And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars.
— Revelation 12: 1
The first prayer I ever learned as a child was the Hail Mary. To this day I experience a sense of comfort and sacredness from those opening lines: “Hail Mary full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” I remember a feeling of awe when, as I backpacked through Turkey as a young man, I came across Meryem ana, or the House of Mary, arguably the last place she lived before her death. This is where the Apostle John is said to have finally taken her after Christ’s instructions, from the cross, to care for his mother. Not far from Ephesus, the humble dwelling, protected by Muslim caretakers, seemed to epitomize the Virgin Mary in so many ways. A nearby rusted tap flowed water believed to have miraculous properties, while the humility of her dwelling place reminded me of that modest soul, prostrate before Gabriel, who proclaims, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1: 38).
It is fitting, too, that the first and last two mysteries that begin and end the rosary are about Mary: the annunciation, the visitation to Elizabeth, her assumption into heaven, and her coronation as Queen of Heaven and Earth. In August, of course, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption, an observation that dates back to the sixth century. Written references to the assumption of Mary’s body into heaven, however, date back to the fourth century! The event celebrates her actual bodily assumption into heaven, whole and without decay, in defiance of the mortality that applies to all of us, but that also reminds us of the biblical promise of resurrection.
The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of our university, and in this sense there is a special quality to our Patron’s Day Mass, and the opportunity to celebrate our namesake. Indeed, the St. Mary’s University logo, adopted in 2004, is a star comprising four letter Ms representing her simplicity, clarity, purity and confidence. The logo holds a central place on the university’s coat of arms, and it adorns our buildings. In an odd way, the logo is both modest in its simplicity but also bold in its declaration: these are the values that underpin our Catholic institution.
For all of the majesty of Mary, her place as the most supreme among all the saints, her exalted status as Queen of Peace — for all of this, I have always been most comforted by her accessibility. I have never encountered a story, an image or a biblical verse where Mary is not somehow reaching out to all who need her. Mary is always welcoming: of all people; of all cultures. She is even the only woman to have an entire chapter, or Sura, named after her in the Quran (in fact, she is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the New Testament). For me the Magnificat, the most ancient of the Marian hymns, summarizes all that is most powerful about Mary: spoken from her own lips, it announces God’s favour, bestowed upon the “lowliness of his handmaiden,” and it reminds us that there is always an advocate for us here on earth: to intercede, to uplift and to nurture.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.