Seeing Mary as She Is
People treat things according to what they think it is. The first test of sanity is whether or not someone sees what is really there. The second test of sanity is whether or not someone acts according to what is really there. What we see and how we act ultimately determines whether we’re living “in the real world” or not.
Mary is real person; and she’s your mother and mine. Take a moment to think about this. You know it; but do you live as though you know it? Do you see Mary – and treat her – as she really is?
I’m afraid I often don’t. Admittedly, I often get so caught up in studying and contemplating the dogmas about Mary, that I forget about Mary herself. So my personal resolution this Advent is to see and interact with Mary as she really is – my mother; that is, to see Mary as a person and not as a dogma.
Six years ago I re-entered the Church after several years fallen-away. Not long after my re-entry to religion I discovered a call-in radio show called Catholic Answers Live. One of the first memories I have of that radio show (which would eventually become a staple of my intellectual formation – it’s not just a show by airwaves but by airwaves, a portable classroom) is one particular call regarding Mary. Apologist and convert, Steve Ray was the guest. In his response to the caller’s question, Steve pointed to St. Luke’s Gospel and illustrated how Luke would have likely sat down face to face with Mary herself in order to know the details he so carefully recorded in his Gospel (note also that in his prologue – see beginning of Luke 1 – he states his firm intention to write an “orderly account” of real events). That statement – that Luke actually needed to hear Mary’s voice in order to write what he wrote – was for me a profound realization that pointed towards the reality of the Gospels, and more importantly, the reality of the characters within the Gospels. The great thing about the Gospels versus, say, the Lord Of The Rings, is that the characters of the Gospels live today.
Imagine sitting face to face with Mary as Luke did. He records details about what Mary feltand thought during her encounter with the angel Gabriel. He also tells us that after the visit by the shepherds following Jesus’ birth, Mary pondered “in her heart” what had occurred (see Lk 2:19). How could Luke know about this unless he had been told firsthand? Indeed, Luke must have sat with Mary, looked into her eyes, and listened with keen concentration as her sweet voice retold the events as she could remember them. And certainly she would have recalled them with flawless vividity.
Who is Mary to you, here and now? We know who Mary was for Luke – for his Gospel reveals profound insights into who he, along with the early Church, understood her to be (more on this later). But again, who is Mary – right now – for you?
You can’t love who you don’t know; and each new thing you learn about someone is something new to love. Gaining knowledge is, therefore, key in the Christian life. But when gaining knowledge becomes an end in itself – and not a means that culminates in love. As we all know: Mary is a person, not a dogma. Marian dogmas describe Mary, but they are not her. Allow me to digress for a moment:
Doctrine is the Church’s collective teachings on faith and morals. But, of course, there are different levels of Church teaching. Thus, dogmas are doctrines which have been infallibly defined by the Church. Dogmas are not created by the Church. They are everlasting truths that are revealed by the Church. All dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmassince not all doctrines have reached that level of infallible certitude.
Stephen Hawking believes in the beginning of the universe; but he doesn’t believe God did it. He doesn’t believe anyone did it. He writes, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing”. But only persons create. Laws don’t doanything. They are descriptions and nothing more. Dogmas are much the same. This is why we must always love the person before the dogma (common sense, I know).
God has told us much about Mary through the Church; hence there are some things we can know dogmatically about her. She was born without original sin and full of grace, and was consequently preserved from all sin thereafter. She was also the mother of Jesus, who was God always and everywhere – including of course while he was in Mary’s womb – and thus she is rightfully called the Mother of God or Theotokos (which means God-bearer). These examples (there are more) of Marian dogmas, though revealed by the Church at different times through history, reflect the constant teaching of the Christian Church since the earliest centuries A.D.
Mary is a person; and moreover, she’s personal – as all the saints are. We believe, alongside twenty centuries of Christians, that the saints are given a special grace of interceding for us from before God’s throne in heaven (see Rev 5). Saints look upon us as a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) who desire, not to be merely spectators, but to be personally involved in our lives as intercessors and friends. We will never sit at a banquet table with folks like Papa Smurf or Peter Pan, but with friends like St. Joseph, Pier Giorgio Frassati, St. John Vianney and Mary – oh yes, the invitation has been issued and the table is set: this is a real opportunity and the price of admission is persevering love decorated with mercy unto our last breath. This is not fantasy – it is more real than the reality we know.
Mary, furthermore, takes a special place in our lives that even exceeds that of all the other saints: she is our intercessor, friend and mother.
This tradition of holding Mary to be the spiritual mother of the living – that is, of you and me – has its origin at the cross of Christ . “Behold your mother” said Jesus to John, who stood with Mary before their bloodied Savior (Jn 19:27). This has immediate consequences, for Jesus was about to die and did not have blood brothers of his own to care for His beloved mother; so he chose the “beloved apostle” to take in His mother and care for her. On death’s door due to crucifixion-induced asphyxiation every breath is precious and counted; yet our Lord labored to speak these words directly to John (and John was sure to record them).
But the words “Behold your mother” spoken by Jesus to John were also, on a deeper level, to all of humanity; and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 3:15) the Church has maintained this. There at the cross Jesus gives His mother to St. John—and to us too—that we might also be under her protection, guidance and help.
The moment of adoption at the cross was climactic as St. John’s next verse testifies, “After this…Jesus knew that all was now finished” (Jn 19:28).
Mary is our mother in a spiritual yet literal sense. St. Ambrose near the close of the 4th century wrote,
“It was through a man and woman that flesh was cast from Paradise; it was through a virgin that flesh was linked to God….Eve is called mother of the human race, but Mary Mother of salvation.”
Just as we might call Eve our first mother “in the beginning”; so also Mary might be seen as our everlasting mother from the New Beginning onward. St. Irenaeus writes:
“Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin, became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, too, espoused yet a Virgin became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race…. And so it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience.”
Mary fulfills perfectly what Eve couldn’t: God’s will. And she untwists what Eve twisted. She is perfect inside and out like, in a sense, the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant is the holy container that held the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the miraculous manna of the Israelites, and the rod of Aaron that budded miraculously ( Heb 9:4). The ark was so holy that if one touched it he would die (see Sam 6:7). It was, in a sense, perfect: designed by God, made of imperishable acacia wood and endowed inside and out with pure gold. It is no surprise therefore that Mary was eventually called the Ark of the New Covenant in the early Church.
Mary (in a clear parallel to the ark) held the Word of God (stone tablets), the Bread of Life (manna) and the High Priest (Aaron’s staff). She was the sacred vessel who would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35), just as the ark of the covenant would be overshadowed by the glory cloud of God (see Ex 40:35).
St. Luke is explicit in his unveiling of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. With 2 Samuel 6 in mind, St. Luke describes what happens when Mary, newly pregnant, ventures to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Steve Ray does a great job outlining the parallels between Mary and the ark of the covenant, as emphasized by St. Luke in his Gospel, over at Catholic Answers.
We don’t have to look to the Church Fathers to prove that the early Christians honored Mary with a profound reverence (but we certainly can!). St. Luke’s Gospel spells it out clearly.
Mary is a person, alive and glorified today. She is our mother, and will be for all of eternity. She loves you and I more than we could ever comprehend. As Frank Sheed has remarked, you can’t love what you don’t know about someone. So get to know Mary even better! Read good books about her: I’ll recommend a few at the end of this post. Say the rosary daily and really meditate on the mysteries. See the life of Christ through the eyes of Mary. And above all, speak with her and invite her intercession often through simple, little conversations – just as you do with your earthly mother. Mary is always listening and ready to act. As St. Josemaria Escriva has written:
“Only after the Last Judgment will Mary get any rest; from now until then, she is much too busy with her children.”