Yesterday the world stopped spinning.
The whole earth trembled.
Heaven came down to earth
as the Word was made flesh
in my womb.
Though I am no queen,
no Judith or Esther or Deborah.
Here in this nowhere town
dwells the creator of all the world.
I cannot say if there were trumpets,
though I heard them,
nor if choirs of angels sang God’s glory.
I only know my heart thrilled,
my spirit soared,
my soul sang
as the angel of the Lord called me God’s own
and asked me to bear his Son.
But that was yesterday.
Today the angel is gone,
and so too the astonishing peace,
the silence in my heart so loud it fairly shook.
Today I am not wandering
like one in a dream,
a secret smile touching my lips
as my hand returns again and again to rest
over the spot where Life himself has chosen to live.
Joy still, yes, and wonder.
Who am I that my Lord should come to me?
Still my heart is full and still my head spins with the glory of it all.
But today I have to think:
Perhaps I imagined it,
fell asleep in the warm afternoon sun
and turned the words of the prophet
into my fate.
Perhaps it was a dream,
a trick of the light.
And yet there has never been anything so real
as that shocking moment of peace,
that clarity of confusion.
Nobody could hear what I heard
and see what I saw
and not believe.
But they did not see.
Nor did they hear.
And today I must wake from this dream I am living
What will he say, when I tell him this thing that has never been told before?
Will he rage against what cannot be believed,
call me out for a liar and call my neighbors out with stones?
He would have that right.
My Joseph so gentle could never.
He will not shout, will not condemn.
But still he may not believe.
And the sorrow in his eyes would break my heart
if it did not beat for another Heart than his.
He may turn from me,
and leave me alone with this Child who will save him, too.
I am not afraid,
My life is not my own.
And He who has chosen me will take me where I need to be.
Though that may be death or disgrace,
though a sword may pierce my heart,
I know he will be with me.
but I cannot help but hope
that the love of this good man will be stronger than his doubt,
that my parents will believe,
that I and my son will be safe.
As I walk from the radiance of the angel’s presence
into the darkness of the unknown,
God-with-me guides my steps,
though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And while my flesh may fear
my heart will choose to trust.
Even when I cannot see him
I will be faithful:
the handmaid of the Lord.
I’ve made no secret of my struggle with the Rosary. And while I’ve continued to struggle through fifteen years of dry Aves, clinging to my beads simply because sweet Mother Church said I should, I’d become fairly convinced that this pious practice would never be anything but a chore for me. “The Rosary just doesn’t suit my temperament,” I said, committed to praying it regardless.
And that might be true. But our God is a God of surprises, of generosity that knows no bounds, of foretastes of the Promised Land amid forty year treks through the desert. And last night he had something better for me.
I didn’t grow up with Mary. Getting to know her has been awfully hard for me. For years, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Marian devotion wasn’t paganism. Then I read Scott Hahn’s Hail, Holy Queen and determined that, as with everything else where I’d tested her, the Church knew what she was about. (And for proof, here’s everything I’ve written about the Blessed Mother.)
But accepting the Marian dogmas didn’t at all mean really loving the Blessed Mother. And I didn’t.
Or rather, I don’t.
Oh, I try to. I know I should. But there’s still that Protestant inside me screaming about my blasphemy, that 21st century Catholic wondering why I should even bother. I know all the answers on an intellectual level, but Mary’s never really been my mom. The best I’ve gotten is that she’s my best friend’s mom. Given how close I am to my best friend’s mom–I’ve gone on vacation with her while my friend stayed home–that’s pretty good. But it’s not the same.
Thirteen years ago, before I had any idea who Mary was, I got positive peer pressured into making the Total Consecration to Mary. I was pretty sure it wasn’t idolatry, so I went for it. And it changed absolutely nothing.
But Mary’s been stalking me a little. And I knew I needed to renew my consecration. Everyone raves about Fr. Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Last week, I opened the introduction while killing time at a shawarma place in Atlanta. I read through the usual Mariology and settled in for more of the same.
Mary’s task is to give spiritual birth to Christians, to feed and nurture them with grace, and to help them grow to full stature in Christ.
Now I’ve read John 19:26-27. I’ve taught those verses. I’ve made people memorize them. I get that Mary is my mother.
But I didn’t.
See, I was treating Mary as my stepmother. She’s the woman who came along when I was twenty-five standing at the foot of the Cross and now she comes to Thanksgiving at my house and maybe sometimes tells me about her Son until I get bored and tune her out.
But Mary isn’t my stepmother. She’s my mother. Adoptive, perhaps, but my true mother just the same.
The Lord speaks really strongly to me in allegory. Through images of princes taking the death penalty their adulterous brides deserve, little girls caught up out of poverty to become daughters of the king, husbands speaking words of forgiveness to their wives. Like analogies, allegories limp. So you’ll have to bear with me on this and be gentle. This is my heart.1
I am a poor orphaned infant adopted by the King and languishing for hunger. But the Mother of his Son has been nursing his other children so she takes me into her arms and puts me to her breast. No stepchild or foster child, I am her true child, the daughter of her heart become the daughter of her flesh. To be the daughter of my Father, I have to be nourished by the Mother of his Son.2 And so the food he gives to her becomes my food, the spiritual milk Paul tells us must be our food before we can eat meat.3 But where can we get this milk except our Mother? So she nurses me, as the King sits beside her and strokes my little head. My eldest Brother, the crown Prince, stands nearby. It was he whom the King sent out to rescue me, he who was scratched and beaten and bruised to bring me to the Father. In her arms, I become his. As I nurse, I toy with her necklace, a rope of beads with a crucified man hanging from it. And she tells me the story of my Brother’s love.4
When Jesus went to John to be baptized, he was joining in the struggle of all who sin, all who will die to sin. And your Father split open the heavens. “This is my beloved son,” he shouted. That’s the same thing he says about you, sweet girl. “This is my beloved daughter.” He loves you just that much. And all those people, they didn’t know what to think! Some thought it was thunder or maybe an earthquake. But a few, a very few, heard the Father’s words. And in that moment, they began to wonder if they couldn’t become beloved, too. Jesus had that effect on people, you know. When they looked at him, they knew just who they could be. And some people got angry and others felt hope and most everybody knew they needed mercy. But that brother of yours, he is mercy, sweet girl. Even to the ones who never ask.
And I’m looking up at her face and twisting her beads between my fingers and she’s stroking my hair and there’s nothing else but this—her, telling me about him.
Oh, that wedding feast was a marvelous one! They were some of my dearest friends, you know, and when the wine ran out I knew how desperately ashamed they would be. Jesus said he wasn’t planning on doing anything miraculous, but he couldn’t just stand by. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t hesitate at first just so I would know he was doing it as a gift for me. But no matter, he did it. He brought joy to that banquet just like he brings joy to anyone who turns to him. But the celebration was different afterwards. There was a solemnity to the joy, like the people knew something sacred had happened. Their laughter didn’t run to debauchery. They saw each other, really saw each other, and spoke the words of love they’d never had the courage to let out. It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? That freedom to love.
Still I can’t look away. Every time my eyes stray to the window, her gentle voice tugs me back, reminding me that I need this, I need her, to help me become his.
And you should have seen the way they followed him after that! People pushing to get to him like he was their last hope. Which, of course, he was. “Master, heal me!” “Rabbi, teach me!” “Lord, save me!” Most of them not knowing who he was, just seeing that he had something they wanted. But Jesus saw past their ailments to their true need. So he healed a leper here, raised a dead girl there. But others he left broken. That’s what they needed. And oh, how he preached. Stood on a hill and spoke for hours. About love and mercy, yes, but about sin and judgment, too. About peace and violence and prayer and action but always, always about your Father. That was the whole point, of course: to bring these dear ones to your Father. Every word he spoke, every limb he healed, every child he touched, every beggar he fed: always to speak the love of the Father, to draw their hearts to him.
The stories sound different in her voice. I’m hearing them for the first time but she’s telling them for the thousandth. They’re the stories that make her life, make my life, make every life worth living.
Poor Peter. He was so tired. Jesus had told his friends that was going to be killed and no sooner had they picked their jaws up off the floor than he made Peter, John, and James climb a mountain. They were fishermen, not shepherds, and mountain climbing didn’t come easy. So you can imagine, dear heart, how they slept when they reached the top. They might have slept right through the whole thing, but the Father knew they needed that moment to keep them going. And there Moses and Elijah were, finally seeing the Son, the one they’d been pointing to their whole lives without knowing it. And poor Peter, always a man of action, tried to build a tent. I’m sure James was trying to understand it all, figure out how they got there and what it meant. And John—sweet John—just standing there taking it all in, just being. Doing and thinking and being. They’re very important, all of them, but I hope you, my sweet one, will have the courage just to be. That is the truest path to the Father.
The Father stops by and kisses me on my forehead and I only know him because she’s telling me. Her voice pulls me in and shows me just who he is.
Sweet girl, I hope you will never know the pain of that last night. Or maybe I hope you will, if it will bring you closer to the Father by showing you what his love is worth. But your Father is such a mighty King that he made that ugly night a gift beyond compare. Jesus was about to be made a sacrifice to bring you home. You, dear one. Isn’t he marvelous? All that, just for you. And there were his friends, oblivious. Except for John. They all caught Jesus’ mood, but only John was beginning to see. “The Lamb of God. The one who takes away the sin of the world. The paschal lamb whose body is broken, whose bread becomes our food. And tomorrow the Passover.” That meal began his greatest gift, his journey to hell and back to save you, my love. He gave you his body. Do you understand what that means? No, no, of course you don’t. But you will.
And as I feed on his body given to me through her, as his flesh becomes her flesh to become mine, there’s a peace and a stillness I’ve never felt here, an intensity that isn’t from me. She pulls me off and sits me up and delights in me because I am his. Hail, holy Queen.
I don’t know how long this will last, but I get it. I finally get what the rosary is about. I don’t know if you can have this experience, or if you even want to, but it was so much more real than any other time I’ve told my beads before. It’s the storytelling—which I’m becoming more and more convinced is key to evangelization—and the way those old stories are new again and finally understanding that I need her. For an inveterate rosary-tolerator like me, it’s nothing short of a miracle. Praise the Lord.
One hazard of studying theology is that you see heresy in every misplaced preposition in your prayer. I’m trying to stop obsessing over correctness—which isn’t quite the same thing as truth—and let love speak. So today I offered this prayer: Father, I want to love you completely but I know I don’t know how. So I ask you to redirect my misplaced love. If I love the Blessed Mother too much or ignore your Son for love of you, be merciful on a stumbling sinner giving you her heart. [↩]
Obviously I’m not maligning adoptive mothers of older kids here or women who are unable to nurse for whatever reason. But back in the day if nobody was nursing you, you weren’t going to make it. [↩]
A few months ago I went to confession at a conference where I was speaking and made the mistake of wearing my nametag into the confessional. Now, I’m not terribly concerned that Father would connect my name with my sins–it’s not like there’s anything he could do about it if he did. But my nametag identified me as a speaker at the conference, which evidently gave him the idea that I was serious about holiness because he gave me a rosary for my penance.
You read that right. A whole rosary.
I wanted to be like, “Sorry, did you mean three Hail Marys?” Because you know it’s always three Hail Marys.1 But I figured I’d show off instead.
“Do you mean in addition to the one I’m already praying today?” See, Father? I’m so holy. I shouldn’t have to do a hard penance.
“Yes.” Well, shoot. “Do you pray a rosary every day?”
“Yes, Father.” Now you get it. I’m really awesome.
But instead of congratulating me, he started talking about how I should really pray three rosaries a day. THREE! Ain’t nobody got time for that! As he talked, I sat there stewing. I can’t pray more rosaries. I barely have time for what I’m doing already. I’d have to cut out mental prayer or spiritual reading and I know that’s a terrible idea. Really, I’m too pious for any more rosaries.
Moral of the story: I’m arrogant.
But there’s a confession in there, too: I don’t like praying the rosary.2
If you’re a Catholic of my variety, you’re not really supposed to say this. We love Mass and we love Mary and we absolutely love the rosary. But I don’t.
Sometimes I tell people this and they beg me to try again. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve prayed the rosary daily since I was 16–three times a day in college.3 That’s something like 5000 rosaries. I’ve prayed the rosary with music, with extemporaneous meditations, with Bible passages. I’ve prayed in several languages, alone and with thousands of people. I’ve prayed in fits and starts throughout the day and start to finish in one shot, while walking and driving and kneeling and sitting. I’ve read books about the rosary, taught others to pray the rosary, given talks on the merits of the rosary. I just don’t like praying it.
Here’s the thing: I don’t like sushi, I don’t like The Phantom of the Opera, and (if we’re being quite honest) I’ve never much cared for Hopkins. I know that sushi is wonderful, that Phantom is beautiful, and that Hopkins will take your breath away. I know these things are good. I just don’t like them. Perhaps if I try and try and try again I’ll find that I do. And perhaps not. But my opinion isn’t a judgment against them, just a personal preference. It’s the same with the rosary–I know it’s good, I just don’t enjoy it.
I know that I’m bad at praying the rosary. I know that if I were really meditating on the mysteries I’d begin to see the value of the prayer. I also know that not all prayers work for all temperaments. One of the many gifts of the Catholic Church is that there are as many ways to be a Catholic as there are to be a person. You don’t have to love adoration or weekly confession or Taize or lectio divina or 40 Days for Life or immigration reform or Latin or Matt Maher. There are so many ways to pray, so many spiritualities, so many acts of piety to choose from. Not everybody’s going to love the rosary. I even read a book recently4 that said people with my temperament will almost always struggle with the rosary. I felt absolutely vindicated.
You’d think I’d give up. But I’m not going to. Largely, it’s because I felt absolutely convicted that God was calling me to pray the rosary and I haven’t yet felt released from that call. But I don’t think mine is an unusual situation. I think a lot of us don’t enjoy the rosary. And I think most of us should be praying it anyway. Every day. Here’s why:
1. It’s objectively a good way to pray. The rosary is a scriptural prayer. It’s shot through with the words of Scripture and built around the mysteries of Scripture. It was given to us by Our Lady,5 who keeps returning to encourage us to pray this miracle-working prayer. When you recite a prayer written by a modern author, sing a hymn, or read a book about God, it might not be fantastic. The rosary always is.
2. You need your mother. Ever call your mom when you didn’t have anything to talk about? And maybe she didn’t either. But you talked for a little while anyway, because talking to your mom is important. Whether you enjoy the rosary or not, it keeps you connected to the mother of Jesus and your mother. And when you’re connected to Mary, she keeps drawing you closer and closer to Jesus. Praying the rosary daily keeps you in check.
3. You’re in good company. The rosary has been prayed by countless Saints–I’d hazard a guess at nearly every Saint since it was introduced to the world. It’s a great equalizer, prayed by popes and peasants, geniuses and fools. Any given day, there are millions of people throughout the world praying the rosary. If it’s made saints of sinners for nearly a thousand years, who are you to refuse?
4. It consecrates a busy day. I’ve found that I struggle most when I try to sit down and pray a rosary all the way through. It just makes my mind wander more. Instead, I pray a decade as I drive to the store, half a decade while I’m waiting for the microwave. It seemed like cheating at first, until I realized: every time I have a free second, my automatic inclination is to pray. I’m squeezing the rosary in wherever I can which means my default action is prayer. Back in college (when I prayed three rosaries and still had time for naps) I used to pray the rosary to help myself fall asleep in the middle of the day. I did this so often that when I woke in the night, I found that I was praying Hail Marys. Maybe it’s better to set time aside for a full rosary, but when you’re fitting it in as best you can, it transforms your whole life.
5. Sometimes mindless prayer is the best you can do. The rosary shouldn’t be mindless. It should be wrapped up in the mysteries of Christ’s life. But there are times when you can’t meditate. When God seems far, reading the Bible can be nothing but frustrating. Praise music rings hollow. There’s no time for the Liturgy of the Hours and you wouldn’t be able to mean it even if you tried. But the rosary you can do. Even when doubts are creeping in and you feel abandoned, you can cling to Mary’s apron string and murmur those words. Even when you’re so distracted by contractions or mile 24 of your marathon that you can’t think, you can repeat the prayers you’ve said so many times. Maybe you can’t call the images of the mysteries to mind, but you can keep saying the words–day in and day out–until they mean something again. If you’ve committed to a daily rosary, perhaps only stubbornness will keep you praying. But God can work in stubbornness to draw you back to him. Promise God a daily rosary in time of consolation and it will sustain you through desolation until you’re feeling his love again.
6. It’s something to cling to in a crisis. When all is well, the rosary is something I do out of duty. When my life comes crashing down around me, though, I run for my Momma. After a dreaded phone call, after a breakup, while racing to a survivor’s side, my hand reaches automatically for my rosary. Even while I’m struggling to see God working in my pain, I’m being drawn back to him by my Mother. When I’m lost, I’m already found because I go home to Mary before I even know what I’m about. Because the rosary is the rhythm of my life, it’s what I fall back on even when I’m not feeling it. Not song lyrics, not video games, not even phone calls to friends. It’s not even a decision because the commitment I’ve made makes it automatic. And that automatic turning to the rosary has gotten me through more than I ever would have imagined when I first picked one up 15 years ago.
I don’t know that I’ll ever like the rosary. Maybe one day I’ll be holy enough that I won’t spend the whole time distracted. Or maybe even at my holiest it still won’t fit my personality. No matter. I’ll pray it either way, not because of what it does for me but because of what it does to me, even when I don’t notice it.
Will you join me?
Note to priests: it wouldn’t hurt if you switched it up some. [↩]
Pause for the reader to freak out, except that I already put it in the title, so maybe it’s no surprise. [↩]
Take that, rosary-loving priest! I mean…uh…bless me, Father, for I have sinned…. [↩]
Well, skimmed a book and then lent it to someone who forgot to give it back to me. Story of my life. [↩]
Or at least by Saint Dominic, if you want to call the story of the rosary a legend. [↩]
Public service announcement for the Catholics among us: the Immaculate Conception (December 8) is a holy day of obligation. Every year. Even if it’s on Saturday or Monday. So get to Mass tonight or tomorrow morning because by the afternoon it’ll be Sunday and you will have missed Mass.
Yes, that’s two days in a row. Or twice in three days if you go to a vigil tonight. Keep in mind that you’re only required to go to Mass 57 times in a year. If Mass is about an hour long, that’s 57 hours a year. There are 8,760 hours in a year.1 That’s less than one percent of your life.
I once had a student look at me stubbornly and declare, “I think it’s kind of ridiculous that y’all think Mary was only pregnant for, like, 3 weeks.”
I blinked rapidly a few times, absolutely baffled, before I realized what was going on.
“You know that Immaculate Conception is about Mary’s conception, right? Like, little embryonic Mary in her momma’s womb? Nobody thinks Jesus was conceived on December 8 and born on December 25. That would be ridiculous.”
This kid’s assumption wasn’t an unusual one, more’s the pity, so before we get started, let’s clarify our terms right quick. The Immaculate Conception is Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb. It tells us that Mary was conceived without sin. It’s not talking about Jesus’ conception.2 It’s also not telling us that Mary was conceived in a supernatural manner; when Mary was conceived, her parents were decidedly not virgins. Her conception took place in the ordinary way; the miracle was that in the moment of her natural conception she was supernaturally preserved from Original Sin.
This dogma3 is a very difficult one for Protestants to understand, let alone accept. There’s an undercurrent in Protestantism that finds its roots in John Calvin’s theology: the idea of total depravity. Calvin (and Luther) believed that people were inherently sinful, defined by their sin. Luther is famous for having declared that he was “a lump of dung covered in snow.”4 Luther was so overwhelmed by his own sinfulness and God’s grace that he believe that he was worthless and sinful but was covered by God’s grace so as to make him pleasing to God. To the minds of the reformers, to be human was to be sinful.5 Because of this, the Catholic claim that Mary was without sin sounds like a claim of divinity. It’s important to clarify first of all that being immaculate is not the same as being divine. As Christians, we know that God made us very good.6 Sin mars us, but not having sin doesn’t make us superhuman, it makes us fully human. Adam and Eve were immaculate before the Fall, after all; they, like Mary, were created immaculate but merely human.
A common objection to the teaching that Mary was without sin is Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” While Paul says “all” here, I think it’s clear that doesn’t mean that every single human person ever has committed a sin. Obviously Jesus didn’t. Neither do infants who die or the mentally handicapped who don’t have sufficient reason to commit sin. Clearly there are exceptions to this rhetorical “all.” So why not Mary?
Obviously, though, it’s not enough just to argue against those who oppose this doctrine. Let’s look instead at the affirmative. Clearly, the angel Gabriel’s approach to Mary indicates that she’s something special.
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you. But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-30)
Angels don’t typically go around calling sinful humans “full of grace,” a term that could be better translated “you who have been completely grace-ized” if grace-ized were a word. Which it’s not. Hence the usual “full of grace.” Think about this: grace is God’s life within us. Sin separates us from God. So if Mary is sinful, a regular old village girl chock full of Original Sin, how can she be full of grace?
And then there’s the fact that she has found favor with God. If she was lost in her sin, as we all were before Christ, how did she find favor with God? There’s something about the way she’s addressed that indicates that she’s different, something special.7
Naturally, Scripture isn’t entirely clear on this–if it were, there’d be no disagreement. But as Catholics, we recognize the Word of God as coming through Scripture and Tradition.8 So check out some super old stuff about Mary Immaculate.9
Hippolytus: He [Jesus] was the ark formed of incorruptible wood. For by this is signified that His tabernacle [Mary] was exempt from defilement and corruption.—235 AD
Origen: This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.—244 AD
St. Ambrose: Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.—387 AD
St. Augustine, in response to Rom 3:23: All have sinned, except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, for the honor of the Lord, I wish no question to be raised at all, when we are treating of sins. After all, how do we know what greater degree of Grace for a complete victory over sin was conferred on her who merited to conceive and bring forth Him Who all admit was without sin.–415 AD
Now, that’s not to say that anything some dude said forever ago has to be doctrine, but it’s certainly not a theological innovation if it was old news by the beginning of the third century.
Really, though, Mary’s sinlessness is just reasonable. People like to argue this by saying that a sinless person can’t come from a sinful one, which is a good instinct, I suppose. Of course, then Mary’s mom had to be sinless, and her mom, and hers, and eventually we have to trace it back to a sinless Eve, and that’s absurd.
Part of this idea is right, though–that Mary’s sinless nature was necessary for Jesus’ conception. Let’s try looking at it this way instead:
Before the Fall, we were in relationship with God.
Sin breaks this relationship.
According to moral law, babies must be created through a loving, committed relationship between their parents.10
This relationship would have been impossible if Mary had had Original Sin.11
God doesn’t break moral laws, so he had to be in relationship with the mother of Christ.
Mary had to be preserved from Original Sin.
Now this is just my reasoning here, not doctrine, so reject it if you like but it makes a lot of sense to me. There’s also the Ark of the Covenant connection: if the Ark was created so intentionally, formed out of perfect and pure materials in order to bear the symbolic presence of God, how much more would the tabernacle of the living God (the Blessed Virgin Mary) be pure and undefiled?
But–and this is the key to this question–Mary did NOTsave herself. Yup, that was a bold, italicized, capital not. Her immaculate nature is not due to her merit. You see, the rest of us had to be redeemed–saved after we fell. Mary was preserved instead–saved preemptively–by the power of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. God who is outside of time used future graces to save her in order to make those graces possible.12 Pius IX made it very clear that Mary’s holiness comes entirely from God when he declared this dogma ex cathedra in 1854:
“The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
So let’s make sure we’re clear on this. Mary did not save herself. Like you and me (God willing), she was saved by the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection. In order to make her the perfect vessel for the incarnation of his Son, the Father applied those graces to her in the moment of her conception to preserve her inviolate, untainted either by Original Sin or by its consequences. The Church reminds us of this in the prayers of the Mass and the Office for the Solemnity:
“O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant, we pray, that, as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
As always with the Blessed Mother, it’s essential that we remember that all doctrines about Mary are doctrines about God. All honor given to Mary is honor given to God. All love of Mary is love of God. When we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary, we celebrate God’s incredible goodness in preparing the way for the Messiah. We celebrate his power to work miracles. We celebrate his ability to set things in motion that will only bear fruit years down the road. We recognize his providence and his desire to save us, whatever it takes. And with Mary we recognize our unworthiness and God’s unceasing clemency. With Mary, we proclaim the greatness of the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior.
This Advent season, let’s join our Mother in saying yes to God and allowing him to flood us with grace.
Want more on Mary? Here are all my posts tagged Mary. Enjoy!
Jesus was immaculately conceived as well, of course, but that’s not what this term is referring to. [↩]
And yes, it’s dogma. Proclaimed ex cathedra by Pius IX in 1854. [↩]
Which, by the way, is an extraordinarily unpleasant surprise to discover in the midst of a snowball fight. [↩]
While this line of thought is dominant in many Protestant traditions today, there are others that focus far less on sin. The idea that sinfulness is integral to the human condition maintains at least a subtle influence, though, on even the most “accepting” of communities. [↩]
In 1571, the Christian world was under attack. The Reformation had divided Christians, causing them to war with one another rather than uniting to turn their attention against the advancing Turks. On October 7, the Muslim Ottoman Empire sent ships from the port of Lepanto in a battle that would decide the fate of Europe; if the Ottomans won, the Mediterranean would be theirs. It would be just a matter of time before they took (and converted) much of Europe.1
It was a terrible threat, and some few nations sent troops under the great Don Juan. But others were too busy quibbling over “minor” matters of doctrine to come to the aid of Christendom. And so Christian forces were far outnumbered.
Pope St. Pius V called on all Christians to pray the Rosary for victory. On the afternoon of the battle, he is said to have had a heavenly vision of a victory for the Europeans, holding off the Turks and preserving the Christian identity of Europe (until they gave it away of their own accord in recent years). The Holy Father declared a feast in honor of Our Lady of Victory, today called the Feast of the Holy Rosary.
I’ll go into the Rosary more later–for today, I just want to give you one of my favorite poems of all time: Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton. It’s long but brilliant. If you’ve got an audience–or even if you don’t–read it aloud. (Fair warning: Chesterton is not the most culturally sensitive fellow. His epithets are not my own.)
White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.
Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.
They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From the temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be,
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,–
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces–four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still–hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.
St. Michaels on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,–
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.
King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed–
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign–
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
There’s nothing anti-Islamic about this. Christians wanted Europe to stay Christian; Muslims, naturally, wanted it to be Muslim. Hence the battle. [↩]
When I was little (and even snarkier than I am now, if you can believe that), I used to take pleasure in criticizing statues of the Madonna and child:
“What’s wrong with sculptors, anyway? Haven’t they ever seen a woman holding a baby? All of these statues of Mary holding Jesus are so unnatural. She’s not a mom, she’s like a Jesus-holder. He’s all hovering in front of her in some impossible position. It can’t be that hard to sculpt a woman holding a baby!”
I’d go on to mention that if you want a baby to face out, you have to hold it by the crotch (because, you know, I had so much experience holding babies) and that was too awkward for the artists’ prudish sensibilities.
Clearly I, at 12, was an authority on art, theology, and child-rearing. I have no idea why anyone put up with me. I can only hope that I’m less obnoxious now.
I’m still not a huge fan of awkward-looking art, but the above statue in a church in Missouri got me thinking the other day. While I still prefer the beauty of more natural, maternal images, there’s something to be said for the “Jesus-holder” approach to the Blessed Mother.
In older works of art, I find,1 Mary and Jesus are posed much less naturally. This might in part just be the style of the day, but I think there’s more to it than that. Before the Reformation–maybe even before the 20th century–art wasn’t just beautiful or devotional, it was catechetical. When Mary seemed to exist merely to present Jesus to the viewer, it taught believers the essential truth that Mary exists expressly to present Christ to the world.
See how Mary’s purpose in all these images is to bring Christ to the audience? Like somehow the artists didn’t get the memo that Catholics worship Mary and she is the center and meaning or our existence.
Oh, yeah. Cause we don’t. And she’s not.
Let’s go ahead and get a few things out of the way:
Mary is NOT God.
Catholics don’t think she’s God.
Catholics don’t worship her.
Mary didn’t save herself from sin.
Catholics don’t go to Mary instead of Jesus.
So why do we honor Mary, why celebrate her birthday (today!), why put up statues and pray rosaries and name all our daughters after her? A few simple reasons.
1. As Christians, we want to imitate Christ. Jesus was a good Jew,2 so he obeyed the commandments, notably the fourth commandment: honor your father and mother.3 Since we want to be like Christ, we honor his mother, too.
Let those who think that the Church pays too much attention to Mary give heed to the fact that Our Blessed Lord Himself gave ten times as much of His life to her as He gave to His Apostles. -Archbishop Fulton Sheen
But this is honor, not worship–dulia, not latria, for those Greek nerds among you. When we “pray to Mary,” we’re really just asking her to pray for us. We get that she’s just a creature, but we know how much Christ honored her,4 so we do the same.
Besides, how rude is it to go to somebody’s house and totally ignore his mom? That’s what we’re doing if we try to have a relationship with Christ without Mary. It might be possible, but it’s awkward and counter-intuitive.
2. We’re all about following the Bible. In Luke 1:48, Mary says, “From this day, all generations will call me blessed.” So we do.5
3. Mary is our Mother. On the cross, Jesus said seven things. Given that he was dying of asphyxiation and getting enough breath to say anything involved ripping the nails a little further through the flesh of his hands, I think we ought to take anything he says from the cross pretty seriously. One of those seven things was giving the Blessed Mother to the Beloved Disciple:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, 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 into his home. (Jn 19:26-27)
Note that John doesn’t use a name here, although we know that it’s him. He uses instead the title “the disciple whom he loved,” a title he uses for himself not because he’s super-arrogant but because he wants us to insert ourselves into this scene. We are the disciple whom Jesus loves and he gives us his mother, just as we recline on Jesus’ breast and follow him to his death and recognize him after he rises. So when Jesus gives Mary to John, he gives her to all of us.
And, of course, Revelation calls her the mother of all Christians (Rev 12:17).
Since Mary’s our mother, we honor her, we spend time with her, we keep pictures of her around the house, we ask her to pray for us. Maybe we even sing songs about her.6
But she’s our mother, not our God. Mary’s purpose in our lives is to hold our hands as we walk to God. Just as a baby learning to walk will hold his mom’s hands while walking to his dad, we hold Mary’s hands as we go together to the Father. It’s not about her and if we focused entirely on her, we’d fail, just like the baby would fall on his butt if he tried to walk forward while staring up at his mom. Any spirituality that has Mary as its ultimate goal is not Catholic–Marian spirituality is always to Christ through Mary.
4. Mary always brings people to Christ. Every time we see her in Scripture, she’s all about God. The reason she existed was to bring Christ into the world. The reason she continues to play such a role in our faith is because she’s bringing him to us again, just as she brought him to Elizabeth at the Visitation.
She lives a life of obedience to the Father, directing people always toward her Son. Mary says very little in the Gospels, speaking only once during the adult life of Christ. On that occasion, at the wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2), Mary first intercedes for the people. Then, her famous last words: “Do whatever he tells you.”7
Do whatever he tells you. That’s it–that’s what she’s about. Any authentic Marian apparition always points people back to the Sacraments, to Christ present in the Eucharist. Because Mary knows, as do her children, that it’s just not about her.
For centuries, the moon has been a symbol of Mary, not because she’s a modern fertility goddess but because she, like the moon, has no light of her own. She’s only able to reflect the light of the sun.8 The moon is lovely only inasmuch as it shares slightly in the immense beauty of the sun; Mary is holy only inasmuch as she shares slightly in the immense holiness of her Son.
So we love Mary not instead of Christ but because of Christ.
Now, I wasn’t raised with Mary, so this was hard for me, too. I started praying the rosary long before I even thought it made sense, simply because I felt that God was calling me to. It took years of trying to develop a relationship with Mary before I came to understand that every single interaction I ever had with her was always drawing me closer to Christ.
I often hear Catholics say that you go to Mary when you “can’t” go to God, a statement that Protestants (and many Catholics) justly find outrageous. And yet there have been moments in my life because I am so broken that I felt I couldn’t go to God. I was angry or bitter or scared or whatever and I just needed my Momma. And as I tried to storm out of the church, she gently called my name, calmed me down, and brought me back to her poor, patient Son. Or she lifted my face, cast down and covered with tears, to look once more on my God. Those were moments when, rightly or wrongly, I couldn’t go straight to God. So my Momma took my hand and led me there herself.
My friends, Mary is nothing without Christ. And she does nothing but lead us closer to Christ. She’s so devoted to presenting Christ to us that she sacrifices her artistic sensibilities so we can see her as a Jesus-stand, awkwardly holding a baby holding the world in his hand. And somehow that awkwardness becomes more beautiful when we see what it really means: the Blessed Mother asking us to gaze on her son.
So join me today in honoring Our Lady for her intercession and guidance and motherly love. If this Mary stuff is still hard for you, maybe just chat with her for a minute to thank her for saying yes to God. If Mary’s your bffl, why not rock out a whole rosary as a birthday present? Definitely bake her a cake–it’s a feast day, after all.
Here’s to Mary of Nazareth–2000+ years and still going strong. Happy birthday, Momma!
“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Both a line from the Hail Mary and a line from the Bible–Lk 1:42 and 11:27. [↩]
I have a distinct memory of 8-year-old twins I know “singing” about how they missed their mommy: “Don’t take my mommy awayyyyy! She’s beautiful like a gypsy princess! Don’t take my mommy awayyyyyy!!” I’m not saying all Marian hymns are more poetic than that, but they certainly stem from a natural, human place, not an idolatrous one. [↩]
St. Bonaventure: “As the moon, which stands between the sun and the earth, transmits to this latter whatever it receives from the former, so does Mary pour out upon us who are in this world the heavenly graces that she receives from the divine sun of justice.” [↩]
As a Catholic, if you’ve gone to Disney World in the past 20 years, you’ve probably been to the nearby shrine that serves visitors to the theme park: the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe.
Is it bad that I laugh every time I hear that name? It’s not that I disagree with the theology behind it, I just think it sounds a little bit ridiculous, like she won some intergalactic beauty contest or something. If I were funnier, I could write an Onion piece on this….
But those who named the Shrine were right–as the mother of the King of the Universe, Mary is the Queen of the Universe. It’s really that simple.
And yet this understanding of Mary as our mother and our queen is one of the issues that most deeply divides Christians. As I pointed out before in my discussion of Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant, the Old Testament often has more to tell us about Mary than the New Testament does.1
As Christians, we know that the entirety of history built to the climax of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. Salvation history (the story of God’s redemptive work in the world) is directed towards Christ, which means that the people and events of the Old Testament have significance beyond themselves. Throughout the Old Testament, we find “types” or foreshadowings of New Testament realities. So the flood is a type of baptism, manna is a type of the Eucharist, and David is a type of Jesus.
Now every Christian knows that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. So it stands to reason that the king of Israel is a type of Christ, just as Israel is a type of the Church, the people of God. If the king is a type of Christ, then the king’s mother would be a type of Christ’s mother: Mary. So we want to pay attention every time we see the mother of the king mentioned in the Old Testament–which, as it turns out, is quite frequently–to see what it tells us about the mother of our Lord.
As the mother of King Solomon, Bathsheba’s our best example of the queen mother in Israel (yes, she does more than bathe on the roof), particularly because we see her both as the king’s wife and as the queen mother, two very different roles.
Let’s start with Bathsheba as wife of King David. In 1 Kings 1:16 and 1:31, Bathsheba visits King David to ask a favor. Twice she enters his presence and twice she pays homage to him. The wife of the king in ancient Israel had no role at court for the simple reason that the king might have many wives. So there was no real queen in Israel, only a queen mother.2 Despite her intimate relationship with David, Bathsheba approaches the king as his subject, not as his queen.
After David dies and Solomon takes the throne, however, everything’s different. Adonijah, Solomon’s half brother, wants something from Solomon, so he asks Bathsheba to intercede on his behalf, saying, “Please ask King Solomon, who will not refuse you” (1 Kgs 2:17).
Then Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, and the king stood up to meet her and paid her homage. Then he sat down upon his throne, and a throne was provided for the king’s mother, who sat at his right. She said, “There is one small favor I would ask of you. Do not refuse me.” The king said to her, “Ask it, my mother, for I will not refuse you.” (1 Kgs 2:19-20)
This is a totally different story. Before, she paid the king homage. Here, as the queen mother, the King pays her homage and then gives her a throne at his right hand. The placement here is key: it tells us that she’s second in authority. This isn’t just some honorary title–she plays a real role here. And as his second-in-command, she has a particular privilege to intercede for others. Adonijah pointed it out and Solomon confirms it when he tells her that he will not refuse her.
As it turns out, Adonijah’s asked for something that Solomon can’t grant.3 But I don’t think it hurts our case for the queen mother’s intercessory power that he refuses her. The queen mother isn’t the ultimate authority, she just has some serious influence. He won’t refuse her if he can help it, but it’s really his decision.
So we see from the beginning of the line of David that the queen mother is someone really special, just not as special as the king. She’s honored by the king and by all the people and is given the power to intercede. See where I’m going with this?
And it’s not just Bathsheba–throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles (the books that talk about the deeds of the kings of Israel and Judah), each time a new king takes office, his mother is named. In 1 Kings 15:13, we see that the office is so official that a queen mother can even be deposed. In 2 Kings 11, the queen mother kills off all her son’s descendants (she thinks). When they’re all dead, she becomes the ruler of Judah automatically. Since there is no heir, the crown seems to revert to the second-in-command: the queen mother. This isn’t some ceremonial title, it’s something real.
And then there’s Jeremiah 13:18: “Say to the king and to the queen mother: come down from your throne; from your heads fall your magnificent crowns.” Here the king and the queen both have authority, both have a throne, both have a crown.
Throughout the Old Testament, the mother of the king plays a very important role, one that must be honored by all the king’s subjects. It stands to reason that this would extend to the queen mother of the New Testament as well, and the book of Revelation supports this. In Revelation 12:1 we see Mary crowned with twelve stars, the number of completion. This tells us that the mother of all believers (Rev 12:17) is the queen of everything.
So when Catholics talk about Mary, we’re not trying to give her a place above or equal to or even close to Christ’s. Any good Catholic painting of the Blessed Mother in heaven shows her lower than Christ and off to the side. We know better than to worship her; all we’re asking is to treat the mother of the King of kings the way we would treat any queen mother. We want to honor her (Lk 1:48) and to ask for her intercession simply because she is particularly beloved by the Lord. We revere her above any other creature but we know that she is just that: creature, not creator.
I’ll leave you with the inimitable words of the second Vatican Council:
“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” (Lumen Gentium 60)
Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth and all the Galaxies and the Whole Stinking Universe, pray for us! Happy Coronation of Mary to you all.
For much of this, as with most of my understanding of Marian theology, I am eternally indebted to Scott Hahn, particularly in his book Hail, Holy Queen. [↩]
In fact, the word “queen” in the Old Testament always refers either to a pagan queen or to the queen mother. Jezebel isn’t even considered a queen, although she bosses people around like she is. [↩]
He wants to be married to David’s concubine Abishag. Not only is this creepy, it would set him up as David’s successor and give him a claim as rival for the throne. Adonijah thought he was all clever–right till he got killed for it. [↩]
On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII made the second infallible statement ever made by a pope.1 Since this was only 60 years ago,2 it’s easy to assume that it’s an innovation, a made-up doctrine that has nothing to do with the faith of the Apostles. But there was nothing new about the doctrine, just the way it was expressed. With a shout and a bang, he declared to be infallible a teaching that everyone had pretty much been cool with forever: the Assumption of Mary.
What is it?
The official teaching is that at the end of her life, Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. Note that she didn’t ascend (by her own power, as Christ did), but was assumed by God’s power. There is no official stance on whether she floated up kicking and somersaulting, fell asleep,3 appeared to die, or chose to die but was immediately reunited with her body when she was assumed. What matters is that she lives bodily in heaven with Christ, taken there by God’s miraculous grace.
Why do we believe it?
First and foremost, we believe it because it’s been presented to us as revealed by God. The Holy Father almost never makes infallible proclamations. Here, he’s exercising his power of infallibility4 to tell us this is true, so we accept it on faith.
But while that might be admirable on a personal level, it’s certainly not convincing. As always, I’m a big fan of Scripture, Tradition, and reason to help us through.
Scripture doesn’t give us anything explicit, as is the case with many issues, it being a finite book. Today’s first reading is as close as we get, where it describes a woman (Rev 12:1) who is the Ark of the Covenenant (Rev 11:19), the mother of the Savior (Rev 12:5), and the mother of all believers (Rev 12:17). Sure sounds like Mary to me. Verse 6 tells us that she “fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God.” So the mother of the Savior, having finished her task, is taken up into a special place prepared for her. Works for me.
Tradition on the matter isn’t quite as ancient as it is on many Catholic doctrines, but it dramatically predates the Reformation. Apocryphal texts describe it as early as the 4th century, but I can see why we might not care about them. Some of the heavy hitters pick it up pretty early, too, along with some more obscure theologians.
The Apostles took up her body on a bier and placed it in a tomb; and they guarded it, expecting the Lord to come. And behold, again the Lord stood by them; and the holy body having been received, He commanded that it be taken in a cloud into paradise: where now, rejoined to the soul, [Mary] rejoices with the Lord’s chosen ones. . . (St. Gregory of Tours, Eight Books of Miracles 1:4, A.D. 575).
It was fitting that the she, who had kept her virginity intact in childbirth, should keep her own body free from all corruption even after death. It was fitting that she, who had carried the Creator as a child at her breast, should dwell in the divine tabernacles. It was fitting that the spouse, whom the Father had taken to himself, should live in the divine mansions. It was fitting that she, who had seen her Son upon the cross and who had thereby received into her heart the sword of sorrow which she had escaped when giving birth to him, should look upon him as he sits with the Father, It was fitting that God’s Mother should possess what belongs to her Son, and that she should be honored by every creature as the Mother and as the handmaid of God (St. John Damascene, Dormition ofMary, A.D. 697)
By the end of the seventh century, Mary’s Assumption was so established as fact that it had its own feast day already, according to Pope St. Sergius.5
I think reason‘s strongest on this one. We know that death (meaning the separation of body and soul) is a consequence of sin. St. Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).6 If Mary was without sin (which, I suppose, merits its own post, but just go with it for now), then she couldn’t have died. Her time on earth came to an end, so God brought her to heaven body and soul (like Elijah and Enoch, so there’s a precedent).
Besides, not one church in the whole world claims to have Mary’s body. In a world where a church, a museum, and a mosque all claim to have John the Baptist’s head (with three others apparently having been destroyed over the course of history), this silence on the location of Mary’s body is deafening.
Two churches in Jerusalem claim to be the tomb of Mary, along with one in Ephesus, but nobody claims to have even a pinky toe of the world’s most important Saint. For a Church that was grabbing at every body part imaginable to ascribe it to a Saint, this is pretty significant. Not only was there no body, nobody even pretended that there was. This only makes sense to me if the early Church understood that Mary had been assumed long before anyone bothered to write about it.
And then, of course, there’s the whole parallel between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant (linked above). It’s unreasonable to assume7 that God would allow the vessel that contained his only-begotten Son to rot. Her body had been made sacred and deserved to be treated with honor. If he could preserve her from decay, why wouldn’t he?
Why did it happen?
Do you ever wonder, in the midst of scriptural acrobatics and wordy New Advent articles, why God did these things in the first place? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that question–he’s always got a reason, and usually more than one. There’s nothing unfaithful about trying to figure out why, and often it leads us to deeper faith.
Obviously, there are the theological explanations: that Mary’s immaculate nature could not suffer death, that God glorified Mary by giving her an end like that of his Son, or that our feminist God desired “that not only the soul and body of a man, but also the soul and body of a woman should have obtained heavenly glory.”8 Perhaps Mary was given a glorified body that she might teach us how to be fully human when we get our bodies back.9
Or maybe Jesus just loved his Momma so much that he wanted to be with her in heaven. If you’ve got Spotify, do yourself a favor and listen to this song by Danielle Rose, a testimony to how beautiful the body of Mary is because of how it held and loved the body of Christ. Maybe beneath all the theological significance is a sweet example of a son who just wanted to be with his Momma. Maybe what we need to learn from it is to be homesick for heaven the way Mary was, to long to be in the presence of Christ so desperately that when our time comes we practically fly there.
There’s nothing innovative about the doctrine of the Assumption. It’s an ancient doctrine whose beauty is ever-new, drawing us deeper into a love of Our Lady and a longing for heaven. So praise God for the event and the Solemnity and the ex cathedra proclamation, and praise God especially for the gift of his mother as our mother, loving us from heaven and teaching us to follow Christ.
Mary Assumed into Heaven, pray for us!
There are those who think that early popes made ex cathedra statements, but I haven’t seen any direct evidence of this. Certainly this was only the second of the modern era. [↩]
I say things like “only 60 years ago” to teenagers and they look at me like I’m crazy, but in the grand scheme of the Church, 60 years ain’t much. [↩]
Eastern Christians call this the Dormition, the falling asleep of Mary. [↩]
I had almost finished a post on infallibility yesterday when WordPress ate it. Eventually, I’ll overcome my discouragement and rewrite it. Bear with me. [↩]
No link on this one as nothing’s showing up in my feeble Google searches, but I have it on Pius XII’s authority, so we’ll go with it. [↩]
Can I just tell you that I stumble over this every time I encounter it because I know the verb is supposed to be singular but the subject is clearly plural and WHAT is going on with THAT??? [↩]
You did know that we’re getting our bodies back, right? When we die, at best we become saints, but never angels. And at the end of the world, we’ll get our bodies back and I think we’ll be able to fly but there’s no official teaching on the matter 😛 [↩]
I struggled with the idea of the Blessed Virgin Mary for a long time. I wasn’t raised with her and it’s hard to see how all that weird Catholic stuff with songs and statues and candles and parades isn’t worship. I figured early on that I could just ignore it and be okay, but, as it turns out, you can’t really be Catholic if you’re not at least trying to be into Mary. So I tried.
I started praying a rosary every day, I went to Medjugorje, and I even did St. Louis de Montfort’s total consecration to Mary. But I still didn’t get it.
And then I found the key somewhere surprising–the Old Testament. For pretty much everything I understand about Mary, I’m eternally (literally) in the debt of Scott Hahn, specifically his work in Hail, Holy Queen. When I read that book, I started to see that Mary is literally all over the Bible–the ancients were just subtler than I wanted them to be.
Marian theology’s too much for one post, obviously. Here I want to focus on Old Testament typology (foreshadowing) and Mary as the Ark of the Covenant. I’ll share the experiences in prayer that led me to a deeper understanding of Mary some other time. For now, let’s talk Scripture.
The Ark of the Covenant is an ancient artifact stolen by the Nazis that will consume you with lightning if you–oh, wait. Not so much.
The Ark was the center of God’s presence for the Israelites. In Exodus 25, it is described in detail as acacia wood plated with gold.* According to Exodus, the tablets of the ten commandments were placed inside (Ex 25:21). Numbers 17:25 suggests that Aaron’s staff may have been placed there as well, but it’s unclear until Hebrews 9:4:
…the ark of the covenant entirely covered with gold. In it were the gold jar containing the manna, the staff of Aaron that had sprouted, and the tablets of the covenant.
So the Ark of the Covenant held the presence of God and contained the life-giving bread, the high priest’s staff, and the word of God.
See where I’m going with this?
The Ark was treated with reverence, not because it was God but because it contained God (in a sense). It led the Israelites and was given a place of highest honor.
This is all on my mind because of the Feast of the Visitation yesterday, in which we celebrate Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. We’re used to these words because we’ve heard the story so much: the infant leaped, how does it happen that the mother of my Lord should come to me. But those Jews who read Luke’s Gospel would have been familiar with them, too, because the same words are used in reference to the Ark in 2 Samuel 6, where King David was bring the Ark of the Covenant into the hill country (Lk 1:39). Check it out:
Then David came dancing before the LORD with abandon, girt with a linen ephod. (2 Sam 6:14)
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb. (Lk 1:41)
Now, I’m no Greek scholar, but I did manage to ascertain that the Greek word for dancing in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) is the same as the word for leaping in the New Testament.
David said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9)
Elizabeth said, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43)
Again, we’re seeing the same language here, only replacing Ark with Mother.
The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months. (2 Sam 6:11)
Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Lk 1:56)
So Luke’s definitely feeling this Ark of the Covenant business, but John makes it even clearer in Revelation. Turn to Revelation 11:19 (right before Revelation 12, which we hear read from on pretty much every Marian feast day).
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm.
Wow. That’s pretty intense. To give you some context, the Ark of the Covenant, which was the center of Israelite worship, had been lost for centuries. According to 2 Maccabees 2, Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave right before the Babylonian Captivity (around 587 BC). So for 600 years, the most important thing in the world was lost. And John saw it! It was such a huge deal that there was lightning, thunder, hail, and an earthquake. This thing is for real!
And then the chapter ends and John moves on. “I saw the Ark! It was epic!
“Then this other time I saw a lady.”
That’s how it reads to us, with a big, bold “Chapter 12” separating his proclamation that he saw the Ark from his description of the Ark. But remember, John didn’t write in chapters. He said, “I saw the Ark! It was epic! A lady in the sky with a crown of 12 stars…. She was the mother of all Christians” (Rev 11:19; 12:1, 17; paraphrased).
John is explaining here that Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant. Just as the old Ark contained the life-giving bread, Mary contains Jesus, the Bread of Life (John 6). Just as the old Ark contained the high priest’s staff, Mary contains our Great High Priest (Heb 4:14). Just as the old ark contained the word of God, Mary contains the Word of God made flesh (Jn 1:1-3, 14).
“Okay, so Mary’s like some box,” says the voice in my head. “So what?”
So what?? So everything!!
Seriously, understanding this is a huge step towards understanding pretty much everything the Church teaches about Mary.
The Immaculate Conception
(This is when Mary was conceived without Original Sin, not when she conceived Jesus. Think embryonic Mary. More on this topic another time.)
The Ark of the Covenant was specially prepared to house God’s presence (see Ex 25 again). It was pure and holy, made specifically for a divine purpose. If Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, she, too, must have been prepared from her creation for this purpose. She must have been pure, not by her own power but by the power of Him who created purity. They wouldn’t have used a random box for the Ark; God wouldn’t have used a random sinner for the Mother of God.
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
(Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. Again, more on this later.)
The Ark of the Covenant was created for a sacred purpose and was made sacred by what it contained. If one were to empty the Ark of its holy contents, one would not then use it as a jewelry box or a stepstool. It was consecrated to one divine purpose; to use it for a worldly purpose would defile it. Now sex is holy and beautiful (see this beautiful reflection by Elizabeth Hanna Pham for proof), but sex must be open to life. And every baby besides Mary and Jesus is conceived with Original Sin. For Mary’s sanctified womb to nurture fallen life would defile it, just as using the Ark for a good but profane** purpose would be wrong.
(Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven by the power of God. She never suffered death, the separation of body and soul, as it’s a consequence of Original Sin.)
The Ark of the Covenant, as I said above, was made sacred by what it bore. Middle Eastern culture has a strong sense of sanctity (and profanity) being contagious, if you will. See pretty much the whole book of Leviticus for proof.
Having been made sacred, even if it had been emptied, it would have been honored. It wouldn’t have been left in the desert to rot (can things rot in the desert?) and it wouldn’t have been broken up and tossed. If Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, she, too, must be revered even after she no longer contains the presence of God. An empty Ark wouldn’t have been tossed; Mary’s body wouldn’t have been left to decay. Since the options seem to be death (nope), immortality (I think we’d know if she was 2000 years old), or eternal life in the body (the Assumption), I think the logical answer is clear.
Reverence for Mary
No, the Bible doesn’t tell us to have parades and sing songs to Mary (although Luke 1:48 sure seems to suggest it), but that’s how Israel handled the Ark. Luke and John both make it clear to the discerning reader that the Ark is a type of Mary. So we honor her, we respect her, we pray through her, not because of who she is but because of whose she is and who he made her to be.
*These are the kinds of passages that make me want to skim.
**Profane, in this sense, does not mean evil but secular, non-sacred.