in our hearts. That internal revelation is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Several things should be noted about this interior revelation. First, although it is interior to the heart of every believer, it is common to the whole communion of believers. It is personal but not individualistic. Since it is one and the same Spirit who reveals, it is basically the same message for everyone, namely, the mystery of the triune God, which again gets externalized in the teaching of the Church—what we call “Tradition.” That does not mean that every insight into revelation is given to everyone; the Fathers of the Church each brought their insights, and so have saints and mystics down through the ages. But as the authentic insights of individuals flow into the great river of Tradition, they enrich it and make it the heritage of all.
Second, since what the Holy Spirit is revealing is God himself, the mystery he reveals is limitless. But for the Holy Spirit, this is not a problem. “The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). For seventy-five years, the Titanic lay hidden on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean until explorers dropped searchlights and cameras to its depths and revealed the treasure. That is what the Holy Spirit does for the depths of God. A tour guide taking you through Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico will point out the stunning creations nature has formed over millions of years. So does the Holy Spirit for the stunning wonders of God. Imagine what it is like when the One you are exploring is God and your guide, your revealer, is none other than the Spirit of God!
Third, it follows that the Spirit’s revelation is progressive. Even though we may not be as holy as the early Christians, we understand some things better than they did because the Holy Spirit has gradually unwrapped the mystery of Jesus over the centuries. This progression happens to us not merely as Church but personally, as we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God.
Fourth, the Holy Spirit uses the example of other people to move us interiorly to greater holiness, to greater conformity with Jesus. In explaining the parable of the sower, Jesus says that the seed is the “word” of God, a seed that he immediately begins to describe as “people”: “The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path. . . . And these are the ones sown on rocky ground. . . . Those sown among thorns . . . are . . . the people. . . . But those sown on rich soil are the ones . . .” (Mark 4:14-16, 18, 20).
Mary, Mold and Model. And who is the number one exemplar that the Spirit uses to inspire us? It is Jesus, of course. But Jesus cannot model response to Jesus. Countless people have modeled for us how to follow Jesus, how to be conformed to him. From Francis I learn Jesus’ poverty; from Ignatius, Jesus’ obedience; from the great Teresa of Avila, Jesus’ prayer; from Thérèse of Lisieux, Jesus’ simplicity; from Augustine, Jesus’ wisdom; from Thomas Aquinas, Jesus’ love of the truth; from the martyrs, Jesus’ fidelity to death.
All these are models, yet imperfect models. The perfect model? The one fashioned by the Holy Spirit to embody the perfect response to Jesus? MARY. Even before Jesus was the model for her or anyone else, she was the model for him. How so? She was the mold from which the Holy Spirit fashioned God in the flesh—God from the flesh of Mary! Jesus’ physical traits must have resembled hers. But more important, God chose her and made her to be the mold, the model if you will, for his humanity. Her flesh was sinless, made so by the one to be born of her. And so the humanity of Jesus was sinless, not merely because he was God, but also because he took sinless flesh from Mary. A metallurgist knows that any imperfection in the mold for a gold medal will show up in the finished product. The mold for Jesus was perfect. And so was the product, Jesus’ perfectly holy humanity.
There is much more to explore in this foundational event we call the incarnation. In it Mary becomes the Mother of God, Theotokos, “God-bearer,” as the Greek fathers called her. The privilege is so unique that no one else can share it. But Mary’s greatness is also—and even more important—measured by her role in her Son’s mission, in the gathering of the elect. And for this she walks beside us as a pilgrim. For she, too, walks by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Mary is not just any pilgrim. She is the ideal pilgrim, the one blessed because she believed (Luke 1:45), the one who in the darkness hoped against hope (Romans 4:18), the one who loved as no other loved.
This is an excerpt from Mary’s Life in the Spirit by George T. Montague, SM.