A vivid memory of my childhood is the multicolored light spilling in through the stained-glass windows of our parish church, bathing the stone walls and floor in azure and scarlet. All the windows were beautiful, but exquisite was the rose window, situated high above the altar. My father, always touchingly awed both by beauty in general and by its paragon, Mary, never tired of pointing it out to me: at the center of the petals, our Mother sits enthroned, flanked by the letters R and M for regina martyrum, Queen of Martyrs.
How, precisely, is Mary Queen of Martyrs? Yes, she is Queen of the universe and therefore of everything therein, including martyrs. But is she also Queen of martyrs in the sense of being the pre-eminent martyr, even though she did not die for the Faith?There are two ways to answer this question affirmatively. The most familiar draws upon Simeon’s prophecy in the Temple, when he received the infant Jesus into his arms, that Mary’s heart would be pierced by a sword (Lk 2:35). Thirty years later, Mary stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, still living when His corpse was pierced by the soldier’s lance. She experienced that pain as she had experienced His entire Passion. His agony was over, but hers continued. As Pope Benedict XV wrote in 1918, “She suffered and nearly died with her suffering and dying Son in such a way … that it can justly be said that she herself redeemed humanity with Christ.
”There is another way in which Mary can be counted a martyr above all others. Christ’s own teachings reveal this secret. Responding to a passerby who praised His mother with the words, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed,” Christ pointed beyond physical to spiritual motherhood: “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Lk 11:28). He was complimenting His mother in the highest way possible: we know that she listened more attentively to her Son and treasured His words more lovingly than any other person ever to live. This leads us, then, to the one word He singled out as “my commandment” at the Last Supper: “Love one another as I love you.
” He continued, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). If Mary “observed” Christ’s words, she certainly must have laid down her life for others, dying not a physical death, as did the martyrs of later centuries, but the death of charity.
When people speak of martyrdom, they often include the qualification, “While few of us are called to be martyrs …” But this is not so! All of us are called to the martyrdom of charity, Mary’s martyrdom. We die to ourselves and give witness to Christ in all the small sacrifices of daily life. And, like glorious stained-glass windows, we must do so joyfully, aware that in the beauty of self-control, generosity and prayerfulness, our lives illuminate others’ with Christ’s light.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.