Thursday, 8 September 2011

Our Lady's Birthday

On the cross Jesus fulfilled His duty as a good Jewish son and made provision for His mother. He had no house and no money, but He did have at least one loyal friend: St John. This is the young John we saw in the painting ‘Fishers of Men’. He has followed Jesus and learnt how to be a spiritual Fisher. Now Jesus entrusts to him His mother: ‘Mother behold your son, son behold your mother.’ The Gospel only speaks of Mary once again: she was there in the upper room with the disciples when the Holy Spirit descended, ‘in parted tongues as if of fire’. But if Scripture has nothing more to tell us, tradition is eager to take up the slack.

It has long been held that St John went to preach the Gospel in Asia, making his centre the ancient city of Ephesus, and of course, Mary the mother of Jesus went with him. Ephesus was a famous city, and its Christians were later honoured to receive a letter from St Paul. It was famous in Christian eyes for all the wrong reasons. Ephesus was a great centre of Greek culture renowned above all for its worship of the goddess Diana. Pilgrims to the shrine of the goddess brought in much of the city’s revenue and a great deal of the opposition to the teaching of Jesus sprang from the fear of the craftsmen who made their living from fashioning small replicas of the shrine. Tricker sees a beautiful irony in this goddess-haunted city becoming the final home of the Virgin Mary. She is no goddess, though she is infinitely more powerful than any pagan divinity. She is a simple woman of faith, who bowed her head in submission as soon as the angel announced to her God’s extraordinary message.

Mary Ephesus is a work of great beauty. Above and below her, we see the columns that characterise Greek civilisation with all its splendours. But leaves and fruit are beginning to grow over their majestic solidity. Mary represents a new beginning in civilisation, one based upon the teachings of her Son, teachings of love, joy and freedom. Her tranquil face shows none of the disfigurements of age. She seems still fresh and young, living as she does in the redemptive presence of her Son. She has the hands of a young girl, and they hold within them a patient dove. This is rather like the gesture we saw in the very beginning, in the ‘Christ Boy’, but Mary’s is a more mature dove. It does not look up as if eager to fly but nestles in her gentle hands. Symbolically, she is holding the world’s peace. She holds it for us and she holds it securely.

Tricker regards this work as showing ‘Mary in a more cosmic aspect’. This timeless Mary has moved out of history with its pain and uncertainties into the lucid happiness that is the consequence of faith. Her look is meditative, sweetly combining that happiness with an awareness of, and compassion for, the sorrows that we still endure. This is an image of how we are all called to live, at peace in our certainty of heaven, yet responsive to the difficulties that are still very present to us on earth. It is an instance of the present and future nature of the Kingdom of God: we are there yet only potentially.

Text © ST PAULS taken from The Christ Journey by Sister Wendy Beckett.
Picture: Mary Ephesus by Greg Tricker. This is one of the pieces of Tricker’s work to be displayed in Westminster Cathedral from 26th September to 15th October.

The book, published to accompany the exhibition, will be available from 26th September.