Catholics do not worship Mary – a Marian skeptic may concede the point. But we Catholics give her far too much attention, some might say, and this is enough for the sirens to call in warning. It is true that Catholics make much of Mary, the Mother of God, and the reasons are both biblical and practical.
The Mother of God speaks very little in the scriptures. Nor has she penned a book of the bible. She is nowhere shown directly expounding upon some doctrine. But what she does say by her few words and, most explicitly by her actions, gives us perhaps the clearest picture of what it means to be the perfect disciple and why the Church views Mary with such immense and unapologetic regard.
Mary and the Angel; Mary and Her Son
Consider our first encounter with Mary in the biblical scene. The Angel of God appears to her and announces, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you! (Luke 1:28)”. What he tells her is probably the most shocking news a person could receive.
“You shall conceive and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus…the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
To our modern sensibilities, her response is astounding:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
In this scene, we witness the miraculous appearance of the angel and a resounding “yes” from Mary unto God, when he asks her to bear his son to the world. It is not unlike Mary that we are invited to carry the Word of God, Our Lord Jesus, in the well of our own souls. Like Mary, we have that opportunity to lend our “yes” or our “no”; to bear him to the world or to reject him. Mary did not reject Him!
It is in the later years of Jesus’ life that we witness another testament to Mary’s influence as the Mother of God, this time at the Wedding feast at Cana. In a few simple words Mary instigates the first public miracle of Jesus.
“They have no wine” she says.
Jesus has a curious response: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come”
We know here that our Sinless Savior could not possibly be showing disrespect or contempt for his mother. It must be something else. The former Archbishop Fulton Sheen has said of this scene,
Our Blessed Lord was obviously, at Calla [Cana], saying that the hour in which He was to reveal Himself had not yet come according to His Father’s appointment. And yet, implicit in Mary’s statement was a re-quest that He actually begin it. Scriptures tell us: “So in Calla of Galilee, Jesus began His miracles, and made known the glory that was within Him, so that His disciples learned to believe in Him.” (John 2:11.) In our own language, Our Lord was saying to His Blessed Mother: “My dear Mother, do you realize that you are asking me to proclaim my Divinity – to appear before the world as the Son of God, and to prove my Divinity by my works and my miracles? The moment that I do this, I begin the royal road to the Cross. When I am no longer known among men as the son of the carpenter, but as the Son of God, that will be my first step toward Calvary. My hour is not yet come; but would you have me anticipate it? Is it your will that I go to the Cross? If I do this, your relationship to me changes. You are now my mother. You are known everywhere in our little village, as the ‘Mother of Jesus.’ But if I appear now as the Saviour of men, and begin the work of Redemption, your role will change too. Once I undertake the salvation of mankind, you will not only be my mother, but you will also be the mother of everyone whom I redeem. I am the Head of humanity; as soon as I save the body of humanity you, who are the mother of the Head, become also the mother of the body. You will then be the universal mother, the new Eve, as I am the new Adam.
Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant
We look to Mary in her relationship to her Divine Son, and not just in the solitude of lonely bible verses, to understand the shape of her meaning in God’s plan. She was to carry the Word as a holy vessel, like the Ark of the Old Covenant carried the Commands of God to Israel. By carrying the Divine Child in her womb, she became a sacred instrument in the hands of Almighty God. God subjected his own Son to her Motherhood, and by doing so he made her the mother of Humanity. She is the Ark of the New Covenant, but she does not bear the Word of the Lord written on tablets of clay, but rather that same Word written in human flesh. She is that “woman with child” in the words of John of Patmos,
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.
And the most moving scene of all is Mary at the foot of the cross before her own son, spread out in misery. His departing words seal the adoption of humanity to the Mother of God:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (John 19:26).
Mary, Mother of the Church
In the very practical sense, Mary is the Mother of the Church because she is the Mother of Jesus Christ – the Head of the Church. We love Mary because Jesus loved Mary (to quote St. Maximilian Kolbe, “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”). We honor Mary because Jesus honored Mary. We listen to Mary because Jesus listened to her. We look to her example as the model disciple and we beg her intercession because her whole life is oriented toward the Savior – bearing him to mankind, raising him up for mankind; from a child to the man he would become, and then watching on as he breathes his last for humanity. Mary’s anguish was of a different sort as she ascended Mt. Carmel behind the footsteps of her Son, just like ours is of a different sort as we walk our own via dolorosa. But as we observe our Savior in his sacrifice from the foot of the cross, we do it with Mary, and there we are as Jesus’ own beloved disciple. And when he has breathed his last, we take her into our home as our Mother, too.
A Mother in the Shadow of Her Son
Whatever preeminence afforded to Mary in the life of the Catholic is overshadowed by the preeminence of Christ. Mary in the life of the Church has no meaning without Christ. When she said “yes” to God, long before her Son’s Saving Passion, she agreed a solemn vow to bear Christ to the World. In that vow she took her place behind her Son. She is like the moon, reflecting the radiance of the sun. And yet we, as earth bound creatures, do marvel still at the splendor of the moon. But we are never naïve about where this moon derives its light. We are never naïve to the very fact that it is the Sun at the center of this gravity that holds the system together. But like the Moon, Mary is a tidal force. She is not inconsequential, a mere memory and abstract necessity of a long-ago story.
Mary brought the Son of Man into this world all those millennia before us. She does it still, reigning with all the saints in heaven. Marian devotion consists of affording Mary nothing more than the same honor that God bestowed upon her – to bear His Son as the Mother of the Church, the bride of His Messiah.