Understanding Marian Devotion
“The mind is infinitely variable in its language, but the heart is not. The heart of a man, in the face of the woman he loves, is too poor to translate the infinity of his affection into a different word. So the heart takes one expression, ‘I love you, and in saying it over and over again, it never repeats. That is what we do when we say the rosary – we are saying to God, the Trinity, to the Incarnate Savior, to the Blessed Mother: ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.'”
Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
Jesus Christ never intended for the Church to be fractured as it is in our present moment. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed three times for the Church that we would be one as he and the Father are one (see John 17:11,21,22). Yet, today there are tens of thousands of different formal factions and schisms within the Body of Christ and more confusion about the gospel than at any other point in history.
One doctrinal disagreement particularly between Catholics and Protestants involves devotion to Mary, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This post aims to introduce the core reasons and practices concerning devotion to Mary, and the location within the deposit of Divine Revelation Catholics find the basis for devotion to Mary. For more detail on individual aspects of Mary, read the in-depth posts for Mary, the New Eve; Mary, the New Ark of the New Covenant; Mary in Her Immaculate Conception and Her Glorious Assumption; and Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth. This post is simply an introduction to Marian Devotion and why Mary is important for a full Christian Faith.
To begin, the faithful have a devotion to Mary primarily because God chose her first. God in His infinite wisdom deemed Mary worthy to be the chosen vessel to bring forth into the world Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Sacred Scripture attests to this when the Angel Gabriel says, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you….you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:28,30). In fact all the formal statements of doctrine concerning Mary were preceded by pious devotion of the faithful and in the writings of many of the great saints of the Church.
Catholics understand Mary’s response to the invitation of God to conceive and bear the Christ into the world as the exact form of our own discipleship and cooperation with Divine Grace. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This is known as Mary’s fiat, her “yes” to the will of God for her life.
In Mary we can understand our individual call, whatever it may be, and what our basic response of faith, hope, and love must be. The simplicity of Mary’s consent gives great encouragement that anyone can be a chosen instrument for God to work grace, mercy, and miracles in the world in order to redeem it from the power of sin and the influence of the devil. It is not what we can do within our own abilities that makes us great disciples of Jesus, transforming us into saints of God. Our holiness is found in our ability to cooperate with grace and yield to the will of the Father for our lives. There is no better example in all of history than Mary to prove this point.
But how do we know that God wills us to be in relationship with Mary in addition to His son Jesus?
In Jesus’ dying moments as he hung upon the cross, as his last act before he gave up his spirit, he gave us his mother. “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, 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 to his own home” (John 19:26-27).
Catholics find in these two verses a solemn responsibility and privilege. We, as beloved disciples whom Jesus loves, are given Mary to be with us in our home as our mother! The familial character of God’s relationship with humanity is clear throughout the story of salvation. Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament are describe often in familial language – as a bride, as sons and daughters, as a mother. Jesus is revealed to us as the Son of the Father, and he fully reveals the Father to us. It is fitting then, that in Jesus’ final act he would use the familial term “mother” when he defined the terms of our relationship with Mary.
Yet, this does not give a full basis for Marian Devotion. There is still the question of whether it is necessary to be devoted to Mary. The answer to this is both yes and no.
Just by pure logic, no Christian can avoid the basic fact that the Incarnation of Jesus hinged upon Mary’s cooperation at the invitation of God. Just as Adam and Eve were given freedom in the Garden of Eden which was used to violate God’s commandment that they not eat the forbidden fruit, so too He placed our salvation upon the freedom of Mary’s consent. Simply put, without Mary’s “yes”, we don’t have our savior Jesus Christ.
However, if we understand devotion as relationship and relationship as being between two individuals, then in an absolute sense, a Christian can certainly be devoted to Jesus Christ without a particular relationship with Mary. However, it may not be a complete relationship. God willed that the child Jesus, “Went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51-52).
To neglect honoring the mother of Jesus is to neglect the necessary, God-willed condition in which the Incarnate Word’s human nature was formed and brought to maturity. At the very least, every Christian needs to honor that the wisdom, stature, and favor of Jesus from which his ministry flowed had its foundation in the home of Nazareth. More than that, however, is a basic notion of all human relationship. How well can we know someone if we do not know their closest, most cherished loved ones? Because Jesus is a person and not merely an idea, it is important to know every aspect of him, including his mother.
One final difficulty many non-Catholics have concerning Mary is whether asking for her intercession is idolatrous or blasphemous. The answer to both of these is no. We clearly see in the Wedding Feast of Cana (John 2:1-11) that Mary intercedes and mediates on behalf of the wedding party. When the wine failed, the problem was taken to Mary, who immediately took the problem to Jesus. Mary keeps nothing for herself, but takes all things to her son. We see in more detail in the post on Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth that there is royal precedent in the Old Testament for the mother of the king to intercede on behalf of the king’s subjects.
Saint Louis de Montfort likened Marian intercession to a poor peasant coming before the royal court to present his offering of a shriveled, half-rotten apple to the king. It was all the peasant had to offer. In order to aid the poor peasant, the queen graciously took the apple and placed it on a royal platter of silver and gold. The poor peasant’s gift to the king is now more magnificent, not by its own merit, but through the use of the king’s own treasure. This is analogous to the interplay between the necessity of grace and our own efforts. Mary, as the perfect chosen vessel of grace, helps us to better cooperate with the grace of her son.
Proximity matters and intimacy of relationship gives weight to how communication is sent and received. No creature in heaven or earth can claim the proximity and intimacy with Jesus as can his own mother. No creature is in a more perfect union with Jesus than is Mary. There are many modes of encounter and communication with Jesus, but Catholics have long found a depth of relationship with Jesus through Mary – a mode of relationship that produces a greater knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom and a sure means for receiving heavenly intercession and grace.
The great news is that one need not be in full communion with the Catholic Church to know Jesus through Mary. The Holy Rosary is the surest way to begin Marian Devotion. If you do not have a rosary, contact me and I will happily make one for you and send it to you, free of charge. May God bless you!