For most of us, understanding something means articulating it, putting words to it. We feel we can understand (or at least try to understand) something once we can name it.
That only goes so far, of course. I can name “physics,” I realize something called physics exists and is actually quite a useful thing, but I’m very glad there are others around to grapple with it so I don’t need to. We agonize over coming up with the right names for our children, because naming carries such momentous consequences. Novelists tear their hair out over finding titles for their work. Names define, allow possession, and predict.
As we take that process into our faith-life and look at names, very quickly something striking hits us. There are many, many names for both God and Jesus spread throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: the Alpha and Omega, the Mighty One, the Rock, Emmanuel… the pages of the Bible are bursting with ways of conceptualizing and addressing the Holy Trinity. Those are the names we use—there certainly are enough of them!—when we want to address ourselves to God; and what the Bible has is quite sufficient. We haven’t really done much with inventing others in post-biblical times.
On the other hand… notice how many names there are for Mary in the Bible. That’s right: not a lot! She’s referred to in relation to her son, and that’s about it. And yet as Catholics today we have at least 50 names for her, almost all of them assigned in post-Biblical times—they’re names we’ve given to her.
We call her by one name based on appearances she has made on earth in the millennia since her death. We call her by other names based on what she experienced. Still other names refer to what we’re experiencing.
Why this plethora of names? If we look at lists of names (you can find plenty of them on the Internet, from Wikipedia to various online Catholic sites), we see that they fall into various categories. Many of the titles given to Mary are dogmatic in nature. Other titles are poetic or allegorical; they have less or no canonical status, but form an important part of popular piety. Still other names refer to depictions of Mary in the history of art.
Devotion to Mary officially began at the Council of Ephesus in 431 when the Church declared her Theotokos (God-bearer); it proceeded to flourish after that, first in the East and then in the West. St. John Chrysostom called her Mary, Help of Christians; St. Jerome added Mary Star of the Sea. And we’ve been adding names for her ever since.
Why are we not contented to simply say “mother” and leave it at that?
I think there’s a very good reason: Mary is a mother to and for everyone, no matter where we are, or what we’re experiencing. And the example of her multiple names is a good road-map for all of us in navigating life: she is there for everyone, and expects us to do the same.
Whatever is happening to her children, Mary is there. In El Salvador during the reign of the right-wing paramilitary death squads in the 1980s, Mary was called upon as Mother of the Disappeared. In Brazil, she’s been referred to as the Mother of the Excluded.
In the Canary Islands, a statue of Mary was found in the excavation of a cave, holding candles: there were no bees anywhere around, and the island had not been converted. But devotion to Our Lady of the Candles rapidly spread throughout South America and the Philippines.
In her book Missing Mary, Charlene Spretnak writes,
“She knows all about us, too. Knows how trauma lodges for decades in the organs and cells of our deeply relational selves. Knows what a broken heart feels like, the numbness of great loss of any sort. Knows the wrenching place where tears come from. We never have to explain (as if anyone could). She knows.”
She knows. She is here for us. Sometimes we need her to be strong, sometimes we need her to be gentle, sometimes we need her to just be. And at these different times, we can call on her by the name that feels right for that moment. She is a mother for anything we are going through, for whatever our situation: she lets us call her what we need to call her.
She is a mother for all of is.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir