Mary as Proto-evangelist: What does she teach the church about Mission? A Lecture given in the Parish Church of S Mary & All Saints, Little Walsingham, on 13 August 2016
Our Lady has a lot of titles. Hundreds of them. Each refers to a specific virtue, an intimacy with her Son, or indeed to the site of a place made holy by her visits. This place is among them, of course, and it is a joy and an honour to be here. Thank you to Father Andrew, and to your churchwardens for your kind invitation to give this lecture. I began with a reference to the titles of Our Lady because there is one that is either missing or certainly not in popular use. I refer to the term ‘proto-evangelist.’ She is, indeed, Queen of Evangelists, but that has an altogether different and more nuanced meaning. She is also, according to Evangelii Gaudium, Mother of Evangelisation, because she is ‘the Mother of the Church which evangelizes.’ Each title carries with it a specific nuance – in the course of this talk I want to explore the importance of Mary, proto-evangelist, and see what this might uncover in application to our present missionary situation.
William Abraham, in ‘The Logic of Evangelism’ defines Evangelism as
That set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people in to the Kingdom of God.
Recent literature in the field of evangelism has given us a bewildering variety of definitions, but Abraham’s definition is as helpful as any. The term we are using today – Proto-evangelist – refers both to time and eminence. Mary is the first evangelist, because she is the first to receive and proclaim the definitive good news concerning the salvation of the world through the message of the angel. She is the first to discover the particular form God’s plan will take. Anything that comes before this falls into the category of prophecy. So, Isaiah’s pronouncement in Chapter 7:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
This is a revelation of another order all together. Isaiah points in prophecy to a future hope. Mary, on the other hand, is speaking from direct experience of God’s activity within her soul, her mind and her body.
Mary is also the first evangelist because her proclamation has so many facets to it, and so much fruit. Without Mary, there could be no Christ, no Gospel to proclaim. It may seem a strange claim, given that scripture records so few of Mary’s words; but that is to presuppose that evangelism is merely a verbal activity. There is certainly a verbal component to evangelism, and it is indispensible – but it is far from the whole story. Mary’s evangelism, her proclamation, her invitation to us to love her Son, is part of her very being, from the moment she assented to the message of the angel.
Mary hears the divine plan, and she accepts. She receives and internalizes the Word in the most intimate and physical way possible, through Divine overshadowing. She does things which are not understood either by casual observer or professional health visitor – not really the time to undertake a six month journey to see your cousin – and that’s before the needs of the Roman Empire fall neatly behind God’s plan and vision by directing Mary and her wonderful spouse to Bethlehem, the seat of the House of David, where the Christ was to be born. Then to Egypt. We discover that Mary isn’t just an evangelist; she is an itinerant, wandering evangelist, travelling from place to place, and from country to country, before the Holy Family is able to settle in Nazareth. And she travels with the living God inside her, for the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her. She is Word-Carrier, Word-Sustainer, Word-Protector. We are bidden here to recognize the astonishing truth that here God’s plan of reliance upon the human condition is total. Into your hands, O Mary, God commits His Spirit.
The nature of that overshadowing is mysterious and profound. It is a type of the overshadowing described in the Creation narratives in Genesis: indeed, it is a type of the reality of overshadowing by which the New Covenant is to be made real among God’s people. Here is the New Covenant’s Ark – that of which the author of Exodus describes in Chapter 4031-35 is in fact the forerunner of Mary herself.
‘When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He set up the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen at the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’.
Mary is the tabernacle filled by the glory of the Lord. In this, and in so many other ways, Mary is a walking, wandering narrative of salvation, especially and poignantly in the time between the visit from the Archangel and the Nativity of the Lord.
Mary is recorded as saying relatively little in scripture, but what she does say is dynamite. Nowhere is this clearer than in the period of her pregnancy. In the Lucan narrative she visits Elizabeth, who is also with child, and responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the words we now know as the Magnificat. It is as if the very presence of the Christ child within her womb opens up for her a dynamic revelation to rival anything said before, or since. Luke reveals the reasons why Mary praises God in such glowing terms – what he has done for her, what he is doing for all his people. And, yes, this flows across the whole human existence – what he has done for Mary he will do for us all. He will raise up the lowly, scatter the proud, dethrone the mighty and powerful. It is, as Denis McBride points out, the hymn of a Cinderella people. It is a powerful statement, combining as it does evangelical testimony of what God has begun, and even now moves towards eschatological fulfillment in her own womb. And this does not merely apply to Mary herself, but to the whole of the created order of which she is part.
But Mary’s role as proto-evangelist goes way beyond her own verbal proclamation. She is at once Tabernacle, and Ark of the Covenant – a place where the mystery of all existence resides, a portal of wonder. The words of proclamation are there, for sure: Praise and magnify God, work for justice, do whatever my son tells you. Here, however, is a proclamation which goes far beyond the verbal: it proceeds to the ontological, the mystical, the supernatural, to the very heart of all existence. And wherever and whenever there is devotion to Mary, there is devotion to her son, because our love of Mary is contingent upon our adoration of Jesus. And it is in our own stillness, our own silence, mirroring Mary’s own, that we are able to comprehend the length and the breadth, the height and the depth, of God’s love shown for us both in his divine self-emptying and his human being; and in the prior impulse of God to seek the co-operation of one of his own, wonderful beings, as the lynch-pin of the economy of salvation. And because in Mary we can ponder the mystery of the divine plan, the reliance on the created and the human, we are led further and further into what it means to be invited by God to share fully in His divine life. It is not merely in the fact of the incarnation but in its processes: For in Mary we discover the astonishing miracle that God takes human flesh and associates it with divinity. It is the beginning of the scandalous process of the theosis, the deification of humanity of which both Iraeneus and Athanasius were to write in the centuries to come. Mary’s very being proclaims this to the world, and through that proclamation we are made aware of God’s intentions towards humans and indeed, the whole created order.
Mary’s proclamation is implicit, then, in her very being. She who was conceived without sin was thus prepared for the task of God-bearing. And at a time and in a place where her pregnant state could have been the cause of gossip, scandal and even execution under the law, Mary uses it as a springboard, possessed as she is by the interior knowledge and truth of her encounter with the Archangel. Mary’s evangelism is verbal – she proclaims the ultimate Good News to a people who had been waiting for centuries for the message she carried – and it is far more than verbal, but implicit in her very being through the enfleshing of God within her.
Mary is proto-evangelist, certainly, but we must contend that she also sets the bar high for evangelists in other ways. An evangelist must be, first and foremost, a disciple – a follower and pupil of the Master. We are reminded of the consequence of all this in Luke 8.21 when Jesus seems to cast a preferential familial status to discipleship rather than consanguinity – something which may seem hard for a mother to bear, but in fact reminds us that Mother is also faithful disciple.
‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’
Mary is not only the first evangelist, but offers a model of evangelism which is far removed from the traditional images which mar our understanding of this important area. In his closing meditation ‘Mary the Evangelist’ in his book The Abundance of the Heart, Bishop Stephen Cottrell remarks
Sometimes evangelism is seen as either the shallow end of faith – the preserve of the mindlessly enthusiastic – or the macho branch of the church – tub-thumping proclamation and feverish activity. Mary presents another way. Her Magnificat shows that the proclamation of salvation is properly bound up with the proclamation of the Kingdom and that the two should not be separated. By her example we learn a contemplative approach to evangelism.
A further aspect to Mary’s proclamation comes through the various apparitions and statements attributed to her in holy places and shrines. Indeed, the role of proclamation in places such as this lies at the heart of Shrine ministry, as it does in Fatima and Lourdes, to name but two. Those apparitions, miracles and messages granted through Our Lady in these and other places are further signs of grace, signs of proclamation and challenge. Pope Pius XII’s 1957 encyclical Le Pelerinage de Lourdes points this out:
Everything about Mary directs us to her Son, our only Saviour, in anticipation of whose merits she was immaculate and full of grace. Everything about Mary raises us to the praise of the adorable Trinity; and so it was that Bernadette, praying her rosary before the grotto, learned from the words and bearing of the Blessed Virgin how she should give glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
More specifically, the encyclical goes on to quote Pope Pius X:
The unique glory of the shrine of Lourdes lies in the fact that people are drawn there from everywhere by Mary to adore Jesus Christ in the august Sacrament, so that this shrine – at once a centre of Marian devotion and a throne of the Eucharistic mystery – surpasses in glory, it seems, all others in the Catholic world.
What does this have to teach the church? There are a number of specific points for us to consider. Firstly, the nature of evangelism is both verbal and non-verbal, and neither component is dispensable. The Church has been done great harm by the misquoting of St Francis of Assisi, who is alleged to have said ‘Share the Gospel at all time, and if necessary, use words.’ This has been used with glee and a certain relief for those for whom the prospect of verbal faith sharing is an unattractive one. David Hyams quotes a sermon of St Francis, in which he debunks any preference for ‘silent evangelism.’
‘Once you have made a sincere confession, bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. I tell you again, if you are ungrateful for these gifts, and return to your vomit, the disasters will return, punishment will double, and even greater wrath will rage against you’. These are not the actions or comments of an evangelist hesitant to employ the spoken word.
So, the articulation of the story of our salvation is critical. We would not know of the great things God had done for Mary if she had not proclaimed them. It is vital that every Christian is able to be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. Paul VI reinforced this when he wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi
‘The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed’.
In Mary we meet one whose own overshadowing leads directly to this proclamation of the gospel of her son. Her opening exchange of greetings with Elizabeth, as mothers and sons meet, cannot be contained. She does not have time to return Elizabeth’s personal greeting (‘Hello, cousin! How wonderful to see you…’) but cannot contain the praise of God that courses through her.
Secondly, whilst our words are important, so equally is our witness. Mary carries the child Jesus in her womb. Here at Walsingham she shows her infant son to the world. At Cana she exhorts us to obedience, and cajoles her son into a slightly untimely action which was surely his most instantly popular miracle. She stands at the foot of the cross, wordless now, immovable in the face of heart-rending grief. She waits with the apostles after the Ascension for the further overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. She is there. She is the silent witness. The Church has always wondered what her words might have been, but they are not recorded, perhaps because the time for words is past; only the witness of a life intimately linked to her Son and thus God’s will do. Pope Paul VI again expands on this type of witness as being the only thing which offers distinctive and effective evangelization in the contemporary world:
One can never sufficiently stress the fact that evangelization does not consist only of the preaching and teaching of a doctrine. For evangelization must touch life: the natural life to which it gives a new meaning, thanks to the evangelical perspectives that it reveals; and the supernatural life, which is not the negation but the purification and elevation of the natural life.
Thirdly, evangelism is borne not merely of words or conviction but of ontological reality. The church is called, in a supernatural sense, to be the outward face of Christian evangelism. In this, we are drawn to her Son by Mary, who is (as Lumen Gentium quoting St Ambrose of Milan states) herself a type of the church.
As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ. For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother. Through her faith and obedience she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, not through the knowledge of man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, in the manner of a new Eve who placed her faith, not in the serpent of old but in God’s messenger without waivering in doubt. The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first born among many brethren (Rom. 8:29), that is, the faithful, in whose generation and formation she cooperates with a mother’s love.
This passage from Lumen Gentium stresses virginity and motherhood, faith and obedience, and finally cooperation. If, however, Mary is a type of the church, it would be seemly to add her role as evangelist. If Mary is a type of the church, she is our model for inviting people to share the banquet of her son. Pope Francis acknowledges this in Evangelii Gaudium when he writes of the Church having a ‘Marian style of evangelization’, which encompasses both the contemplative and active virtues. The virtues traditionally ascribed to Mary are irenic, and sometimes described as passive – that isn’t a bad thing, and of course Cottrell speaks of Mary as ‘Contemplative Evangelist’ – but surely in her exemplary life of faith and witness we encounter confidence, bravery and radical Kingdom Theology.
Finally, there is the message we receive from the cult of Marian apparition: that the call to mission is a supernatural call, and with supernatural consequences. Not merely in word, but in divine plan, the church is called from the merely temporal and temporary into the concerns of the Kingdom of Heaven. Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and, indeed Walsingham are vibrant signs of Our Lady calling the people of God back to the first call – to hear the voice of the Lord God, to seek the restoration of original innocence, and to dwell once more in bliss.
In my introduction I mentioned the title used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium – that of Mother of Evangelisation. This follows on more from the typology issue mentioned earlier, but also reminds us of Mary’s rather enigmatic presence with the disciples at Pentecost. Accordingly the praying shared with the disciples ‘made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost.’ She whom the Spirit overshadowed ultimately invoked that same Spirit upon the church, just as, with the beloved disciple, she had received the Spirit at the foot of the Cross.
Ultimately, God is the evangelist, and it is God’s Mission in which Mary – and all of us – participate. But none, before or since, have offered themselves so completely to the plan of salvation, assisted it so miraculously, and – even though of relatively few recorded words – have proclaimed it so thoroughly. I conclude with the prayer offered by Pope Francis at the conclusion of Evangelii Gaudium, which sums up all that I have tried to say.
Mary, Virgin and Mother,
you who, moved by the Holy Spirit,
welcomes the Word of life
in the depths of your humble faith,
as you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One,
help us to say our own “yes”
to the urgent call, as pressing as ever,
to proclaim the good news of Jesus.
Filled with Christ’s presence,
you brought joy to John the Baptist,
making him exult in the womb of his mother.
Brimming over with joy,
you sang of the great things done by God.
standing at the foot of the cross
with unyielding faith,
you received the joyful comfort of the resurrection
and joined the disciples in awaiting the Spirit
so that the evangelizing Church might be born.
obtain for us a new ardour born of the resurrection,
that we may bring to all the Gospel of life
which triumphs over death.
give us a holy courage to seek new paths,
that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.
Virgin of listening and contemplation,
Mother of love, Bride of the eternal wedding feast,
pray for the church, whose pure icon you are,
that she may never be closed in on herself
or lose her passion for establishing God’s kingdom.
Star of the new evangelization,
help us to bear radiant witness to communion,
service, ardent and generous faith,
justice and love of the poor,
that the joy of the Gospel may reach the ends of the earth,
illuminating even the fringes of our world.
Mother of the living gospel,
wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones,
pray for us.
 Evangelii Gaudium 284
 Abraham, W. The Logic of Evangelism, Eerdmanns 1996
 Isaiah 7.14. All quotations from Scripture are from NRSV.
 Exodus 40.31-35
 Luke 1.46
 Mc Bride, D., The Gospel of Luke: A reflective commentary Dominican, 1991, p. 30
 Luke 8.21
 Cottrell, S., From the Abundance of the Heart, DLT 2006, p. 133
 Le Pelerinage de Lourdes, 1957, 23
 op.cit: quoting Brief of April 25, 1911: Arch. brev. ap., Pius X, an. 1911, Div. Lib. IX, pars I, f. 337.
 1 Peter 3.15
 Evangelii Nuntiandi 22
 Evangelii Nuntiandi 47
 Lumen Gentium,, quoting S. Ambrosius, Expos. Lc. II, 7: PL 15, 1555.
 EG 288
 Acts 1.15
 EG 284
 John 19.25-30
 EG 288