One thing I was sometimes concerned about when I first became a Catholic was the whole idea of praying to saints. I had discovered god, and it seemed (and still seems) that prayer is something between created and creator. Over time I have learned to understand it better; to understand what prayer is (a type of spiritual communication), to understand the “communion of saints”, and to understand better the difference between worship and prayer.
The extraordinary respect given to Mary in the church is perhaps the most extreme example of this. There have been times when I had concerns that the distinction between prayer and worship was blurred in her case. However its worth considering who Mary is, and why she is important.
In the old testament, because of his faith, god makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. However he makes it clear right from the start that this is a two part covenant, at first for his descendants, but then a second part “for all nations”. All through the old testament, as god reveals this original covenant with the 10 commandments (the law) written onto stone tablets, the Ark in which they are kept, and the temple in which he would remain present on earth, god makes it clear that this is all a first part of his covenant. The second part – what he calls the new covenant – would not just be for all nations, it would be heralded by a messiah. It would be a spiritual covenant for Abraham’s spiritual descendants.
In Jeremiah 31 god again talks of this new covenant, one he will make with people from all corners of the earth. It would start with Rachel in Ramallah weeping for her children because they are no more, fulfilled when Herod saw the signs of the prophesy of a new king. In the same chapter god says that this new covenant – with “Israel” (meaning “judge with god” or “man sees god”) – will not be like the old covenant. Instead;
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people
So instead of a covenant written in stone – housed in an Ark – and god’s presence on earth being in the temple, the new covenant would involve the law itself being alive, with god, in his people. In Isaiah, god says;
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and she will call Him Immanuel.
Immanuel means “god with us”, and so the fulfilment of this new covenant starts with a virgin giving birth. In many ways, that virgin becomes the Ark of the New Covenant, although the new covenant only replaced the old once the other prophesies of the messiah were complete, including later in Isaiah (53);
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
Its worth noting that the law of the old covenant – of loving god and your neighbour – is not replaced. Instead it turns from letters on stone to living words in communion with living flesh. All starting in the womb of one woman. As she herself says, as recorded by Luke;
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me
It is worth thinking about the honour god placed on Mary by giving her such a central role in the most import story that has happened on earth at least. She is not the story. She should not be worshipped, as that should be reserved for god alone. She is nonetheless the one through whom god physically came into his own creation, as a ‘son of man’. She is not the one who offered us freedom from the clinging pit of our bad choices. She is the one that the god who created the universe trusted enough to rest his plan for us all on her shoulders.
We don’t really know what challenges she had in fulfilling her role, though its fair to assume the great trust god placed in her was shared with Joseph and no doubt others around her. We can imagine the challenges of becoming pregnant whilst unmarried in the Jewish society of the time. We have no idea who other than Herod was drawn to try and crush the seed that would start the victory over evil. But ultimately her role in it all was fixed by god, and she accepted this willingly.
The only reason Mary is special is because of Jesus. Unlike him, she is not god, and that’s incredibly important. He is the one that deserves glory, He has such unfathomable power and knowledge, and yet admires the humble, the simple, the kind. Mary was just an ordinary human. Nonetheless, its right to honour her, as long as we do so in the hope that we can ourselves become as trusting of, and trusted by, the one she gave birth to. As unlikely as that may be for most of us, we should aim to be like the saints. To the world this may seem like hypocrisy when we each often fall so far short, but when we join them in our communal prayers to god, it is gods perfection we celebrate. Not our own, nor any of the saints.