Saturday, January 31, 2009

Respectful Ponderings

“Jesus son of God, Jesus son of Mary.” This phrase circled around in my mind as we drove toward church for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It was late fall of 2006. Rich and I had been attending the Roman Catholic Church for almost two years.

As a Protestant, I’d never encountered the Immaculate Conception. It was not part of my Christian vocabulary. Nor did it seem appropriate to think of the mother of Jesus connected to such an unfamiliar theological attribute. Like most Protestants, I had not pondered the implications of who Mary was -- and is. To me, Catholic Christians gave the impression of being obsessed with Mary, an obsession that seemed pointless. The overabundance of St. Mary’s titles reverberated in my brain. They engendered unwelcomed questions that pestered my mind and disturbed my Protestant sensibilities. It seemed her appellations were endless: Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mary, the Mother of God, Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mary, Holy Tabernacle for the Bread of Life, the Mother of the Church, Our Blessed Mother, Immaculate Heart . . . .

In accord with my Protestant experience, I was satisfied to leave Mary in the role of mother of Jesus. Yet, I also recognized her as a uniquely special human being. I’d never considered her just another woman of biblical history. I acknowledged the Virgin Mary played a pivotal role in God’s provision for my salvation. I considered her an excellent role model. My Protestant pastors had often reminded me of this at Christmas and on Mother’s Day.

Knowing who Mary was in relationship to the plan of salvation seemed to be enough for me.

That is probably why the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception Mass was a meaningless Catholic experience for me. Yet, shortly afterward, I began to contemplate what I knew of St. Mary’s life.

She was a Jewish virgin who lived in her parents' home. She was engaged to Joseph and had a cousin who was the wife of a priest. I knew Mary was present during some of her son’s teaching ministry. She instigated His first miracle at the Cana wedding, and she watched Him die on a cross. I knew she was in the upper room and was active in early church prayer meetings. But none of these facts told me what her spiritual relationship was to her God or why my husband, along with many Christians, held her in venerable honor – or what my response to her should be.

The Holy Spirit drove me to re-read the scriptures, and in so doing, I discovered more about the sweet Virgin. I realized Mary had found such favor with God that He trusted her with His precious gift, His son. Indeed, with the angel’s visit, the Father announced to her that she was the virgin of Isaiah’s prophesy (Isaiah 7:14). Yet, from her reaction to Gabriel, Mary showed us the humility and steely resolve only God had known to be in her heart.

Mary was probably in her mid-teens when Gabriel greeted her. I thought how phenomenal this teenager’s response was! I knew very well the self-centered nature of young adulthood. As I contemplated this, I saw the Virgin in a new light.

I wondered if St. Mary’s humility sent theologians of the past to pour over the New Testament texts that spoke of her. Did they realize the Father’s plan for mankind’s redemption centered on the response of a teenager? Had they also pondered her astonishment at the presence of an angel, and his unprecedented message to her? Did they marvel that she acquiesced without hesitation to receive the mantel of motherhood? Were they amazed that no hint of the well-used human qualifier---- “But” --- passed through her lips?

Scripture and Sacred Tradition give us no sense of a selfish will standing against that of the Father's. There was no, “Will people think I’m a liar – or crazy? And what about Joseph? What will he do when he learns I am with child?” She didn’t say, “What about my parents?” or, “What will happen to me when the town learns I am pregnant?” St. Mary knew she could be stoned for that offense. Engagement in her culture was as binding as marriage, and Mary’s pregnancy would be considered a defilement of the marriage bed. Yet, Mary offered up her life to the One who called her “blessed,” and He commanded His angel to encourage her with these words, “For with God nothing is ever impossible, and no word from God shall be without power or impossible of fulfillment” (Amplified Bible).

Yes, those questions might have filtered through her mind, yet the young Virgin only asked aloud how she would conceive. And, satisfied with the angel’s answer, she responded with humble acceptance.

Is it any wonder the church, from its beginning, has viewed Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the Blessed Virgin Mary? Is it any wonder she would be called by the early church, Theotokos, “bearer of God?” After all, St. Mary bore Messiah, very God and very man.

So, it seemed to me a reasonable thing that devotion for the Mother of God did not dissipate even in the lives of reformers such as Luther and Calvin. Though they took issue with some of the practices and theology of Rome, they continued nonetheless to honor the Blessed Mother. Martin Luther said, “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” And John Calvin wrote, “Elizabeth called Mary Mother of the Lord, because the unity of the person in the two natures of Christ was such that she could have said that the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the eternal God.”

After a time, I began to see why, out of a heart full of praise to God, Roman Catholics turn loving eyes to the tender teenage girl who was the sweet vessel for our salvation.

Though I could not feel comfortable with some of the concepts attributed to the Blessed Virgin, I could at least understand the fervor of thankfulness and respect accorded to so courageous and faithful a servant of the living God. St. Paul tells us to address older women in the faith as “Mother” (1Timothy 5:2). Thus, I consider it a privilege to add my own respectful praise to my Savior by calling His mother, my mother.