A homily at St Illtyd’s, Llantwit Major, as part of the parish Pentecost Novena 2013.
In this evening’s portion from the Acts of the Apostles, we see a distinct before and after. At the start of the story, a group of disciples had not heard that there was such a thing as a “Holy Spirit”. But they experience an immediate transformation, and there is no doubt that these disciples have been filled by God’s Spirit because they are suddenly manifesting the gifts which the Holy Spirit brings. Based on this story alone, we might be tempted to say that receiving the Holy Spirit is a once-in-a-lifetime event that brings dramatic consequences. But in fact the work of the Spirit is much more subtle, and we have a perfect case study in Our Heavenly Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Our study begins on the first page of the Bible. We are told that God’s Spirit is hovering over the face of the waters on the day of Creation. Now in Latin, the word for sea is mare and its plural is maria – although Genesis was not originally written in Latin, we might wonder whether God wanted this to become a prophecy, in the Church’s official language, of the Holy Spirit hovering over Maria, mother of Jesu?
The teaching of our Church is that at the very first moment of her life, Mary was conceived immaculate. This was a great work of the Holy Spirit.
When the Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary in Nazareth, he addresses her as “Full of Grace” – already filled with all the graces God can give! The Greek word used, kecharitomene, is a deep word worthy of our meditation. And yet when Mary asks how it could be that she would conceive a child, the angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her – a new work of grace is yet to come! See the work of the Spirit pictured in light in the work of Elizabeth Wang!
The pregnant virgin sets off to meet her cousin Elizabeth; and we are told that Elizabeth too was filled with the Holy Spirit, and her child leaped in her womb. This sets the scene for Mary to offer a great hymn of praise, her Magnificat. Mary declares that her soul praises God – this means her whole being – but also that her spirit rejoices. This means the spiritual part of her, her own human spirit in union with Holy Spirit, offers praise to God!
A firstborn Son has entered the world, and so thanks must be given in the Jerusalem Temple. There, Mary finds the Holy Spirit at work in the prophet Simeon, who speaks a disturbing word: Mary and her Son will be hated. Mary will suffer in the depths of her being, poetically prophesied as a “sword piercing her soul”. And the mystery deepens: BECAUSE of her suffering, “secret thoughts will be exposed”.
Mary, how can it be that you will suffer so that secrets should come to light?
I believe that the secret thoughts intended here are the thoughts of sinners who are converted, who in coming to Christ, name and shame their sins.
Over the last 200 years, this prophecy has unfolded through God’s continuing work of revelation, for those who have ears to hear.
Our first image comes from the Rue du Bac in Paris, in 1830. Mary shows herself to St Catherine Labouré as one who PRAYS for the world. She appears with rays of grace streaming from her hands. The light in which she is bathed is the Holy Spirit working within and through her. Mary’s message is that God has given her the role of obtaining grace from heaven for all her children, but that in order to receive these heavenly gifts, we must ask. One means of asking is to wear the medal revealed here by Mary, and praying daily the prayer inscribed on it: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you!
Mary’s suffering is not prominent – yet on the reverse of this medal is her signature. The 12 stars point to the woman clothed with the sun, pursued by a dragon, in the Book of Revelation. The entwined M and cross recall the presence of Mary at the foot of cross in John’s Gospel. And the Heart of Mary appears alongside the Heart of Jesus – his bearing a crown of thorns, hers pierced by a sword. In this way, without undue attention, the prophecy of Simeon, and Mary’s role in the Gospel of Luke, is duly recalled.
For the first time, a private revelation has offered us the image of the suffering Heart of Mary. In Bible language, heart is the place of thinking, of pondering, of mental angst.
In St Catherine’s vision, the presence of the Heart of Mary was a minor feature; the focus of her message was on believers entrusting themselves to Mary’s prayers so they could obtain all the graces needed for spiritual maturity. But ten years later, in the same religious order, another sister was granted a revelation in which Mary’s suffering heart would take centre stage.
In 1840, Sr Justine Bisqueyburu, in the very same chapel, experienced a vision of the Mother of God, clearly holding her own Immaculate Heart with her right hand; at its top were bright flames. Later that same year, Sr Justine saw Mary again, in the same way – but this time Mary’s left hand held out a patch of green cloth bearing an image of the same vision, and on the reverse, Mary’s heart pierced by a sword, surmounted by a gold cross and with words in the shape of an oval around the heart: Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Sr Justine understood, as part of this revelation, that Our Lady wished the scapular to be promoted widely as an instrument in the conversion of souls. In this way, heaven itself explicitly linked prayer to the suffering heart of Mary, with the work of conversion.
And so to Fatima, the title of Our Lady which we celebrate today, recalling the place where the Mother of God first appeared on this day in 1917. At Fatima also she showed her heart – not with a sword, but with a crown of thorns representing the sins of those who mock or insult the Blessed Mother.
On July 13, Our Lady appeared with a call for the conversion of sinners – this time requesting that we add this prayer intention to our rosary by a special prayer at the end of each decade: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns us that the Christian life will not be free of suffering – “In the world you will find trouble.” In the same vision of 13 July 1917 , Mary taught us how to transform the sufferings which come our way into pious offerings: O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The three visionary children of Fatima took Our Lady’s message to heart, and found simple, childlike ways to make these sacrifices, giving up their packed lunches or enduring the nettles and brambles of the Portuguese countryside. Soon, two of them would be taken to heaven when a great influenza epidemic swept across Europe. Sr Lucia was spared, entering a convent where in 1925 she received a further vision: an invitation, on the First Saturday of each month, to spend extra time in meditating on the mysteries of the rosary: an act of love for Mary in compensation for those who do not love her, or even deliberately insult her.
Heaven’s gradual revealing of the Heart of Mary concluded in Belgium in 1933. At Beauraing, we were shown Our Lady’s heart of gold, pierced neither by sword nor thorns. Here Our Lady’s message was simple, and might be expressed in this way: Your heart can be like mine, burning with pure love, if you pray much and sacrifice yourself for sinners.
What, though, of the work of the Holy Spirit?
In 1929, Sr Lucia of Fatima received a final vision. Here she was explicitly shown the Dove representing the work and presence of the Holy Spirit, on the breast of God the Father. Together, Father, Son and Spirit offer the gift of salvation to the world. Because of the death of Jesus we receive MERCY – our sins are not to be punished – and Mary, through her Immaculate Conception, received the fullest gift of mercy imaginable.
This vision reminds us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wish to send us graces – the spiritual gifts which we need. The greatest grace is the gift of the Spirit himself! In this image, we see the Eucharist, flowing from the wounded side of Christ – but the light itself represents the work and presence of the Holy Spirit. Notice how Mary’s breast is filled with light, and the rays continue towards the visionary Sr Lucia kneeling before the altar. In all of the preceding visions, although we have not explicitly seen the Holy Spirit, we have seen the light which represents God’s gift of grace. Each ray of light is a grace, a gift borne on the wings of the Heavenly Dove.
Let us return, for a moment, to the Scriptures. We are given one final glimpse of Mary, in her earthly life, at the start of the Book of Acts, where she is gathered with the apostles in prayer, awaiting the day of Pentecost. Therefore we assume she was with the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, and with the Apostles, received the gift of the Holy Spirit anew.
Even Mary, full of grace, receives the Spirit in new ways at different times. Her Immaculate Conception. Her Annunciation. The inspiration which prompted her Magnificat. The Day of Pentecost. Mary is a sign to us that we do not receive the Holy Spirit once only. It is true that there may be moments in our life when the Spirit comes in a dramatic way to release something for the first time, as the disciples at Ephesus experienced. But the Spirit has many gifts, and some are bestowed in more subtle ways.
If you would approach God’s throne humbly, then do what the Blessed Mother asked of us through St Catherine Labouré: pray for the graces which God wishes to give you through the hands of Mary.
If you are feeling a little bolder, then come confidently before God and pray to have your capacity for grace increased!
The signs of the Holy Spirit are wind and flame. I wish to leave you with one final image – Our Lady of the Taper. You can see clearly that Mary is holding her Son – but the taper in the other hand represents the light of the Holy Spirit. More than that, a taper is the kind of candle meant for passing on a flame. See, Our Lady is offering us not only her Divine Son, but also the Holy Spirit!
Holy Mother of God, pray that we may receive, through your hands, the gifts of the Spirit which we do not even realise we need to ask for!