Some thoughts on Mary in October

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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.

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Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?

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Does it matter whether Jesus had brothers and sisters? I’m asking this question at the start of this article, because for a long time it seemed to me that it didn’t matter. Quibbling about whether Jesus had siblings seemed as irrelevant as arguing about whether other historical figures had brothers and sisters. Unless they played in an important role in the story of someone’s life, such as Cleopatra scandalising Rome by murdering her sister on a temple steps, what did it matter?

In several places, the New Testament refers to Jesus’ brothers or brothers and sisters. The theological argument seems to hinge around whether the Bible literally means Jesus’ siblings when it refers to his brothers and sisters, or whether it meant wider family connections. The other argument concerns the translation of Matthew 1:24 and 25. Protestant translations say that Joseph did not have relations with his wife until she gave birth to her son whilst the New Jerusalem Bible uses the word when. A lot hangs on one word.

I don’t know any ancient languages and so I couldn’t study the originals and make up my own mind. I had to trust the theologians, but which ones should I believe? Catholic doctrine rests on centuries of tradition, which is discounted by modern Protestants. Interestingly, however, the Protestant reformers, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, believed in the perpetual virginity of Jesus’ mother.

These things were going around in my head, and I decided to put myself in Joseph’s shoes. Imagine the following scenario.

You are a man living in a traditional society. You are engaged to be married to a young girl. She seems like the sort of person who will make you a good wife until you find out that she is expecting a baby. You feel deceived and disappointed, but rather than publicly shaming her, you decide to quietly end the engagement. Before you can do so, however, an angel visits you in a dream, and tells you not to end the relationship, because your fiancee hasn’t cheated on you. She is, in fact, carrying a child which she has conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of God himself.

You are profoundly affected by this experience. Instead of breaking up with your fiancee, you marry her, and provide her with a home, respectability and protection. Even though you both have to travel to a distant village for a census when she is heavily pregnant, you help her to find a safe place to give birth to the baby. You do all this, because you are a pious man and believe that you are following God’s will for your life.

After the child is born, what do you do? Do you demand marital relations with the woman who has borne the Son of God?

My gut reaction was, NO WAY!!!!! If I was in Joseph’s position, I would not dare. It would take a crass, unpious man to demand marital relations with a woman who has conceived a child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph was neither of these things.

By thinking of it in this way, Mary remaining a virgin after giving birth to Jesus, seems like the only possibility.

To get back to the question, I asked at the beginning, does it matter whether Mary remained a virgin and whether Jesus had siblings? I think it does. By saying that Mary and Joseph had other children, the Protestant church puts an emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. Yes, Jesus was fully human, and it is very important to remember this. However, he was also fully divine. By losing him somewhere in a muddle of other children, we forget his divinity and the absolute uniqueness of his birth.

The Catholic teaching that Mary remained a virgin and had no other natural children, helps me to keep sight of the miraculous and extraordinary nature of Jesus birth. He was the only human child ever conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was God’s only Son, and his divinity shimmers out through his humanity in the story of his conception and birth.

I’ll give the last word to blog article on the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was written by Fr Longenecker, who was an evangelical before he became an Anglican priest. He is now a Catholic priest.

Some more thoughts on Mary

This Saturday is the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so I thought it was time to finish this blog post and put it up. The picture here is of the Shiant Islands off the West Coast of Scotland. The island on the left is known as Eilean Mhoire, the island of the Virgin Mary.

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I really thought that after writing two posts on my thoughts about Catholic teaching on Mary, I had run out of things to say. Not that this isn’t a rich subject, but I was a bit blank, and didn’t really have much of a personal reaction or gut feeling about it. As I explained in a previous post, this was a part of Catholic teaching on which I felt pretty neutral. I was neither for nor against, and in the end, when I decided to become Catholic, I decided to stop sitting on the fence and trust the church’s teaching in this regard.

As far as I can see, the three aspects of Catholic teaching on Mary, which differ from Protestant teaching are:

Mary, by God’s grace, was conceived without sin and kept free from sin all her life. This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I got really confused about this at first because I thought that Immaculate Conception meant that Christ was conceived free from sin and I didn’t have a problem with that bit and so wondered what all the fuss was about.

Mary remained a virgin, even after she gave birth to Christ.

At the end of her life, Mary was taken up into heaven. This is known as the Assumption.

The Bible doesn’t specifically spell out any of these teachings. Part of the problem for Protestants, therefore, is not just the beliefs themselves, but the fact that they derive from church tradition rather than directly from the Bible.

When I began thinking about becoming Catholic, I was quite open to the idea that the Bible is part of a wider church tradition. In fact, after some bad experiences as a result of the way people interpreted the Bible, I welcomed the idea that ancient tradition helps us to correctly interpret and live out Biblical teaching. At the same time, however, I was suspicious of any ‘add-ons’ to the Christianity I had been presented with as a child.

I don’t know what I was hoping for, when I began to investigate Catholic teaching on Mary. Maybe I was a bit wistful. Perhaps I hoped that it would all click and that I would feel as if I had gained an extra mother in heaven.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception began to make sense one day when I was out for a walk, turning things over in my mind, and remembered being pregnant and the feeling I had at times of being in total union with my unborn child. Sometimes I held my baby and time seemed to stop as well as the boundaries between one being and another. In the light of my own experience of pregnancy, I could not believe that Mary could have been pregnant with the Son of God and at the same time been bogged down in sin. The two just couldn’t go together.

After I began to think of it in this way, it was easy to accept that Mary was sinless when she was pregnant with Christ. What about the time before then? That wasn’t quite so clear to me, but it also seemed strange that there would be an abrupt change in her life, from sinful to sinless. I’m going to link here again to a blog article by another Protestant convert discussing how he came to accept the Immaculate Conception.

Protestants will object that if Mary was born sinless then she couldn’t have been saved through Christ’s death on the cross. However, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, he stressed that it was by God’s grace working through Jesus Christ, The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. (Pope Pius IX, 1854). Because God is eternal and outside time, Christ’s sacrifice was effective to save Mary from sin, even though her son had not yet been born and died.

If Mary never sinned, does that somehow put her above needing her son’s sacrifice on the cross? Somewhere on the internet (unfortunately I don’t remember where to acknowledge the idea), I read a brilliant explanation of the two meanings of the word saved. You can be saved from drowning by someone who jumps into the water and pulls you out. However, you could also be saved from drowning by someone who pulls you back before you fall into the water. The way in which Mary was saved from sin by her son’s sacrifice, without actually herself committing sin, is more like the second meaning of the word saved.

I think that’s enough for now. I’ll try and write about the other two differences between Protestant and Catholic belief in another article.