In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Mary the Mother of Jesus has a place of prominence among the saints. Throughout the liturgical year of the Western Church, we celebrate her conception, birth, presentation, annunciation, visitation, motherhood, sorrow, immaculate heart, assumption into and queenship in heaven, and her intercessory power through the rosary; we commemorate her many apparitions throughout history in Lourdes, Fatima, Mount Carmel, and Guadalupe. In all, there are more than 17 feasts and memorials, two months of popular devotions, and countless prayers and novenas devoted to Mary throughout the year.
That’s a lot of face time.
For many Protestants, and even a few Catholics like myself, this can be the source of a bit of heartburn. With the amount of time we devote to her and the elaborate statements we say about her, Mary the “Mother of all” becomes less like us—someone who shared in our experience and so offers us a path to follow—and more for us—a being of heavenly origin with special power and authority to act on our behalf. The existence of the “Co-Redemptrix” movement (the controversial, yet unofficial, idea that Mary was essential to the salvific actions of Jesus), the title of Queen (the complimentary title to that of King, the position held by God), and the replacement of female deities in native religions with the image of Mary, only heightens the concern. As a result, many like myself revere Mary and acknowledge her significance, but do not really have the “high mariology” that is so popular in our Church.
For me the issue comes down to something very simple: I already have a mother. I’m glad that Jesus had a mother, and I think anyone who gave birth and raised our Lord and Savior is worthy of respect, but I don’t need her to be everyone’s mother. I need her to be Jesus’ mother.
Which is why, I think, my devotion to Mary has grown of the past few years in the season of Advent. Before Mary was seen as the mother of all, before the countless devotions of Mary spread throughout the world, before she was crowned the Queen of heaven, before statues, shrines, effigies, and paintings were constructed in her honor, even before she gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God, Mary was a little girl with a call:
The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
There she was, a little girl from a small, insignificant town—a nobody—and through an angel, God was asking her to take part in something beyond her ability or comprehension. “How can this be?”
Like any of us in that situation, Mary was unsure. Like any of us, Mary was afraid. Like any of us, Mary sought wisdom and refuge with family and friends. In remembering her annunciation and visitation, Mary is not the exalted Mother from on high that we so often celebrate today, she was simply a faithful member of a community trying to find her way through the normal difficulties of life. At least in the way she understood herself at the time, she was just someone like everyone else, faced with a big task.
Thus, it is in this season of Advent as we await the coming of our Lord, that a different title for Mary comes alive for me: sister. In these four weeks, Mary is not a queen on her throne to be revered and looked up to, she is a peer to be walked with and inspired by, an equal with gifts and flaws and idiosyncrasies. While the image of “mother” is usually one of reverence or submission, the image of “sister” is a bit more relatable: friendship, rivalry, maybe even conflict. We are reminded in this that her experience is so very much like our own, that what she did in the most significant and literal of way—carrying and making God present in history—we are also supposed to do in our own lives. We are reminded that saying yes to God is not always an easy or safe task, but it can be done. It should be done.
Mary, our sister, shows us so.
That is the Mary that I remember in Advent. That is the Mary that I have a great devotion to. Maybe, like me, the amount of attention the Church gives to her and the elaborate statements it says about her make you feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. Praying the rosary and having a regular devotion to the “Blessed Mother” are great acts of piety, for sure, but they’re not things for everyone’s spirituality. But just because you don’t have that spirituality or are called to those devotions doesn’t mean that Mary can’t be important to you.
We may not need another mother, but we can always use another sister, friend, or inspiration to help us get to who really matters: her son. I can’t think of a better person to have in our lives in Advent.