By Mike Allen
As Catholics, we are a minority among Christians in our part of Kentucky. Thus, we are an odd breed to many, particularly in our devotion to the Blessed Mother. Soon after becoming Catholic, I bumped into an old friend, Claire, at a Lexington swimming pool. Angie and I have known Claire and her husband, Matt, since the early ‘80s, having grown up in the same Methodist church. They lived out-of-state for decades, but we had kept in regular touch. Matt works in Protestant ministry, as I did for years.
Once our Catholicism became public, Matt and I sent letters back and forth to each other, with him voicing concern about our decision, while I tried to explainit. I had not yet spoken with Claire. Based on her facial expression, Claire shared Matt’s distress.
After some awkward small talk, she cut to the chase: “Why do Catholics pay so much attention to Mary? It feels like Jesus has to compete with her for attention.”
Such conversations can be tricky. As the adage says, “To those who understand, no explanation is needed, and to those who don’t understand, no explanation will suffice.” I gave it my best shot anyway.
“Claire,” I responded, “You love Matt, don’t you? You love him with all your heart, I’m sure. So does your love for Matt compete with your love for Jesus?”
“Of course not,” she responded.
I continued, “Doesn’t it make you love Jesus more that he has given you Matt? That’s how Catholics feel about Mary and
the saints. They are gifts from Jesus to help us to love him more.”
I doubt she bought it; few people are argued into the faith. I admire Claire and Matt for their faith, just as I am grateful for my experiences as a Protestant Christian. I do not fault them for their suspicions about Marian piety. I get it. Marian devotion once grated on my own evangelical sensibilities.
Think of how the Hail, Holy Queen must sound to a Protestant, a prayer that callsMary “our life, our sweetness and ourhope.” Or how about the Rosary, with 10 Hail Marys for every Our Father?And lighting candles before an image of Mary? Statue worship! To Protestant ears and eyes, we are misguided at best, idolatrous at worst.
Yet three factors eased my objections. The first was historical. I viewed Marian devotion as a medieval attachment to the faith, but I discovered how early in Christian history it emerged. The Marian prayer of “Sub tuum praesidium” (“Beneath your protection…”) dates from at least A.D. 250, predating the Nicene Creed. Marian images from catacombs date from at least
the third century as well.
The second factor was biblical. An attentive reading of Scripture opened my eyes to the role of Mary in salvation history, first by the Old Testament mothers who foreshadowed her — from Eve
to Sarah to Hannah to Ruth. Then there are Elizabeth’s ecstatic words in Luke 1, greeting Mary as the “Mother of my Lord,” Jesus’ entrusting of Mary to the beloved disciple at the cross and the Marian overtones in Revelation’s woman clothed with the sun.
The third factor was theological, seeing Mary’s greatness not as an honor earned but as a gift given. Strictly speaking, Mary’s role was not necessary at all. God could have chosen to save humanity a number of ways. And the manner God did choose, the Incarnation, could have been accomplished via the divine Son assuming human nature as a grown adult, bypassing the maternal messiness of conception, gestation, birth and infancy.
God chose more than what was necessary, and that is precisely the point. God gave Mary immaculate and unprecedented grace so that she would enjoy and model the riches he aims to lavish on all of us. As the Lutheran theologian David Yeago puts it, “Mary’s paradigmatic role is different in kind from that of her Son: she is not the Redeemer but the prototype of the redeemed; she is not the one in whom we participate but the paradigm of that participation.”
Yeago even quotes the Protestant prototype, Martin Luther himself: “Therefore Mary is Christ’s Mother, and the Mother of us all, although he alone lies on her lap… If he is ours, then we are to be in his place; where he is, there we also are to be, and everything he has is ours, and therefore his Mother is also our Mother.”
I have been Catholic 15 years, but my Marian devotion is a work in progress. If you are a cradle Catholic, be thankful for the Marian prayers you drank in with your mother’s milk. Pray for the rest of us, that we might be more faithful sons and daughters to the mother we always had but never knew.