I have been fairly close to the birth of some babies recently, and it reminded me how brave women are. Indeed, I heard a woman on the radio the other day suggesting that men should be banned from being present at childbirth as they just aren’t up to it!! The Assumption of Our Lady that we have celebrated this week is a day when we celebrate the courage of one woman and from her the courage of all women
Mary’s words from Luke’s Gospel that we call the Magnficat (Luke 1:39-56) are pretty fierce aren’t they?
“(God) has shown the power of his arm, he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.”
Hardly the words of a gentle maiden which is the way Mary has sometimes been depicted!
This Sunday we hear some equally fierce words from Jesus where he says “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!” (Luke 12:49) Of course we prefer passages where things are a bit gentler but we have to face the fact that this is not always the case. For Mary and Jesus and their fellow Jews, being true to God meant resisting if only passively their rulers, the Romans, and their pagan ways ; and it was the same for the first Christians.
Actually it is surely the same for us today. Being a Christian, especially being a Catholic, puts us in the front line of abuse and attack of all kinds. Look at the awful reaction to the Twitter messages by Pope Francis. In the media, every failure by the Church and its members, especially its Bishops, priests and religious is highlighted, whilst hardly a mention is made of all the good things the Church does, and is doing. Treading the right path through this modern minefield… being truly sorry for our failings and yet still strong in our faith, is a very hard thing to do. I am reminded of another woman from one of the Books of Maccabees. These books were written only about 150 years before Jesus was born and they tell of a time when the Jews were being forced to abandon their religious practices and conform to pagan ways. Some brothers were being killed one by one for refusing to betray their faith, and their mother was asked to persuade them to give way for if they gave way, others might follow. She agreed, but then went up to her son who was being tortured and whispered encouragement to him, to be brave and true to his principles whether he lived or died. This also reminds us of those brave people who did the same in 16th and 17th Century England, staying true to the Catholic faith even if it meant torture or death. Many of these people were women, who like Mary were strong and brave in the faith even though they knew what that might mean. Look up the story of St Margaret Clitherow of York if you want a great example.
Indeed, some of the greatest saints of the early Church were also women in the mould of Our Lady. There is a list of them whom I shall name today when I pray Eucharistic Prayer 1. Listen out for them “Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia” – each one with her own history of courage and defiance in the face of persecution by others.
Pope Francis, at a Press Conference held on the plane flying him back to Rome after WYD in Rio, was asked about the role of women in the Church. Some of you will be sad that he made it clear that women cannot be priests, but he went on to say an interesting thing, to stress how important their role as mothers is, and then he implied that this was not enough. He pointed out that Mary was more important than the Apostles, and that therefore the Church in the 21st Century needed to work out new ways in which women could play a greater role in its life, not just as mothers.
Mary was a mother yes, and her role as mother was vitally important in making Jesus who he was. But she did more than just this. She was at the foot of the cross when almost all the Apostles had run away, and she was also with the Apostles in the Upper Room at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them all and they found the courage at last to go out and preach the Gospel even if it meant they might be arrested and killed. There is that word “courage” again and I have no doubt that Mary’s presence was an important part of this process without which the Church would never have begun. That is why we are honouring her this week.