As this is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, I thought I would share how I came to understand and accept the Church’s teachings of the Mother of God’s role in our faith. Honoring and praying to the Saints was probably the biggest jump for me crossing the stepping stones to get to Catholicism. If Christ was central to our faith, then why does praying to Mary matter? And would praying to Mary detract from Christ being our number one? I am not a theologian, nor am I attempting to write anything that hasn’t been stated or explained before. I am simply explaining how this stubborn Protestant finally wrapped her head around this concept of revering the Mother of God. It may be short and basic to the learned theologian, but it is nonetheless personal. For cradle Catholics, hopefully I can shed some light as to why Protestants balk at this aspect of faith. As for non-Catholics, perhaps my explanation will, in the very least, point to a window that leads to a whole other dimension of Christianity.
The first obstacle I had to negotiate was terminology. I had to understand the meaning of “praying to Mary”, and that prayer does not equal worship. As with praying to any of the Saints, we are ultimately asking Mary to pray for us, as opposed to presuming she is a divine being. The Hail Mary, for example, concludes with “pray for us”. Whereas Christ was both human and divine in nature, Mary is only human in nature. I’ve heard some Protestants scoff, “Mary never proclaimed herself to be a goddess.” I agree 100%, and she would too. Remember the wedding at Cana? All she said to the servants was "Do whatever He tells you."
We ask for Mary to pray for us because we believe she is alive. If we believe that God saves His people after their life on this earth is over, than surely Mary is alive in heaven. In asking for her prayers, I am essentially asking a trusted friend to intercede on my behalf. And since she is in heaven with Christ, I can assume that she is closer to Him in both the spiritual and physical sense. I can still pray directly to Christ, and asking Mary to pray does not detract at all from Him being the essence of my being. Quite the contrary: praying to someone whom I believe to be alive with Him confirms my belief that Christ rose from the dead. He conquered death not only for Himself, but for us all.
The Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception are two traditions that were not as simple for me to unpack, but to understand one I had to grapple with the other. At first glance it would seem that Mary being conceived without original sin, and then to skip death altogether put her into a category of divinity. In a different perspective, however, the profundity of both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption supports more fully the divinity of Christ.
The Incarnation was a mysterious combination of natural and supernatural forces, because Christ was fully man and fully God. Catholics and Protestants agree that Mary was a Virgin when she bore Christ; both sides of the Reformation agree that this was miraculous. God created Mary for the purpose of bearing His only Son. He formed her knowing that she would be the Mother of the Savior of the World. Mary was the pure vessel in which Christ was carried and nurtured. Just as a mother can pass both nutrients and toxins to an unborn baby, Mary had to have been created without original sin so as not to pass anything on to her son. She was “full of grace”, not just "a really good person". (As a Francophile, I have to point out that the French translation of the Hail Mary is pleine de grace, and the word pleine can mean both “full” as well as “pregnant”. The language nerd in me found that thoroughly fascinating.)
Christ was born of a woman (natural), but the woman was without original sin (supernatural). If Mary was indeed without original sin, then her manner of death would also be different than the rest of mankind, for Adam and Eve’s original sin (passed down to us) brought natural death. The history of Christianity supports this tradition. Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, believe Mary fell asleep. It was only post-Reformation, i.e. after 1500 years of Christianity, that Christians abandoned the idea.
I will admit that having a prayerful relationship to Mary was awkward at first. I could not fully appreciate why devotion to her was important, or even necessary. I am slowly learning that this beautifully humble and gracious soul is the very reflection of Christ himself, like the moon is to the sun. She is not the source of light and energy, but reflects the radiance of the Son. Since she is closer to Him than any human to have walked this earth, it would be wise to walk close to her, in order that I may get closer to Christ Himself. Ad Jesum per Mariam. To Christ through Mary.
Thanks for reading.