Travel around Spain visiting its churches and you could be forgiven for wondering what ever happened to Jesus. By my reckoning, having now walked a couple of thousand kilometers across Spain on three separate pilgrimages, Spaniards are in love with Mary. If Jesus is important to the Spaniards it may be only because he was a relation to this great Lady.
The quintessential Spanish image of Mary is the black Madonna of Montserrat: a Romanesque looking Mary is crowned and seated, her serene face a deep and beautiful black, with a similarly dark-skinned child seated in her lap, himself crowned, his right hand raised in blessing, while his mother holds an orb in her hand.
Everywhere you go in Spain you will inevitably find some image of Mary. On the crucifixes found in village plazas throughout Galicia you will find Jesus hanging on one side of the Cross, and his mother, standing on the other side of the same Cross – sometimes cradling the Christ-child in her arms, sometimes holding the dead body of her Son.
At the base of the rich, golden reredos of the cathedral in Sevilla, right above the Altar where the crucifix should be, there sits a silver-gowned seated figure of Our Lady, who also appears in the panel above at the manger, in the panel above that at her crowning in heaven, but is absent in the panel above that, which depicts Jesus bursting from the tomb, while his mother, apparently, rests at home.
At Salamanca, in the old cathedral, a dramatic apse is covered with fifty-two 14th or 15th century images of stories from the life of Jesus and his mother; but in the most prominent place: enthroned, dressed all in gold, crowned, bejeweled, under a canopy, with a scepter-like lily in her hand, her child ensconced in her maternal lap – there is Mary. Not a cross in sight.
Along the Via de la Plata, at the monastery in the little town of Xunqueira de Ambia you will find an image of the Virgen Peregrina – the virgin Pilgrim. Mary is dressed in fine late-18th century dress, with a gold-trimmed tri-cornered hat, wearing a long floral gown, a buttoned bodice, and a cloak clasped at her throat; she holds her infant child in one hand, and the pilgrim’s walking stick in the other.
At the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Oseira – just a few days’ walk from Santiago de Compostela – the venerated 13th century image of la virgen de la leche, nursing her Holy Child, sits just behind and above the tabernacle at the High Altar, to leave no doubt as to who exactly is in charge.
There was a time when the feast we celebrate tonight was called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but I had to go back to the King James Version, among the Bibles in my office, to find a translation that refers to the time for “her” purification, not “their” purification, following more closely the text of the Levitical law. We are not Spaniards, and we chafe more than a little (today’s Spaniards do too, no doubt) at the idea of the urgent need for a mother to be cleansed and made pure after the sacred gift of childbirth. For us tonight is the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas – celebrating the same events, but looking at them from a different perspective. Most Anglicans are more or less comfortable with such a shift, and would argue that feasts of Our Lady are all really feasts of Our Lord, looked at through a maternal lens. Certainly that is the view I tend to promote here at Saint Mark’s. But spend time in Spain and you will have a hard time resisting the influence of all these images of Mary, sometimes amid the complete and total absence of her Son.
Nowhere in the world, however, have I ever come across an image of Our Lady walking along, with her young Son at her side gripping her thumbs as he tries to keep up. This is an image from my own childhood, and I remember more clearly than my mother does her complaints that I was tearing her thumbs away from her hands. I suppose it was an uncomfortable way to be held onto by a child who knew, on the one hand, that he needed and wanted his mother, and did not want to lose track of her, and who, on the other hand, was eager to break free and explore in blessed independence, and to risk going where he was not supposed to go, because who knew what wonders might be found away from your mother’s skirts?
But of course one of the reasons for all those fabulous images of Mary in Spain is that we humans know that this is what we are like with our mothers: desperate for their love, care, and support, and oh so dependant on them; but equally desperate to break free of our mothers and follow our own independent paths through life. In fact, the only biblical story of Jesus’ childhood tells of him doing just that – breaking free from his mother and father to return to the synagogue in Jerusalem to kibitz with the rabbis there.
Tonight, amid the candlelight, and the hopefulness of Simeon’s famous song, it is easy to miss that for Mary there must be great sadness. For Simeon tells her that the child is a sign that will bring about division among God’s people, and that a sword will pierce her own soul also. And while we don’t know exactly what Simeon meant by this strange prophecy, who can doubt that Mary’s heart has been broken (her soul pierced) more times since then than anyone could count?
Holding on to my mother’s thumbs as a child, it never occurred to me that we could go anywhere that she had not already been. No need to worry, as long as I was latched onto that thumb, for nothing could happen if I was with my mother. And I wonder if that’s how the Spaniards felt when they kept coming up with new ways to depict Mary – even dressing her up like a pilgrim; or placing on a pedestal an image of her engaged in that most motherly act of nursing her infant child; or showing her by the Cross undertaking that most devastating maternal duty of burying her own child? Perhaps they thought, What harm can befall us if Mary is with us, if she has already been everywhere we might go, and done everything we will have to do, from the best of it to the worst of it? There is this sense that no matter what, Mary has been there before us, has prepared the way for us, has allowed even her own soul to be pierced for us, as much as for her Son.
In the gorgeous 14th century Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in the Barri Gótic of Barcelona there is hanging, high up in the vault, far out of sight, a simple wooden cross that must be a recent and maybe even a temporary addition, since most photos of the church show no such thing.
However, immediately behind the High Altar, itself impressively raised on seven steps from the nave, standing on a sturdy plinth, with a model of what is said to be one of Christopher Columbus’s ships at her feet, there stands an impressive statue of Mary, in fading polychrome of pink and blue. Her clothes are draped elegantly around her, but the stone sculpture has clearly been through a lot. A wreath of flowers that once crowned her head has been damaged badly, but she stands tall. The Holy Child she carries on her left hip is no infant, he is a toddler by now for sure, and he carries his own orb in his left hand, his right hand is raised in blessing. His face has been damaged, but all the features are still recognizable.
Perhaps Mary’s left hand is hidden beneath the child she supports with it, or in the folds of her gown – I could not tell. But her right hand, which was clearly once outstretched, has been roughly broken off. I know, of course, that with this hand she probably once held a lily or some other symbol of her status. And I can see, I think, that the hand has been broken off somewhere above the wrist.
But in my imagination her hand has been broken off just at the thumb, where I, and many others like me, have been holding on to her, as if she was my own mother. As if we had tugged and tugged at that thumb till it just broke off; knowing, as we do, that on the one hand, we need and want our mother, and we are afraid to lose track of her, and, on the other hand, we are eager to break free and explore in blessed independence, and to risk going where we are not supposed to go, because who knows what wonders might be found away from our mother’s skirts?
After all, don’t we know that this is what we are like with our mother: desperate for her love, care, and support, and oh so dependant on her; but equally desperate to break free of her and follow our own independent paths through life?
Of course tonight, like any Marian feast, is really about Jesus, who brings light to all people, even in the midst of darkness. Let there be no doubt.
But I will forgive you if you will forgive me for feeling a little Spanish on a night like tonight, and wanting to take my mother by the thumb and hold on tight, at the same time that I know I want to run off and explore, and allowing myself (older now) to be aware of the inner conflict, and to thank God for our Mother and her strong thumbs.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia