Ave, Maria

I can't believe that I had forgotten: today is the day of the Annunciation, the day on which God entered into the womb of the Virgin and brought the work of salvation to earth. And all I can do is sit here feeling sorry for myself that I have not yet written a book adequate to her praise. If only I could pray to her with all the devotion that she deserves, that young woman of Nazareth who surrendered herself so utterly to the power of God, welcoming Him not only into her heart, but into her very body, allowing Him to dwell within her for the full nine months of a human pregnancy. This is the mystery, the only mystery, worthy of such contemplation. How is it possible to do anything but to rejoice and wonder?

My Protestant self rebels. To worship, even revere Mary is wrong, it tells me. She was simply the vessel, not the agent of Incarnation. But would God do this to His own Mother? Rape her (as Mary Daly insisted we must read the story), impose Himself upon her without her consent? But of course not. "Fiat mihi": she spoke and the world was renewed; it was her willingness to become one, physically, spiritually, with God as her Child that brought about our salvation. Without her, God would not have become Man; without her, we would still be the poor children of Eve, thirsting for mercy, condemned by our sins. But surely this does not mean we should therefore honor her not only as Mother of God, but also as Queen of Heaven? Is it not preposterous to accept the apocryphal stories of her death and assumption and to imagine her reigning even now alongside her Son? Does it not diminish the work of Redemption that Christ accomplished on the Cross to believe her conceived without sin, pure even from the moment of her becoming flesh, foreseen before the ages as she had been by God?

How I want to love Mary with my whole heart, fling myself at her feet, shelter under her mantle. Why is it so difficult for me to sing her praises when I know in my mind if not my heart how much I owe her, how different the world would be if she had not, on this day, answered Gabriel as she did? Oh, the dire warnings of my Protestant ancestors: the "Hail, Mary" cannot be a prayer; one cannot pray to a creature, not even to the mother of Our Lord. Only God can answer our prayers, it is only God to whom, through whom we should pray. But can she not intercede with Him? Is our hope to enjoy His presence in eternal bliss vain? If it is not, then how can we imagine otherwise than that she is with God now? Do the souls in heaven not have knowledge of what passes on earth? Can they not communicate their concerns to God? Or is even this hope a fantasy, that our souls in fact endure after death? How much depends on the way in which we envision Mary's relationship with God!

I have never been persuaded by the arguments that say that to honor Mary is to detract from the worship and praise we owe God as His creatures. Certainly, if we do not believe that God took flesh and lived among us--the Great Fantasy--then there is little point in praying to or through His Mother. But if He did, oh, if He did, then how can we do anything but wonder at the woman who bore God in her very flesh? Everything that we hope for was (is) embodied, quite literally, in her. The idea that in taking on our flesh, God willingly shared in our sufferings; the conviction that His suffering in body was (is) analogous to ours; the response that this suffering demands of us, the compassion that we should not fail to have. If Mary did not share in this suffering, die with her Son in spirit as he breathed His last upon the cross, who can? Why should we think any less of Christ if he could not bear to be parted from her even in death and so returned for her body and soul after she had died? The one myth--of Incarnation and Redemption--demands the other. Her flesh was His flesh; His flesh was hers.

I am angry when fellow scholars do not seem to appreciate this mystery, who see Mary as somehow an oddity, simply a reflection of contemporary ideas about queenship or motherhood. I hate when they write her off as a mere cultural phenomenon, explicable "in context" (how I have come to hate those words, as if they explain anything). If she is a symbol, it is not of "woman" or "femininity" or "humility" or even "power." Not as such. She is a symbol of everything that, as Christians, we hope for in Christ; the better we understand our reactions to her, the better we know ourselves as children of God; moreover, as children of God Incarnate, God who became Human in order that we might become if not goddesses and gods, then our true selves as created by God. Is it possible to think this mystery without invoking God's Mother? Do we really believe that a woman could bear such a child and not be affected by it, that Christ as a baby was no different at all from any other human child? Perhaps, yes. Perhaps He revealed Himself only after His death; Mary knew nothing of the secrets of His origins. Or perhaps it was only His baptism by John that awakened Him to His purpose, and His mother had nothing to do with it.

Again, how we answer these questions tells us far more about what we believe about Christ than it does about how we imagine His Mother. Or, rather, what we say about her is necessarily a reflection of what we say about Him. She is Everysoul, even as she was the one who gave birth to God. My Protestant ancestors were wrong. They were wrong to think that it was right or even possible to think about God--God as Christ, God as Incarnate Savior--without honoring Mary, without repeating the greeting that the angel Gabriel gave to her over and over and over again. "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you": these are the words with which the miracle of our redemption was announced to the world, the instant at which the creature became the bearer of God, humanity and divinity joined in her womb. Certainly, it is possible to conceive of God in other ways: as Force or Oneness or Brahman. But if we believe in God as baby, come into the world to live as we do, in the body, then Mary's mystery is ours: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us"--through her.

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F.B.

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