Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
It once seemed perfectly obvious to me that Catholics honored Mary too much. All those feasts, rosaries, icons, statues and whatnot were ridiculously excessive. Yes, the gospel of Luke said something about her being "blessed" and yes I thought her a good person. But that was that.
No Mary, No Salvation
People who celebrated her or called her "Mother" or did all the million things which Catholic piety encourages bordered on idolatry. It was all too much. Jesus, after all, is our Savior, not Mary.
However, after looking at the gospel of Luke afresh and thinking more and more about the humanity of Jesus Christ, some things dawned on me. For it turns out that Luke said more than "something" about Mary. He reports that God was conceived in her womb and thereby made a son of Adam! This means more than merely saying that Mary was an incubator unit for the Incarnation. It means that the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity derives his humanity--all of it--from her! Why does this matter? Because the entire reason we are able to call Jesus "savior" at all is because the God who cannot die became a man who could die. And he chose to do it through Mary's free "yes" to him. No Mary, no human nature for Christ. No human nature for Christ, no death on the cross. No death, no resurrection. No resurrection, no salvation. Without Mary, we are still in our sins.
Too Much vs. Just Enough
This made me see Mary very differently. The Incarnation is vastly more than God zipping on a disposable man-suit. He remains man eternally. Therefore, his joining with the human race through the womb of Mary means (since he is the savior of us all), that she is the mother of us all (John 19:27). Moreover, it means that her remarkable choice to say "Yes" to the Incarnation was not merely a one-time incident, it was an offering of her own heart to God and us. Her heart was pierced by the sword that opened the fountain of blood and water in Christ's human heart, for it was she who, by the grace of God, gave him that heart (Luke 2:35; John 19:34).
Seeing this, I began to wonder again: If Catholics honor Mary "too much", where did we Evangelicals honor her "just enough." Mary herself said "henceforth, all generations will call me blessed." When was the last time I had heard a contemporary Christian tune on the radio sung in honor of Mary? Or a prayer in church to extol her? How about a teensy weensy bit of verse or a little article in some magazine singling out Mary as blessed among women? Aside from "Silent Night" was there anything in Evangelical piety which dared to praise her for even a moment? I was an Evangelical for seven years and I never saw so much as a dram of it.
St. Luke? Is That You?
So the question became for me, "How could we talk about something being 'excessive' when we had virtually no experience of it ourselves?" What if it was we Evangelicals who were excessive in our horror of Marian piety and Catholics who are normal? Judging from the witness of the early Fathers and even of Martin Luther (who had a very robust Marian devotion and whose tomb is decorated with an illustration of the Assumption of the Virgin into Heaven) it seemed to me that it was we Evangelicals who were excessive in our fear of her rather than Catholics who were excessive in their devotion.
"Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
There. That didn't hurt a bit. In fact, I think I heard St. Luke pray it too!