Medjugorje: Mary's Not the Message
By The Rev. Dr. Augustus E. Succop III Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, NC

Jesus out shines his parent; at least that’s what most Protestants have been taught to believe.  During Advent and Christmas, we Protestants make our annual rendezvous with the holy family by getting out the crčche and arranging it either under the tree or upon a mantel.  In turn, we say good-bye to the holy family when we carefully pack away the crčche until next year.  In doing so, we might recall the holy family in another setting: their escape from Herod into Egypt (Matthew 2: 13).  For the rest of the year, Mary and Joseph are out of sight, out of mind.  The focus of our attention comes to rest on Jesus, and in one sense that’s too bad.

Jesus’ family album is rather slim.  The church’s knowledge of Joseph leaves much to be desired.  Tradition holds that he might have died early in Jesus’ adolescence, although one fourth-century source records Joseph living to 111.  Strategically, Matthew and Luke use Joseph to weave the Davidic line into the New Testament, thus making Jesus the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  Aside from references to Joseph and apart from Jesus being identified as “Joseph’s son,” Joseph leaves us no words, no teaching, no reason for not setting our focus on Jesus.

With Mary, the biblical family album is a bit more generous.  Her words are recorded not only in the birth narratives, but also in the account of the family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-51) and at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-11).  On two occasions, we find Mary growing in her understanding of Jesus and “treasuring” (Luke 2: 19 & 51) the events of Jesus’ birth and his developing identity.  Although we can depict Joseph as being no less intrigued by Jesus, the reader of the birth narratives is left with the impression that Mary understood Jesus at some deeper level. 

My understanding of and appreciation for the Holy family deepened when I participated in October 2002 on a pilgrimage to the small Bosian-Herzegovian village of Medjugorje.  Although not front page news, Medjugorje has been in the “news” since June 24, 1981.  The village is perhaps no bigger than the Bethlehem of Jesus’ day.  Such was the setting in June 1981 when Mary, the betrothed of Joseph, the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Mother of God began to appear to six children.  Today, some of the children, now in their 30s, continue to convey from Mary messages from God.  For almost 25 years, Mary has not been the message; she is the messenger.  She points, as she once did at Cana (John 2: 5), to Jesus.  Her messages from God are filled with words of encouragement and hope.  Consistently, she emphasizes the importance of prayer.  “Little children,” she begins her messages, referring not only to the visionaries, the 6 young adults, but to the church, “believe that by simple prayer miracles can be worked. Through your prayer you open your heart to God and he works miracles in your life” (message of October 25, 2002).  Mary also emphasizes the life every human being hungers for, and which is to be found in relationship with God.  “Only when the soul finds peace in God, it feels content and love will begin to flow in the world” (message of September 25, 2002).

As a Protestant and as a Presbyterian pastor, I felt a call to go to Medjugorje.  I had never before been on a pilgrimage; for the most part I have been a tourist.  Going to Medjugorje was a unique experience.  On more than one occasion those in my group reminded me that I was perhaps the only Protestant for 500 miles.  They may have been exaggerating the point.  Once in Medjugorje I felt like a welcomed member of a family.  I had felt nudged to go to Medjugorje back in 1988.  Periodically, I would catch news about what was happening there.  One day my amazement began to go deeper.  I wondered, why wouldn’t such an event be happening?  Why wouldn’t God still be concerned and involved in our world?  If given an opportunity to go to Medjugorje, why wouldn’t I go?  In September 2001, Mary called me through the friend of a friend to go to Medjugorje.  I went in October 2002.

In the midst of human terrorism unequalled in modern time, God’s messages through Mary remind the church of its calling to be whom God has called it to be: the agent for changing the life of the world.  What other agent of change is there in the world besides the church?  The UN?  The Red Cross or Crescent?  The Salvation Army?  The World Bank?  The USA?  According to Mary, God has equipped only the church with what is needed to change the life of the world.  Through Mary God is seeking to remind if not awaken the church to its role to lead the world from conflict to consolation, from hate to hope, from fear to friendship.

Periodically the church’s witness is severely discounted.  Both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have had their share of sorrows and burdens.  To say that either witness of the church for the sake of peace on earth has been persuasive much less heard is to stretch credulity.  What can be said, however, is that the church -- and I include Protestant, Roman Catholic, East and West – still plays a crucial role in the life of the world.  It is the church, not some other “helping” agency, political or otherwise, that is called to provide the world with the vision of a life where all people live in peace, a world not alarmed by its diversity, but a world willing to embrace racial, ethnic, and cultural uniqueness, and together call it good.

Daily 10 a.m. English Mass in Medjugorje at St. James Church would bring the world before my eyes.  Sitting in pew and kneeling along side of people from all four corners of the world, I came to notice in a new way the importance of the church’s commitment to know, love, and serve Christ, and why it is that Christ holds the key for world peace.  It has been said that in Medjugorje heaven and earth have touched.  Seeing and hearing one of the visionaries, Marijana, tell of receiving messages from Mary had me considering the irony of that encounter.  While I listened, the world and no less a community of nations were gearing up for global conflict.  And yet, Marijana’s witness spoke of God’s constant concern for the life of the world and the divine kindness God holds for every person.  She also spoke of God’s great patience with the church to be the church.  The great hope is that there still is time for a better world to be proclaimed and lived.  Mary has called the current time “a time of grace,” a time that will not last forever, but a time that must be used by the church if the world is to realize the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 9: 6-7) that a child lead the nations to a day of everlasting peace. 

Mary is not the message.  Mary is a messenger called by God to remind and encourage the church to be the agent of change it was called on Pentecost to be.  When at the end of their pilgrimage the Magi reflected upon whom they found in the Bethlehem manger, I picture them in strange agreement that the one in the manger was the beginning of something desperately needed by the world.  In time that someone would become the church, the body of Christ.  Mary in Medjugorje points to Jesus, to the one born in Bethlehem, who grew up, and who is to be found in all the world through the mission and witness of his church.  Mary is now reminding the church of whom it is and how it may fulfill its calling.

I returned from Medjugorje inspired to lead one flock of God’s people in the demanding work of being the church, convinced more than ever of the life changing value the church’s mission and witness hold for our time and for a new day that is surely dawning.

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