Friday, March 25, 2011

The blessed mother of us all

Once again I post on an important day in the liturgical calendar just a little too late—ideally, I should have posted on the Annunciation two or three days ago. Ah, well ….

A person coming into Christianity from a non-Christian background, or into Catholicism from a free-church Evangelical background, might find it hard to understand why churches closer to the apostolic tradition would celebrate the Annunciation. So okay, it's exactly nine months before Christmas, but isn't Christmas the really big deal? And isn't the dating of Christmas speculative anyway?

Yeah, the dating of Christmas is—well, not exactly pulled out of a hat. Its close conjunction to the first day of winter and the slow lengthening of days in the northern hemisphere isn't an accident, although we shouldn't put too much weight on pagan antecedents. (Sorry, JWs … you can talk all you want to, but we're not celebrating the Roman Saturnalia.) If we're going to celebrate the Nativity, then December 25 is just as good as any other day to celebrate it.

But the Annunciation is important for its own reason, and not because it's the speculative date of an episode from the New Testament. Rather—and this factor may cause the Evangelical's posterior to pucker—it's important because it celebrates the fiat of the Blessed Virgin.

Karl Keating relates the following story:

Over dinner, a U.S. Navy chaplain was recounting his experiences at what might be called an interdenominational pep rally, where the featured speaker was a well-known television preacher. During a break in the proceedings, a minister sitting next to the chaplain leaned over and asked in a serious tone, "Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?"
"Yes, I have," replied the chaplain. Without missing a beat, he added, "And have you accepted Mary as your personal mother?"
The minister's jaw slackened. When he recovered his composure, he said, "I never thought of it like that." Most people have not. A little reflection will show that a personal relationship with Jesus should result in a personal relationship with his mother, and vice versa. If it does not, something is missing, and one's attitude toward Jesus is probably wrong.[1]

Keating goes on to tell us that many people—not all of them necessarily Evangelicals, or even Protestants—tend to take a "fixed-sum view of love" such that any increase of devotion to Mary is believed to detract from that due to Christ. Granted, it's theoretically possible to go overboard with saccharine Marian pieties, though personally I know of no one who's in any danger of that. However, what we see far more often is the theological rube who, to preserve the primacy of Christ, comes very close to aligning the Blessed Mother with the Whore of Babylon.

As Fr. John Corapi puts it: "If I'm a king, and you want something from me—say, a piece of land—the wrong way to go about getting it is to insult my mama!"

"I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). With those words, Mary established herself as one who "hears the word of God and keeps it" (Lk 11:28). Because of her free submission to the will of God, henceforth, all generations will call her blessed (Lk 1:48).

Nor was her state of grace a momentary thing. As the late "Fr. Mateo" tells us, the Greek word translated as "full of grace" in St. Gabriel's greeting in Luke 1:28, kecharitōménē, uses the perfect passive stem, which denotes continuance of a completed action or a completed action with permanent results.[2] He who foreknew from all time of her willing submission had endowed her from all time with ever-flowing graces—truly gratia plena. The same tense is used for eulogēménē, "blessed"—God's blessing upon her was from all time, and extends forward as well as backward.

It should also be noted that Mary's obedience stands in opposition to Eve's disobedience (Gen 3:1-6); through her humility came the redemption of humanity, just as the fall of man came through the pride of the first woman.

This theme of Mary as the New Eve is nothing new or grafted onto Christian thought. The earliest apologists, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (Against Heresies 3:22:4) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ 17), pick up this theme in the late second and early third centuries, though it may have been floating around the Catholic communities even before … even scratched onto the stones in the cemeteries and catacombs.

In giving Mary honor and reverence above all angels and saints, we don't take anything away from Jesus Christ. For wherever she appears in the Christ story, she points us back to her son: "Do whatever he tells you to" (Jn 2:5). Even her role as Queen of Heaven comes forth from her giving birth the "male child … who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron" (Rev 12:5), as the Hebrew peoples had always held the mother of the King to be the Queen. And the same book identifies us as her children as well (v. 17), as was understood symbolically when Jesus gave her to John as mother (Jn 19:26-27).

As Martin Luther put it, "Mary is the mother of Jesus and the mother of us all. If Christ is ours, we must be where he is, and where he is, we must be also, and all that he has must be ours, and his mother therefore also is ours."[3] Above all, she is the exemplar of that perfect submission to God to which we, both men and women, are called.

For those who hear the word of God and keep it are blessed.

Taylor Marshall's post includes this interesting little factoid from Fr. Gabriele Amorth's disturbing little book An Exorcist Tells His Story: Demons are not allowed to blaspheme the Blessed Mother's name. "They curse the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and also the saints. But they never curse Mary and shrink back from doing so. The hypothesis is that Christ prevents the demons from doing this or that it has something to do with the prophecy in Gen 3:15 about enmity between Satan and 'the Woman' who bore the Christ Child."

[1] The Usual Suspects: Answering Anti-Catholic Fundamentalists, p. 76.
[2] Refuting the Attack On Mary: A Defense of Marian Doctrines, p. 21.
[3] Luther's Works (Weimar), 29:655:26-656:7, cit. in Fr. Mateo, p. 39.