There’s something about Mary. There is no doubt. Prior to becoming a Catholic, I recall some heated discussions surrounding the topic of Mary. My wife (a Catholic) and I (a Lutheran) had declared our religious scuffles a stalemate and were alternating Sundays between Catholic and Lutheran churches. Knowing that we were serious about one another, our faith, and the value of a religious upbringing of future children, the impasse over our religious home grew more problematic by the week. While so many issues about Catholicism rankled me (which I hope to explore further in subsequent posts), one that recurred was the issue of Mary.
As a proud Protestant, the issue of Mary seemed like an easy target to criticize. After all, didn’t most “thinking Catholics” sheepishly admit that the mystique surrounding Mary was a bit embarrassing? While she was a figure to be respected for saying “Yes” to God, wasn’t the rest of the pomp and circumstance surrounding her a bit overwrought? Saying the Rosary? Praying to Mary? Marian apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima? An Immaculate Conception? Didn’t this approach idolatry and worship of a human being in the service of Christ? These were the pointed questions I would barb my wife with as we debated out future faith. I felt my arguments were airtight. To my frustration, my wife wasn’t convinced. And so we went back to our corners, and continued our alternating Sunday worship schedule. I was sure that, at some point, she would come around.
She did come around, indeed. But it wasn’t my wife. It was Mary. For fourteen years, I spent time attending Catholic Masses. At first my wife and I were very stringent about alternating Sundays, but in time, I became increasingly comfortable in, if not attracted to, the Catholic services. There was a reverence, a holiness, a peace that pervaded the Mass. There was a seriousness surrounding the Eucharist and the Creed that the faithful were professing each Sunday. The service focused less on what I was getting out of it, and more on what I was putting into it toward the reverence and glory of God. And while we went to less and less Lutheran services, and more and more Catholic ones, I felt some of the self-imposed obstacles blocking my acceptance of Catholicism melt away. I realized, humbled, that I was arrogant, ill-informed, stubborn, and simply naive. This is not easy for me to admit, but it is the greatest admission of my life because my humility (and humiliation) brought me to the Truth.
One of the obstacles overcome was the issue of Mary. Mary, indeed, deserves an extraordinary role of honor in our life and in the Life of Christ. Mary was the first disciple of Christ. At the tender age of 13 or 14, with the horrifically jarring experience of an angelic encounter, she is charged (“favored”) with carrying the Christ-child. And fearful, yet full of wonder, she said “Yes.”. Her experience doesn’t end there. As a young woman in a conservative Jewish society, she had to go through bodily changes, endure likely taunts, jeers, and disapproval, temporarily break the heart of her betrothed, and find no one but a cousin who really understood who this Child would be and share in her joy. Mary has to travel uncomfortably to a faraway city, during the extremes of pregnancy, knowing that the risk of illness or complication would be especially consequential if it impacted the future Messiah. Giving birth in a cold, dirty makeshift stable with no amenities, odd strangers making appearances, and an uncertain future awaiting them back home, Mary and Joseph faithfully leaned on God’s Providence. Within a few years, Mary would find herself spirited away to a foreign land knowing that her toddler child’s friends were being slaughtered (and their mothers inconsolable) because the King knew the threat of the Christ to his power. If this weren’t enough, Mary had to raise Christ. She had to nurse Him, play with Him, discipline Him, educate Him, shield Him from harm, and learn how to live with God as a Son. And she had to do this under the continued stigma that this was an illegitimate child, and nothing special at that.
The more I thought about Mary (and mind you, contrary to popular notion, there was little being said about her at Mass), the more I came to appreciate that all of these roles she played truly distinguish her above any of Christ’s disciples. But what really shook me – to my core – was when I had my own two daughters, and reconsidered what Mary went through as a mom. Knowing that you were raising the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the World was a daunting enough charge that would demand nothing less than utter dependence on God for guidance. But what about when you have to let Him go? When you see your prized Son, your truly perfect Son, go out to the cruel world to tell the Truth? To share Love and Wisdom that mankind may collapse before or revolt against because it is almost too perfect to bear? What would it be like as a mother, knowing that your Son is right, that he is GOD, and yet is rejected by your own church leaders, mocked by the community intellects, and overworked by the sick and burdened? How would it feel when he disappears for weeks on end working with questionable people in suspect environments? And what, God help us all, would it be like to see your Son spat upon, tortured, and executed in the most barbaric of fashions simply because He told and was the Truth? It is almost too much to bear…
And yet, God knew what He was doing. He entrusted His Son to a woman who said, “Yes.” and never said, “No.” Knowing that at her Child’s blessing, she would have to suffer with the knowledge that “a sword would pierce [her] own soul too”, Mary carried on. With the fear, the worry, the doubt, the anguish of mothering Christ came the joy unimaginable, and the central understanding that the Divine Drama was unfolding in which she was playing a humble, but pivotal role. Yes, as always, God knew what He was doing.
In looking anew at Mary, I feel that I met her for the first time. The Rosary is a glorious prayerful, mystical meditation on the Creed of the Church, but with a special attention to the message Gabriel brought to Christ’s first disciple, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” and the exhortation by her cousin, Elizabeth, “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!”. The prayer, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” is not worship, but a request for intercession. Much akin to my asking my wife, or father, or priest to pray for me, so too may I communicate with Mary and the Saints in heaven to do the same. Is Mary revered greater than the Saints? There need be no competition, but while I appreciate the last full measure of devotion found in the evangelizing, writing, and execution of Peter and Paul, it may pale in comparison to the Christ-centered narrative of Mary. The Immaculate Conception, Marian apparitions, bodily assumption – can I believe all of this? Absolutely. I believe in a Christ who cured the lame, taught with unparalleled wisdom, and rose from the dead. I see little reason to doubt the special role - always pointing toward the singularly redemptive role of her Son – of Mary. Mary is the new Eve. Rectifying Eve’s sinful rebellion against God, Mary’s virtuous obedience ushered our Redeemer into this world. And that is quite something.
Before becoming Catholic, before prayerfully and studiously approaching the issue of Mary, I felt that there was something about Mary. There sure is. A remarkably special something. Thank the Lord.