May my exploration of faith be a blessing to others.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Something About Mary

Madonna and Child by Michelangelo
via Wikimedia Commons
Several months ago, my husband and I unexpectedly visited a church in a different part of town. When we walked in, a choir was already singing. Their style was a bit different from any Catholic choir we had heard before--it was strongly influenced by the most lively old Negro spirituals of the South. My cradle-Catholic husband, who had only ever associated this music with Baptists or Evangelicals or other such Protestants, turned to me and asked, "Did we come into the right church? Are you sure this is a Catholic church."

"What do you see on the right side of the altar?" I asked.

"The Virgin Mary," he responded.

"This is certainly a Catholic church," I told him. (After all, I knew we weren't in the only Orthodox church of our community.)

It is perhaps ironic that Mary was one of the things that kept me from the Catholic Church in the earliest days of my spiritual awareness, but ultimately was also one of the people who attracted me to it. As a young teen, I had attended a Rosary for the mother of one of my friends. I was perplexed by the repetition of the prayer. "How sad," I thought, "They think they aren't being heard." Of course, it was also odd to me that anyone would pray to or through Mary. It was just not part of my understanding. Then, on an episode of the 1980s sitcom "Gimme a Break!" I heard Nell Carter sing the Bach-Gounod version of the Ave Maria. I had never heard anything so beautiful. Her character sang it to soothe and calm the other characters who had just experienced an earthquake. I began to understand the power of that simple prayer--the lyrics of which are drawn entirely from the Gospels. I learned the words, and I began to pray it every time I flew in a plane. It was a comfort to my anxiety during take off and landing.

Only later did a I come to focus more on Mary herself. As a great admirer of Pope John Paul II, I started to see her through his eyes. Having lost his own mother as a child, the Pope was a great devotee of Mary as the only mother he had. As a budding feminist or post-feminist in college, I thought, "Why shouldn't we have a spiritual mother as well as God the Father?"

I began to think, if I'm going to be a Christian, I should adopt the full breadth of Christianity, which I saw as Catholicism. And, if I were going to be a Catholic, I should fully embrace that too and become a Marian. So, now I am trying to learn more about her, about her role in the Gospels, in Salvation history, and in the growth and development of the Church.

I came to view Mary as the first Christian. Not only was she the first to understand and accept Christ's role, but her faith never wavered. Even when the disciples ran away, even when Peter three times denied Jesus after swearing that he was prepared to die with Him, even as they panicked over the empty tomb, and fretted in the Upper Room, Mary's faith never wavered. She gave herself, body and soul, to God in a way that no one else ever has.

Annunciation by Fra Angelico via Wikimedia Commons
I recently read a Lutheran posting about Mary that started by saying, "It's hard to understand all the fuss about Mary." It went on to state that Mary was a fairly unimportant person in the Bible and, when she did appear, she was entirely passive. Unimportant? How could anyone think that for a moment? There is no Incarnation without Mary. The story of Jesus as human begins with Mary's acceptance. From the moment the angel says, "Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you," she is an active participant in what was to come. Her acceptance of this very strange announcement was anything but passive. In accepting, she was risking her reputation, her future, her place in her family and in her society, perhaps even her life. She could easily have been cast aside by her fiance Joseph. In fact, she nearly was until an angel appeared to him as well. She could have been exiled by her family, condemned and executed by the leaders of her community. Yet, Mary's response was "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Mary by Josef Moroder via Wikimedia Commons
As Mary nurtured her Holy Child, she remained watchful and faithful. She saw all that He did and all that happened to Him, and the Bible says, she ponders these things in her heart. She is constantly thinking and wondering, but always trusting. When Jesus is fully adult, it is his mother Mary who actually launches his "career" at the wedding at Cana. It is Mary who insists he perform this first public miracle, even after Jesus tells her that His time has not yet come. In response to his protest, knowing who He was and why He had come, she turned to the waiters and instructed them to do whatever He told them to do. And so, He did as His mother had instructed Him.

Her instruction to the waiters is the same as her instruction to all of the children of God: "Do as He says." That is hardly a passive role. It is the most active role possible. By her word and by her example, we are told to follow Him with full faith despite any troubles that may befall us, because as the angel told her, all things are possible with Him.

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