Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Big Question (On Catholics & Mary)

There weren't a lot of questions left. I'd watched Catholics and Catholicism closely for going on four years, and it hadn't yet collapsed under my interrogations. I guess I expected a letter of resignation from Pope John Paul II (or at least the local bishop) with a personal post script of gratitude to Charlene Gibbs of Carrollton, Texas, for alerting the Catholic Church to its ancient irrelevance.

 
Surprisingly, my inquisition into their repetitive liturgy, bounteous rituals, and eerily quiet chapels didn't suck my Catholic friends out of their Church; yet somehow, even as an outsider, I could see my own life developing a calmer, slower, simpler cadence under the influence of this historic monolith, and the 21st Century cultural irrelevance of Catholicism became my path back to the faith of the early Church.

My scattered and anxious mind found rest in the echoing chapel of a local Catholic parish. (They're usually open to anyone all day, with many open 24 hours a day. At any rate, no one came in and asked the Baptist girl to vacate her pew until she could get the holy water ritual right.*) Overwhelmed by the onslaught of an unrelenting world, my soul slowly absorbed the scripture of the Church's liturgy, and my prayers mingled with the same prayers of Christians over centuries of faith. ...Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy... ...Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us... ...Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed... ...O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner...


Then it came down to the last couple of questions. Mary? I could take her or leave her. Yeah, it was great that as a pre-teen she took on the most miraculous, unprecedented event of all human history to that point by agreeing to be the mother of God in the flesh, gave birth -- without health insurance or a doctor on call -- in impoverished conditions (something akin to using the dog's dish in lieu of a crib), and then willingly suffered the heart-wrenching tragedy of a mother who not only loses her son to torture and death, but is present with him, watching the entire time. But weren't Catholics going a little overboard? My God, they pray to her!

 
At this point, I fully embraced the Communion of Saints. This was one of my newly-discovered links to the early church; I was no longer distanced from the saints of the New Testament by empty centuries of an untraceable, underground Christianity. I had found a community of people whose passionate faith changed their world for the better -- not just a group of holy people working together in the circus of this century and my life time, but all of God's people, bound together through all centuries, each one a part of the body of Christ. I suddenly had Saint Francis of Assisi as my brother in the faith who knew a world full of distractions and abundant wealth and chose the simpler life, Saint Thomas Aquinas who dedicated his genius to a lifetime of study and research, and even the legendary Saint Joan of Arc became my own sister in her example of following the voice of God, which led to heroically saving her country, and in the same year, being betrayed and killed.




Joseph checking out St. Francis' deer: "I like this dog."

I believed the verse in Revelation, which is St. John's vision of the afterlife, that depicts the saints in heaven offering the prayers of those on earth to God, as golden bowls of incense (chapter 5, verse 8, for anyone with a Bible on hand). Scripture shows that God is pleased by our prayers of intercession for one another (1 Timothy 2:5, for one), and that interactions with God's prophets is far different than the forbidden practices of seances or conjuring up spirits (i.e. Jesus met with Elijah and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration, and they were loooong since "dead"). And besides, praying to the saints isn't praying to dead people, because to be a saint is to be alive in Christ! (Colossians 2:13)


Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah during his Transfiguration
What about prayer in and of itself being a form of worship, and worship being reserved only for God? No worries, it's not. (See here for a linguistic history of the word worship, including some super interesting Greek and Latin subplots, though not interesting enough to include here.)

I shared with my mentor at the time that I wasn't sure how Mary fit into the picture. I mean, historically, yes, obviously, she's the physical mother of Jesus. But what about now? Is Jesus going to be offended if I ask his mom to pray for me? My mentor gave me the most wonderful perspective. "Don't be afraid of Mary," she said. "Mary will always, always lead you to her Son, Jesus."

It's true. Everything about Mary points to Jesus. The woman in Revelation (chapter 12) is clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars on her head (ever seen a picture or heard the amazing story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe?), and while being pursued by the serpent, she gave birth to a male son who will rule all the nations. Even as we read through the scriptural typology of the Ark of the Covenant, Mary, and the Church, all things point to the salvation and new creation brought by Christ.

For Juan Diego and the Aztecs, everything about this image would point to Christ: her hands folded in reverent prayer to the Almighty God. She appeared on the day of the winter solstice, and her mantle accurately represents the 1531 winter solstice. She wears a black maternity band, signifying she was with child. At the center of the picture, overlying her womb, is a jasmine flower in the shape of an Indian cross, which to Aztecs, was a sign of the Divine and the center of the cosmic order. This symbol indicated that the baby Mary carried within her is Divine and the new center of the universe. On the brooch around her neck was a black Christian cross, indicating she is both a bearer and follower of Christ, the Son of God, our Savior. With this apparition, 14,000 Aztecs converted to Christianity in 5 days. The fabric of a tilma usually lasts 20 years, but this image remains in tact after 480 years!

Wally and I selected the account of Jesus' first miracle,
where Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding in Cana, to be read as the Gospel scripture at our wedding. There's the immediate similarity that Jesus chose a wedding at which to begin his public ministry, and we, of course, wanted Jesus to be present with us at our wedding too. But it's worth noting, who brings the new couple's problem to Jesus' attention? Mary. She lets Jesus know about the situation, and then she directs those who came to petition her: "Do whatever he tells you."

Don't be afraid of Mary. She will always, always lead you to her Son, Jesus.


*Holy Water Ritual: making the sign of the cross with holy water upon entering the sanctuary, as a reminder of one's baptism; just as water cleans the body, so the soul is made clean by Christ.

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