Good Questions: Why Does Mary Matter?   

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Protestants, I suspect because they are so determined not to be Catholic, pay insufficient attention to Mary. Yes, she’s there in all the manger scenes, and she plays a sweet role in kid pageants. But it’s not hard to think our way into noticing that Mary is the most important person ever, unless you count her divine Son. The angel Gabriel assigned her the most crucial task in God’s plan of salvation. She was the first to know. She felt Jesus’ body before anybody saw him. She endured immense pain to get him here. She heard his first cry. She held and nursed him, watched him grow up, sewed his clothes and cooked his food. Who was more distraught when he risked life and limb to take on the powers of the world? And who was more devastated by his crucifixion? Or more delighted on Easter morning?

She was poor, and lived in the middle of nowhere. But she was spiritually rich, wise, and full of faith. “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19); she was quiet, reflective, a deep thinker. God asked her to do the impossible. She didn’t turn and run or offer excuses. Risking family shame, and her fiancée, her whole secure life actually, she was Yes. Amy Grant’s lovely “Breath of heaven” gets inside Mary’s mood: “I am frightened by the load I bear… Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place” – and then she pleads, “Hold me together… Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.”

Gabriel’s assurance to Mary reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s wry thought: “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” Whose assignment was ever bigger than Mary’s? And yet, isn’t ours similar? Doesn’t she show us the way? What God asked of her was to let God become real in her, to let God take on flesh in her life – which is exactly what God asks of us all.

Back in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart wrote that “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.”

I try to envision her pain, the agonizing labor, the blood and physical terror, then the delivery, cutting the cord, holding him to her breast, voicing a prayer of gratitude. Mary is so beautiful. In most Christian art, Mary’s skin is terribly white and immaculate. The real Mary would have been, like middle easterners of her race and place, more darkly complected. To visualize the feel of Mary’s face, we might veer toward something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother,” her 1936 photograph of a mother exhausted and yet courageous – which in turns reminds me of Garibaldi Melchers’ “Woman and Child.” Her weathered complexion suggests strength and gentleness, maybe endangered, with a ferocious kind of love, shielding her child from danger.

Catholics pray the rosary, simply believing Mary is in heaven next to her Son (where else would his mother be?), and that she hears us, and loves us, and him. So we have good cause to join us and say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (which is what Gabriel said to her, Luke 1:28), and “Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus” (which is what Elizabeth said to her, Luke 1:42). I want to be like her, and close to Jesus, at which she was and is the greatest ever.