Brisbane Archdiocesan image of Mary MacKillop as Patron

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that “towards dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” (28:1) Earlier we had been told that, after Joseph of Arimathea had placed the body of Jesus in a new tomb and sealed it, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb”. (27:61)

Now, there are so many Marys in the Gospels that one scholar even suggested that Mary was not a name but a title given to a number of women in the New Testament, signifying a particular function in the early Christian community. Whatever about that, there is a certain mystery about “the other Mary” who figures at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

By metaphoric leap and midrashic application, I want to apply it to St Mary MacKillop, since we begin to understand her if we see that she, like any other of the saints, is a saint precisely because she is a witness of the Resurrection; she was and is a woman who sat and sits “opposite the tomb”, a woman who went and still goes “to see the tomb”.

In going to see the tomb, we are told, the two Marys meet an angel who says to them, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Having heard the angel’s words, we are told, the two Marys run from the tomb awe-struck and rejoicing greatly “to tell his disciples.” (28:8) But then, we read, “Jesus met them and said, “Greetings”. They “came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him”. (28:9) Then Jesus, echoing the angel, said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me”. (28:10)

This extraordinary story can be read as the story of Mary MacKillop, “the other Mary”, who is before all else a witness to Easter, a woman who saw and heard the Risen Lord, a woman who received a precise commission from him and who was faithful to that commission to the end. The commission took her to her own far-flung places, her own Galilee. In the time of Jesus, Galilee was not the physical wilderness that Mary and her sisters often knew, but it was regarded as a wilderness in other ways, cultural and religious; and Mary knew that kind of wilderness too. Yet it was in these far-flung places, her Galilee, that Mary saw the Lord and taught countless others to do the same.

When you look at the saints, they are in many ways a strange band, and most of them would not be there if the criterion were human perfection. The saints tend to be imperfect human beings who, if they are heroic at all, have a heroism of a quite unconventional kind, since they embody the heroics of the Cross which are no conventional heroics at all. In this, they contain deep echoes of the Scripture in which we find no conventional heroes of the kind that fill the pages of Homer or Virgil. The Bible consistently uses irony to cut its character down to size – especially its high-achieving characters like King David. This is because the biblical characters can never be seen to rival God in the way the heroes of Homer and Virgil rival the gods in pagan epic. The proper dimensioning of the human being in the Bible is part of its rhetoric of glorification of God.

The saints are flawed, though virtuous human beings through whom power has flowed. This is not the power of the state or of any human activity, but the power of God called grace, which simply means the power of love understood as a free and total gift. Other powers enslave, but this power liberates; and its fulness is mediated through Jesus Christ. But Jesus also passes on that power through those we call saints, women and men who have been so deeply drawn into Christ that the power that is in him also flows through them. The saints then are where grace has landed and taken root in the life of a human being.

The love of God took root in St Mary MacKillop, leading her to go where others would or could not go in the service of those on the margin. Her mission was something that she did, but not just something she did. It was also and more importantly something that God did – and she knew it. This is the difference between Mary and a much-admired secular saint like Fred Hollows. Fred’s service of the poor was remarkable; he knew he had medical skills, he knew there was a need and he knew that he made a difference through what he did, giving new sight to the blind. But Fred, as far as I know, did not recognise that it was the love of God flowing through his skilled hands and his generous heart. But in her own life and work, Mary did know that. She could see and name God as the prime mover in all that she did. She had the sense of herself as caught up in the vast and mysterious plan of God’s love.

Believing, like the other Mary of the Gospel story, that she had received a commission from the Risen Christ, Mary MacKillop set out to do things which many regarded as absurd or impossible. Here again there are deep echoes of Scripture where we meet a God whose specialty is doing the impossible, or at least what seems to be impossible by ordinary human reckoning – bringing order out of chaos in the beginning, babies from barren wombs, slaves from Egypt, exiles from Babylon and, climactically, a dead man from the tomb. As a woman who did what many thought impossible, Mary opened up a new vision of possibility, and this is what the saints always do in a world where the vision of human possibility always tends to be shrinking. That’s why the world so often seems so claustrophobic to so many.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once said that this is a culture which is “deeply and dangerously bored”. He was speaking of Britain but he may as well have been speaking of Australia. It is strange that we – and especially the young perhaps – should be “deeply and dangerously bored”, because we live for the most part in comfortable homes, have good schools, good food to eat and drink to drink, flash cars to drive, state-of-the-art computers to boot up on and even exotic places to go on holiday.  Given all this, we should be the least bored people who have ever trod the planet. Yet here we are or at least here we can be, “deeply and dangerously bored”, like kids who go to the fridge stuffed with food and say, “There’s nothing to eat”. Why then this boredom?  Because the world grows smaller and smaller as the vision of possibility shrinks. The world becomes claustrophobic, almost like a tomb. We need more space – space for our huge desires, longings, imaginings, a space large enough for the heart and soul.

In opening up a new vision of possibility, the saints offer us a vision of hope, which is the one thing ultimately that the human being cannot live without. There are plenty of false or cosmetic hopes around, but they can never satisfy the human heart. We need a genuine hope, a hope that does not deceive or fade; that is what the Bible is about, and it is also what the saints are about. The Bible rubs our nose in the seeming hopelessness of things, but only to say that if we go to the heart of all that seems hopeless and meet God there – just as the Marys met Christ at the tomb – then we will find the true hope that does not deceive or fade, the hope that nothing and no-one can take away, the hope of Easter.

St Mary MacKillop stands in the great tradition of Easter witnesses, and her witness will live on. It took place in a particular time and place and set of circumstances; but the Church now recognises that her witness is for all times and places and circumstances. She opened schools for the poor and taught the children many things to equip them for life.  But what she and her sisters taught above all was the way of hope, the way of Easter. She led the children to meet the Risen Christ, just as she herself had seen and heard him. That was the best and most powerful thing she could do to equip children for a life that is genuinely human, a life that is fully lived as God wants, not the half-life of a human being locked in a claustrophobic world.

Because she had met the Risen Lord, seen him and heard him, Mary was gripped by a vision of human possibility. Because of what or whom she had seen, Mary understood the full truth of the human being in a way that isn’t possible unless you have met the Risen Christ, since he alone reveals the full truth of the human being.

Our cult of the saints, I sometimes think, has its roots in the cult of the ancestors, which is found across the globe and down through the ages – to the point where it clearly responds to a deep human instinct in every time and place.  It was and is widely believed that the ancestors, though dead, have extraordinary power and therefore need to be treated properly, if that power is not to turn destructive. Their cult also attests to the human being’s need to feel a deep and enduring sense of connectedness; indeed a connectedness with the past is what guarantees a future.

The cult of the saints seems to me the cult of the ancestors transferred into the realm of grace. The saints are not our ancestors in the physical sense, but the New Testament makes clear that the sons and daughters of Abraham are no longer his physical descendants, but his descendants in the way of faith. In speaking of the communion of saints, we are underlining the deep and enduring sense of connectedness that the life of faith confers; it opens up a grand sense of family. Mary MacKillop is one of us, our own flesh and blood. Much has been made of how Aussie she is, and that’s fair enough. But there is more to it when we see her in the realm of grace. She is one of us in her struggles to be faithful to her call, in her faith in the One whom she met by the tomb, in her compassion for those who had least, in her determination to serve rather than to be served, in her readiness to forgive when she might so easily have struck back or retreated to a world of resentment.

The Bible says that love is stronger than death (cf. Song 8:6), and we sense the truth of that in our own lives. When those we love die, the love lives on, and the Church recognises that in praying for the dead. Our love for St Mary MacKillop lives on long after she has died. We sense her presence even at her tomb in North Sydney. At that simple tomb, Popes have prayed, and around that simple tomb the bishops of Australia meet twice a year. It is a good and quietly powerful thing that we meet, as it were, around the tomb of Mary who – like Jesus on that Easter morning – comes to meet us at her own tomb.

The tombs of the saints have always mattered to Christians. One thinks of the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul in Rome; they are great shrines built over humble tombs in order to articulate the grandeur of the witness given by the Apostles in their life and, more especially, in their death.  What is true of the tombs of the saints is also true of their bodies which were once, in a special way, temples of God’s glory. That is why their bodies are revered, and why we take relics from them.

If it is true that our love for the saints endures beyond their death, it is also true that their love for us endures beyond their death. That is what we mean when we speak of the intercession of the saints. The love of God flowed through St Mary MacKillop during her life; and the love of God, which is stronger than death, also flows through her now, even if she has passed from this life into eternity. God wanted his love in all its power to move through her while she was a pilgrim on earth; and God wants the same love, in all its power, to flow through Mary now that her earthly pilgrimage has led her home to Paradise.

That is why we can speak of miracles. They are the miracles of God’s love flowing through Mary – the love which is a power not only stronger than death but also a love which is master of what seem to be the non-negotiable laws of nature. The Bible makes clear that the real God will not be imprisoned by the laws of nature which he himself has decided. According to Scripture, if God were prisoner to the laws he has made, he would not be God. The transcendence of God, which the Bible defends most passionately, means that miracles are possible; and in a Catholic understanding, the love which cannot be contained, the love which works miracles, never ceases to flow through those whom we call saints, with the Blessed Virgin Mary first among them. It is simply the way God has chosen to work, the God whom from the beginning has wanted the human being to be his co-worker and co-creator. (cf. Gen 2:19) That is what St Mary MacKillop was in this life, and it is what she still is from heaven.

When the Europeans first settled in Australia, they were dismayed that nothing was as it should be in the Antipodes. The seasons were the wrong way round; the trees kept their leaves and shed their bark rather than vice versa; the north was hot and the south was cold. Everything was upside down. In such a world, it is hardly surprising that sanctity, when it appeared publicly as it did in St Mary MacKillop, would look different than it did elsewhere. Our saints would be and will be Antipodean. Mary looks conventional enough in her portraits, dressed in the wimple and veil that came from the Old World. But the portraits do not tell the story of her difference. In many ways she was truly Antipodean, though I am told that her accent still betrayed a slight hint of her Scottish ancestry. In her journey through life, Mary was not quite what a saint was supposed to look like, which is why it may have taken a while for her cause to ripen to canonisation. She was not quite an upside-down saint, but it is hard to imagine her in any other part of the world.

Yet what Mary shares with every saint in every time and place is that she went early one morning, on the first day of the week, to the tomb, looking for the One who had been crucified. That is why she was called Mary of the Cross: she was always looking for the One who was crucified. In searching for him, Mary found the One who is risen from the dead, the One who is the love that is stronger than death. Having seen him and heard him on that morning, she could see him and hear him everywhere, but most especially in those places where others could see and hear nothing.

Before all else and beyond all else, Mary MacKillop, “the other Mary”, stands for ever as a holy and deeply human witness to the Resurrection, as a seed of infinite hope in this dry continent. St Mary of the Cross will stand for ever with St Mary Magdalene in the morning light, coming to Jesus who had first come to them, taking hold of his feet, worshipping him, and teaching others to do the same.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge
Archdiocese of Brisbane