Why do so many Christians celebrate and venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus? The scriptures speak very little of her and yet this first-century mother became a revered and even controversial figure. With so many Marian feast days celebrated throughout the Christian traditions, literally thousands of churches names in her honor, and hundreds recorded appearances of her in cities around the world, devotion to her should not be dismissed too quickly. I can only tell you what drew me to a deeper appreciation of the Theotokos (the God-bearer).
First of all, she was there— present with Jesus from his first human breath to his last. She had a front row seat to witness so much of the Jesus narrative. She said yes to God, providing the spiritual consent that would lead to a radical display of Divine solidarity with creation. She brought the needs of others to Jesus, like at the wedding feast in Cana, believing that he had the power to intervene. “Do whatever he tells you…” she said to the servants. She stood at the foot of the cross and visited the empty tomb. She witnessed Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection and was the only woman named in the upper room when the Spirit of God descended at the Pentecost.
Mary of Nazareth is not God, but she becomes the archetypal symbol of the first incarnation, where spirit and matter meet, creation— which gave birth to the second incarnation, Jesus. Mary has been one of the most prolific subjects in western art and with good reason. In almost all of the depictions of the Madonna and child, she is dressed in splendor and holding, offering Jesus naked and vulnerable, to the world. And note where her hands and eyes are usually directed… to Jesus, who is the focus. Richard Rohr shares that, “Mary is all of us both receiving and handing on the gift.” In Mary, we “see our own feminine soul … and say with her ‘God has looked upon me in my lowliness. From now on, all generations will call me blessed.’ (Luke 1:48)” (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ)
Every branch of Christianity holds a unique space for Mary. Even Islam offers her a singularly exalted place. But, putting aside all of the dogma and legend, Mary became the churches symbol of how to receive God and then share God with the world. My former priest used to say to me, “the closer you come to Mary, the closer you come to Jesus” because she forever points the way to Christ, humbly and faithfully. When you reflect on Mary the mother of Jesus, remember her song of praise, My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! And, may we draw the same strength and faith to say yes to God and yes to our own incarnation.