My present to myself this Christmas was this icon, from artist Eva Campbell. The icon, Our Lady of the Sign, is an ancient one, but this is a modern take on it. I love the bright colors, and the golden hues of Mary’s and Jesus’ skin.
Jesus is at the center of the image, yet Mary is behind and all around him, the Mother of God, revealing to us her divine Son.
Last week I thought a lot about Mary, since she was the topic of discussion at RCIA and the word “co-redemptrix” came up a few times. If you were reading along, you’ll know that while that particular term is contested, the central idea—that Mary’s consent was a unique and necessary part of our salvation—is not really debated. Still, I was a bit worried that I was getting too carried away with Marian devotion.
I’m feeling pretty vindicated by St Bernard of Clairvaux this morning. Here he is, writing in the twelfth century, addressing Our Lady directly, imagining himself at the moment just before Mary’s “yes”:
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
There was a moment between Gabriel’s message and Mary’s response when all of heaven waited with bated breath. At that moment, the whole world hung in the balance: only with her free and full consent could the divine plan move forward.
She was an essential part of what God wanted to do!
This, by Elizabeth Bruenig (NYT) is an excellent bit of reporting on one of the most recent executions by the federal government. The death penalty is considered impermissible by the Church, and Bruenig, a Catholic convert, brings a sharp moral sensibility to the piece.
It’s nearly impossible to live with a conflict between feeling and belief. You end up feeling the way you believe you should, or believing the way you feel you ought to. I have known for a long time — certainly since the murder of my own sister-in-law in our Texas hometown in 2016 — that I had emotions related to the death penalty that had to be reckoned with.
I began to think I wouldn’t know with certainty what part of me was being honest about capital punishment until I saw it for myself.
It’s a graphic piece—Bruenig travels to Indiana to witness the execution firsthand—but it’s an important contribution to the national debate.
The most that might be claimed is that he considers petitions for new Marian dogmas to be foolishness, but even this relies on an interpretive inference rather than a direct statement. I believe Pope Francis is merely warning us that an over-preoccupation with new Marian declarations and dogmas can lead to foolishness if we lose sight of Mary’s essential identity as woman, disciple, and mother.
The second point is that in March 2003, the American war drums were beating for Iraq, which enjoyed international approval, except for Pope John Paul II, who said: “NO TO WAR”! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” In March 2021, Pope Francis will come to try to restore what was destroyed, as a result of not listening to the voice of his predecessor, the saint Pope…
Since it’s Advent and we’ve been talking about Mary quite a bit, I thought I’d jump forward a few centuries and share about the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the traditional site of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I had the privilege of seeing this basilica with my own eyes in 2010 as part of a general tour of the Holy Land run by Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian activist organization.
(Fellow nerds will chide me for including a basilica in a series about cathedrals, since they are not technically the same thing, but I’m going to go with a very loose definition of a cathedral as “big, important church building”, so there.)
Nazareth, you’ll remember, is Jesus’ hometown, set into the hills not far from the Sea of Galilee. It’s a beautiful location, very lush and green by Middle Eastern standards, and probably more so in Jesus’ day. I can see why God chose it as the place to grow up. I mean, just look!
There’s a running joke in the town that every little business and shop is on the site of some event in Jesus’ life. “Oh, this is the place where Jesus first had ice cream.” “This is the very spot where Jesus first played soccer.” And so on and so forth. It’s a very funny joke the first fifty times you hear it.
Tradition holds that this site is the location of Mary’s home and the place where she was greeted by the angel Gabriel with the first “Hail Mary, full of grace.” It is thus, possibly, the place where Mary said “yes” to God and became the Mother of God, and also the place where Jesus was conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is the entry point of God into the world of flesh and blood.
The present structure is quite recent, completed in 1969, but there’s been a shrine of some kind here since the fourth century. Different buildings have come and gone over the centuries as the city of Nazareth, like all of the Holy Land, has been taken and re-taken by different forces: Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, and finally, Israelis in 1948. Today, Nazareth is one of the only Palestinian-majority cities in the state of Israel, and it remains an important center of Palestinian Christian life.
Let’s take a look at the front entrance!
The Latin script contains two quotes from Scripture, the upper from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation (“the angel of the Lord appeared to Mary”) and the lower from St. John’s prologue (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”).
Entering here takes you to the lower level of the church, which feels very cave-like. It’s here that you can see the remains of previous buildings as well as the site itself where, it is said, the whole thing happened:
A closer look from the lower level:
I suppose it says something about me that I’d really like to hop over the fencing and walk under the canopy, there where the Word became flesh, where the angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady.
There’s something challenging about places like this—about the entire Holy Land, really—because it reminds us that the Christian claim is that these stories really happened. The Christian story is not a fairy tale, an allegory, or a novel. It’s a claim about the nature and fabric of reality. The doubt sneaks in as you go around visiting different holy sites, and it usually shows up in the question, “Did it really happen here? Sure, I believe it happened, but here?” The particularity is what scandalizes.
But it’s God, not the devil, who’s in the details this time. Maybe it didn’t happen here, but it happened somewhere. There is a here and a when that are the place and time where it came to pass. The particularity is what is necessary for the Christian story to count.
The canopy above the home makes that clear: this is a holy place, a place where heaven and earth came together in the body of a woman.
After lingering awhile to consider all of this, you can take a little stairwell off to the side up to the main part of the basilica. This looks more like the churches we all know:
As you approach the altar you see that they’ve cut a hole in the floor, beneath the dome, through which you can see down to the site below:
Along the walls are images of Mary from around the world:
When you are satisfied with your visit, you leave through an upper door which takes you out to the side of the basilica and into courtyard with more images of Mary from around the world. These are all mosaics:
I wish I had had more appreciation for the significance of the Annunciation and for Our Lady when I visited ten years ago.
If I do ever go to the Holy Land again, I think I would plan a week branching out from here in Nazareth, which is more low-key and well within reach of the Sea of Galilee, and then a week in Jerusalem, much more intense but packed with holy sites and close to nearby Bethlehem, where (spoiler alert) we’ll go together next week.
This is more of a “processing” post rather than a complete thought, so I hope readers will bear with me.
The focus on RCIA this morning was on Mary, who has been my main focus for the past couple weeks, first as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and then more generally.
I was somewhat surprised to learn today that since Vatican II, the Church has been choosing to emphasize more the humble origins and humanity of Mary. Mary was (and is!) an ordinary Jewish girl, poor, of humble origins. By choosing to emphasize this fact, the Church foregrounds what it holds in common with its separated Protestant brothers and sisters. That isn’t to say that the Church no longer considers Mary to be immaculately conceived, Mother of God, Perpetual Virgin, or any of the (many) other titles she has accumulated over the centuries. But it seems most fitting at this moment in time to focus on her more relatable attributes.
That makes sense to me! But it also made me wonder: so, have I become too devoted to Mary? I pray the Rosary. I have a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I like to think about her and talk to her. I like those parts of becoming Catholic. What’s more, I’ve heard convincing explanations of the four Marian dogmas and I believe them! And I just wrote a post about how I can almost call Mary co-redemptrix, something that my RCIA director (I think unfairly) condemned as heresy today. So . . . that was weird.
Part of the irony here is that I’m a Protestant-becoming-Catholic in an era when the Catholic Church is trying to be more conciliatory with the various Protestant churches. So while the Church is soft-pedaling some of its more distinctive doctrines in order to make dialogue with Protestants more agreeable, I’m over here running the other direction trying to encourage Protestants to think more theologically about Mary. So . . . that’s weird too.
Anyway, I suppose I can see the danger of going “off the deep end” with Marian devotion: praying the Rosary at Mass, for example, or going to Mary exclusively instead of to Jesus through her intercession. That makes sense to me, though I don’t feel myself in any particular danger of those things. But I suppose, having only recently cultivated an ongoing devotion to Mary, being told by my (female!) RCIA director to exercise caution when it comes to Marian devotion just hits kind of funny.
I’d be curious to hear from more cradle Catholics what Marian devotion meant to them as a child and whether it plays any ongoing role in their spiritual life today. I feel like I got one angle on Mary today, a different one than I’m used to, but I’m sure there’s more than just my perspective and that of my director.
It’s odd how in Protestant households, having a little figurine of Mary would be frowned upon between, say, January and November, but all of a sudden Advent comes around and it’s alright to celebrate, just a little bit, the Mother of Jesus. It seems to me that this is mostly for sentimental reasons. But it also causes a little anxiety within the Protestant imagination to have a little Mary figurine up on the mantle. Making Mary a source of serious theological reflection is still off-limits, whether you are a liberal or a conservative.
On the conservative or evangelical side of Protestantism, there’s something of a stalemate here between popular Christmas traditions, such as nativity scenes (devotional statues!), and good Reformed theology, which frowns upon both images and Marian themes. The people can have their nativity scenes, fine, but they also need to be reminded that Mary was “just an ordinary woman” once a year, just in case things get out of hand.
On the liberal or mainline side, I’ve never heard any serious theology about Mary, either. What you do find is an embrace of her Magnificat, due its natural alignment with social justice issues and raising up the poor and oppressed. All good things! But we are still not talking about Mary as much as we are agreeing with her. Mary is simply an example of what we really want to talk about, which is God’s preference for the poor. And God does prefer the poor! But there’s more to Mary—a lot more—than just her policy platform.
In all of this, I can’t help but feel like something is being avoided here: the woman herself.
Why? What are we afraid of?
I think it’s possible that at some level Protestants understand that love for Mary springs quite naturally from love for Jesus. Whoever loves the Son loves the Mother. Whoever loves the Mother loves her Son. Marian devotion was eliminated from Protestantism with great effort and violence precisely because it is so effortless. Thinking that such love is by nature idolatrous—or at least, tempts us to idolatry—the Reformers and their theological heirs worked hard to make “Christ alone” the focus of our love.
What I wish they could have understood is that it’s not in Christ’s nature to be jealous for our attention. Devotion is not a zero-sum affair. Love for Mary does not detract from our love for Jesus: rather, it enriches that love.
So it’s alright to put up a picture or a little statue of her during Advent, for goodness’ sake. You might even dare to leave it up all year round.
In order to keep his promises and bring salvation to the human race it was necessary that Jesus be truly a human being; and not just a human being, but a Jew, a son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and not just a Jew, but a son of David, part of his kingly line. It’s certainly true that God, being God, could magically create out of any stone a son of Abraham. I suppose he could have formed from the earth a new man who in some miraculous or mysterious way shared in the genetic material of Abraham and David. However, to make it easier on us, to prove to us that he keeps his promises, it seemed the most fitting that the Word made flesh be born of a woman.
But this raises a particular problem: for God to be born of a woman, he needed a woman who would be a unique kind of participant in this divine plan. And for this woman to become pregnant against her will, without her consent, would make God guilty of a kind of rape. A user of women, not a respecter of them. So what was required was a woman who would freely and fully consent to take on this unique identity and task, the cost of which she could not fully comprehend. Mary’s “let it be”, her fiat, her free and full “yes” to God, is essential to the entire divine program.
I don’t know whether or not Mary is “co-redemptrix”, though such a title has long been part of popular Marian devotion. The Church doesn’t know either, and hasn’t (yet) defined this doctrine like it has with the four Marian dogmas it does know: that she was at the moment of her conception preserved from original sin, that she was and remains forever a virgin, that she is the Mother of God, and that she was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. For all of these, once so foreign to my Protestant ears, the Church has her reasons.
But “co-redemptrix”? Hmm.
If we think about what was fitting and necessary about Mary’s “yes” to God at the Annunciation, the significance of her choice, the necessity of her free and full consent to God’s purpose, her partnership with God in bringing about the work of our redemption . . . the word “co-redemptrix” doesn’t seem quite as scandalous, does it? I think I can walk right up to the edge of that word and say . . . maybe.
As Eve was seduced by the word of [the devil] and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.
St Irenaeus (c. 130-202)
Perhaps you’ve seen this beautiful image before, from the sisters at Our Lady of Mississippi Abbey in Iowa. I was surprised it was so recent as it touches on a theological theme that goes back to the early days of the church: the role of Mary in bringing about the salvation of the human race.
One hallmark of true Marian devotion is that it always brings us, in the end, to Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. While Catholic praise for Mary knows few limits, this is one of them. Mary always leads us to her divine son.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is no exception!
On today, her feast day, the 489th anniversary of her final appearance to Juan Diego, I thought I’d share five ways her image points to Jesus.
The black ribbon
The belt around the interior tunic was an Aztec way of indicating pregnancy—you can also tell by the slight curve and gathering of her tunic around her pregnant belly. Just as, when we see a pregnant woman in everyday life, we cannot help but also think of whom she is carrying within her, so also when we think of Mary, we can’t help but also think of Jesus.
Her turquoise mantle
The color of her mantle indicates that, despite her humble posture and countenance, she is not an ordinary woman. Turquoise was a color reserved for the Aztec emperor. Mary is a Queen who is pregnant with a coming King.
Mary’s hair is loose and unbraided, which in an Aztec understanding signified virginity. Married women braided their hair. This, combined with the black ribbon, means that the iconography reveals the woman to be both Virgin and Mother. Her pregnancy is of scandalous and miraculous origin!
The four-petaled flower
Printed on the tunic, directly over Mary’s womb, is a unique four-petaled flower. Though small and inconspicuous, this flower is an Aztec symbol for Téotl, a central concept in their philosophy. Téotl could be roughly translated as “God”, but a more careful reading might lead us to a parallel Greek concept: logos, or Word. Mary’s son is Téotl, the Word, made flesh. For him, by him, and through him all things were made.
Thesun and moon
The sun’s rays coming from behind Mary, and the moon beneath her feet, reveal her to be the woman from Revelation 12:1-6, whose son is the one who “will rule over all the nations”—that is, as the Messiah, Jesus.
The iconography of the image is such a perfect blending of Catholic and Aztec symbolism, it would be impossible to explain all of it here! But I thought it would be worth it to demonstrate how, even though devotion to Guadalupe is very deep and wide, she ultimately points beyond herself, to the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus.