"The Glorious Ever-Virgin Mary": Our Lady as Model of Participation at Mass

William Massie FAITH Magazine May – June 2012

Fr Massie beautifully brings out how Our Lady's example and prayer can inspire our fruitful participation in Holy Mass. He develops his thoughts from some recent papal pleas as well as the vision through which Faith movement presents our Faith. This piece was first presented as a catechetical talk for young people at the Faith Winter Conference in December 2011. Fr Massie is Parish Priest of Scarborough and Vocations Director of the Diocese of Middlesbrough.

"The 'door of faith' (Acts 14:27) is always open for us..." (Porta Fidei 1). Pope Benedict has invited us to "rediscover the journey of faith" and much is being planned for the Year of Faith commencing in October 2012. The journey is by way of the sacraments. The Pope reminds us that it begins with Baptism. He goes on to say: "We must rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves on the word of God, faithfully handed down by the Church, and on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples (cf. Jn 6:51)" (Porta Fidei 3).

In Faith Movement we offer a beautiful and thrilling vision of the relationship between Christ our Eucharist and his disciples. This brings out how the Mass is central to creation and salvation. For it proposes that Jesus Christ's coming fulfils creation, and that his loving of the world to the point of giving up his life on calvary achieves the redemption of the entire human race. The Mass then takes on the "cosmic" perspective so often written about by Blessed John Paul II {Ecclesia de Eucharistia [EdE] 8). The offer of salvation and redemption is mediated through history from the rising of the sun to its setting through every celebration of Holy Mass. Clearly, then, we need to make the Mass the centre of our lives. Can we learn any more from this visionconcerning how we should be present at it, how we should participate at Mass?

Pope Benedict says that one thing that will be of "decisive importance" in this Year will be "retracing the history of our faith" (Porta Fidei 13). In particular we should look to the examples of the holy men and women over the history of the Church, for "in him who died and rose again for our salvation, the examples of faith that have marked these two thousand years of our salvation history are brought into the fullness of light" (ibid). Great saints have left us wonderful teaching on the Eucharist: John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, John Eudes, Alphonsus Liguori, John Vianney, John Bosco, Therese of the Child Jesus, to name but a few. We could gain much by studying their teaching and insights. We should do it!

But first we must go to the one who uniquely, and above any other saint, shows us how to approach the Mass, which is the Mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith - the one to whom, above all, the Holy Father is entrusting the Year of Faith as a "time of grace". Mary was proclaimed by God "blessed because she believed" (Lk 1:45), blessed for her very faith in Jesus Christ. The glorious, ever-virgin Mary can teach us the most about Christ, our Eucharist. That is a bold statement but then so is this:

"Where the Mother is, there too is the Son. When one moves away from the Mother, sooner or later he ends up keeping distant from the Son as well. It is no wonder that today, in various sectors of secularised society, we note a widespread crisis of faith in God, preceded by a drop in devotion to the Virgin Mother." (Blessed John Paul II, 1982, Quoted in the Handbook of the Legion of Mary p.6)

On other occasions, too, Blessed John Paul said that Mary is our "teacher in contemplating Christ's face" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, quoted in EdE 53). And when he included the institution of the Eucharist among the new mysteries of the rosary it was, he said, because "Mary can guide us to this most holy sacrament because she herself has a profound relationship with it" (ibid). In fact he said that given our Lady's relationship to Christ, and that the Eucharist is Christ, we can call her a "woman of the Eucharist in her whole life" (EdE53 and Abide with Us Lord 10).

I want to stress three things in this short article. First, that Mary herself, because of her relationship with Christ, reminds us that the Eucharist is truly Jesus Christ in his divinity and his humanity. Second, that Mary's example and disposition before God at every moment of her life, but especially at the events of Christ's conception and birth and at Calvary, show us how we should receive Christ in our lives and participate in Calvary. And third, that Mary's powerful role as intercessor is something we should be especially aware of while we are at Mass and as we come from Mass.

1. Mary Reminds us that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus

The title of this article comes straight from the prayers of the Mass which refer to Mary as glorious and ever virgin. I hope that by the end it will be obvious why Our Lady is "glorious" but for now I want to make a point about Mary as a woman and Mary as "ever virgin" - and to make a connection with the Mass.

Sometimes we hear people referring to receiving the "bread and wine" at Mass. Mary reminds us never to make the mistake of thinking of the Eucharist as anything less than the person of Christ. The Church says that there should always be a statue of Our Lady in every Catholic church, and a very good reason for this is that Mary always reminds us just who Jesus is: her humanity reminds us that Jesus was truly human; her virginity in giving birth to Jesus is a sign of his divinity, for he had no earthly father. As we teach that the Eucharist really is the body, blood and divinity of

Christ, then we can actually call Mary "Mother of the Eucharist". The presence of her image in every Catholic church is a reminder that the Eucharist is Jesus and nothing other and nothing less. I remember in my seminary, candles were always lit on either side of a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham during every Mass, and for me this was a reminder of Our Lady's role in giving us the Eucharist, which is Christ. The German theologian Karl Rahner was once asked whether it was a good thing that after the Council there was less focus on Mary and Marian devotion. He surprised his questioner by replying "No" and added that there was always a risk in Catholic and Protestant theology of making Christ too abstract and an "abstraction" does not need a mother. Mary reminds us never to make Christ, andtherefore also the Eucharist, into an abstraction.

Blessed John Paul II said that the Eucharist, "while commemorating the passion and resurrection, is also in continuity with the incarnation" (EdE 55). The coming of the Son of God into her womb at the Annunciation anticipates the coming of the Son of God to each believer in the moment of Holy Communion. If we remember this, that we are receiving the Virgin Mary's Son as we go to Holy Communion, we'll never be unclear just what it is we are doing.

2. Mary Teaches us how to Participate at Mass: by Her Example.


The Eucharist does not effect change in us as if by magic. If I had magical powers, I could turn someone into a frog and even if he resisted and tried to run away that change would take effect in him. Now the change at Mass of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ occurs immediately at the words of consecration and remains as long as the appearances of bread and wine remain. But its sanctifying effect in me will not be immediate or permanent unless I cooperate with God's gift of Himself. The Latin expressions ex opere operato and ex opere operantis are helpful. The Eucharist is made present ex opere operato, "by the work done", but it is only fruitful in us, only transforms us and makes us holier, ex opere operantis, "by the work ofthe one doing it", that is the one who receives the Lord in Holy Communion. So clearly our disposition when we receive Holy Communion is vital to whether we're going to become holier and grow in virtue.

Now no one has received Holy Communion more perfectly than Our Lady, who would have received Holy Communion from the hands of the apostles. But actually she was perfectly "disposed" even before that. At the Annunciation she made her first Holy Communion when she willingly received the Lord into her womb. But even before then, the saints tell us, she had received the Lord into her soul. So she can teach us how willingly to receive the Lord in Holy Communion.


Mary teaches us that God can and is doing this: she teaches us that God can work miracles.
Mary teaches us to believe in the Mass. Our Lady never doubted the divine transcendent power of Jesus to work miracles - and the Mass is a miracle. At the wedding feast at Cana the Lord performed his first public miracle. Mary only called on Jesus to work it because she knew he could and would: "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5). Why did she feel able to ask this? Because she was certain of his divinity and so of his power. And she had known this almost certainly from the moment of the Angel's Visit, when she was invited to become the Mother of God. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow and the child will be holy... the Son of God" (Lk 1:35-36). We need to be reminded that the same happens at everyMass.

Between the epiclesis and the consecration, the Holy Spirit comes on the altar and the priest, and the power of the Most High comes down. This is often so poorly covered in books used for preparing children for Holy Communion that it is no wonder they are uncertain what the Eucharist is and how it has become what it is. St Luke knew just what he was describing when he wrote those words, perhaps because he received an account from Our Lady first-hand.

The words "power of the Most High" refer to a rare event in the time of Israel when the Power of the Most High was manifested on earth. The Jews called it the Shekinah Adonai: it was a visible manifestation of the divine presence of the Lord. It is recorded to have taken place at the dedication of the first Temple in Jerusalem (of Solomon) but not the third Temple (of Herod). What did it look like? Like a light, bright cloud accompanied by angels. Ezekiel prophesied that it would be seen in the Messianic age when the "glory of the Lord" would re-enter the Temple (Ez 43).

And so it happened when the "power of the Most High" came upon Mary at the Annunciation and the Lord entered into the Temple of his creation. It was almost certainly the Shekinah which was seen by the Shepherds on the night of the Lord's birth. The same Holy Spirit and power of the Most High come upon the altar at every Mass. We are not expected to see anything or feel anything but we are expected to know. And Mary's own belief, and the account of what happened to her, and her continuing faith in her divine Son help us. This human-divine cosmic event takes place at every Mass, whether in a school with 500 teenagers pretending to be bored or at World Youth Day with a million pilgrims kneeling in the mud and dust a mile from an altar where the Holy Father has just made Christpresent.


Mary helps us to welcome the Lord who comes to us at Mass with love, with humility.

What Mary was offered, what she was asked to do at the Annunciation, is very close to what we are offered are asked to do when we come to Mass. "Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High... his reign will have no end" (Lk 1:30-34).

What are we offered? We too are offered God Himself. Most of those words can be addressed to us: "...do not be afraid; you have won God's favour. Listen!... You are to bear a son... Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High... his reign will have no end." What the priest actually says in inviting us to come forward for Holy Communion is "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb."

Mary's response is the perfect model for our response. We are allowed to wonder "How can this come about" but we should welcome Him as she did: "Let what you have said be done to me"(Lk 1:38). In Latin, "Let it be done" is just one word, "fiat", and so we say that Mary's fiat is the model for our Amen when we go to receive the Lord into our body and soul (cf. EdE 55). When we say Amen we're saying yes to the Incarnation, to the Incarnation of God in me, in this part of God's creation. Pope Benedict says the effect of Holy Communion is a radical change, a sort of "nuclear fission" which penetrates to the heart of all being, beginning with ourselves, a "process which transforms reality, a process which leads ultimately to thetransfiguration of the entire world... where God will be all in all" (Sacramentum Caritatis 11).

We must identify strongly with Mary at the moment of Holy Communion. It is one of the themes picked up by the Fathers of the Church and passed down through the ages. We can trace it all the way back to the words of Jesus, when in the Gospels we remember him pointing to his disciples and saying: 'Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Mt 12:46-50). All the Fathers agree that Jesus was not putting his mother down, for no one did the will of the Father better than Mary. Rather, he was saying that the privileges of Mary are given to us all if we open our hearts and lives to the will of the Father.

This is confirmed by the vision of the woman in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, where in chapter 12 we hear of a Woman clothed with the Son and crowned with 12 stars. The "woman" is creation bringing forth the incarnate Son of God. She is Mary bringing forth Christ, and she is the Church which continues to bring forth Christ through history. In other words, she is us! The idea of Christ needing to be carried, born in us as he was carried and born in Mary can be traced through the Fathers. St Irenaeus probably received it through St Polycarp from St John, St Hippolytus from St Irenaeus, Origen from St Hippolytus, St Ambrose from Origen and St Augustine from St Ambrose. And St Augustine is the great teacher of the Church in the West: the Church of St Bede, St Thomas and all thegreat saints and theologians since. Here is the idea in one of St Augustine's Christmas homilies:

"The Mother carried him in her womb; let us carry him in our hearts. The Virgin was pregnant by Incarnation; let our breasts be pregnant with faith in Christ. The Virgin gave birth to the Saviour; let our souls give birth to salvation, let us give birth to praise. Let us not be barren. Let our souls be fruitful to God" (Quoted in John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb p. 110).

Five hundred years later, the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a hymn called To the Virgin Mother. He reflected on the example of Mary at the Annunciation as a model for the Christian receiving his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. He asks the Mother of God to help him welcome his divine guest with a love like hers.

Mary's humble, courageous, generous "Yes" to God is the model for our humble "Yes" when we come to Mass. One way in which we display this humility, courage and generosity is when we come properly disposed with hearts free from sin, like Our Lady's. Only in our case we need to purify our hearts through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and then go forward and say "Amen" to God's gift of Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

There's a very beautiful painting of the Annunciation by the Dominican Friar Fra Angelico which shows Our Lady saying "Yes" to the angel. Our Lady has her arms crossed as a sign of her total, humble submission and Catholics from eastern Europe traditionally approach Holy Communion with this posture. It is confusing in the UK because now it has become the sign of someone coming for a blessing. But I think we need gestures, postures, that express this humble, courageous, generous "Yes" to God at Mass. The Holy Father has given us a sign, I think, that he would like us to copy - that of kneeling to receive Holy Communion. Archbishop Longley of Birmingham said recently in a homily at Oscott College that "kneeling is the natural posture of humans before God", so maybe it will return.


Mary teaches us to adore the Lord in the Eucharist.

Blessed John Paul II said that Our Lady anticipated the Church's Eucharistic faith in this too. The Church Fathers, Catholic priests, bishops, theologians of the first centuries, pondered and meditated upon the nine months that Jesus, the divine, eternal Son of God and Son of Man, spent in Mary's womb. She was in a sense, says Blessed John Paul, "a 'tabernacle' - the first 'tabernacle' in history" (EdE 55), where Christ was adored first by Mary herself and then also by St Elizabeth at the Visitation.

Sometimes Catholics are confused by speakers who say that the "primary" or "original" reason for reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass was communion for the sick. This has some truth in a chronological sense but not in a theological sense. St Francis of Assisi is credited with having strongly encouraged adoration of Christ in the tabernacle in the early 13th century. However, this was just a logical development of belief in Christ's Eucharistic presence. St Augustine in the fourth century said: "We cannot eat the Eucharist without first adoring it," and in the gospel we have this clear example of Mary and Elizabeth adoring Christ in the womb. Blessed John Paul also draws our attention to the "enraptured gaze of Mary" as she contemplated the face of the newborn Christ asan "unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every time we receive... Communion" (EdE 56).


Mary teaches us how to join the sacrifice of our lives to that of Jesus.

Holy Mass is a sacred meal in which the living God feeds us with the Bread of Life, the food of eternal life. But it is also an action into which we are to be drawn. Because the Eucharist is the living God, Jesus Christ, in all the events of his Eternity including his earthly life, and because Jesus did all these things both as man and as God, he achieved something for us men, for our salvation. He did what we, because of sin, were incapable of doing: he made a perfect offering of Himself in love and obedience to the Father, for us men, for our salvation. But we are not just passive observers, recipients of this offering in obedience and love. We are to join the offering of our lives to that of Jesus, to the Father. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that we jointhe sacrifice of the Church to the sacrifice of Christ.

And what is Mary's role in this? She has done it before us. She too was saved by her Son. Mysteriously, in a way the Church does not try to explain, at her conception she was preserved from Original Sin in anticipation of and through the merits of Christ's saving passion and death {Catechism of the Catholic Church 491-492). She gives us the perfect example of how to join the sacrifice of our lives to that of Jesus.

Mary was helped by being warned that she would have to share in the sacrifice of Jesus when she and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple to do as the Law of Moses required. We could take her warning as ours too. She was told by the prophet Simeon: "This child is destined to be a sign that is rejected - and a sword will pierce your own soul too..." (Lk 2:15). This piercing of soul must have happened many times to Our Lady during the course of Jesus' life, but it reached its climax at Calvary. When Jesus was rejected, when Jesus' offering of himself to the Father was completed, in obedience and love, for us men and for our salvation, Mary was there at the foot of the Cross, with the rest of the Church - John and the group of women -participating inhis sacrifice in a tiny but painful, courageous, generous way. And there she gave us an example of how to participate in offering our lives in the offering of Christ's sacrifice at Mass.

So what can we learn? First, that we should join Mary and the rest of the Church at Calvary. That is what it means to go to Mass on Sunday or any day at any Catholic church, regardless of the music, the priest, the language, the ritual. We should join Our Lady and the rest of the Church and join the offering of our lives, however half-heartedly, however confused and tempted and sinful we might feel. There is no better place on earth to be. Mary did not disown her son who was saving her on the cross; nor should we. Mary did not say she was "bored"; nor should we. Mary did not prefer to work in Asda or play football in a Sunday League, and nor should we! When someone we love is suffering we want to be there. When someone we love is suffering and that suffering is mysteriously going to helpus, we must be there. How should we feel when we are at Calvary, at Mass? Well, that doesn't really matter. But we might find ourselves feeling, like Mary, rather grateful and joyful that Jesus through his Cross and resurrection has saved us. And this might motivate us to get to Mass whenever we can: certainly in our parishes every Sunday, but perhaps also at a weekday Mass on an evening after work or with the pious few in a school chapel or classroom.

3. Mary's Powerful Role as Intercessor is Something We Should be Especially Aware of While We Are at Mass and as We Come From Mass

Mary can help us besides just giving us the perfect example of how to participate at Mass. She is a powerful intercessor. She is most powerful because of her unique relationship to Jesus. Jesus is still the son of Mary in heaven; she is still his mother. Just as she had free will to ask him for things while on earth {"they have no wine") so she can and does still ask him for things in heaven. She can ask for very great things for his response now is always "My hour has come." In this sense she is "glorious", for the Almighty continues to do great things through her and for her. We should not wonder that there are so many claims of apparitions of Our Lady and of healings at her shrines. There are degrees of holiness in heaven just as there are degrees of lovingon earth. No human being was closer to Jesus on earth than his mother, and no human being is closer to Jesus now, in heaven, than his mother, Queen of Heaven.

Now there's something very precious and important that we can ask her to pray for. We can sometimes pray for the wrong things or have less than perfect motives. Well, there is something very right to pray for and not at all selfish.

St Louis Marie de Montfort was a priest living in France in the 17th century. He was a very zealous and hard-working missionary priest working in poor parts of France where the Church was somewhat cut off from the ordinary people. He was only canonised in 1947 and so is a saint for our times. He wrote a book for which he is justifiably famous. It was lost for 200 years, but when it was found in the 19th century it became a spiritual classic. Blessed John Paul II said that he had to read it twice to understand it; Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, said he had to read it half a dozen times! The book is called True Devotion. At its heart is the insight that as God chose to come into the world through Mary at the incarnation, so too today he does not choose to work exceptwith and through Mary. It is strongly incarnational: God has assumed humanity to himself so that he can work with and through it, and he continues to do so. Mary was and remains the most perfect and most powerful human co-operator of God. St Louis lists the various works of Mary. One of them is especially relevant to us when we are at Mass.

When we are young we are sometimes given presents which are too big for us - a train set when we are only three, boxing gloves when only six. So our parents keep these gifts safe for us, and when it is appropriate they give them to us. This is a loose analogy of what Our Lady can do for us with the graces of Holy Mass and Holy Communion. St Louis puts it like this: "Mary helps us to preserve the graces and treasures we have received from God." He explains, "... We see how many persons fuller of grace than we are, richer in virtues, better founded in experience, far higher exalted in sanctity, have been surprised, robbed and unhappily pillaged... whence comes this sad change? It was not for any want of grace, which is wanting for no man; but it was for want of humility. Theythought themselves capable of guarding their own treasure" {True Devotion p.88).

Perhaps there are people we have admired or followed, who have fallen badly. It could happen to us. "It is difficult to persevere in justice because of the strange corruption of the world... it is the Virgin, alone faithful, in whom the serpent has never had a part, who works this miracle for those who serve her" (ibid. p.89).

The intercession of Mary that we seek at Mass has been clarified by the new translation of the Roman Missal. For example, the Collect for the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary has restored the words "through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary" to the prayer also familiar from the Angelus that begins: "Pour forth we beseech you, O Lord". So we now acknowledge that we are brought to the glory of the resurrection by the Passion and Cross of Christ, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As an act of personal devotion, I suggest that in our thanksgiving after Holy Communion it would be very sensible, and could be very fruitful, if we say a Hail Mary and ask Our Lady to help us preserve the graces and treasures we have just received.

When Pope Benedict came to Britain he had a special message for the young. He did not water down his words. At one event which is, I think, unprecedented in any papal visit, he spoke to all the young people of our islands through a live stream via the internet in a "Big Assembly":

"I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the 21st century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness."

The speech, given at Twickenham, is still available online at http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk .

The idea of becoming a saint might seem beyond our reach. And of course it is. But the Lord reaches down to us in Christ, in Christ's Mass. And then we see how the Marian profile of the Church truly precedes and completes the Petrine. For Mary was the first Mater et Magister, Mother and Teacher of faith, as she was the first to receive Christ and to bear Christ for the world. The "time of grace" we spend with Christ our Eucharist can be surely entrusted to the Mother of God, proclaimed "blessed because she believed" (Lk 1:45) (cf. Porta Fidei 15).

Faith Magazine

May - June 2012