By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil4:8)
One beautiful aspect of being an icon painter is being called upon to mark with an icon significant events in people’s lives. Most often it’s an icon on the occasion of happy occasions: the birth of a child, a baptism, a wedding, an ordination or an anniversary. But there are also times that I find myself painting an icon on sadder occasions, in memory of someone who has died.
A number of years ago I wrote an icon for a friend of mine and his family in memory of his teenage daughter after her death in a tragic accident. So I painted them an icon of Mary the Mother of God and Jesus in memory of her. But I only remembered that my friend’s wife was a Muslim after I had completed the icon and sent it off to them. The last thing I would have wanted was to have offended this grieving mother in any way, so I waited with some trepidation to hear back from them.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. I learned from my friend that because of the profound veneration that Muslims have for Mariam (Mary) and her son, Isa (Jesus), his wife found the gift of this icon to be quite consoling in her grief and that of her family.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mary is mentioned more often in the Quran than she is in the New Testament. An entire sura (chapter) of the Quran is named after her. She is regarded by Muslims as one the greatest and most virtuous women who ever lived and an exemplar for Muslims of piety and holiness.
Muslims also believe that she was a virgin when she miraculously conceived Jesus by the will of Allah. The Quran contains an account of Mary’s birth, of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus, but it is a narrative with elements that are derived in part from the apocryphal gospels.
The veneration that many Muslims have for the Mother of Jesus is a reminder to us that the Catholic Church, (while acknowledging our differing beliefs about the nature of God, the divinity of Jesus, faith and salvation), has high regard and esteem for Islam and for Muslim believers. Pope Francis, quoting the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) notes: “We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us they adore the one, merciful God who will judge humanity on the last day.”[ The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) no.252]
Pope Francis reminds us that “ Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Q’uran are opposed to every form of violence.”
Which leads me to wonder if perhaps our shared love for Mary might be a bridge of openness and dialogue between Muslims and Christians, but a dialogue which for us must remain rooted in the gospel itself. Pope Francis cautions us that:”True openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity while at the same time remaining “open to understanding the other party”and “knowing that dialogue can enrich each side.” [John Paul II Encyclical Letter The Mission of the Redeemer (Redemptoris Missio) no.304] “
While Catholics, like Muslims, regard Mary as the greatest and most virtuous woman who ever lived, she is so much more. Mary is the Mother of God, the Godbearer, whose son Jesus is not simply the beloved holy prophet depicted in the Q’uran but the very Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born into our world.
Mary, preserved from her conception from the stain of original sin and “the highest honor of our race”(Judith 13:18) through her free assent to God’s call, is central to the divine plan of salvation.
She is the Second Eve, who, unlike the first Eve was faithful and obedient to God. Her divine son, the Second Adam, through his death and resurrection redeemed humanity lost to darkness and death by the disobedience of the first Adam.
It is fitting therefore that on May 21st, the day after the Solemnity of Pentecost, we will be celebrating for the first time the new memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Church. The gospel reading for the feast reminds us that the Church was born from the wounded side of her son, when, pierced by the lance, water and blood flowed out, symbolizing the waters of baptism and the precious blood of the Lord’s Supper. And just as the first Eve was the “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20), so Mary is the Mother of all who have new life in water and the Holy Spirit, which is to say, the Mother of the Church.
May we be faithful sons and daughters of such a Mother, Mary, Cause of Our Joy, Mary, Mother of Mercy, Mary, Queen of Peace.