Friday, November 22, 2013

Knowing How to Look

Where is it in the Bible that Mary was dedicated in the Temple?  Oh, that’s right, it isn’t there.
Breakfast, with some of our Presbyterian friends on the eve of the Feast of the Presentation of Mary. I wonder whether Protestants know how wearying that question is?  And how chilling of real conversation?  It's not unlike the atheists who demand evidence of Christ's existence and then refuse to look at anything proffered.  

At least I refrained from making my usual retort:  Where is it in the Bible where it says everything that is important to faith and everything true about the people in it is in the Bible?  Oh, that’s right, it isn’t there.
I should have been glad that this pastor among them said he was planning a sermon on “Mary the amazing mother of Jesus.”  After all, too often Mary is relegated in Protestant life completely to the sidelines, trotted out only at Christmas, considered a woman with a convenient womb, a little pushy and none too bright in the bargain, regularly upbraided by her Divine Son in public.  For far too many of my Protestant friends, Mary was an entirely pedestrian woman who was an unfortunate necessity of the Incarnation, not much, if any,  different from any of the rest of mankind but for the happy accident of the Incarnation to which she was merely bystander.  Theotokos it is not, but the fact that my friend was calling her the “amazing mother of Jesus” is at least progress. 
Instead I was annoyed at his knee-jerk reaction to my attempt to share the mysterious depths of the Blessed Mother’s life.  I took that one to the box this afternoon, but only after hearing two homilies on the Feast of the Presentation of Mary that reminded me why I am so saddened at the reluctance—or inability—of our separated brethren to come to grips with Our Lady-and theirs; and remembering how Mary underscores in so many ways the deep, fundamental, determinative,  and significant differences in the ways Catholics and Protestants view and live out faith.  
The liturgical year  was the first Catechism, an inheritance from the Jews who told their story over and over through the year of feasts, fasts and festivals.  It was--still is-- the best catechism possible, especially for a largely illiterate people, as people were until the time of the Protestant schism.  It is the way in which the Church teaches us how to live immersed in—rather than just think about—our faith.  The current calendar lists 31 major and minor feast days for the Blessed Virgin; and traditionally, Saturdays, Mays and Octobers are also given over to focusing on her role in salvation.  Just reading those numbers gives Protestants the willies and seems to affirm their deeply held prejudice that Mary is more important than Jesus to us Catholics.  Aside from the fact that every mass, regardless of why it is offered, celebrates the Passion and Our Lord, what they seem to overlook is just how important Mary is to God who delights in doing His work through His people.  And what a work Mary was involved in: the very work of bringing salvation into the fallen world. 
God chose Mary to be the mother of His Son—in Protestant parlance, predestined her from the dawn of time.  God chooses for reasons and whether we realize it or not, He prepares those He chooses.  And God did not choose a “Just me and Jesus” mode of salvation—He chose to save us in community, through our own free cooperation and using the free cooperation of other people to draw us to Him—and the first to give her active, loving, joyful, unrestricted Yes! to God in that plan was Mary.  It’s amazing to me that Protestants who talk so openly about leading others to the Lord, and freely talk about Jesus to any and all simply refuse to consider talking about Him with the one person who knows Him best and is the one who brought Him to the world—His mother.
God chose to be born into a family, because it is in family that we learn about the family that is God Himself.  Our God is an indivisible communion of persons and it is in communion of persons here in our physical life we learn what it means to approach God.  Somehow it seems to escape my separated brethren who object to my entrusting my cares and spiritual development in this process of learning to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin that the first to entrust everything—quite literally—to Mary was God, in the Incarnation.  He put the Light of the World in to a family because that's where He belongs if He wishes to meet us where we are--in family.  No one is born into this world apart from a family.  No one.  Not even God.
God in His wisdom and love decided to become man.  Sometimes we forget how very difficult that concept was for Jews, still is.  One of the major objections—then and now—of the Jewish people to the very idea of Jesus is that man cannot be God—the result of that  critical, essential, earth-shattering Hebrew realization of the complete and utter Otherness of God  that separated Jewish thought from the pantheism and paganism that surrounded it.  And so it is true—man cannot be God, but God can—and did—become man. Though Mary.
Mary is the intersection at which that remarkable, unthinkable, perfect, apocalyptic event happened.  And when God became man, he entered the world an infant under the care of a mother and foster father who would teach Him what it means to be not just human but a good and observant Jew. It was Mary who gave Him His human nature, without which our salvation would look very different indeed.  It was she and Joseph who taught Him about His people in a way that only other people could.
Is it so amazing, then that the Church would ascribe great honor to the woman who bore and raised Jesus?  Mary is the portal who reminds us:  God chose to be—really be, not just go through the motions of being—one of us.  It is that great gift of Incarnation that to Catholics is not just a once-and-over event but the underlying and unifying principle of our faith and worship.  I don’t think anyone can presume to begin to understand all the Incarnation means; it demands our constant attention, for it is central to our salvation.  But one thing is certain given the way things turned out: as the old bumper sticker says: No Mary, No Jesus….
And is it so amazing that the Church would teach that Mary—who would be so very instrumental in teaching her Creator what it means to be  First Century Jew, what it means to live in a human family—would have been so grounded in the life and thought and piety of her people?  And she would be so grounded not just in her own family but the whole household of God in which she lived, the Jewish people and Temple life which was, after all, the center, source, and summit of life for Jews.  That’s what the Feast of Presentation points to, teaches us—that God chooses carefully and prepares those He chooses and He does so in the family He has established for us.  Is it really surprising that that might be...true?  

I suppose it might be fair game to ask my friend what makes him think it isn't, given that the Presentation of Mary showed up in writings from the Third Century (not the earliest works but around the time the Church at last had time to take a breath and think about something other than pure survival and began to ponder just what the incredible wealth the deposit of faith really implied and carried with it) and has been a feast, East and West, since the mid 500's . But I already know his answer--Those are interesting books...but where is it in the Bible?
God came to us in a family.   After the Ascenscion, Jesus would leave us, not a book to be read in me-and-the Holy Spirit isolation, but a Church—a family—a Church who is his own Bride, with Mary as her mother, and Joseph as her guardian-- to guide us and teach us, for us to listen to, to be taught and formed by-- and in which we are to live and work out our salvation, not individually, but together, coming to know Him as we learn to know each other.  Protestants, it seems, are saved to come into an ecclesial body.  Catholics, I think, come into the Church in order to be saved, for belonging is as essential to salvation now as it was to the Jewish people of old. You have to be a member of the family.
And so, if truly we are all brothers and sisters of Christ, then Mary is truly our Mother, with all that means.  Just as she taught Jesus, so she teaches us, if we listen to her.  And she teaches in the context of the family who knows and loves and honors her for who she is and what God chose her to do, as a family honors any mother.  And in honoring God's work, we honor God and we remember, too, that God chooses us and prepares us for some mission in the world.  We ask Mary's aid in knowing it and carrying it out, because she did it first.  We are all of us, in one way or another, expected to a different version of Mary, with her heart, her joy, her sorrow, her complete and utter fiat. 
In families, you have to be willing to listen to stories to learn everything a family has to offer, to really come to find your place within the family and know your sense of belonging and purpose.  Family tradition doesn’t contradict that which ends up being written elsewhere—but it expands, compliments, explains and gives life to it.  It explains what it means to live the life at which words alone only imperfectly hint.  
If that is true of families, how much more so of the Church, who received in full the deposit of the Faith—all those things Paul hints at when he talks about traditions (things I have taught you whether oral or written), all that John remarks on at the end of the Gospel—the things Jesus did and said being so many that all the books in the world —let alone a mere million words, give or take—could not contain. It is the Household of God, the Church, the Pillar and Bulwark of the Faith who carefully, under the protection of the Holy Spirit, preserves and passes along  the treasure of this deposit whole and entire to us.  And part of that treasure is Mary.
One thing living in this family teaches us is that Mary has one job and one job only—to bring Jesus to the world.  Not a once and done event, but an ongoing purpose, for the world needs to know Him now as much as ever.  And the reality is, even those who claim they have no need of her intercession, do.
No Mary, No Jesus. No doubt.
Instead of adopting as one's mantra the rigid, show-me, flint-hard skepticism of the Enlightenment and the schisms it engendered, how much richer, how much more humble it is to approach with love the Mother of God as one of her family and ask for her assistance in knowing her Son as well as she does.  To ask for a heart like hers that can give a full and joyful yes to all God asks, even when we do not understand and cannot imagine the pains it will involve—even as we accept them in advance. To ask her—the first and most perfect disciple to intercede for us that we may be formed in the image of her Son even as we learn to be a disciple like her.  After all, when we are adopted into the household of God, we have at our disposal all that household embraces—including the woman God chose to bring His Divine Life into the world, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Mary, the one who gave birth to Jesus, who in turn gave her to John—and to us—at the foot of the cross, that other meeting place of Heaven and Earth.
To know what a close relationship with Mary can bring, one need look no farther than that same John, whose soaring gospel takes us to theological heights not reached by the three synoptics alone. John, the one who reminds us that the Word of God is not a book but a Man and God Himself. John, who explores the Passion and the Eucharist with such depth and tenderness that he breaks  open the reality of Christ’s presence in them to us even now at every mass.  
Perhaps John’s great insight was nurtured by the many nights spent with Mary; it is not too much of a reach to imagine they spent much time talking intimately about her Son….
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.  (John 19:25-27)
And from that hour, the disciple took her into his home.  We should do no less.
No Mary, No Jesus.  Know Mary, Know Jesus.  Trust me, it’s in the Bible….you just have to know how to look. 

1 comment:

  1. And, Barb, I am so glad you know how to look. It is so good to read the words of someone else who understands, and to whom it matters. Sometimes it is soooo much easier to just keep quiet to the remarks of those who don't and WON'T know. And to the "wisdom" of those who are open to understanding, if you can explain it to them in their attention span of 140 characters or less.