In the liturgical year, October is the month of the Rosary when the Hail Mary is said in the church. I thought it would be a good time to put down my last thoughts about Mary, the mother of Christ. As a former Protestant, who had to take the church’s teaching on Mary on faith, I have turned out to have more thoughts about this than I expected.
The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven comes from Catholic church tradition rather than directly from the Bible. It was a stumbling block for me, and I think that many Protestants have experienced the same thing when approaching the Catholic church. I thought that the doctrine of the Assumption had suspicious whiffs of Mary being promoted to an equal place with Christ, or even usurping him.
As I was drawn further into investigating Catholicism, I realised that to worry about Mary towering over the church and dominating it like some kind of overbearing matron is to completely miss the point. In my experience of the Catholic church, what is overwhelmingly emphasised is Mary’s humility, her trust in God and her total submission to His will. When an angel was sent to announce that she would conceive a child by supernatural means, she had a chance to say, “No way. That’s too difficult,” but she didn’t.
Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God, is known in Latin as her fiat. I first came across this term in the book ‘Catholicism’ by Thomas Howard. Thomas Howard was an American evangelical who converted to Catholicism. In his book he emphasises that Mary is honoured because of her submission to God’s will. She is also an example of how God likes to work, taking an unknown Jewish girl, rather than a rich or powerful person, to be a key part of his plan.
Until I began saying the Rosary and meditating on the Gospel mysteries, I never thought about how difficult it must have been for Mary to let God work in her life. If someone had asked me for a quick opinion, I would have said that being the mother of Jesus was an easy job. After all, wasn’t he without sin. Probably he didn’t even cry as a baby. Bringing him up must have been a cinch compared to my experience of coping with colicky, sleepless babies and toddler tantrums.
Meditating on the mystery of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the temple soon put paid to that idea. Mary and Joseph had walked a day’s journey from Jerusalem before they realised that their twelve year old son was not among the group of friends and family returning from the temple. They returned to Jerusalem, a day’s walk away, and scoured the city for a further three days, before coming across their son teaching in the temple. When they found him, he was remarkably cool about being parted from his parents for five days, but Mary and Joseph must have been in a fever pitch of worry. This is the only recorded incident from Jesus’ childhood, and it shows a boy who already has his own firm ideas about his priorities and mission in life. Bringing up God’s son, must have been demanding and challenging, and required a great deal of trust in God for the strength and wisdom to meet the task.
This isn’t even to mention the challenge of assenting to be a teenage, single mother (“I conceived a child by the Holy Spirit” – try telling that to your parents), or making a long journey to Bethlehem in the final stages of pregnancy knowing that there would be a rush on hotels and lodgings.
The ultimate test of Mary’s trust in God, was when she followed her only son on the route to Calvary and stayed with him as he suffered a brutal and degrading death. A few months ago, a group of men were executed for drug trafficking in Indonesia. The day before the execution, the mother of one of them issued a final appeal for mercy. Her emotion was so great that it was almost impossible to make out words in her warbling cry of distress.
Facing the death of a child, especially a foreseeable, violent, preventable death, is the worst thing a mother can go through. Catholics believe that even at the foot of the cross, Mary did not lose her faith in God or her assent to his will. Mary is addressed as ‘full of grace’ because she fully co-operated with the work of grace in her life.
Although I prayed the other mysteries of the Gospel, it was a long time before I could meditate the mysteries of Mary’s assumption into heaven and her crowning by Christ. When I finally did, I found that they challenged my own life. If Christ valued his mother so much that he wanted to bring her body and soul into heaven and honour her with a crown, how do I honour my parents?
Our parish priest often says that Christ is there to lead us to God the Father, and Mary, by her example of humility and submission to God’s will, is there to lead us to Christ. I still don’t fully understand this aspect of Catholic teaching. However, I have found my own faith to be strengthened by meditating on Mary’s example.