Mary in the Church

Why all the fuss about Mary?

A lot of people are frightened of making a fuss of Mary because they think it detracts from the worship of God. Certainly, it is wrong to confuse devotion to Mary with the worship that is due to God alone. The point about Mary is that she was an ordinary girl, a peasant from the poorest part of Palestine. But - and it's a very big but - she was an ordinary girl chosen to do the most extraordinary thing, to become the Mother of God the Son.

This poem by Mary Coleridge says about Mary, bluntly but truly:

Mother of God! No lady thou,
But common woman of common earth.
"Our Lady" ladies call thee now,
But Christ was never of gentle birth:
A common man of the common earth.
Never a lady did God choose,
But only a maid of low degree,
So humble she might not refuse
The carpenter of Galilee -
A daughter of the people she.

If we get too sugary about Mary, we'll forget why she really is important. Most of what we hear about her comes from Luke's Gospel, and Luke is very clear that Mary represents the humble people of Israel, the underclass, the losers and victims. The words which Mary says in Luke's Gospel are nearly all quotations from Old Testament passages about the poor. Mary is their voice, the voice of the voiceless, which God at last has heard.

Think about the song that Mary sings when the angel tells her she is to give birth to the Savior. That song, called the Magnificat, is said and sung over and over again in cathedrals and churches, and people hardly ever stop to think how revolutionary the words are. God will scatter the proud and arrogant in their conceit, Mary sings. He will put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalt the humble and meek. He will fill the starving with good things and send the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-SS) Mary is the symbol of God's care for the poor, and his promise of justice.

Mary and The Humble, Suffering People of God

Mary does not only represent the economically poor and the struggling, she represents the socially rejected as well. As far as the world was concerned, Mary was an unmarried mother and Jesus was illegitimate. It's still hard enough to be illegitimate or as an unmarried mother these days, but in first century, Palestine it was a great deal worse. Yet, despite the pain it would bring her, Mary submitted to God's will and answered his call with an unwavering Yes.

So even from the first, Jesus and Mary were marked by a struggle which they had to bear together; and that's only part of the suffering which she had to share with him. When Mary took Jesus to the temple the old man Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be the light of the gentiles, but then Simeon turned to Mary and said, "Behold, a sword shall pierce through your heart too." (Luke 3:35)

From time to time in the Gospels we see glimpses of Mary following Jesus, trying to understand, "storing these things up in her heart", until the day when it did become clear. Eventually Simeon's prophecy was fulfilled on Good Friday, when the Gospel says she and St John stood at the foot of the cross when all the rest of them had run away. And in his last words Jesus said to John, the beloved disciple, "Behold thy Mother", and to Mary, "behold thy son." (John 19:25,26)

Finally, having stood by him to the end, Mary shared in the joy of the resurrection, and the final glimpse we get of Mary in scripture is at Pentecost, where she receives the Holy Spirit along with the twelve disciples. (Acts 1:14)

Devotion to Mary in the Church

It is because of her unique closeness to Jesus that we remember her so often in Church with special feasts and prayers, pictures and statues. As we have seen, the important thing about Mary and about all the saints is that they are not just historical figures, they are alive and with us now. When we stand up and say in the Creed, "We believe in the Communion of Saints", we are declaring that we are united in fellowship with all Christ's people, whether they happen to be this side of the grave or beyond it. The reason we have pictures and statues in Church is to help remind us that they are there, even though we can't see them.

It's no different from having photographs of our ordinary friends and loved ones to remember them by. The saints are our friends too: we have "friends on earth and friends above", as the hymn says.

After the Lord's Prayer, the best known prayer in Christendom is the Hail Mary. It is composed of the words of the angel Gabriel and Elizabeth, spoken to Mary in Luke's Gospel, followed by the request that she will pray for us.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.

Mary is bound to be the favorite among saints, because who else could be closer to Christ than the one who gave him flesh, who carried him, suckled, washed, fed, clothed, taught him, and who finally held him dead in her arms? The Gospel itself makes it clear that we should honor her. When Elizabeth says, "Of all women you are the most blessed. Why should I be so honored, that the mother of the Lord should come to me?" She is really speaking on behalf of us all. (Luke 1:42,43) And when Jesus on the cross gave Mary to be the mother of the beloved disciple, the Church has always taken that to mean that he was giving her to be the mother of all his beloved disciples, mother of Christians and mother of the Church. The Church is a family after all, and what's a family without a mother?

That's why we say the Hail Mary and honor her and ask her to pray for us. Not because she is some sort of goddess, but on the contrary, someone who was regarded as the lowest of the low, but who obeyed God's will, carried his Son into the world, who shared in his suffering more closely than anyone else, and who therefore now shares in his glory. That's why, as Gabriel foretold, all generations have called her blessed, and always will.

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