Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mary and the Church

A reader has written me and mentioned his confusion about Mary's role in the Church.

Here's some material from older blog posts that might help.

***
"And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me." - (Mat. 11:6)
We were willing, we Episcopalians, to believe that Jesus was an alright guy, that he performed miracles, even that he rose from the dead and was in some sense God.  But we found some of the other things a tad bit embarrassing.  

The Second Coming?  Eternal life in new bodies?  Heaven and Hell?  It was all a little gauche.  

Our music was excellent, the service was elevated, the books we discussed were good; but there was this gaudy quality about certain elements in the Faith that might appeal to fanatics or to the sort of bumpkins who read tabloid newspapers, but it didn't appeal to us.

Then one day, while driving, it occurred to me that if all of the rest of it were true - and I knew by then, even a few years into my life as a Christian, that the cohesiveness alone made any real doubt impossible - if the rest of it were true, then even that wonderful thing we'd hardly have the courage to hope for was true as well - Heaven: eternal life.  And all that Second Coming stuff and the weirdness of the book of Revelation somehow was also true: some of it symbolic, some of it literal, but all of it something we had to prepare for.

The Book of Revelation: yes, the artwork is gaudy, but the truth is profound.

Eventually, I became Catholic.  As a Catholic there were many things to be embarrassed about - the dreadful music, the undermining of the Faith by the liberals, the sex scandal and the ineptness of the bishops - but I no longer held on to any of that sophisticated embarrassment about doctrine.  I plunged into the Faith and learned and lived as much as I could, doing my best to live out the beatitude, "Blessed is he who is not offended by Me."

But there is still, you know ... Mary.

Mary - the lingering embarrassment???

I mean, some of those apparition folks are bizarre, and some of the apparitions are phony, and even aside from all of that, what's the big deal?  Why all this emphasis on Mary?

Certainly, no Catholic is required to be "Marian".  The Trinity is enough to last a lifetime, if I may speak in a kind of crass way.  The Faith is very rich and complex, and nobody's forcing anybody in the Church to pay all that much attention to "the Mother of God".  Protestants may not believe this, but we are free as Catholics to approach prayer and life with Christ in whatever way works best for us.  In fact, after I became Catholic I discovered there was much less emphasis on Mary inside the Church (at Mass and in daily conversation) than I had expected there would be.

And I have been praying the Rosary daily for 12 years now, and Mary was not the obstacle for my conversion as she has been for others.  I have always known that the daily Rosary has brought me tremendous grace ... but there remained for me "Something about Mary".  Something a bit unsettling.

I suspect that's true for many of you.

I am going to suggest what that "something" is.

***

Mary serves as a kind of touchstone for Jesus.

It's very easy for Christians to give lip service to Christ - but full conversion of heart is a rare thing, and is indeed a lifelong process, even for the best of us.  And it's easy to live as a superficial Christian without appearing to take offense at Jesus Christ ("Blessed is he who is not offended by Me") while actually harboring a great deal of inner resistance and secret reservation.

But there are ways God has of drawing out of us the truth of our commitment to Him.  Mary is one way He does that.

Because here's what's really really hard for all of us to accept - He is Real.  He is the source of all that is Real.  Truth is stranger than fiction, says G. K. Chesterton, "because we have made fiction to suit ourselves."  We prefer Unreality to Reality, especially in matters of faith.

But He really is Real.  He really is God.  He really became man.  He really died on a cross.  He really rose from the dead.  He really will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And He really had a mother.  And she really is in heaven, body and soul.  And she really does intercede for us - disconcerting and even embarrassing as that is.  But it is only adolescents who are embarrassed by their mothers.  And "Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me" must also mean, "or at anything associated with Me - including the flesh and the innocence from whom I emerged."

***

When we shun Jesus' mother, we are shunning the fullness of His incredible mission.  God as man?  That's fine theoretically - but God with a human mother who fed Him and burped Him and cleaned up after Him?  We'd rather have it less messy, thank you.  We'd rather have our God way up there and our dirty bodies way down here and that way we can indulge either one or the other without having it all get too Real.

God dying on a cross?  Disturbing, but beautiful in a sense, as an image, way up there, on the hill - far away.  But God dead and bloody in the arms of the woman who gave birth to him?!  Way too much!


A picture I took of a Pieta in a small church in rural Kansas, during one of our many trips there over the years.

And Mary, like her Son, also stands as a kind of sign of contradiction (see Luke 2:34)

Many Protestants, for example, can accept Mary in her role as Mother of God, but are offended at the notion of her purity, her virginity, her Immaculate Conception.  "Human beings are not capable of this!" we tell ourselves.  "Even with God's grace we certainly can't be pure, for goodness sakes!  Quit being so holy, Mary!  It's one thing to think that God-as-man can be perfect - but if you're also sinless and unspotted and immaculate ... well, that means that you are what all men and women were meant to be - and we can't stand to see that!  So just drop out of sight, would you?  You're embarrassing us, OK?  You're making us look bad - at least in comparison with you!"

***

The Church tells us Mary is the New Eve, the one from whom would come the One who would crush the serpent's head (Gen. 3:15).  ...   

Now why is all this so important? 

Well, for one big reason.

Jesus Christ could not be born from sin.  He could bear all sin - as He did on the cross - but he could not be born from sin, or from a sinful woman.  Holiness does not come from sin, but from grace - and grace - like the Immaculate Conception itself - is always and everywhere a miracle.

We cannot give birth to Christ in our hearts or in our lives through sin.  And the more attached we are to sin - even venial sin - the less able are we to bear Him into the world.

And if you doubt this, look at the saints who bear Him forth so well. 

Look especially at Mary.