Homecoming for the Children of God
Seeing how so many Christians express their affection for the Virgin Mary, surely you also feel more a part of the Church, closer to those brothers and sisters of yours. It is like a family reunion. Grown-up children, whom life has separated, come back to their mother for some family anniversary. And even if they have not always got on well together, today things are different; they feel united, sharing the same affection.
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ Is Passing By, no. 139
Saint Josemaria portrays the Blessed Virgin as a unifying force or common bond among the children of God. What better image to have before us as we celebrate Mary as Refuge of Sinners, the patronal feast of the state of California.1 Sin is what often divides family members, because sin is divisive by nature—separating souls from God and from neighbor. But love is unitive, and Our Lady of Refuge has such love for her sinful children, that she draws us all together around her, even with our other differences intact, to partake of a common mercy.
Overcoming division of any kind requires the wisdom to focus first on what unites. What individuals share in common, like the “same affection” of which St Josemaria speaks, is often a more telling indicator of where people stand in relation to each other. “Being of the same mind, having the same love,” is how St Paul describes the union of Christians, not insisting on lockstep uniformity in matters of opinion, but rather on a more profound source of communion: truth and love. In matters of faith these are indispensable and inseparable.
In family matters the pairing can be more tenuous. Divisions can develop over offenses given and never apologized for, insensitivity or over-sensitivity, or the sometimes irreparable harm caused by serious sin. Bad memories can taint the relationships of “grown-up children” for much of adult life. Yet if we view our family relationships mainly as sources of grief in our lives, then we overlook a more fundamental kinship in Christ—one based not in flesh and blood, but in what Scripture calls merciful treatment.
Saint Paul, after recounting the misdeeds of his pre-conversion days, says that he was “treated mercifully” as an example for the rest of us (cf. 1 Tm 1:12-17). If merciful treatment is the model for God’s dealings with us, then the most meaningful bond we have with one another is the shared gift of God’s merciful love. The New Testament unfolds the effects of this love in declaring a oneness among believers that transcends distinctions of male and female, race, and social status. These are the distinctly far-reaching effects of baptism, whose power gathers into one all whom sin had previously driven far apart.
The Scriptures challenge us with this language of unity and mercy. The Gospel would have us put all people, the just and unjust, friend and enemy, on equal footing. Jesus would have us forgive as He forgives, to love even those who mistreat us. Whether they are sorry or not is never the point. We are not asked to approve or condone anything evil, but to refrain from condemning or otherwise wishing ill upon the evildoer.
Without discounting the lingering hurts inflicted by one family member on another, having a sense of our common lot as sinners in need of mercy opens the way to a deeper kinship that outlasts both petty and serious offenses, carrying over finally into an everlasting union in the glory of heaven. Only a bond of this kind can sustain all the storms that life brings in its train.
We acknowledge this enduring union as already begun whenever we honor Mary not only as Mother but as our Refuge. Enduring because as our refuge Mary is Mother of Mercy, and the chief occupation of the blessed in heaven is to surround the throne of God with hymns of praise and thanksgiving, most especially for the mercies by which we are saved: “Forever will I sing the mercies of the Lord.”
The idea of “refuge” suggests safe haven from dangers to which one’s forces are unequal. Temptation is such a danger, as are the discouraging effects of sin—as are, over time, the cumulative effects of family discord. With the passage of time we might develop attitudes that reflect a practical hopelessness with life situations and even with ourselves. Dogged by temptations and sins, frustrated by stalemated relationships, everything conspires to make us want to give up.
We don’t have to be in dire straits before we think about fleeing to Mary for help. The wine doesn’t have to run out completely before we come with our empty vessels. And yet, we should realize that should such desperate moments come, Mary always stands before us as an open door. In her we find the harbor, the sanctuary, the place where all life’s hurts are understood by one whose life was overshadowed by a prophecy of piercing sorrow and punctuated by its full enactment.
She helps us to interpret our pain and confusion in the light of her Son’s cross, so that we can continue on our journey with greater peace and strength. A refuge isn’t necessarily an information kiosk, where all questions are answered and maps provided. But it is a secure place where we can pause to see things more clearly, most of all in an environment of love—which can make all the difference.
Now the point of us honoring our Lady as our Refuge, and calling it a kind of homecoming or family reunion, is to appreciate how much we are all in need of such a place. The people whom we find hardest to get along with, whom we struggle to love, whom we might judge too hastily and unfairly—they, along with us, are welcome because they too have need of refuge.
The members of our own household, in other words, are refugees just like ourselves. Everyone enters this world having been cast out of paradise, out of a banquet, and much of what we do—both good and bad—is a form of “gate crashing,” trying to reestablish ourselves in a condition of happiness and peace. Everyone intuits, or at least feels restless enough to suspect, that they were born to live in this place—yet at the same time a feeling of unworthiness clings to every aspiration for it.
All of this amounts to appreciating mercy as a shared gift among the children of God. It is what makes us children of God in the first place. Those invited to the marriage banquet in the Lord’s parable—the “B” list—were virtually dragged in off the streets, but at least they came, accepting what the King was offering at no cost. They came from different walks of life, perhaps with dissimilar interests and abilities, but all stood in need of what the banquet hall could offer. The Host and His table were appreciated by those who saw they had no right to be there, but needed to be.
It makes perfect sense that Jesus would inaugurate His public ministry in such a setting, with a sign that makes up for a human lack. And more, that the Blessed Virgin would be instrumental in drawing this mercy from her Son on our behalf. “The mother of Jesus said to him,” making our cause her own, “‘They have no wine'” (cf. Jn 2:1-10).
Jesus gives us a glimpse of the end at the beginning. He wants us to see our entire earthly journey—and whatever demands are placed on our love and mercy—as a path to getting back inside where we belong, where we all belong. And never permitting discord to prevent us from wishing all to join us there—no longer in a temporary refuge because home forever in the Father’s house.
¹ Our Lady of Refuge is Patroness of ambas Californias, “both Californias,” (i.e. Baja and Alta California) as declared in 1843 by the state’s first Bishop, Francisco Diego Garcia y Moreno. In 1981, the California Catholic Conference of Bishops petitioned the Holy See for the observance of the liturgical feast. Permission was granted in January 1982, establishing the obligatory memorial for July 5.