THE GREAT SIGN,
MARY IN REVELATION 12 AND FATIMA
Bishop Peter J Elliott DD MA STD VG EV
“Theology in the Pub”, Catholic Youth Gathering,
November 14 2016
In 1967, Blessed Paul VI, issued an encyclical letter to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal and his own pilgrimage to the shrine. He entitled that letter Signum Magnum, The Great Sign. He took these words from the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation, the last book to be included in the library of the Sacred Scriptures or Bible. It was written by John, some scholars say the apostle John, because the theology is close to the fourth gospel, others say it was a Christian mystic on the island of Patmos, John the Divine.
In a series of messages and visions, John is focused on Jesus the Christ, and the last times of the world, the fall of Satan and the final triumph of Jesus the Lamb of God and his New Jerusalem. The book is unfortunately a happy hunting ground for religious crackpots and heretics. The Church tells us to read it with a certain caution.
In the twelfth chapter of this mystical book we find this glorious symbolic vision of Mary as the “great sign” or portent to the world. She is the woman crowned with twelve stars, clothed in the sun, with the moon as the footstool beneath her feet. Therefore it is scriptural to greet Mary as our Queen. This provides the most obvious scriptural justification for the Marian title “Queen of heaven”, used by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but rejected by many Protestants.
However this great sign is a complex double image – it is Mary herself, because she brings forth the Messiah child – and yet it is Mary as symbol of the Church, our Mother, because she is persecuted by the devil, a “dragon” or reptilian serpent, who seeks to devour her other children, the Christians. Nonetheless, Mary is depicted as the queen of the universe, hence the stars, the sun and the moon.
Mary Our Queen
However her queenship is contained, not in symbols alone, but in Mary being the Bearer of the Messiah. To appreciate that clearly we go back to Luke 1: 39-45, to the Visitation. When the pregnant Elizabeth greets her pregnant cousin Mary at the Visitation, she says, “Whence is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” We hear the mother of John the Baptist, defer respectfully to her young cousin, and she addresses her in a most unusual, even incongruous, way. This paradox eludes us and the words run past us because we do not live in the Jewish culture of the First Century. We miss the nuance in “Whence is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”
In Middle Eastern royal courts the title “Mother of my Lord” was reserved for one person, the queen mother or Great Lady, that is, the mother of the king who may be called “my Lord the king”. Often she ranked immediately after him in the court protocol. What is remarkable here is that an older woman addresses a teenage girl with this majestic senior regal title. She may even have bowed as she said it.
Elizabeth only does this because she is inspired by God to recognize that the virgin of Nazareth is pregnant with the Messiah, the King of Israel, Jesus the anointed One, the “Christ”. However, when she calls him “my Lord” we should note that this expression is only found in a few places in the New Testament: in the confession of faith of Saint Thomas after the Resurrection, “My Lord and my God!”, when Mary Magdalene refers to the missing “body of my Lord”, that is, when she wept at his empty tomb and when Saint Paul expresses personal faith in his Lord in Philippians 3:8.
On the other hand, the objective expression “the Lord” is the title used frequently in the Gospels of Luke and John because it arose among the earliest Christians – the title believers only gave to the risen Jesus. He is Kyrios, the triumphant Lord of life and death, the King who is Messiah for all people, not only the Jews but King of all nations. That is an underlying theme of Luke’s sequel to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Moreover, in the Old Testament the title “The Lord” was reserved for God, so when Christians give this to Jesus they express faith in his divinity. The mother of the whole Person Jesus is truly the Mother of God, the God-bearer, Theotokos, as the Council of Ephesus proclaimed.
However, when Elizabeth says “my Lord” I do not believe she is using the language of the faith used by the post-Resurrection community of believers. Luke’s infancy narrative does not reflect that clearly, being drawn from other earlier sources, probably the family memoirs. Elizabeth uses the conventional language of courtiers in any royal court of the time, such as we see in Psalm 110 verse 1, “The Lord said to my lord….”, meaning, “God said to my king”. Referring to their monarch, loyal subjects would have said “our Lord the King” or “my Lord the King”, a usage which has continued in many cultures across the centuries, for example in medieval and Tudor England.
From this greeting, we learn what Mary’s queenship really means and why we are bound to call her our “queen”. This is no mere devotional title. Her queenship points directly to her Son because it is derived from him alone. It depends utterly on him but it is a title inseparable from him. She is not a chosen consort like Esther, the wife of a king, a wife who might be set aside at the king’s whim, rather Mary is a Queen mother, inseparable from her Son. Nor is her regal role a symbolic honour, for she shares actively in his reign, attuned by her faith to share in his work of Redemption as the co-redemptrix of our race.
In recognizing the source of her queenly role, we affirm that Mary is the mother of the Messiah, the ultimate King of the Jews. That was a role every Jewish maiden would have longed to accept. However, this mother was “chosen before creation began”, fashioned by God in her Immaculate Conception to be the worthy Mother of God the Son, the Immaculate Queen.
FATIMA – THE GREAT SIGN IN OUR TIMES
We do understand the great sign as only an interesting vision in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation. As Blessed Paul VI proclaimed fifty years ago, this is the urgent sign for our times, our world, the centuries in which we live. Let us focus on Fatima.
On May 13th 2017 we celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady to the los Santos children, Jacinta, Francisco and their older cousin Lucia. This happened on the Cova d’Iria near the village of Fatima, Portugal.
However, in the previous year these little shepherds were visited by a beautiful young man glowing with light. The angel taught them a prayer of adoration and then returned and gave them Holy Communion, under both Kinds, unthinkable in 1916. This angelic vision prepared them spiritually for the apparitions of Our Lady from May 13th and October 13th 1917 and for the suffering and persecution they endured at the hands of the secularist police and their many critics.
Portugal at that time was controlled by an anti-Catholic Masonic secularist government. But the Blessed Mother was a match for those people. The last vision on October 13th involved not only the children, but thousands of other witnesses, who saw the sun “dance in the sky”. This confounded sceptical journalists, who came to scoff, and then fled back to Lisbon looking for priests so they could return to the sacraments as soon as possible.
Time and Salvation History
Fatima leads us into the mystery of time. The month of October in 1917 turned human history around with the eruption of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the beginning of the spread of atheistic Communism across the earth. Mary told the children of these grave world events but her main message is a call for our prayer and penance, and especially to pray the rosary, the keys to winning the cosmic struggle against evil at work in history, Satan operating through people in time and space. Fatima is all about history, or more precisely salvation history, that is, times and events according to God’s great plan for all of us and each of us.
As Mary predicted, the younger children died, soon after the apparitions. Saint John Paul beatified them and I believe Pope Francis will canonize them, probably at Fatima. Lucia spent a long life as an enclosed contemplative nun. Before the Second World War she received further private revelations about the drama of history and the coming war, particularly that Russia would spread errors around the world, but that Russia would be converted and that the reign of Mary’s immaculate Heart would begin, so Fatima is not doom and gloom but hope, a great sign of hope.
The Fateful Day, May 13th 1981
The Popes of the twentieth century, especially Pius XII endorsed Fatima. But the critical moment came on the Fatima anniversary, May 13 1981, that fateful day when at 5 p.m., an assassin’s bullet struck Saint John Paul II as he greeted the crowds gathered for a late afternoon public audience on St Peter’s Square. That bullet is now set within the crown of the statue of the Pilgrim Virgin, at Fatima, housed in the small chapel on the great space of the Cova d’Iria, the exact site of the holm oak where Our Lady appeared to the children in 1917. Twelve months after the attempt on his life, Saint John Paul came to Fatima as a pilgrim. He brought the bullet and offered it in thanksgiving to the Blessed Mother who protected him at that critical moment in history.
Suffering as he bled in the Pope-mobile speeding towards the Gemelli Clinic, the Pope turned to Mary in prayer. True to the De Montfort spirituality, he had already given himself to her, for “Totus Tuus” (“All Yours”) is his motto. He knew that Jesus had given Mary to us as our Mother from the cross when he said: “Son, behold your mother.” He knew that Jesus spoke not only to John but to each one of us, to each believer. And he knew that it was sixty-four years to the day since the first apparition. Now, on a day of destiny, millions saw this Pope shed his blood for Christ, for the Church and for the peace of the world, and he was spared through the prayers of our Mother.
Just think what the world might have been like had that bullet killed our beloved John Paul. Would the dominoes have rolled back? Would the Berlin wall have fallen in 1989? Would that evil Empire of atheistic Communism still have held brutal sway? Would millions of people still have been imprisoned behind an iron curtain in a grey world of lies, fear and hypocrisy? We wonder, for we hesitate to speculate. But what we do know is that the dominoes rolled back, the wall fell down, and now there is hope for our brothers and sisters who had waited so patiently for many years for the light of freedom. Let us pray that China may be the next tyranny to succumb to the gentle sway of the Immaculate Virgin.
Just think what the Church might have been like had we not received the luminous teachings, the visits to nations, dramatic interventions and creative projects of the past twenty five years of the pontificate of Saint John Paul II. Faithful Catholics may well thank God for those years of his inspiring and unifying leadership, his prophetic proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, his work for justice, peace and respect for human rights, his witness for life, love and the family.
Today we can see the first fruits here in Melbourne: a revival in vocations, the mobilization of the young through World Youth Days and events like theology in the pub and Evangelium, new spiritual movements, revitalized eucharistic adoration and Marian devotion and especially the great impetus to defend human life against euthanasia and to promote the family based on marriage between a man a woman.
This is why the so-called “secret of Fatima” was already revealed and fulfilled in that event on St Peter’s Square. On May 13 1981 Mary foiled the schemes of our eternal foe. In her intervention we can learn that human history has meaning. We can see that “salvation history” is not merely a Judaeo-Christian way of looking at time, our pious interpretation imposed on chaos. Salvation history is the ordered reality of time; it is the reign of God always coming through, always breaking through, as we pray again and again: “Thy kingdom come!” History shows how God is always bringing shape and destiny out of chaos and disorder. Purpose and meaning in history and in each of our lives are not our inventions but God’s saving plan and loving Providence as he brings in his reign, his Kingdom of justice, truth and peace.
The reign of Mary’s Immaculate Heart paves the way for the coming of this Kingdom. She reigns because she is indeed a Queen, but she is only a Queen because her Son is the King of all creation. It is as simple as that.
Mary our Queen always points to her Son, to Jesus Christ our King. She leads us to him for he is always the answer, the only answer, as Saint John Paul constantly proclaimed, as Pope Benedict and Pope Francis proclaim. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, crucified and risen again is the word we speak. He is the way we live. He is our personal Lord and Saviour. He is the One to whom we turn, whose face we long to see, our Light, our Way to the Father. We bear witness to Jesus not only by timely words. We bear witness by bringing his Mother Mary into our homes as John did after Jesus had entrusted her to him from the cross. Like John, may we testify to Christ’s amazing grace with hearts full of gratitude for his gift of Mary.