Are Marian devotions excessive?
We all have an abiding desire for maternal affection. The history books of the American Civil War are replete with touching accounts of dying soldiers in agony calling upon their mothers like little boys. Even the toughest among us grasp for the love of a mother at the hour of death. Prayers composed by the Church in honor of Our Lady honestly recognize a primordial need for a mother’s love.
But Mary is not a goddess.
The “Hail Mary” reminds us of our sins, and the “hour of our death.” In the “Hail Holy Queen,” we cry out as “poor banished children of Eve.” In the Memorare, we stand before her “sinful and sorrowful.” Do these prayers appropriately reflect Mary in the spiritual life in light of the Gospel evidence?
Of course, the first part of the familiar “Hail Mary” quotes the Gospel. The Angel Gabriel salutes Mary with, “Hail, full of grace!” (Luke 1:28) During the Visitation, when Elizabeth hears the greeting of Mary, the unborn Saint John leaps in her womb. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Luke 1:42) Mary must have “prayed the Rosary,” after a fashion when she pondered these words throughout her life.
We contemplate the same words as we pray the Rosary, but conclude with: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The Gospel roots of this part of the prayer are not immediately evident.
Jesus lavishes extraordinary praise on John the Baptist: “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.” (Luke 7:28) We cannot find similar praise of Mary in the Gospels. Jesus usually deflects attention from his mother and directs us to his Father’s will.
When Mary and Joseph find the child Jesus after losing Him in the Temple, Jesus reveals that his love for the House of God is higher than family affection: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)
On one occasion during his public ministry, the crowd informs Him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” But Jesus uses the report to teach us obedience to the Father: “Who are my mother and my brothers? ...Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35) Doing God’s will is more honorable than honoring one’s natural mother.
A woman in one of the crowds exclaims, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” Jesus again redirects the honor expressed to Mary with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27) Obeying the word of God is more important than reverencing the physical bonds of motherhood.
But during the wedding feast at Cana, Mary becomes an instrument of the Father’s will. The wine gives out, and Mary says to Jesus: “They have no wine.” Jesus says to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”(John 2:4)
In the mystery of the subtle and inexpressible mutual love of mother and son, Mary delivers an intriguing message to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Indeed, Mary directs our obedience to Jesus before Jesus Himself teaches, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
With these words—her last recorded words in the Gospel—Mary not only instructs us in holy obedience, but she also reveals the glory of her maternal intercession. Mary’s intercession reveals her as a tender and loving instrument of the Father’s will, a will that even the Son of God lovingly receives. Such is the mystery of Mary’s intercessory prayer.
From the Cross, Jesus reveals Mary’s crown jewel. “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, 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 to his own home.” (John 19:26-27)
In the unique literary style of the Gospels, the evangelists report words and deeds of Jesus. The Church considers the theological implications of the facts. So when Jesus refers to his mother as “woman,” it is up to us to notice his emphasis on a universal bond of motherhood. Eve is “woman” taken from the side of Adam and becomes the mother of mankind. Mary is “woman”—the new Eve—and becomes the spiritual and sinless mother of all mankind. We behold Mary as John’s mother, as the mother of the Church, as our very own mother. Nevertheless, the Evangelists seem reluctant to record the conversations of Mother and Son.
Throughout antiquity, we see examples of pagan goddess beliefs. Arguably, the Evangelists reveal Mary’s sanctity with divinely-inspired subtlety, silence, and beauty in order to avoid even the appearance of goddess status, thus witnessing to the unity of the Godhead. Hence our understanding of Mary’s importance required centuries of the Church’s reflection, ensuring that Mary would forever be known as the “handmaid of the Lord”—not divine—always obedient to the Word of God (cf. Luke 1:38).
Mary’s motherhood of Jesus exceeds the natural bonds of motherhood because of her obedience to the will of God. Mary hears the word of God and keeps it with holy perfection. From this perspective, it is clear Jesus was lavish in his praise of Mary.
With the rigors of prayerful theological logic—and without innovation—the Church teaches with certainty the beautiful Marian dogmas. The mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ includes Mary as the Mother of the Church. Hence, Mary reveals the Church as wonderfully human, “fully alive” (in the words of Saint Irenaeus), and full of grace.
Mary sees us as her vulnerable sons and daughters because we are members of the Mystical Body of her Baby Child. When Mary gazes on us, she beholds her Son. Mary’s love will not fail us, even (and especially!) if we call on her in our final hour of life.
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