Two days ago (August 15) was the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When one meditates upon the Scripture passages which Catholics read during Mass on this feast day, it manifests an important point which underlies most of Catholic theology surrounding the Virgin Mary, a point which many Protestants seem to overlook (and which thus makes the Catholic view on Mary unintelligible to them), namely: the more one exalts Jesus, the more one exalts Mary as the mother of Jesus.
This should be clear from the readings. Let us put aside from a moment whether or not specific Marian dogmas or doctrines – the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the intercession of Mary and the saints – and let us look at the general mindset or trajectory that gave rise to the mentality dominant in the Catholic Church.
Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Word of God made flesh, the Savior of all mankind, the image of the Father. He is the One through Whom all things were made. He was the only human Who was perfect, in Whom the fullness of the Godhead dwelt. He is both the True High Priest Who atones for our sins, and the Perfect Sacrifice offered for the forgiveness of sins. He is God made man, the Bread of Life Who grants eternal life to all Who receive Him. The second reading, taken from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 15, summarizes it best:
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection from the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ are all brought to life…[H]e hands over the kingdom to His God and Father, when He has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all his enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be defeated is death. … When everything is subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One Who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:21, 24-26, 28)
What this means is that Jesus is the counterbalance to Adam. Adam fell into sin, and through Him we all became participants in sin. But, since Jesus was the Savior of mankind, through Whom we receive the grace of God, through Jesus we have all been given the opportunity to overcome sin and become participants in the things of God. Through the coming of Christ, everything that is opposed to God will be destroyed, including sin and death. Through His life, ministry, death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God enters into our realm, and all things are subjected to God’s salvific plan .
Think about how important Christ is. Now, with this in mind, contemplate how much of an honor God bestowed onto the Virgin Mary by destining her to be the mother of God. This is spoken of in a symbolic manner in the first reading, taken from the last few verses of Revelations chapter 11 and the first few verses of Revelations chapter 12: “She gave birth to a Son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and His throne.” (Revelations 12:5) Mary gave birth to the Savior, the King, the One Who sits at the right hand of God. To give birth to such as He was an honor beyond any other honor.
No one is saying that Mary is to be exalted more than Jesus. By no means. But, no one has a problem honoring secular heroes. People don’t even take issue with honoring certain spiritual heroes – i.e., great preachers, theologians, or martyrs. Yet, of all the people who lived, outside of Jesus Himself, who played a more important role than she who birthed the Messiah, nurtured Him, and raised Him? It is for this reason that in the Gospel message, taken from Luke 1:39-56, when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, St. John the Baptist leaped for joy in her womb, and Elizabeth said to the Virgin Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43) It was a very humbling experience for Elizabeth to stand in the presence of the mother of her savior. Elizabeth knew she was honored by God more than any other. Yet, why was Mary so blessed? Why was Mary so honored? Because of the fruit of her womb – Jesus.
And this emphasizes something which many people overlook: the importance of Mary is always looked at in light of the importance of Jesus. Considering how important Jesus is, Mary as His mother must also be important. Yet, Mary’s importance rests entirely on her relation to Christ. Had Mary never accepted God’s call for her, or had God chosen another woman to give birth to Jesus, Mary’s name wouldn’t have even been preserved in future generations. Now, even though Mary is never to be honored more than Jesus, the fact that God predestined Mary, of all women, to be the mother of the Messiah, and the fact that she accepted, is a sign of God bestowing onto her a great honor. Her womb was, for a time, the holiest place on earth, since in her womb God Himself dwelt. (This is the reason why many Catholic theologians have often made a parallel between the Virgin Mary and the Holy of Holies in the Temple, or the Ark of the Covenant.) It is for this reason that Mary goes on to say:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on all ages shall call me blessed. The mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is His Name. (Luke 1:46-49)
Mary was a lowly peasant woman, who God then exalted by bestowing onto her both the great honor and tremendous responsibility of being the mother of God. It is for this reason that every generation from then on out will call Mary blessed. Yet, honoring Mary is not supposed to end with the Virgin Mary, but is meant to call our attention to someone or something higher or more transcendent that Mary, the One on account of Whom Mary was considered blessed. She had been honored by God; yet, she was honored by God for the purpose of helping to bring about some aspect of God’s plan. Therefore, her soul did not rejoice in prideful self-satisfaction, but in the goodness of her Lord, God and Savior. Her blessedness was used as an occasion to proclaim or announce to the world the blessedness of God. And it is THIS which lays the basis for the Catholic view on Mary