Blessed Virgin Mary with Roses (detail) Artwork © by Jef Murray

Blessed Virgin Mary with Roses (detail)
Artwork © by Jef Murray

She stood there, in the front, as she always did.  She was looking down, but I felt like I somehow caught her eye. 

Maybe it’s because I had my small children with me at the midnight Mass.  Among all the families with small children in our parish, we were the only one who had woken our children in the middle of the night, dressed them in brand-new dresses they had been eyeing for weeks, and brought them to midnight Mass so they could see the real magic of Christmas.

She’s holding Jesus, that statue of Mary that’s in the front of our church, and He always seems to be toddler-aged to me.  She catches my eye often, and always has, from the time I started attending Mass to the time I’ve spent there alone in the quiet of Adoration.

The statue never changes.  My rational mind knows this.  And yet, at that midnight Mass, holding a small warm toddler and leaning over to whisper to my wide-eyed preschooler, I saw a different image of Mary than I had ever seen before.

Amid the music and the incense, the lights and the flowers, the joy and the magic, I saw a woman leaning down to wink at me. 

When my toddler squealed at the Consecration and held out her arms repeatedly, oohing and ahhing over the lights and, I’m sure, heavenly hosts I couldn’t see, there was Mary, smiling down at me. 

When my preschooler exclaimed, in a just-short-of-screaming “whisper,” that Baby Jesus was in the manger now, there was Mary, waving from the front. 

And when, by some miracle and blessing, the distracted mother of my small family — me — went up for Communion, tears once again in her eyes, there was Mary, nodding and reaching out to bring me closer to her Son.

Mary’s role in the life of the Church is always to bring us closer to her Son.  She has been given many different titles, but they all point to how she can, in her many roles, bring us back to the fold of her Son’s arms, to the warm embrace of His love and comfort, to the friendship of God’s grace.  As we grow in our devotion to Mary, we grow too in our experience of divine grace.

Grace has always felt hazy to me, a theory I can’t ever quite grasp, hovering just beyond my understanding.  Reading in the Catechism, though, I found that grace, in belonging to a separate order, escapes our experience and can only be known through faith (2005), and I finally felt a light bulb go off in my head.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that grace is a gift freely given, sometimes in the form of undeserved help, always as a tool to respond to God’s call (1996).  In grace, we are given a participation in the life of God and a vocation — a calling, a function, a mission — to eternal life (c.f. CCC 1997, 1998).  In preparing to receive grace, we are acting in grace (CCC 2001).

All those moments when I can’t explain why I feel compelled to do something like call a friend or family member, say a prayer for a certain intention, act in a particular way — those are all times I’m experiencing grace.  I need grace to act with grace.

All grace comes from God:  think of it as a shot in the arm, a boost from the back, an oomph to my mind.  As a special grace to all of us, God gave us Mary, a fully human woman, who walks with us and knows our joys and sorrows.  In giving us Mary, God gave us a tangible portrait of grace, someone to help us make grace something tangible, something we can touch, something that, if not better understood, is at least better appreciated.

Mary was hailed by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation as “full of grace.”  She had to be full of grace in order to be able to say “yes” and cooperate with God (CCC 490).  When we honor Mary, then, we also honor in ourselves the state of grace, which could also be called a friendship with God.

One of the most well-known titles of Mary is Our Lady of Grace.  This title, more than anything, reminds us about Mary’s maternal role in teaching us.  In this case, she’s teaching us about grace, reminding us about its importance, helping us muddle through to gain more of it.

It’s no accident that many women experience a special devotion and/or relationship with Mary.  As a mother, I often find myself throwing up my hands and pleading to anyone in the heavenly host who will listen. 

“What can Jesus possibly know about this struggle with puking babies and poopy diapers?” I have screamed in my head.  “Was He ever up for endless hours with a cranky wide-awake baby?  Did He ever want to strangle a small person who is supposed to be the joy of your life, but is instead a pain in your rear?” 

And it is then, when I’m at my wits’ end and ready to dive down the stairs in frustration that I turn to someone who can understand.

It’s not that Jesus can’t understand; it’s that I don’t think about how He can until I think about His mother.  It is in Mary’s motherhood, in her humanity, in her constant pointing back to her Son, that I find encouragement to go on with my life. 

No, she’s not more important than Jesus.  But she makes me appreciate the grace — the gift from God — that it takes to say “yes,” not once, but over and over and over, as I struggle. 

It is Mary who has made me think of God in more intimate terms: as my Daddy instead of as a cold, distant deity.  How can I keep Him at arms’ length when He was once a baby, a toddler, a preteen, a teen, a young adult?  Could he have been fussy?  Full of attitude?  Full of Himself?  No, but there’s no doubt that He was human, and when I think of Mary, I think of Jesus’ humanity, of the experience He and I share, however weak it may seem at first. 

In bringing God closer to me, in becoming more intimate with Him, I find grace less elusive and more concrete: friendship with God.

The little statue I have of Our Lady of Grace moves around my house.  Sometimes she’s a part of the frames on the top of the piano in the playroom, where she observes the work of my children and greets us when we come home.  Other times, she’s in the kitchen, reminding me that what I’m doing is not drudgery, but keeping the heart of my home beating.  She might move next to the living room, where we relax in the evenings, so that I can remember to keep God in all parts of my day, not just in the mornings when I’m feeling fresh and energetic.

This little statue, which I didn’t recognize as an Our Lady of Grace statue until recently, is standing with her arms out.  Unlike some of the other titles Mary holds, this one doesn’t necessarily point to a specific apparition. 

It’s a title that has been in use since at least medieval times.  More recently, it is linked with a vision of Mary to Saint Catherine Laboure.  Mary appeared to her in 1830, standing on a globe, dressed in white with a long white veil reaching to her feet.  Mary’s hands were extended, at the height of her shoulders, holding a golden ball heavenward, and looking the same direction.  On her fingers, she wore rings with precious jewels.  Some of the jewels sparkled and showered rays of light on the globe beneath her. 

Saint Catherine heard this message: “These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them.  The jewels which give no rays symbolize the graces that are not given because they are not asked for.”

There are no rays and no rings on my statue of Our Lady of Grace.  It has always looked to me like she would hug me if I could just shrink in size.  And maybe, in the end, that’s what grace is:  a hug from God, something we can’t see, but that we can feel and know.  Maybe I feel like the hug — the grace — comes from Mary, but she is the channel, the way that God relates to me where I am. 

We can look back to the time of the Bible, when, in Luke 1:28, Gabriel greets Mary as kecharitomene, the fully-graced one, the all-graced one.  She, who is “full of grace,” helps me find grace amid the ordinary experiences of my everyday life. 

As Our Lady of Grace, Mary reaches out her arms to us, ready to cradle us just as she cradled the infant Jesus.  She will calm us when we’re losing our minds with worry, frustration, or confusion, just as she must have calmed her Son when He was a toddler. 

She will show us reason by pointing us toward heaven, even as she introduced the 12-year-old Jesus to the scholars and doctors at the synagogue in Jerusalem. 

She will cheer us on and pray for us, whether we’re bearing a cross that’s too heavy or battling demons of addiction and sin, exactly as she watched with sorrowful eyes as her Son carried His cross and was crucified.  And when we achieve that victory, however small it may seem, she will smile at us and point us to the Resurrection, the ultimate victory.

Mary’s intercession to God, in her role as Our Lady of Grace, helps us to obtain the grace we need — to make it through midnight Mass with a toddler in tow, to receive the sacraments in a worthy state, to let go of our rationalizations and accept the friendship God offers us.

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