Rediscover Our Lady in the Bible

Jared Staudt

May is the month of Mary, a time of new growth and a return to life fitting for the New Eve. Blessed John Henry Newman spoke of how nature itself bears witness to the joy we find in Our Lady: “Why is May chosen as the month in which we exercise a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin? The first reason is because it is the time when the earth bursts forth into its fresh foliage and its green grass after the stern frost and snow of winter, and the raw atmosphere and the wild wind and rain of the early spring. It is because the blossoms are upon the trees and the flowers are in the gardens. It is because the days have got long, and the sun rises early and sets late. For such gladness and joyousness of external Nature is a fit attendant on our devotion to her who is the Mystical Rose and the House of Gold” (Meditations and Devotions, Part I).

May provides a fitting time to increase our devotion to Mary, especially by praying the rosary more often and learning more about her central role in our salvation. Dr. Edward Sri, who has written many books on Our Lady, provides an excellent account of what the Bible teaches us about her in his book, Rethinking Mary in the New Testament (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2018). Although it may seem at first glance that there are few passages that speak of Mary, Sri leads us through the depth and importance of the verses in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation that point toward her mission as Mother of God, Ark of the New Covenant, New Eve, and Mother of all disciples.

Sri’s book serves as a model of biblical theology, allowing the words of the Bible to speak clearly and to lead us into the realities of God’s revelation. In attending to the words of Scripture, we find that the Bible has much to say about Mary. Sri organizes his book around these words, with each chapter focusing on just a few at a time. The book accomplishes a difficult feat: summarizing a depth of scholarship and remaining eminently readable and accessible at the same time. One example can be found in his analysis of Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as kecharitomene, which we translate as “full of grace.” He unpacks the meaning of the original Greek, noting it could be translated as “you who have been and continue to be graced,” answers objections seeking to downplay its significance, looks at its importance as a name given to Mary (expressing her essence), notes the word’s transformative character and relates its connection to the Immaculate Conception (23-28).

Sri explores the entire Annunciation narrative in five chapters, giving similar depth to the Visitation, Presentation, Finding in the Temple, Wedding at Cana, foot of the Cross, and appearance of the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation. There are many “aha” moments, such as how Jesus brings God’s glory back to the Temple, how this occurs 490 days after Gabriel appears to Zechariah (itself following the 490 years of Daniel’s prophecy), how Cana occurs on the seventh day of John’s Gospel to demonstrate the new creation brought by the New Adam and his mother, the New Eve, Mary’s role in Jesus’ hour of redemption, and how this role helps to explain the meaning of the imagery of the woman in labor pains in Revelation 12.

Rethinking Mary in the New Testament is a powerful and moving book with much to teach us in reading the Bible attentively and coming to know our spiritual Mother more deeply. Once again, May is the perfect moment to take it up, when the beauty that surrounds us points to our Mother, who, as the poet Hopkins writes, exceeds its beauty still:

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there

Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.