Truth be told, in nearly 20 years worshipping with the Roman Catholic Church, I’ve never developed much of a Marian piety. I took pretty well to liturgy, to sacraments, to lectio divina(ish) prayer, but a Mary-centered or saints-centered aspect simply never emerged in my spirituality. I wasn’t bothered by that form of prayer; indeed, a Latino-American cultural immersion and education program I attended a few years ago at the Mexican American Catholic College instilled me with a greater appreciation for that style of piety…but only in other people. I suppose much of my own prayer patterns were formed before Catholicism was even on my radar, and that type of prayer, beautiful as it is from a distance, has just never been inviting for me.
I may be a Marian Philistine when it comes to prayer, but I’ve always really appreciated the two papal-proclaimed Marian dogmas: the Immaculate Conception, which is celebrated in the liturgy today, and the Assumption, celebrated in August. It’s not their dogmatic nature that appeals to me–policing free thought by way of anathemas strikes me as a game that, as well intentioned as it is, has needlessly divided Christians from one another over the centuries, seeking to replace the tense unity-in-diversity of the early Church with an artificial uniformity. Anathemas aside, however, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, these legendary bookends to the gospel narrative, in themselves have a word of power to speak to contemporary people.
(Image above the altar of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Conception Abbey, MO)
If we look into the eyes of the Virgin Mary, we find about as unlikely a candidate for greatness as any in the cultural heritage of humanity. She is a female in a male-dominated society. She is a rustic, red state country girl from Galilee, a cultural backwater disdained by the big city elite. She is a voiceless, powerless, marginal figure in a land occupied by the most powerful Empire on earth. She is teenage mother of an illegitimate child in a place where ostracizing takes the form of being stoned to death. She’ll take her turn as a homeless refugee. She’ll watch her son leave behind gainful employment to wander the countryside preaching strange ideas–and she’ll worry that he’s gone mad. He won’t be quiet when she asks him to, so she’ll later wtach his humiliating public execution.
Yet in the face of this woman, Christian tradition has come to see something pure, holy, and immaculate. We’ve come to see a figure elevated so far above the dirt of her origins as to be envisioned enthroned as Queen of Heaven. For all the glories of Mary celebrated over the centuries in art, in sculpture, in song, and in the plaintive prayers of humble women and men around the world, for all the ways she has reflected the forgotten feminine in the idea of God, Christians find in her not a goddess, but an exemplar.
The legends of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption expand on the biblical narrative in the Christian imagination to present Mary as the first to taste the redemption which the Christian story offers to one and all. What she receives in the moments celebrated in these great Solemnities is that which is offered to all who obey the gospel and enter into the divine covenant.