Behold, your mother… – John 19:27
While dying in agony on the cross, offering his ultimate sacrifice, Jesus the High Priest, considered his mother. Of the seven famous, last words from the cross, Jesus uttered: “Woman, behold your son,”(Jn 19:26). I would fancifully imagine that every priest, ascending the altar for his first Mass, probably thinks of his mother as well. He thinks of the woman who raised, nourished and taught him. The woman who first passed on the faith in silent, loving gestures. The woman who saw every fall, bad decision and stupid mistake, who worried when he came home late. She saw him make the team, fall in love with a girl, go to college and then leave for seminary. Before he was a priest, he was her little lamb- and in many ways, still is.
The life of Jesus reveals also, the tender relationship between mother and son. As a child, he obeyed her. As God-made-man, he granted his first public miracle at her request. As the Saving Messiah, he handed her into the care of John, the Beloved Disciple. John, who leaned upon the heart of Christ, now would cherish the one who first heard his heart beating in the womb.
It is vital for a priest to maintain this close relationship to the Mother of Jesus. The gift given to John, the apostle, extends to all priests, who are successors of the apostles. She therefore, mother to all priests. Mary embodies strength, endurance and devoted love that woman offers in the life of man. In Deborah, the wise judge, Ester, the conquering queen, Sarah, wife of the Patriarch Abraham, Mary is prefigured throughout the Old Testament. Far from being a downtrodden woman, she is more a woman. Through her abiding example, she helps every man to be more a man.
The priest enjoys a spiritual friendship with Mary. As John took her into his own house, he “lives” with Mary. Mary in turn, encourages the priest to open his heart and ponder the mysteries of Christ, his life from the crib to the cross. Her contemplation of Christ at the manger, the new-born bread of life serves as a model for the adoration of Christ, held so tenderly in the priest’s hands. Mary stands side-by-side with the priest also as he offers the Holy Mass. Because she shared so intimately in the sacrifice of the cross, she becomes a source of strength for him at the altar. She stands by him in his sorrows, pains and frustrations. She helps him to become a living Eucharist: “For the priest, there is no more worthy assistant that the “Eucharistic Lady”… to teach the priest how to live in close contact with the holy mystery of the Eucharist.” (Heidemann pg. 92). The most-tender spiritual mother, Mary raises her son once more. The more the priest becomes “another Christ” the more his identity becomes wrapped up in hers.
Mary nurtures the vocation of every priest. She shows him how to follow his lofty calling without becoming too lost in his own ego or the distractions of daily life. Her annunciation reveals an example of spiritual docility. When faced with the unearthly weight of his vocation, the priest may be tempted to give up, find someone better qualified or to flee into carnal pursuits. When met with great tasks, the priest learns from Mary not to fear or burden himself with a thousand questions of probability, only to say somewhere between the joy and terror: “be it done unto me according to your word.” She helps him say “no” to the wiles of the world and snares that entrap men, instead saying “yes” to God’s love and work which heals and restores men.
Mary’s presentation of Jesus in the temple has special meaning for all priests, the offering of her only son. Here is revealed the exquisite joy of belonging only to God, the sweetness of consecrated life. When one gives up all they possess and places it into the hands of God, an amazing freedom is experienced. No longer do worries of tomorrow press so violently. What the priest takes from the world is not his own and therefore he needs not look after it with the care of an owner.
Looking to the presentation, the priest can draw inspiration for maintaining greater purity. He can resist the screaming world that tells him the meaninglessness of human bodies and of vows. Like Jesus, he is a gift. His body and mind are gift. He remembers the day he lay face-down on the floor and gave God back everything that had been given him. His ordination day echoes the precious vow made by Mary. He realizes its strength amidst bitter contradiction for this first, little act of offering Jesus will be fulfilled by her greater offering of the lamb on the cross.
To be continued in: The Lover at the Altar