The Syrian and Lebanese founders of our Archdiocese certainly understood love of Mary. They would more likely have expressed this in terms of devotion to Our Lady of Sayednia, a great place of pilgrimage not far from Damascus where Mary appeared to the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The icon of Our Lady of Saidnaya…shows Mary seated on a throne, and serving herself as a throne for the Christ-child. This is the same image of St. Mary represented in the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. In this pose she is often referred to as “the seat of Wisdom.”
In Holy Scripture we encounter a particular type of writing in praise of Holy Wisdom which is often simply called “Wisdom Literature.” We find it in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, and in the Book of Wisdom. There we hear Wisdom proclaim, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old, from the beginning. I was set up from everlasting from the beginning before ever the earth was. I was with him, forming all things…” Now, the Church has long understood the Wisdom passages as Old Testament references to the second Person of the Holy Trinity – the divine logos – Christ as Hagia Sophia – Holy Wisdom. But the Church has also used many of these same passages to speak of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We can understand why as we read in Ecclesiasticus, “Wisdom exalts her sons and gives help to those who seek her. Whoever loves her loves life, and those who seek her early will be filled with joy. Whoever holds her fast will obtain glory, and the Lord will bless the place she enters. Those who serve her will minister to the Holy One; the Lord loves those who love her.” [4:11-14]
Mary’s Son is Holy wisdom. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He shows us the way to enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, to restore what was lost by our disobedience. More than any other person who ever lived, Mary was filled with the presence of God. She was the first to believe the good news of our salvation, announced to her by the Angel Gabriel. She was the one who held her maker, the maker of all things in her womb. It was of her that God took a human nature, our nature. She gave birth to her savior and ours. She nursed the One who feeds all of creation by his mercy and love. She held and guided and protected and clothed the One by whom “we live and move and have our being.” She stood by her Son as He gave His life for the life of the world. She witnessed His victory over death and the coming of the Holy Spirit, as the Church was born. Every follower of Christ struggles to live like Christ, to become like Christ. In this she is our Mother as well – she was the first to believe, the first to obey, the first to follow. And having been taken up into heaven at the time of her death, she is also the first to enter into the promise of sharing in the resurrected and eternal life of her Son.
In speaking of the great mysteries of God, the Church often uses poetic imagery, seeking to describe the indescribable. The same is true of the way we speak of Mary – for how can we possibly fathom the significance of a woman, who so found favor with God that she was chosen to be the vessel of the Incarnation? Yes, she is the seat of Wisdom from which comes the cure for the folly of this world. She is praised in so many ways in the hymns and prayers of the Church. She is the new ark and the new Temple, replacing the Ark of the covenant and the Temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God in the midst of his people. She is the burning bush, filled with the presence of God, yet not consumed by it. She is the portal of salvation, the fountain of grace, safe harbor for those caught in storm.
We can never adequately sing her praises. Her obedience overturned the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Their disobedience brought suffering and death into the world. Her obedience brought life and joy. We can make the mistake of confusing her with God, rather than seeing her as the best humanity has ever had to offer to God, as one who shows us how to live as her Son lived. Or we can make the mistake of failing to call her blessed, but we cannot express enough love, and thanksgiving, and praise for what she has done and for what she continues to do for us. She is our Mother, quick to hear our cries. She intercedes for us at the Throne of God. She always points us to our true home, she always draws us closer to our good and loving Father.
Whether we sing her praises as Our Lady of Walsingham, our Lady of Sayednia…or our Lady of some other place, matters little, as long as we do sing her praises. Walsingham is part of the cultural language of my prayers, as it may be of yours. But to slightly paraphrase Metropolitan ANTHONY (Bashir) of thrice blessed memory, you may prefer Kibbe or Piroggi to Steak and Kidney Pie and Fish and Chips, but both are equally nourishing. It is the faith that matters and we may express that faith in many different languages, as long as we don’t change it, for it has been given to us as a treasure, to cherish, to grow by, and to pass on to others.
Devotion for the Mother of God is basic to the Christian life, for how can we love Christ and not love the one who bore Him to the world. St. Ignatius of Antioch understood this as he wrote, “he who is devout to the Mother of God will certainly never be lost.” May our Lady of Walsingham pray for us and may we join our voices to this ancient prayer: We fly to your protection, O holy Mother of God. Despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.