In this month of January I had the joy and the privilege of officiating a wedding Eucharist at the ancient Marian Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa.
In fact, as its illustrious and, at times, dramatic history has it, this great Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa has always been, throughout the turbulent history of our Islands, one of the main country’s centres of devotion and pilgrimages. This is owed to the historical undeniable fact that around the year 60 AD both the Apostels Paul and Luke came to this cave, and, as tradition tells us, Luke painted a figure of the Madonna which is still visible on the rock face up to this very day.
In this detail I see a great connection between Luke and his depiction of Mary. When one goes deeper into Luke’s representation of Mary one notices that, thanks to God’s grace through her Son Jesus Christ, Mary is, in herself, our blessing from God as human beings! In his homily at the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, of Sunday, 1st January 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said:
“The first to be swept up by this blessing was Mary the virgin, the spouse of Joseph, chosen by God from the first moment of her existence to be the mother of his incarnate Son. She is the “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42) – in the words of Saint Elizabeth’s greeting. Her whole life was spent in the light of the Lord, within the radius of his name and of the face of God incarnate in Jesus, the “blessed fruit of her womb”. This is how Luke’s Gospel presents her to us: fully intent upon guarding and meditating in her heart upon everything concerning her son Jesus (cf. Lk 2:19, 51). The mystery of her divine motherhood that we celebrate today contains in superabundant measure the gift of grace that all human motherhood bears within it, so much so that the fruitfulness of the womb has always been associated with God’s blessing. The Mother of God is the first of the blessed, and it is she who bears the blessing; she is the woman who received Jesus into herself and brought him forth for the whole human family. In the words of the liturgy: “without losing the glory of virginity, [she] brought forth into the world the eternal light, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Preface I of the Blessed Virgin Mary).”
Another interesting fact about this special Marian Sanctuary of Mellieħa is that, around the beginning of the 5th century, some Augustinian monks chose to found their religious community near this exceptional shrine. History goes on by saying that in the shrine itself there was present a very old inscription excerpted from the writings of Saint Augustine in praise of Mary’s Nativity. Thus, the Sanctuary is praising the Nativity of the Mother of God! In a sense, it is also bringing forward the great cathecesis given by the ninth century bishop Saint Andrew of Crete when he preached concerning the birth of Mary, the ever-virgin Mother of God:
“This is the highest, all-embracing benefit that Christ has bestowed on us. This is the revelation of the mystery, this is the emptying out of the divine nature, the union of God and man, and the deification of the manhood that was assumed. This radiant and manifest coming of God to men most certainly needed a joyful prelude to introduce the great gift of salvation to us. The present festival, the birth of the Mother of God, is the prelude, while the final act is the fore-ordained union of the Word with flesh. Today the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages.
Justly, then, do we celebrate this mystery since it signifies for us a double grace. We are led toward the truth, and we are led away from our condition of slavery to the letter of the law. How can this be? Darkness yields before the coming of the light, and grace exchanges legalism for freedom. But midway between the two stands today’s mystery, at the frontier where types and symbols give way to reality, and the old is replaced by the new. Therefore, let all creation sing and dance and unite to make worthy contribution to the celebration of this day. Let there be one common festival for saints in heaven and men on earth. Let everything, mundane things and those above, join in festive celebration. Today this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
In 2015, the year of the Jubilee of Mercy, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna opened the Door of Mercy at the Sanctuary of Our Lady in Mellieha after he celebrated the Eucharist at the village’s Parish Church. The Archbishop stated that by means of Our Lady, this door was opening so that Christians can meet Jesus, be lifted from their suffering and sins and live a life which is lit by true love.
Pope Francis, while visiting the Shrine of the Mother of Mercy, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on September 22, 2018, said:
“The Mother of Mercy, like every good mother, tries to bring her family together. She whispers in our ear: ‘Look for your brother, look for your sister’. In this way, she opens to us the door to a new dawn, a new day. She brings us to its very doorstep, like that of the rich man in the Gospel (cf. Lk 16:19-31), where today children and families with bleeding wounds await us. Their wounds are not the wounds of Lazarus in the parable; they are the wounds of Jesus, and they are altogether real. In their pain and darkness, they cry out for us to bring to them the healing light of charity. For charity is the key that opens to us the door of heaven.
Dear brothers and sisters, in crossing this doorstep, may we experience the power that purifies our way of dealing with our neighbours. May Mary our Mother grant that we may regard their limits and faults with mercy and humility, thinking ourselves superior to no one (cf. Phil 2:3). As we contemplate the mysteries of the Rosary, let us ask Mary that we may be a community capable of proclaiming Jesus Christ our hope. And that, in this way, we can build a country capable of accepting everyone, of receiving from the Virgin Mother the gifts of dialogue and patience, of closeness and welcome, a country that loves, pardons and does not condemn (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 165). May we be a country that chooses to build bridges not walls, that prefers mercy not judgment.”
How many spiritual riches are there, ready for us to discover, at the Marian Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa! Try to make it a point that, at least once a month, you go and spend some time praying in this refreshing place of grace, health and mercy in abundance!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap