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.
The suffering of Jesus on the cross is, like all human suffering, a shared suffering. That's why Mary is honored under the title "Our Lady of Sorrows." Some people imagine this detracts from Jesus' suffering. However, it should be noticed that people only tend to talk this way about Mary. Certainly the prophet Simeon (and the Evangelist Luke) understand the depths of agony Mary endured. So does anybody who reads a headline about the parents of a kidnapped or murdered child. Nobody says, "Only the child truly suffered and we should not allow the sufferings of his merely human parents to detract from the meaning of this event." Yet, advocates of the "Mary is just a vessel" school of thought often talk this way when Catholics honor Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows.
Yet the fact remains: Nobody is related to Christ in the way Mary is. She is more than just a "vessel." She's a human person who freely chose to offer her flesh to God as the medium for the redemption of the human race. At the normal, simple, practical, lived level, the willing offering Mary made of herself and her Son is breathtaking and deeply moving. We can well up with tears as we imagine the pain a war widow feels in receiving the dreaded "We regret to inform you" telegram from the Defense Department. And yet, so often when it comes to Mary, we Evangelicals are so strangely eager to exclude her from the drama of salvation that we end up saying (as an Evangelical correspondent of mine did) that "It is not the people that we should honor, including Mary, but rather God Who has given people gifts. In Mary's case God gave her a child, who would be the savior of the world. Her 'may it be to me as you have said,' is merely an assent to what God was doing through her. God made the salvation of the world possible through Jesus, and Mary merely assented to be a part in God's plan."
Evangelicals reserve this sort of language exclusively for Mary. Imagine an Evangelical service for the parents of a son killed in Iraq in which the pastor points to the grieving parents and says, "God was the one who gave these parents their child and it was he who sent their son to die for the freedom of the Iraqi people. They didn't sacrifice anything. They merely assented to be a part in God's plan."
Nobody talks that way at any time about any sacrifice that any ordinary person ever makes. All the rest of the time, we can grasp the fact that, while God is the Author of all things, our sacrifices and choices really matter, too — by the grace of God. The only time people talk this way is when Evangelicals who are weirded out by Mary dehumanize her and dismiss the sword that pierced her heart so they can talk as though she was utterly irrelevant to the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, instead of the one who was, in fact, more intimately bound up with him than any person who ever lived.
Mary, I'm sorry I dismissed your agonies. Jesus, thank you for your sacrifice and for the courage of those you have made the members of your divine family. Help me to have that courage as well, when my cross (or, worse still, the cross of one I love) is to be borne.