On this feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or as we more familiarly call it, Our Lady’s Birthday, I suspect many a homily will be preached which will allude to the Holy Family’s experience of exile in Egypt, when they were refugees exposed to the casual kindnesses of an alien people. Although that is perfectly valid, I think there is another side to Mary we could usefully think about, less passive, less victim-like. She is the mulier fortis par excellence, the valiant woman in whom all the strong women of Jewish history reach their apogee. If popular piety has tended to exalt her as an idealised version of motherhood and thus burdened many a woman with a sense of guilty failure, the Mary we meet in the Gospels and in the meditations of the Church is not to be trifled with: she speaks with assurance. Her certainty is born of humility and obedience. She is not afraid of falling because she stands in a firm place, on the rock of God’s love; and that enables her to question, to challenge, even on occasion, as at Cana, to challenge her Son. She challenges us today in ways many of us probably never realise. How long, for example, is it since we last asked what Mary was really like or what role she played in the early Church? How far have we accepted unquestioningly the idealised version of Mary and missed the real woman? Isn’t it time we did a little re-thinking?
The Church celebrates only three birthdays: that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, and his cousin John the Baptist — all three of them interconnected, all three of them inextricably linked with our salvation. The birthdays of Jesus and John are foretold with magnificent prohecy and are attested with signs and wonders. That of Mary is obscure, not even mentioned, let alone foretold. She is indeed ‘common woman of common earth’. Yet there has never been anyone greater than she except her Son. That phrase of St Bernard which describes her as the aqueduct bringing us the Water of Life is a lovely way of expressing not only Mary’s vocation but ours, too. Like her, we do not want to draw attention to ourselves. We stand on the rock of God’s love and there is no more secure footing: it enables even the most ordinary of us to do extraordinary things. Like her, we seek to channel God’s love and mercy to all — his love and mercy, not ours. Like her, too, we must be prepared for a sword to pierce our heart and be ready to stand by the Cross.
This morning we saw our first autumn crocus, those known as ‘Naked Ladies’ in reference to this day. Their pale and hidden beauty is a metaphor for much of our lives. We may feel helpless in the face of all the suffering we see in the world but through our prayer and our small acts of solidarity and kindness, we can make a difference. Mary’s life must have seemed quite ordinary and insignificant to an outsider, but what a difference it has made to us all! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.