Why Mary Matters
A thousand questions can be raised about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We can discuss what it means for her to be full of grace, or why she was immaculately conceived and assumed body and soul into heaven. We can examine her role in our redemption from the virgin birth to her suffering at the foot of the cross. We can meditate on Mary as the model of discipleship and as both symbol and mother of the Church. We can look at Protestant objections to the emphasis Catholics place on Mary. But I think the first question to be answered is broader and more fundamental than any of these: Why does Mary matter?
Let us start at the intellectual level. There are aspects of the identity of Christ which are protected by Mary’s existence as His mother. In other words, an understanding of Mary’s role is a great aid to Christological precision. Consider the Father’s problem, if we may call it that, in planning to send His only begotten Son to become man and die for our sins. The Son, a Divine Person, had to take on human nature, becoming incarnate as Jesus Christ. Then, throughout his public ministry, His miracles, wisdom and surpassing holiness proclaimed His Divinity. But what was to prevent us from regarding his humanity as merely a phantasm or a charade (as some heretics in the early Christological controversies actually did)? The answer is Mary. God the Son joined a human nature to His Divine nature in Mary’s womb, and was born of a woman, just like ourselves.
But then we come up against original sin, that fallen state of separation from God which each generation inherits because of the disobedience of our first parents. Of course, the Son could have had a miraculous immaculate conception in Mary’s womb, even though it was undoubtedly more fitting that she who bore Him should be sinless. But as the Father clearly wished the Son to inherit His human nature whole and entire from a human mother, it was even more appropriate to ensure that this inheritance could not be questioned on the grounds that Christ’s humanity was fundamentally different from His mother’s. Thus Mary’s Immaculate Conception was a further protection of a proper understanding of the full humanity of Jesus Christ. Mary, though free from any stain of sin, was surely human, and she passed on her sinless nature to Our Lord.
It is worth noting that Mary’s Assumption further strengthens our understanding. For if Mary was free from original sin, she could not be subject to death as we know it, but only to a sort of falling asleep and translation (as it is called) to the direct presence of God. Such would have been the lot of Adam and Eve had they not sinned, for the violent separation of the soul from the body in death is a consequence of the Fall. Here as everywhere, then, Catholic doctrine remains all of a piece: The Assumption corroborates the Immaculate Conception which corroborates the full humanity of Jesus Christ which corroborates His ability to redeem us by becoming like us in all things except sin.
Male and Female He Created Them
This initial perspective on why Mary matters may seem overly intellectual, but we should never discount the importance of clarity in understanding the actual substance of reality. Life is not a game of mere concepts. Nonetheless, another important perspective on this question is more psychological and perhaps emotional, relating especially to the human differentiation we call sexuality. Recall that in God there is neither male nor female. Apart from the human nature assumed by God the Son, there is no sexuality in the Persons of the Trinity, for they are completely spiritual. But God does contain within Himself every perfection, which means that He has all the perfections (we might call them strengths) which we characterize as feminine and masculine.
Jesus Himself gave a special hint of this when he cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37) Such maternal expressions notwithstanding, to take on our nature the eternal Son had to take on maleness or femaleness. Having chosen maleness (for reasons we cannot fully comprehend and which, in any case, go beyond the scope of this essay), He provided us with a means of relating to the Father through particularly male strengths. But what of gentleness, compassion, nurturing, the uniquely feminine aspects of mercy, and the sheer tenacity of maternal love? The answer again is Mary.
Just as the Father wanted the incarnate Son to have a human mother, so did He want her to become ours as well. From the cross, Jesus cried to us again: “Behold your mother!” (Jn 19:27) As a result, that physical and psychological bifurcation and complementarity which so colors all of our relationships was recognized in the work of Redemption, and fitting provision was made for it. Because Mary is so close to her Son in all things, and because He has given her to us as a way of drawing closer to Him, we can now take equal advantage of the feminine strengths. By entering into relationship with both Jesus and Mary, and to some extent with Jesus through Mary, we find more natural modes of expression for the movements of our hearts, and a richer variety and depth of spiritual delight for our souls.
Going Beyond Infinity
This loving human embrace of Mary along with her Son comes very naturally, especially to children. In fact, for this to fail, you have to be carefully taught to be suspicious of it, as happens with many Protestant groups who foolishly believe that Mary is exalted only at the expense of Jesus, when in fact the whole reason for her exaltation is that she was chosen to bring us Christ. We must have a poor appreciation—perhaps even a deep distrust—of Divine providence if we think God has provided so perfect a means only so that we must disdain and avoid it. And this brings us to a third perspective on why Mary is important. She is important because she represents and mirrors the overwhelming generosity of God.
Fr. William Most, in a wonderful book entitled Our Father’s Plan: God’s Arrangements and Our Response (published by Trinity Communications during its former print-based life), notes that God could have redeemed us through a simple act of His will, or through an Incarnate Son Who did not suffer, both of which would have had infinite value. So the Father actually goes “beyond infinity”, so to speak, by sending His Son to be born in a stable, and to suffer and die on the Cross. And although God's plan is necessarily infinite, the Father seems determined to show His overflowing love by adding such finite things to His plan, going “beyond infinity” again and again.
Clearly He also wanted to add Mary’s cooperation to His plan of Redemption. As Vatican II expressed this in Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church):
… in suffering with her Son as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls. As a result, she is our Mother in the order of grace. (#61)
Note that God has arranged this for us out of sheer generosity—not even primarily for Mary’s benefit, but for the benefit of every person who participates in the economy of grace. The Father has given incomparable gifts to Mary precisely because He loves us immeasurably, and will hold absolutely nothing back in His unceasing effort to get us to love Him in return.
Here are three reasons, then, why Mary matters very much indeed. Her unique cooperation with God safeguards our understanding of the identity of her Son; her femininity complements Our Lord’s masculinity in ways that makes it easier for us to draw close to God; and she is, if you will, the ultimate detail demonstrating the supreme, infinitely painstaking fullness of the Father’s love. Justly is Mary called the daughter of the Father, the mother of the Son, and the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Surely, as Wordsworth so aptly wrote, she is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”. But ultimately Mary matters because she can “hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28), so that her “soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46). In this way, she brought our Father’s plan to fulfillment, by which He gave her all these gifts not only for her sake, but for ours.
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