Thursday, November 17, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 25

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Mary's Prayers

To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a "chosen people". Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree. After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.

............From Miracles by C.S. Lewis

I haven't written much about Mary since since May, when I was struggling with some of the church's doctrines about her. I decided at that time to just put it all on the backburner, to let it all simmer while I attended to more pressing elements of my catechesis. Nothing in the church's teachings about Mary offended or bothered me, but something about it just didn't seem settled within me.

I think I've come to more of a "Catholic" (if you'll allow) understanding of Mary as of now. The last piece locked in place for me the other night, out of the blue, when I wasn't even looking for it. Please keep in mind that what I am writing here reflects nothing more than my own personal journey; my own feelings and struggles and attempts to understand. I'm not an authority on Catholicism or Christianity, and some of what I feel about my faith may, in fact, be categorically non-Catholic or even un-Christian. I'm a "practicing" Christian... and I need the practice, because I'm really not very good at it.

You can say a lot of things about Christianity, but one thing you can't call it, if you try to practice it, is convenient. The presence of Christ in your life can absolutely plague you, demanding recognition and reconciliation, and often at the worst of times. The other night I was awake for most of the night, contemplating my own sins and the distance I put myself between myself and Christ. It seems to me that, when presented with any given situation, I tend to respond badly. Sometimes in the worst possible way.

I got to thinking about those WWJD stickers and shirts and hats that were so popular a few years ago. What Would Jesus Do? The idea being that if you ask yourself that question, you'll be more likely to make the right decision when confronted with problems or challenges. I always reacted negatively to the WWJD thing, not because I think there's anything wrong with the concept itself, but because I almost always have a strong averse reaction to anything trendy. I remember seeing people wearing WWJD bracelets while telling bawdy jokes, swearing, etc. I remember thinking to myself that maybe they were claiming too high a standard for themselves. Of course, upon reflection, I realize that WWJD is far too high a standard for me, too.

That's the main problem with the WWJD thing for me. For me, the answer to the question What would Jesus Do is always "He'd do the right thing, he'd do it perfectly, and he'd do it far more generously, lovingly and Gracefully than Darrell could ever dream of."

Of course, that's because Jesus wasn't just a man. He was fully man, but he was also fully God. The divine nature of Jesus always overshadows his human nature for me, and I suppose that's natural. I have to actually make myself concentrate on the human side of Christ if I am to consider it at all. I can think about his divinity without trying to... but I really have to make myself focus if I want to realize that he got hungry, that he got too hot and too cold, that he felt fear, that he laughed... and especially that the crucifixion, which he endured for me, was torture and physical pain beyond my ability to endure. Had I been on that cross, posessing the same powers that Christ posessed, I'd have been back down again in about 10 seconds.

What would Jesus do? He'd feel everything I feel, he'd know about my fears and my desires and needs and wants, and yet he'd always, irrevocably do the right thing. The best thing. The Holy thing. The Divine thing.

Yeah, it's a pretty high standard.

So, I got to thinking about the concept and I eventually told myself that I'd probably do well to first ask myself "What would a Christian do?" I don't think Christ expects me to be able to handle everything as perfectly as he would. He knows what's wrong with me, he knows about my fallen nature. I mean, after all, he died in agony to redeem me, so of course he knows what a jerk I am. He doesn't expect me to be able to respond to every crisis and opportunity with his own divine perfection. All he wants me to do is respond to him as his follower; to simply do his will, not to posses it.

What would a Christian do? That's a better question for me. That one, I can get a handle on. That one I can grasp. That question seems to possess more real possibility for me and doesn't seem to be an overwhelming magnification of my own sinful nature.

It helps, though, if that question has a name attached to it, doesn't it? It helps to attach a face, an example, someone to think about and try to emulate in times of need. That's the idea behind the whole WWJD thing, after all.

I thought about it and realized that the best possible example to emulate, as a Christian, is Mary. In terms of fully human Christianity, without divinity present, without that perfect understanding that only God can possess, you can't do better than Mary. What a picture of perfect Christian obedience. What an amazing example of love for Christ, willingness to sacrifice herself and everything she loved for him. What a total and complete example of charity. (That's "charity," which looks outward, as opposed to "unselfishness," which looks inward.) As far as faith and devotion to Christ goes, Mary really is the total package. You just can't do any better than that.

What would Mary do?

I started trying to put myself in her shoes, and I realized that she really is the best possible strictly-human access that we have to Christ. There are the obvious reasons, of course. She was his only human parent. She was his mother, after all. She knew him better than any other person did.

Then I started thinking about my own life as a parent, and compared myself to Mary. (That's a bad idea, by the way, if you're looking for a way to feel good about your parenting skills.) I think that reaching some kind of feeling of understanding of and love for Mary might be easier once you have kids. I mean, who among us is a perfect parent? None of us. And yet, Mary was... and she was fully human. She didn't have that "edge" of divinity that Christ had. She was just a human being.

I wondered how much she knew about Christ's plan in advance. Of course she knew who he was; before his conception, an angel had visited her and told her that she'd bear the Christ child, that she'd bring God into the world. How much did she know about his ministry in advance, though? Did she know, for example, how it would culminate?

There are probably scriptures and teachings that answer that question, to some degree... but that's not really what I'm getting at with this. What I'm really getting at is a feeling of empathy and love for Mary based on trying to imagine what she went through as a parent.

It's heartbreaking.

If you're a parent, think about all the times you've seen your own child in pain, or in trouble, or hurt and confused. Nothing feels worse than that. Nothing makes you feel more desperate to help, and yet more helpless.

I started thinking about the crucifixion. I've tried, since my conversion to Christianity, to think about the crucifixion on purely personal terms. I think that's the best way to approach it as a Christian. Christ didn't die for the "world's" sins, or for "our" sins... he died for MY SINS. Me. Personally. Christ died in agony for Darrell's redemption.

That's hard to grasp.

Then, something easier to grasp hit me: Mary watched her innocent and perfect Son be falsely accused and convicted, tortured and murdered. She watched him die slowly, and in agony. She tended to his bloody, decimated body, and she laid him in the tomb.

And she did it for me.

Imagine that. Imagine watching your child murdered for someone else's well being.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I cried that night, probably harder than I've ever cried during a moment of religious contemplation. I know what I put Christ through... I know the suffering that my sinful nature caused for HIM. I'd never previously considered the pain, the fear, and the horrible emptiness that my sin caused for his Mother.

Mary loved her son as any of us could love our children. And she watched him be tortured and murdered for us. FOR ME.

It all makes sense to me know. Even the doctrine of the coronation makes sense to me now... not because I can believe it logically, but because I WANT to believe it. After all I put Mary through, her coronation in Heaven is the least I could wish for her.

So now I have a new problem with Mary. Previously, when I'd pray the Rosary or the Hail Mary, I'd feel somehow false about it... like I wasn't doing it right, or like I didn't feel it enough. I prayed the Hail Mary the other night, and my new problem was that I felt it too much. It was hard to pray it without blubbering like a baby. It's a short, simple prayer... a petition to the mother of God that she pray to her son for us... and I couldn't get through it without crying. All I could think was "I want to make it up to you. I want to make it up to you, Mary. I want to make sure that your suffering on my behalf wasn't in vain. I have to make sure that you weren't forced to watch the murder of your son, so that I might live, for nothing. As you said at the wedding in Cana, I want to 'do whatever he tells me'."

What would Mary do?

What DID Mary do?

She did more than any human being should have to do.

And she did it for me.

In the spirit of ecumenism, here are some Mary related links that my protestant friends might find interesting. I'm not arguing for or against any of this, but it makes for some interesting reading:

Recovering a Protestant Mary

Responses and discussion of a Time article about the Protestant traditions of Mary

Religion and Ethics: The Protestant Mary

What did the Protestant reformers (like Luther and Calvin) believe about Mary?

I really like this T-Shirt

What are your thoughts on the fifth marian dogma?
Well, like so many of the issues that separate us, the proposed fifth Marian doctrine (it is not an official church doctrine) is nuanced thing. I HATE to use a word like "nuance," implying that Christianity is a subtle or complex thing. It's not. It's a populist religion, not an elitist one, and it doesn't need to be dressed up in subtleties that aren't there. Nonetheless, it comes down to perception of this issue, and we all chose the perception we want most of the time.... and perception, by it's very nature, involves nuance.

The crux of the matter is whether or not you believe that Mary received God's will at the annunciation freely. I do. I think that God gave us a very REAL free will, certainly with regard to accepting him. He wouldn't have forced Mary to bear him if she'd been unwilling. Imagine a Savior born to a mother who didn't want him! The story of our redemption would have been something totally different. We'd have a savior who showed us right off the bat that he'd decide for us if we were to give ourselves to him, not the other way around. It isn't like that, though. We each receive Christ of our own free will, starting with Mary. I believe that Mary was offered the gift of Motherhood of God at the annunciation, and because her response was "Thy will be done," Christ was born.

You can look at terms like Coredemptrix or co-mediator from several points of view. One of them, obviously, is to say that the idea elevates Mary to the status of Savior herself. That seems to be the most popular Protestant objection to the idea. Just for the record, I disagree with the idea that Mary was equal to Christ in the redemption of mankind, and so do all the Catholics I know. I know that protestants believe that Catholics don't read the Bible, and love to throw 1 Tim 2:5-6 in our faces and then smirk as we mumble and stammer and try to explain in political terms a concept that is, ultimately, a matter of faith and emotion to us. The thing is, in my experience, this hostility is simply based on a misunderstanding by Protestants of Mary's role in the church and in our lives.

Mary is the Coredemptrix only in that she was the first person to say yes to Christ. She set the example for the rest of us. She is the best possible example of a Christian. No, she didn't play a role equal to Christ in our redemption. No, she is not divine, she is not the equal of Christ, she is not the female Christ, she is only a human being. She is, however, the first and best example of a Christian. She is our template, the picture of obedience, the perfect example of a life lived in service of Christ. Mary is not our savior, but we couldn't ask for a better role model.

I'm hesitant to discuss this particular Marian subject with some of the Protestants I know... especially those who bring it up first, because my experience has been that they are typically the ones with a carved-in-stone interpretation of the idea, and it doesn't matter what you say to them, they'll still wake up the next day and go around proclaiming that "Catholics worship Mary." You can't talk them out of it, they believe it in their bones, they WANT to believe it, and it's all that much sadder because of it. I really hope you aren't and won't be one of those people. Like everything else I've said at this blog, my ideas on the subject are mine and mine alone, and don't represent church doctrine. Just please be open to the idea that by Coredemptrix, we mean something far more... well, "nuanced"... than the simple and wrong idea that Mary is equal to Christ.
Just a couple of additions. One is that Mary is the Coredemptrix in the idea that Christ was born through Mary's submittal to God's Will. I think Darrell explained that well enough. The second thought is that Catholics look at Jesus and Mary as the second version of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve failed God whereas Mary and Jesus did not. Old Testament versus New. If you look at it in that context where Eve set up the fall of Adam, you might be able to understand the concept of the Coredemptrix where Mary is setting up the redemption Christ gives us. It's also interesting and poingnant that Mary's words to God, "May it be done to me according to your word" are the same that Jesus repeats in the Agony of the Garden, "Not my will but your will be done." Thus undoing the refusal Adam and Eve presented to God by their actions.
As one priest explained this concept of Mary as co-redemptrix: he said that we are all co-redeemers as well, in the sense that we have to cooperate with God's grace to be redeemed. Christ won't redeem us against our will.

We are co-redeemers also in the sense that by cooperating with God's grace, we bring Christ's redemption to others.

So the concept of Mary as co-redeemer is no different than this, but of course, at a much greater and more prominent degree.
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