She Who Followed Closely

This begins my series of reflections on our Blessed Mother as we begin the Year of the Clergy and the Religious this new Liturgical Year in the Philippines. The Christmas novena that we celebrate every year in the Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi is a journey with the Blessed Mother in anticipation of Christ’s birth. The birth of Jesus Christ is for us a sign of God’s love and an invitation to follow Him more closely, Him who came to be close to us.

The Priesthood and the Religious Life

The Second Vatican Council ushered the Church into the modern era. It challenged her to rethink and reinvigorate her life and ministry to be more consonant with the signs of the times and relevant to the ordinary man of today. Church people saw it as the opening of windows to let in fresh breeze into a house that is in danger of growing cold and stale. This included rethinking what priesthood and religious life is in the modern world.

Icon of Christ the High Priest (Wikipedia Commons)

The ministerial priesthood is a vocation, a gift, given to some who are called to serve the Church in her official and public worship especially in the Eucharist. It grew out of the long tradition of ritual priests in Israel who were representatives of the people before God in their act of offering sacrifices and prayers at the Temple in Jerusalem. The priests of the Catholic Church however draw their priesthood not from the Old Testament but from the person of Jesus Christ who perfected the old priesthood and is called the High Priest by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus does not offer animal sacrifices but instead offers Himself as the only acceptable Sacrifice of the Father, the Lamb of God slaughtered for the salvation of the world. Our priests today share and participate in this ministry as they perpetuate and make present the very same sacrifice of the cross in their celebration of the Holy Eucharist in which Jesus offers Himself as the Paschal Sacrifice today.

Saint Francis of Assisi. (Wikipedia Commons)

Religious life grew out of the devotion of early Christians who sought to follow Jesus more closely. It has a long history and development, renewals and reforms. What was clear and constant in its tradition is the willingness to emulate the life of Jesus Christ as faithfully as possible. Multi-faceted as Jesus is, each religious order is known for its charism, a spirituality inspired by the Holy Spirit that stresses on a particular aspect of Jesus. One of the oldest orders, the Benedictines have monks that try to follow Jesus through work and prayer. The Franciscans follow Jesus in their practice of evangelical poverty. The Jesuits follow Jesus in discernment for the glory of God. We, Salesians, follow Jesus the Good Shepherd to young people especially the poor and abandoned.

Mary, the first and radical disciple

Even before the Eucharist was instituted and the Christians were inspired to follow Jesus, Mary in a preeminent way was His first disciple. She was first to join in the mission of Jesus as Messiah by making possible the Incarnation of the Son of God when she gave her fiat, her ‘yes’ to the invitation of God by the Angel Gabriel to become the Mother of the Messiah. Her whole life, from that point on, was intertwined with that of her Son. From the crib to the cross, it was hers to accompany Jesus in the path that led to Calvary. At the top of that mount, she joined in the Passion and Death of her Son as she watched helplessly yet in faith the torment and pain Jesus underwent, which is for her the prophesied sword that will pierce her heart. At the resurrection, Mary accompanied the nascent Church as they accepted, reflected, and imbibed the mystery of the Resurrection. In the most crucial points of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery, Mary is to be found.

All these makes our Blessed Mother the radical disciple. She is radical inasmuch as she is very much connected to the roots of our Christian faith – Jesus Christ, His Person, His Life, His Words, His Actions. Radical comes from the Latin radix, meaning ‘root’. The very root of Christianity is Jesus Himself and that root is forever intertwined with the person of Mary. This radical connection is not only by virtue of consanguinity by Mary’s motherhood of Jesus but even more so in the life of faith. Events in Jesus’ life could not have been possible or would not be what they are if not for the presence, intercession, and cooperation of the Blessed Mother. The stories about Jesus infancy could not have been made known to the Church without the Blessed Mother who accompanied the infant Church.

In our time when radical is synonymous with ‘ultra conservative’, ‘ultra orthodox’, ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘extremism’, it is easy to fall into the trap of limiting radicality with ‘keeping the rules’. Radical discipleship, as the Blessed Virgin has demonstrated in her life, is not about rules and practices. Radical discipleship is a close following in all aspects of our life of the Person and Teachings of Jesus. If being radical makes us less charitable to others then we have entirely missed the point of discipleship. Being radical simply means we become more and more like Jesus by grace and by personal effort.

Mary and the Clergy and Religious

Mary remains the ultimate example of how to be a radical disciple of Jesus Christ. Those who have received the Sacred Orders of the Diaconate, Presbyterate, and Episcopate are called to unite their very persons to the Person sacrificed on the Altar of the Mass. Like Mary, each time a priest breaks the bread, he too is broken together with the Body of Christ as an offering to God for the benefit of the people. While the Blessed Virgin Mary was not a priest she exemplified in herself the act of total offering united in the offering of Christ which priests are called to. She invites even the lay, the non-priests, to fully embrace the common priesthood each of us received in Baptism which allows each disciple to commune with that One Sacrifice.

The Nativity of Jesus (Wikipedia Commons)

While becoming more alien to the youth of today, religious life remains a valid and relevant way of life for those who are called to become radical disciples. Following Jesus Christ more closely entails a set of life choices that stands at odds with the values of the world. Religious men and women are called to be obedient, chaste and poor as Christ is. Religious men and women are called to make present the future glory of heaven in the way they live in communities as brothers and sisters. Religious men and women are witnesses to the present generation of the future glory that is to come. Mary was all that. She anticipated the faith of the Church by her Christian faith. To her was revealed the glory that Christ was to accomplish in His earthly life and she grew in that revelation by her life of faith. To religious was given the invitation to live the glory that Christ is to accomplish in humanity, they too, like Mary, must grow in their lives of faith.

Conclusion

Christmas is nine days away. These novena days is for us a graced moment of preparation together with our Blessed Mother in our path towards radical discipleship. Not all of us are given the gift of priesthood and religious life, but we all are given the gift of the Divine Life that the Word and the Spirit has given us in Baptism. That Divine Life is a life of discipleship, of following the Person of Jesus Christ. Let Mary, the First and Radical Disciple become for us a guide and help in our own following of Jesus.



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