Parish of St Matthew the Apostle,
Douglas, Isle of Man
Father Tom ponders – Mary, Mother of God
I was sitting at a meeting some weeks ago discussing prayer. During the course of the conversation, a comment was made about asking the saints for their prayers and especially Our Lady, Mary. One of those in the group asked, ‘But what if you don’t like Mary?’ I don’t believe this was a personal attack on the Mother of Jesus, but a perception of some in the Church of England concerning the role and place of Mary in the Church. I decided that I would share the following to help us all understand the teaching of the Church on Mary, the Mother of God.
Christians have expressed their admiration for Mary over the centuries for two specific reasons. These centre around her relationship with Christ and her connection with the Church. Scholars call them christological and ecclesiological criteria.
A famous artist said that any statue or painting of Mary is only complete when it shows her with her Son, for it is in this that her importance lies. This is because Mary is the most privileged member of our human race in that she was chosen to bear the Son of God. In fact, the very first title officially given to Mary by the Church was "theotokos" or "bearer of God". Doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception indicate that from the moment of her conception she was given a special grace to remain fully open to the promptings of the Lord. We see this in the account of the Annunciation when the angel gives her the news that she is to conceive and bear a Son. She is ready and attentive, and willingly accepts the consequences. Of all the saints, Mary is the greatest and is honoured with the title "Full of grace", or "highly favoured one".
The second reason that Mary has been held in admiration over the centuries stems from her connection with the Church. In her unquestioning readiness to agree to what God asked of her in her life she showed herself a pattern of faith for believers. Her "Yes" to God's request is a model of what the Church's response in faith ought to be. Although she did not understand fully what the designs of God were (and who does?), she unhesitatingly entrusted herself to God's protection as she agreed to be the mother of Jesus. In this way she serves as a role model of the faith that is asked of each of us. That is why Pope Paul VI was fond of referring to her as "Mother of the Church".
Because of the warmth of affection that Christians have had for the Virgin Mary over the centuries it is not surprising that occasionally some people have exaggerated or distorted her importance and her role. We have to remember that Mary is not God. She is not our redeemer. She is not our saviour. There is only one mediator between us and the Father, and that is Jesus Christ. Mary is a creature like us, a member of the Church and herself sharing in God's redemption of the human race.
Yet because she shows us how to be a faithful disciple many people look to her for example and guidance on how they should act. They turn to her and to the other saints in prayer, as an expression of their longing to follow in the footsteps of those who have died in faith and achieved the joys of heaven. The Church is more than individuals. It is the People of God both on earth and in heaven and our prayers to Mary and others emphasise the communion of saints that our creed proclaims.
Mary is not only an example for the whole Church in the exercise of divine worship but is also, clearly, a teacher of the spiritual life for individual Christians. The faithful at a very early date began to look to Mary and to imitate her in making their lives an act of worship of God and making their worship a commitment of their lives. As early as the fourth century, St. Ambrose, speaking to the people, expressed the hope that each of them would have the spirit of Mary in order to glorify God. But Mary is above all the example of that worship that consists in making one's life an offering to God. This is an ancient and ever new doctrine that each individual can hear again by heeding the Church's teaching, and by heeding the very voice of the Virgin. She, anticipating in herself the wonderful petition of the Lord's Prayer, (Your will be done), replied to God's messenger: "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me". And Mary's "yes" is for all Christians a lesson and example of obedience to the will of the Father, which is the way and means of one's own sanctification.