Being a Catholic in Ireland right now is not particularly easy. Revelations about abuse of various forms over the decades has brought waves of sadness and anger. The number of Catholics who regularly go to Mass has gone down. The number of priests and religious is falling. Expressions of Catholic faith in Ireland evoke responses of benign indifference in some quarters and outright hostility in others. We don’t seem to be able to spread the good news of our belief in Jesus Christ.
Let’s now turn the clock back to the end of the first century, around the time when today’s first reading was written. What was it like back then? The Church was very much a minority group. Christians were on the edge of things. There was outright persecution in some quarters. There was also the seductive power of the Roman empire where, if you really wanted to get ahead, it was important to play along with the various pagan religious rituals. Opting out of the ways of the empire was the road to nowhere. And there was no lack of problems within the Church too: factions, divisions, disputes over doctrine and Church discipline. Great fervour in some Church communities and very half-hearted faith in others. Not a particularly rosy time either. What image might one use to describe this state of affairs, this Church struggling to get on its feet, with pressures both from inside and outside? What image would you pick?
The image used by the author of the first reading is amazing: a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with stars and crying aloud in childbirth. Awesome indeed. Beautiful almost beyond description, yet bringing forth life in pain; under the constant threat of evil, yet kept safe by God. The scholars tell us that this woman represents the people of God of both the Old and New Testaments. God’s people as Mother.
It was from the people of the Old Testament that the Messiah was born. We know that theirs was a painful history, of love and rebellion, of exile and loss. If Israel was the mother from whom the Messiah came, she was a mother in travail over many centuries. Likewise the Church of the New Testament, the Church of which we are a part, is in constant travail giving birth to the life of Christ in its members.
You might say: I thought today’s feast was all about Mary! It is indeed. The faith of Israel reached its culmination in her. The motherhood of Israel came to fruition in her, it burst into flower in an unprecedented way, and through the consent of her faith, the Messiah was born, the Son of God. From the moment of his physical birth her birthpangs took on a new dimension as she watched him grow and begin to walk in paths that were strange to her, even in his childhood. She struggled to understand. She learnt that being his disciple was more important than being his mother. Her journey of faith brought her to the foot of the cross. There she took part in the birth, out of suffering, of the Church: Jesus says to her, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to the beloved disciple, ‘behold your mother’. As Jesus hands over his Spirit, the Church is born, with Mary present as mother, and remaining as mother from then on.
So this glorious woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with stars and crying out in childbirth is Mother Church. But Mother Church is most of all Mother in the person of Mary. That’s there the motherhood of the Church is in its purest and most radiant form. Mary is, so to speak, Mother Church in person.
In the book of Revelation Jesus promises, ‘To the one who conquers I will gave a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. That’s where Mary is. That is where Mother Church is.
The Second Vatican Council said that ‘the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God.’
When it came to winning Olympic gold medals in boxing and rowing, it wasn’t just certain individuals who won. Ireland won. We all won. When we look at Mary assumed into heaven, her glory is ours.
So, while the Church must also walk the path of reform and coversion, it is an utter waste of time to start worrying about the Church. We have been promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Better to think about living the gospel together; not just think about it, but do it. As we take our little steps to follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit makes us part of something that reaches to the heavens, shining like the sun. With Mary as Mother, our struggling Church shares already in the glory of Christ.