The Trouble with Mary (Part I of II)
Life, As I Find It
I remember sitting in a conference where the speaker, an Evangelical Protestant, began to talk about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in complimentary terms. He stopped quickly then said, “I know it makes some of you uncomfortable talking about Mary like this. You’re afraid we might accidentally slip up and start worshipping her.”
The line got a laugh and I thought, as an Evangelical Protestant at the time, how true it was – as if there existed a razor-thin line between merely complimenting Mary or falling to our knees in the kind of unbridled worship that would make God jealous. I thought much later that that’s why some Christians tend to relegate Mary to Christmas alone, with maybe a cursory acknowledgement at Easter. There’s a fear they might start acting like frenzied Catholics.
I understand why Mary is difficult for non-Catholics or even former Catholics. The appearance of Mary-worship seems to be there when looking in from the outside. Just recently an Evangelical Protestant said, with a straight face, “I don’t know how you could become a Catholic. Doesn’t it bother you to worship Mary?”
The quick answer is this: any Catholic who is actually worshipping Mary is in defiance of Church teaching. That much is clear. Worship is reserved for God alone. On the other hand, to revere Mary or the Saints is acceptable. Reverence, or veneration, isn’t worship – though it can look a lot like worship to those who aren’t used to such a heightened level of respect for beings who aren’t God (much in the same way that kissing the feet of a statue of Jesus, or a cross, or an icon of Mary or any of the Saints, may seem like a form of idolatry.)
I have to acknowledge that, for some, the emphasis on Mary seems “disproportionate” in the same way that there seems to be a disproportionate emphasis on the Holy Spirit or the Gifts of the Spirit in some of the Charismatic Churches (one could argue how, at least, the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity, whereas Mary isn’t).
I’ve also come to recognize that part of any overemphasis is very human: people latch onto the people or things that brought meaning to their relationship to God Himself. Some people are unmatched in their devotion to Mary because, through her, Christ became real. And, if I suggested that those people are wrong somehow, that they love Mary more than Christ, they might look at me as if I’d lost my mind – as if anyone could love Mary more than Jesus. As if.
I may use the example of how love, as seen in my family, might look to an outsider. My wife and I love one another deeply and that’s the foundation of everything that happens in our house. Yet, if you came to my home and saw all of the pictures of our kids – certainly more than you’ll find of me or my wife – you might conclude that I love my kids a lot more than I love my wife – or that we love our kids more than we love each other. Out of the proper context or apart from the right assumptions, you might draw the wrong conclusions.
I think that happens in some Catholic Churches. There is an assumed foundational understanding of worship of, and devotion to, Christ, but people from the outside see all those other things – like representations of Mary – and it reinforces their perception of a disproportion. (Shrines, of course, are purposefully dedicated to certain aspects of the Catholic Faith, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there would be an overemphasis of the very thing to which it’s dedicated. Otherwise, it’d be like going to a car museum and being surprised that there’s such an emphasis on cars.)
For some people, there’s even a certain kind of math that gets employed in their perception. I can’t tell you how often, as a writer, I’ve heard from Evangelicals who complained that I mentioned something in one of my novels or plays more times than I mentioned the name of Jesus. They were actually counting, as if the number was indicative of my dedication to Christ. I think those same people go into a Catholic Church and see Jesus represented once on the Crucifix, but then count the number of images of Mary dotted around the sanctuary elsewhere. It’s scandalous to them. But, again, I would argue that it’s like counting the photos of my kids to see how they outnumber pictures of my wife. Some things simply can’t be compared in the same way.
I suppose a word-count in a traditional Sunday Missal would be enlightening. Jesus versus Mary. We could create a scoreboard to see who “wins”.
Lumen Gentium “exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine Word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God” (Chapter 8, Section 4).
But there’s another thing to say about all this – and it has to do with a single word that has been terribly misunderstood over the years. I’ll save that for another time.
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