Friday, March 25, 2011

Hail Mary, Full of Grace

Annunciation by Carvagion
Wikimedia Commons

Mary the Mother of God. Today is the Annunciation. Today is her day. As someone still feeling his way into the world of the liturgical church, this is something very new to me. But I think it's important, so I asked my friend Fernando, who has always been better at sacrament than me, to do a guest post. This post is for me, and for all those like me who don't get Mary. So, without further ado, Fernando:

During the Lenten season, it’s important that — in addition to praying for the end of suffering in the world — we focus our attentions on the work of Christ. While Easter may be proof of his divinity, the Passion seem evidence of his humanity. Indeed, it was necessary that Christ be human, for it is humans who suffer. And one cannot contemplate Christ’s humanity without contemplating the Annunciation. I’ve already posted some thoughts on the Annunciation on my own blog, but those were focusing on Gabriel’s role. This time, I turn to Mary.

I’ve long been persuaded of the belief that the acts of Christ is best though of as a single, whole work; in my mind the Incarnation, Baptism, Teaching, Miracles, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus are as intertwined as the persons of the Trinity are. But also intertwined with those, are the sorrows and joys of Mary: hearing the angel announce the pregnancy. The pain of childbirth. The rejection of her son by the people he was trying to reach. Seeing him after the resurrection. Being present at Pentecost.

Protestants are bad at Mary. Too often Christians just don’t know what to do with her. In response to the abuses that lead to the Reformation, we have become so afraid of Mariolatry that instead we say nothing at all about the Mother of God. Even that phrase, “Mother of God,” has a bad reputation among some circles for being idolatrous.

But it’s true.

We cannot separate Jesus’s humanity from his divinity. God became a man. God fasted and was hungry. God suffered and was cold. God’s feet hurt. God was whipped and beaten and nailed to a tree.

God died.

For Christianity to be true, all of those statements must be said. It’s the essential core of our faith, that God became flesh and dwelt among us as emmanuel. So here’s one more necessary truth: if God died, God was born. Therefore, if God was born, God had a mother. Yet even this simple title is denied by some. As a child, I was told that Mary was not the mother of God: she was the mother of Jesus’s human part, but not of God. As though they were separate! Or “human Jesus” and “God Jesus” had different beings instead of one person! I think people are uncomfortable with the title because they think it implies that Mary is the mother of the Father: Mary can be the mother of Jesus, sure, but not the mother of God. But this is a problem too: the Father is God. The Son is God. The Son is not less God than the Father. The Son became human, in becoming human, the Son has a mother. And so, whatever the reason may be, denying the Theotokos flirts dangerously close to any number of Trinitarian heresies.

In all our post-Reformation hesitation about Mary, we should remember that the words —
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed be the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus —
all come from the gospel of Luke. It is not the Roman Catholic Church, but from the Bible that we hear that all generations will call Mary blessed (St. Luke i.48). The Word of God, from the very cross itself, commands us to behold our mother (St. John xix.27).

How then do we honor Mary, without worshiping her?

God became a human. As I said, that is the heart of Christianity. And mysteriously, Mary is integral to that. In contemplating her relationship to the Godhead, we realize many things about the faith itself — or realize, at least, how little we can understand.

Dante, naturally, stated the mystery best:

“Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
      humbler and loftier past creation’s measure,
      the fulcrum of the ever lasting plain,
You are she who ennobled human nature
      so highly, that its Maker did not scorn
      to make Himself the Creature of His creature”
                                                  (Paradiso 33, 1-6)

There is so much paradox in Mary, but then there is so much paradox in the Incarnation as a whole. Dante can see it, even in the familiar paradox we hardly even notice anymore. Virgin mother. But also the more subtle position of Mary before God. Mary is necessary for God to enter this physical, temporal, fleshly reality. The walls of her womb are the first thing Jesus sees. Consequently, Mary becomes something like the firstfruits of Christianity, the first human to represent humanity before the God-man. Up to the Ascension, Mary was the penultimate priest of humanity.

And in her position standing before God, there’s another truth about Mary that is the simplest, but hardest to wrap our heads around: Mary loves God more than you or I do, maybe more than is possible.

All of us can say with the apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” when we contemplate Christ. We can even say along with John that we are the one Jesus loved. At our most holy, perhaps we can even dare to say of Jesus that we are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours.

But none of us, ever, will be able to say of Christ, “my son.” If we could witness the Crucifixion, as life-shatteringly painful as it might be for us, it could not compare with the real pain she felt. When the nails pierced his skin, a sword pierced her heart.

And — making the hopefully uncontroversial assumption that Jesus was a good son — God has a special love for Mary. We are the Father’s children and Jesus’s siblings, by adoption, but few among us can claim to be Christ’s family by blood. We can only imagine what Jesus sees when he looks at her.

Not that we should be jealous. Faith is as important as blood, and we must remember we have our own special place in Christ’s heart: and it’d be very immature for any Bride to be jealous of the Bridegroom’s love for his mother.

She is one of us, too, after all, a witness to the resurrection and present at Pentecost.