Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a, 34-35
‘April showers bring forth May flowers’ was one of our chants as children. I think it was part of a skipping rhyme, to accompany the beat of the rope against the cracked pavements of Dublin 12. Or perhaps it was just a saying we threw at one another to show that we were finding our bearings in this part of the world, the temperate rather than the tropical zone and all that. For the winter just past, of course, we have to add March showers, and February showers, and all the other showers that have fallen since last October.
May has attracted more attention than most of the months of the year. It is a time of extraordinary fertility after the death of winter. New life appears through what feels like a kind of miracle. From nowhere, so it seems, fresh young green sprouts on bushes and trees. May’s ‘darling buds’ are suddenly everywhere. The cherry blossom explodes to scatter its pink snowflakes along the streets. Insects re-appear and the birds turn their minds to homebuilding and singing.
May has long been regarded in the Church as Mary’s special month. May and flowers, flowers and Mary seems to be one link between the Mother of Jesus and this month of the year. For the Christian Church she is the most fragrant of God’s creatures and is given Biblical names like ‘rose of Sharon’ and ‘lily of the valley’. It was she, after all, who gave birth to Jesus, the ‘noble flower of Judah’ who is the source of all life and the source of all renewed life.
Mary is identified in the Church with Wisdom or ‘Sophia’, who describes herself in Sirach 24 as a cedar grown tall on Lebanon, as a cypress on Mount Hermon, as a palm in Engedi (that delightful pocket of life on the shores of an otherwise Dead Sea), as a rose bush of Jericho. The Wisdom of the Lord, we read, is like an olive, like a plane tree, like the acacia, like a vine putting out graceful shoots. Imagine all those trees and shrubs growing together, intertwined, the rich fragrance of their scent, their flowers, their fruits.
Fruitfulness then, of May and of Mary. But May and maid, maid and Mary is another link between Mary and the month we will soon be in. The fruitfulness of May seems like a kind of virginal fruitfulness. Where has all this new life come from? The fresh green, the young lambs, the newborn chicks – they represent a kind of innocence and purity, something unspoilt and as yet unsoiled.
At Mass each day we address Mary as ‘the Virgin, Mother of God’. (Or is it ‘the Virgin Mother of God’?) Either way she has been thought of as the virgin-mother, a paradox which points to the creative power of God who brings things into being without loss, without need, without violence.
Every culture has its thoughts and feelings about virginity and ours is no exception. Feminist criticisms of male ways of thinking about women oblige us to think again about our images of Mary and the implications we draw from them. But the scriptures themselves invite us to think of her in this way because they invite us to think of the Church in this way.
So the second reading at Mass this Sunday speaks of the Church coming down from God out of heaven ‘as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband’ (Apocalypse 21.2). This Church is the community of believers who have been through the great persecution (Apocalypse 7). The woman pursued by the devil symbolises this community and for us this is also Mary the first among believers (Apocalypse 12). The devil, enraged at her rescue, devotes the short time he has left to harassing and persecuting her children.
This may seem a bit, well, apocalyptic. The important point for now is this: that the community of believers who make up the Church is a community of the battered and tattered and spoilt and soiled. Paul and Barnabas remind their listeners that ‘we all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22 – today’s first reading). May flowers only come after April showers.
What shines through in us is not the innocence of lamb or nestling but the power of God to create and to re-create. ‘Now I am making the whole of creation new’ God says through the seer of the Apocalypse (21.5). What seems paradoxical to us is not so for God. Sin will be no more. Death gives way to life. The virgin is also a mother. The Church which some believe to be 'beyond redemption' is the ark of redemption for a fallen world. The community that experiences many hardships, and has grown old and ill under their weight, is journeying towards a promised land where ‘everyone is a firstborn son’ (Hebrews 12.23).