A BANNER DEPICTS Mary during Advent at Our Lady of the Americas Shrine Church in Albany, a mission of Blessed Sacrament parish.
A BANNER DEPICTS Mary during Advent at Our Lady of the Americas Shrine Church in Albany, a mission of Blessed Sacrament parish.
Surely, it is not without significance that Christian artists in the past have depicted Mary as a young woman untouched by the ravages of time.

In the fertile imagination of the artist, the Blessed Mother never grows old; she is seemingly an ageless wonder. To depict Mary as an elderly woman would be to betray a long-standing tradition of the Church that sees Mary as a youthful maiden and certainly not a woman whose natural beauty fades with the passage of time. Mary can never be less than what she truly is: a reflection of the divine beauty in her immaculate soul.

The question arises of why the artist spares Mary what befalls virtually every human being: the natural shocks that our flesh is heir to in the course of life. After all, we have it on the reliable authority of biblical scholars and historians that Mary lived well into old age.

Divine revelation may give us a clue. In the book of Revelation, the Bible's last book, the crucified and risen Christ declares, "Behold, I have made all things new." In other words, Mary's holiness and ageless beauty is a mystery of divine grace.

Also, in the eucharistic preface for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the priest prays to God the Father words that capture the truth of this profound mystery of a soul that never ages: "You endowed [her] with the rich fullness of your grace."

It is interesting to note that Mary is often depicted holding a lily in her hand. The lily is one of the earliest spring flowers and is associated in the Christian mind with the promise of new life. Mary is a lovely flower in full bloom; her beauty never fades, never vanishes.

Mary is also untainted by sin. That is the true meaning of her Immaculate Conception. Because of her holiness, she is forever young in the mind of the artist. Her beautiful soul reveals the efficacy of divine grace and the unfolding presence of God in her inmost being.

Secular society fears the onset of old age. It is so often a painful reminder of the brevity of life and the ugliness of chronic or terminal illness. In the influential film industry, a woman loses her "market value" and is no longer employable once she reaches a certain age. Youth and physical attractiveness trump everything -- apparently, even talent!

But, for those who discover what true beauty means, it is often a most unexpected and startling revelation. It can change one's view of life.

After concluding my seminary studies in 1983, I was assigned to St. Anthony's parish in Schenectady. A longtime parishioner and amateur photographer, Bruno Pezzano, asked If I would like to join him in visiting a nearby Carmelite monastery one day.

Only recently, he had photographed the solemn profession of a young Carmelite nun from Long Island. The young woman had applied to be a novice at the tender age of 15. His photographs of her profession depicted a woman of extraordinary beauty.

On the day of our visit, I had an opportunity to see this woman at very close range. Although she was behind a grill, I found myself distracted by her loveliness.

I soon realized that her beauty was of a supernatural character: It was her interior beauty, the beauty of a beautiful soul, that moved me to the very depths of my heart.

In his book, "Mary: The Womb of God," Jesuit priest Rev. George Maloney shares his thoughts on the significance of Mary for Christians today. In a chapter titled, "Mary Holy," he writes: "Mary is a preview of what we human beings, by God's grace, can hope to become. She comes as the first Christian, the first human being who is totally conscious that Jesus Christ lives in her, and she surrenders totally in faith and loving obedience to serve Him.

"She is the beginning of the Church, an individual or a collectivity of individuals in whom Christ's Spirit dwells and operates to produce His fruit of love, peace and joy, the signs of the Church among men. She is in a miniature form what the whole Church will become, by God's divinizing grace."

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once declared that "beauty will save the world." The door to God through beauty is one of the great tools of evangelism today for the contemporary Christian.

Doestevsky was right. But it was not until I reflected on the woman who is "full of grace" -- Mary, the mother of Jesus -- and a young nun who embraced her vocation to the contemplative life that I came to realize the power and beauty of a noble and beautiful soul.

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)