Saturday, October 6, 2012

Why I am Catholic... part 2 (Mary)

Why do I believe that Mary has an intricate part in our salvific story?

Mary isn’t met with resistance by as many people as the papacy, since our Orthodox Christian sisters and brothers honor her as well.  But there are enough people who do seem to not only misunderstand her role, but are downright agitated by any mention of her merits.  This pains me, since without Mary, we would not have had Jesus, and without Jesus, we wouldn’t be saved. 

The first reason I believe what the Catholic church teaches regarding Mary’s role in our faith lives is that, as Christians, we are to follow Jesus’s example in all things, right?  And Jesus certainly loved and honored His mother; therefore, so should I.  

When Jesus was a boy and He traveled to Jerusalem with His parents, they got separated.  When His parents finally found Him three days later (!), He was teaching at the temple (see Luke 2:41-50).  He clearly shows He already recognizes Who He is when He says in Luke 2:49: Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”  Yet in spite of this, Jesus obeys His mother and returns to Nazareth with His parents (verse 51).  By so doing, Jesus honors His mother. 

Jesus again obeys His mother even as an adult, when the two of them are at the wedding in Cana.  In John 2:3, Mary points out to Jesus that the newlyweds had run out of wine.  At first, Jesus tries to argue with His mother by saying that His “hour has not yet come” (verse 4).  But verses 6-8 show Jesus nonetheless performing His first miracle precisely at Mary’s urging. 

These are just two specific examples of how Jesus honored and respected His mother. If we believe that Jesus was fully human except for sin, then we know that He must have perfectly kept all commandments, including the one about honoring one’s parents.  Therefore, how can any Christ-follower dare to ignore Mary, Jesus’s mother, as if she were no different from any other human being?  We ought to honor Jesus’s mother just like we are to honor our own mothers.  Yes, we are to respect everyone and be charitable to everyone, but we are to honor our parents in a particular way.  If Jesus is our brother, then Mary is our mother, and we ought to honor her.

Another reason why I honor Mary is because she is the first in the Communion of Saints.  Hebrews 12:22-23 says, you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect”. I don’t know about you, but to me, the underlined part very clearly signifies what we Catholics commonly call “saints”.  And was not Mary the first Christian saint?

In Luke 1:38, after the angel Gabriel announced to Mary God’s plan of salvation, she replied: “may it be done to me according to your word”.  In other words, Mary agreed; she said “yes” to God.  This means that she had the option to say no.  After all, who would believe her that she was pregnant due to a miraculous conception?  In fact, Matthew 1:19 tells us that Joseph, Mary’s husband-to-be, did indeed want to break off their engagement when he first heard the news of her pregnancy. 

But it wasn’t just her reputation that was at stake.  If Mary got pregnant without sleeping with Joseph, then the logical conclusion was that she must have slept with someone else, which was clearly punishable by death by stoning (see Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  As we read in Luke 1:30, God had already recognized Mary’s righteousness (the angel Gabriel says that Mary has “found favor with God”), and this is why He chose her for this extraordinarily special ministry of mothering the Son of God.

This is all fine and good, you may say, but it still doesn’t explain why Catholics worship Mary; saint or not, we are to worship God alone.  You would be completely right to say this, which brings me to my third point.  The way that Catholics and Protestants view worship is different, and this is where we get into a misunderstanding.  Most Protestants view worship as praise, prayer, singing, evangelizing, and/or righteous living.  These are all great ways to show love for God, but Catholics do not equate them with worship. 

Many if not all Protestants at some point in their lives ask a fellow Christian to pray for them.  It’s not because they don’t want to or can’t pray themselves directly to God.  It’s because in prayer like in a lot of things, there’s power in numbers.  Protestants talk of “storming the gates of heaven with prayer” because it is understood that God is more likely to respond to a multitude of requests than to a single, isolated request. Catholics see asking Mary to pray for us simply as a conversation that involves both sides of Heaven. 

We honor Mary as Queen in that she is the Queen Mother of Jesus Christ, our King. 2 Kings 2:14 illustrates the honor biblically bestowed on the mother of the king: “So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him about Adonijah; the king got up to meet her and bowed before her; he then sat down on his throne; a seat was brought for the king's mother, and she sat down on his right.”  When we pray to Mary, we ask her to do what she did at the wedding in Cana, and put our requests to Jesus.  We do not do this instead of going directly to Jesus; we do this in addition to pleading with Jesus. 

To better understand the difference between what Catholics view as worship and prayer, I will have to address the third big difference between Protestants and Catholics, the Eucharist, which will require a post of its own.  For now, suffice it to say that we believe that during Mass, Jesus becomes really present, body and blood, soul and divinity, right there in the sanctuary, and invites us to literally take Him into our bodies, His temples.  When we stand in the very presence of God, only then can we be said to be worshipping Him.  Everything else we do may help us lead godly lives, remind us of His graces, and encourage us to do His will, but it is not worship.  Therefore, when we have the Eucharist as the perfect way we worship Jesus, a prayer to Mary is merely that – a prayer, not worship.  But that’s a topic for another day, so let me not get ahead of myself.

I want to bring your attention to the most popular prayer we address Mary with, so you can see for yourself how honoring her in this way is one of the ways we seek to please Jesus.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee  
(see Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel addresses Mary this way at the Annunciation)
Blessed are Thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
(see Luke 1:42, Elizabeth addresses Mary this way when the two miraculously pregnant women visit together)
Holy Mary, Mother of God, 
(hopefully I’ve shown why Mary deserves to be called holy, and by virtue of giving birth and mothering the Son of God, she is therefore mother of God-the-Son, Jesus)
pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. 
(essentially, all we ask of her is that she intercede on our behalf to the Lord)

Finally, I want to share Mary’s prayer, as found in the gospel of Luke, called the Magnificat, with which she responds to Elizabeth during their visit.  This is how Mary saw herself, and this is how we see her as well.  She is not God; she was chosen by God.  God expects us to honor His choices.

Luke 1:46-55

My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation
Toward those who fear Him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their hearts
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrances of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.

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