We know Mary, the Mother of God, through songs, prayers, traditions, and scripture. In all those ways, we encounter her as the mystical Mary and the historical Mary.
I went to Mass recently on the feast of the Assumption. This day has some of the most incredible readings of the whole liturgical year! I was struck by how they reflect both of the mystical and historical Mary.
From the Book of Revelations (11:19, 12:1-6), we see the mystical Mary in some of the most incredibly picturesque words in scripture:
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was pregnant, and in labor, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth.
Then a second sign appeared in the sky: there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and each of the seven heads crowned with a coronet.
Its tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them to the ground, and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was at the point of giving birth, so that it could eat the child as soon as it was born.
That reading just begs for your imagination to explore it. Do you hear the peals of thunder? Are you holding your hand above your eyes, shielding them from the violent hail as you struggle to see the sanctuary of God?
If you were to paint an image of these words, how would you illustrate a woman robed with the sun? What colors would you choose? How could you possibly paint such brilliance?
What does it feel to have the moon beneath your feet? And a crown of stars? To wear the stars upon your head! The idea is enough to take one’s breath away.
Stars and moon speak to us of mystery. Small children and other great artists often paint them, sometimes to be brilliant, other times to be quiet, ethereal beauty. What kind of stars does the woman wear? And why twelve?
If you have labored to give birth, you may wonder how the woman can be standing, unaided. But this is no hospital birth, but a holy one, one we are to take into our hearts forever. It does not make less of human birth, but elevates our birthing experiences to Godliness.
But then, all changes, as life so often does. The terror! A dragon! Paint it red, a raging, powerful red. Once again the numbers: why seven and why ten?
And if this wasn’t enough, along with that fear, there is despair. It is because of that tail, sweeping a third of the stars from the sky, hurling them towards earth! What happened to those stars? Did they shatter? Did they become the reflection of the sun and moon on the ocean? Did they cause grief or awe? And what a loss for the heavens, one-third of the stars no longer there….
And who is this dragon? Does it represent all evil for all time? Does it represent Herod, who wanted to destroy the Holy Child, and who did destroy many other holy children? Does the dragon represent evil for another time, for our time? Who is that dragon right now? What is that dragon right now? And how will we protect our children from it?
There is so much in this reading! After all the thunder and flashes of lightning, the woman who gives us both phenomenal beauty and agony at the same time, and the horror of that strong-trailed dragon—all of a sudden, the words become quiet, the hail ceases, the thunder fades away, and we sigh with relief that the child is safe and so is the woman. She is going to that place, prepared just for her by God….
And before we can grapple with that scripture, the Gospel is read. The mystical woman crowned with stars becomes a young, impoverished girl. A girl who fetches water from a well, kneads bread and feeds animals. And also a girl who has said yes to God in a time and place where her yes could very likely end her life.
She has committed to something no one else has ever considered. But she is an earthly being so now what must she do?
Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah.
She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
There are no stars to wear now, no moon to stand on. She likely put one foot in front of the other on dusty earth. She climbed hills, and avoided sheep or rocks. Was she hot or cold? Was she thirsty? Had she brought food along?
She walked by herself. Did she go to Elizabeth to talk of miracles? Did she go because she was afraid of what others would think of her as her body grew to accommodate God’s Child? And who in the world would ever believe that one? Did she worry about Joseph? Had she told any friends?
Did she stop to rest? Did she encounter others along the way who wondered where this unaccompanied girl was going—and, whisper, do you think she is pregnant?
She stands up and once again and heads towards Elizabeth. Does she wonder who this Child will be? Does she have any inkling that one day, someone would write about thunder and stars and dragons and God’s place for her?