One common complaint among Evangelicals or fundamentalists is that Catholics honor Mary “too much.” It’s a highly specialized complaint, much like the concern over Catholic “graven images” that completely overlooks the Evangelical’s own bowling trophies. After all (and I speak from experience here), Evangelicals have no problem honoring Paul. They write hundreds of books about him, talk about his greatness and genius in thousands of sermons, and generally hold him up as a shining model of Christian greatness — as they should. They rightly observe that, if not for Paul, the gospel would never have reached the Gentile world.
But there is an odd choking sensation among Evangelicals when Catholics note (with equal truth) that, without Mary, the gospel would never have reached the planet. The conversation chills under an icy cloud of fear and the sense of menace, as though the Catholic is just about to break out in a frenzy of goddess worship or seduce the Evangelical into offering milk and honey to Diana. Strange caveats and backpedalings ensue. We are suddenly informed that Mary’s “yes” to God means nothing special about her role in salvation history, and she certainly is deserving of no special mentions. We are informed that God would have chosen somebody else (as though we have full access to the inner counsels of the Divine Mind as He surveys all the infinite alternate universes of string theory).
Nobody ever feels the need to talk this way about Paul. When it comes to him, we remain in this universe, looking at what God actually did, rather than flying off to a billion other hypothetical universes to pontificate about what God surely would have done. Similarly, when we note that Mary herself declares in Luke 1:48, “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” Catholics do not feel the compulsion to declare that, since Scripture likewise speaks of Jael as blessed among women (Jgs 5:24), we can safely say that Mary is no big deal. Instead, they recognize the same principle at work as when Isaiah calls Cyrus the Lord’s “anointed” (Is 45:3-6): It doesn’t mean that Jesus Christ the Anointed One is no big deal. It means that Cyrus is a prophetic foreshadow of Jesus the Anointed one, and Jael is a prophetic foreshadow of Mary, the mother of the Anointed One, who is most blessed among women.
Why? Because Jesus Christ is God incarnate and Cyrus is not, just as Mary is the Mother of God Incarnate and Jael is not. Because, in this real universe we know about (as distinct from a million hypothetical universes that we do not even know exist), Mary freely said “yes” to giving the Lamb of God the flesh and blood by which He would achieve the redemption of the world on the cross. Because, in this real universe, she assented to saying that “yes” — not just at the conception of Christ, but day by day for 30 years until the moment she had to stand there and watch Him die the most shameful, unjust death any peasant mother has ever had to endure under a cruel regime. In short, just as we would surely honor not just a fallen soldier but his grieving parents at the soldier’s funeral, so the Catholic Church has always very sensibly paid honor to the Mother of our Captain, who died in combat with the forces of Hell and threw Himself on the grenade of sin, hell, and death to save His troops. Not to do so would be miserly and churlish.
That’s why the real question is not, “Don’t Catholics honor Mary too much?” but rather, “Where do Evangelicalism or fundamentalism honor her ‘just enough’?” The reality, when we look at it, is that Catholics honor her as she should be honored, while one would have to search a very long time in Evangelical or fundamentalist circles to find any honor paid to her at all, and that quite grudging, timid, and filled with hesitations — a fact noted even by honest Evangelical scholars. Apart from “round yon Virgin, Mother and Child” at Christmas (a verse written by a Catholic, by the by), veneration and honor of the Blessed Virgin is almost nonexistent in Evangelical circles. It’s a bit like the teetotaler telling the normal man who likes a glass of wine at dinner that every sip is “drinking to excess.”
Certainly, Elizabeth has no such hesitation. Indeed (lest the illustration of the fallen soldier lead us toward becoming maudlin and imagining that Mary’s sorrows are the sole reason for honoring her), it should be noted that Elizabeth knows nothing of the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul when:
the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:41-42)
Elizabeth zeros in on the essential core of Marian veneration in these words. It is not that Mary is a victim, but that Mary is the blessed and chosen Mother of God. Evangelicals, quick to dismiss any honors to Mary, will typically leap from this passage to Jesus’ remark, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27) But, of course, that’s Elizabeth’s point, too: Mary is not blessed because she is giving birth; she is giving birth because she is blessed. Her faith in the word of God is so powerful that, through her, that Word is made flesh. And so she is most truly most blessed among women.
As we move away from these controversies with certain Protestants and look closer to home, we find another dynamic at work. Even within the Catholic communion, the Church is often complained of as “dominated by men.” To converts from an Evangelical background filled with jitters about Mary, this is often hilarious. For what often hits one in the face is not the masculinity but the femininity of the Church. In other words, so much of the Church’s prayer, life, and practice is contemplative, Marian, inward, body-centered, and Eucharistic; while so much of the rest of non-Catholic (especially American Evangelical) Christianity is aggressive, word-centered, mission-oriented, and focuses on getting a job done. Both the masculine and feminine approaches to the faith are good and biblical, but it should be noted that the feminine way is particularly rooted in the Church’s reverence for Mary who is “blessed among women.”
Mary is, in the end, called “blessed” not merely because of her suffering, nor merely because she did this or said that. Indeed, Scripture does not contain an Acts of Mary because it is precisely her part in the economy of salvation not so much to do as to be. Her characteristic posture is contemplative: She “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). Her characteristic gesture is to refer us to her Son: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Her sole literary legacy is a hymn of praise that magnifies God, not herself.
That does not make her a wallflower or a cipher. It makes her the most fully saved human being who ever lived — saved completely from sin not by the desperate rescue from the pit that the rest of us have experienced, but by being kept from the pit in the first place by the grace of her Son. This, in turn, makes her the freest creature God ever made, not an automata. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17), and Mary’s blessedness consists precisely of the fact that she is named Kecharitomene, full of the grace and power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:28).
This curiously quiet and hidden place in the Kingdom of God, so far from the very public and dramatic trials and tribulations of the apostles with their Indiana Jones adventures and globe-trotting ways, is why Mary’s enormous powers — what Pope John Paul II calls “other and great powers” than those of the apostles — is often overlooked. Her power in the life of the Church is like air pressure or sunlight or gravity: You don’t think about it. It’s always there, in the background, the power of the entire prayer life of the Church, quietly interceding for the noisier and more visible members, calm and relentless as a river, seemingly weak, but able in the long run to grind the Himalayas down to dust. And all in the peace of Christ, whom she loved from her very heart from the first moment of her creation and will be praising and loving when the last atoms of this passing world are gone. Blessed, truly, is she among women.