Who is Mary? never to lose heart, never to fall behind, she surges in faith

Jan van Eyck Christ on the cross between Mary and John

During the years I taught at the United States Air Force Academy I made friends with many fine men and women who had a deep faith in Jesus Christ and who were formed in their faith through the Protestant tradition. I also spoke from time to time at the college program at Focus on the Family. Marian devotion perplexed my evangelical friends. The suspicion of idolatry still lingers from the centuries old division and mistrust. But if through friendship they saw the baseless of that charge, they would still worry that Mary gets in the way of devotion to Christ, she is a distraction from the real source of our salvation, Christ. “Why Mary?” they would ask. I believe that many Catholics may go through the external devotion but perhaps not fully understand the reason and the power of the devotion to Mary. How could any of us, given the deep mystery of Mary the Mother of God? Blessed John Paul II gives an honest account of his own struggle as a young man in Catholic Poland where devotion to Mary abounds! (Gift and Mystery, “The Marian Thread”) “At one point I began to question my devotion to Mary , believing that, if it becomes too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ.” Then he discovered a book by Saint Louis de Montfort, Treatise of True Devotion to Mary where he learned “Mary does bring us closer to Christ; she does lead us to him, provided we live her mystery in Christ.”  From this discovery of “the immense riches of Marian devotion,” he formed his life long motto “Totus tuus” (I am all yours, Christ, through Mary). But we are back again to that question, why Mary? why “through Mary”? John Paul admits that de Montfort can be “disconcerting” for some, given its “florid and baroque style.” (He stands by its truth — “the essential theological truths are undeniable.”) That is why I turn to Romano Guardini to provide the best single account of Marian devotion that I have yet seen. It is from his great work, The Lord (Chap. 2, “The Mother”). Why Mary? We must ask, “who is Mary?” in order to answer “Why Mary?”  Paradoxically, the stubborn “why?” may obscure the gentle “who?” As Father Guardini explains who Mary is, we shall then simply see why she is so important to our own life in faith —

“Anyone who would understand the nature of the tree, should examine the earth that encloses its roots, the soil from which its sap climbs into branch, blossom, and fruit. Similarly to understand the person of Jesus Christ, one would do well to look to the soil that brought him forth: Mary, his mother.. . .  Mary’s response to the message of the angel was queenly. In that moment she was confronted with something of unprecedented magnitude, something that exacted a trust in God reaching into a darkness far beyond human comprehension. And she gave her answer simply, utterly unconscious of the greatness of her act. . . . From that instant until her death, Mary’s destiny was shaped by that of her child. This is soon evident in the grief that steps between herself and her beloved; in the journey to Bethlehem;  the birth in danger and poverty; the sudden break from the protection of her home in the flight to a strange country with all the rigors of exile – until at last she is permitted to return to Nazareth.”

 Guardini then gives an account  of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, the 18 years of the hidden life, and the encounters of Mary with Jesus along the way of his mission until the point at which she is with him under the cross (John 19:25) (the image of which is found above in painting by Jan van Eyck).

“From the first hour to the last, Jesus’s life is enfolded in the nearness of his mother. The strongest part of their relationship is her silence. Nevertheless, if we accept the words Jesus speaks to her simply as they arise from each situation, it seems almost invariably as if a cleft gaped between him and her. . . . everything that affected Jesus affected his mother, yet no intimate understanding existed between them. His life was hers, yet constantly escaped her. Scripture puts it clearly: he is ‘the Holy One’ promised by the angel, a title full of the mystery and remoteness of God. Mary gave that holy burden everything: heart, honor, flesh and blood, all the wonderful strength of her love. In the beginning she had contained it, but soon it outgrew her, mounting steadily higher and higher to the world of the divine beyond her reach. Here he had lived, far removed from her. Certainly, Mary did not comprehend the ultimate. How could she, a mortal, fathom the mystery of the living God! But she was capable of something which on earth is more than understanding, something possible only through that same divine power which, when the hour has come, grants understanding: faith. She believed, and at a time when in the fullest sense of the word probably no one belief.”And blessed is she who has believed” if anything voices Mary’s greatness, it is this cry of her cousin Elizabeth

Mary believed blindly. Again and again she had to confirm that belief, and each time with more difficulties. Her faith was greater, more heroic than that of any other human being. Involuntarily we call to mind Abraham in the sudden, terrible sublimity of his faith;  but more was demanded of Mary than Abraham. For years she had to combat an only too natural confusion.  Who was this ‘Holy One’ whom she, a mere girl, had borne?  This ‘great’ one she had suckled and known in all his helplessness?  Later she had to struggle against the pain of seeing him steadily outgrow her love. Even purposely flee it to that realm of ineffable remoteness  which she could not enter. Not only did she have to accept this, but to rejoice in it as in the fulfillment of God’s will. Not understanding, never was she to lose heart, never to fall behind. Inwardly she accompanied the incomprehensible figure of her son every step of his journey, however dark. Perseverance and faith even on Calvary – this was Mary’s inimitable greatness.

 And literally, every step the Lord took towards fulfillment of his godly destiny Mary followed – in  bare faith.  Comprehension came only with Pentecost. Then she understood all that she had so long reverently stored in her heart. It is this heroic faith which places her irrevocably at Christ’s side in the work of redemption, not the miracles of Marianic legend.  Legend may delight us with deep in gracious images, but we cannot build our lives on imagery, least of all when the very foundation of our belief begins to totter. What is demanded of us, as of her, is a constant wrestling in faith with the mystery of God and with the evil resistance of the world.  Our obligation is not delightful poetry but granite faith – more than ever in this age of absolutes in which the mitigating spell is falling from all things and naked opposites clash everywhere. The purer we see and understand the figure of the mother of God as she is recorded in the New Testament, the greater gain for our Christian lives.

 Mary’s vital depth supported the Lord throughout his life and death. Again and again he left her behind to feel the blade of the sword – but each time, with a surge of faith, she caught up with him and enfolded him anew; until at last he severed the very bond of sonship, appointing another, the man beside her under the cross, to take his place! On the highest, thinnest pinnacle of creation Jesus stood alone, face-to-face with the justice of God. From the depths of her co-agony on Golgotha, Mary, with the final bound of faith, accepted this double separation – and once again stood beside him! Indeed, blessed is she who has believed!” pages 10 to 14

“Totus tuus” — the prayer of Mary, the prayer of Blessed John Paul II, should certainly be our own.

.

Join us!

* indicates required