The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic podcast episode. To listen to the episode, click here.
Today is episode 102: Who is Mary?
Hi friends. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start off today’s episode with a question. If I were to ask you to give me one word to describe Mary, what would that word be? I’ll give you a minute.
Now, I ask this question on the heels of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which we had this past week, the day in which we celebrate the sinless life and immaculate conception of Mary herself who the Church teaches was born without the stain of original sin. Now, I love Mary. Like, I really love her. I talk to Mary all the time. I believe she is the Mother of God, and I honor her as Queen. She has shown up as a mother to me and to my dear ones in ways I could talk about for days, but in recent years, I have wondered about how the Church presents Mary, but before I talk about all of that, I’d love to know about the word that you chose. What word do you think best describes Mary?
Well, if you responded something like ‘immaculate’, ‘virgin’, or ‘pure’, well, that would be no surprise. If you were born and raised Catholic, then your views on Mary have been cultivated in a Church which has emphasized that singular aspect of Mary above all others. That theme is prevalent in the readings that are chosen, in the homilies that are preached, and in the art and music that portray her, all while diminishing the many other aspects of this woman who the Church calls the patron of all humanity and the greatest saint we have ever known. As a music minister myself, I sometimes find it difficult to choose music for her feast days that don’t present Mary in a kind of childish light – immaculate and pure and quiet and peaceful and gentle and so very safe up there on that statue. Was Mary a ‘peaceful dove’? I’m not so sure. If you read the scriptures, you’ll find that those words don’t come close to describing the fullness of Mary, who in life was actually incredibly strong and even revolutionary, and in the centuries since has been actively and powerfully gathering and helping her children and pointing them to God. And if you know her, you know Mary just does not quit – in reality, she is much more passionate and determined than ‘meek and mild’. So why is our image of the Blessed Mother so often so very two-dimensional and even passive?
The ways in which we characterize Mary come from a long history of Church traditions that, like many Church teachings, have shifted and evolved over time. For centuries, the day we now think of as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception actually focused more on Mary’s birth than on her conception, and that day gave a place of high honor to Anne, Mary’s Mom, as ‘ancestress of God’. The idea that Mary was conceived without sin was not defined in dogma until many centuries after she lived, really not until 1854. To this day, the majority of Orthodox Christians and Protestants still don’t hold to that particular belief, though many honor Mary in all the ways that Roman Catholics do.
So, you might ask, why does it even matter how we, as individuals or as a Church, describe Mary? Good question.
We look to and honor the saints because they can help us. They inspire us and they teach us how to live in this world. When we sanitize the real lives of the saints who were actually complex and varied real human beings, it can make them inaccessible to us, and unrealistic models for living. Saints who live solely up on literal pedestals are not very much help to us down here, and that is just not how the Communion of Saints is supposed to operate. One of the most beautiful teachings of the Catholic Church is that we are all in this together, on both sides of the veil.
I saw an interesting post on social media this week from a pregnant woman who attended mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. She wondered what the repeated forceful characterization of Mary – in the prayers and the music and the homily as ‘undefiled’ meant for her, as a faithful Catholic woman, born with original sin, who got pregnant the way most women do. Was she ‘defiled’? What does the Church’s emphasis on Mary as ‘virgin mother’ communicate to the millions of women who will never be that? In a church which struggles with the role of women, just who does it serve to keep up the image of Mary as quiet and passive when she was likely neither of those things?
So, after all this, I wonder, what element of Mary do you admire or look to the most? How would you describe her? Was she an ignorant teenager who just went along or was her ‘yes’ a conscious, brave choice that she continued to make for the rest of her life at great cost? Was Mary a leader? A queen? A mother? A revolutionary?
And just how would Mary herself want to be described, do you think? Well, she tells us exactly that in her Magnificat, a prayer which was so considered to be so revolutionary that it was banned from being sung or read by certain governments in countries like India, Guatemala, and Argentina because it gave the poor too much hope that God would come to their aid and overthrow the existing order.
In her Magnificat, Mary says,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Well, Mary knows that she, a teenage girl, was at a pivot point in history and that from then on, all generations would call her blessed. She saw herself as a mirror, or a magnifier of God, and she praises the ways in which He is faithful to her and to Israel and to all of His children. Mary’s life shows us what can happen when we assent to God’s plans for us, even when those plans are so very different from our own. In saying “thy will be done” to God’s startling proposition at age fourteen or so, and then continuing to say yes through days and years of raising the very Son of God, of seeing Him become a teacher and healer, of watching Him die and rise, and all along becoming a mother to us all, Mary continually points to her Son and to the greatness of God living in her and in each one of us. And I don’t know, friend, this just doesn’t’ seem like a very ‘meek and mild’ life to me.
So, I wonder, who is Mary to you?
Advent is a great time to invite Mary down off the statue and get to know her, and she wants us to, because Mary is our Mom who wants our good and who is always, always pointing us to Jesus. Even though she’s the greatest saint who ever lived, each of us can look to Mary as a model. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look a brief look at her life here together.
Mary said a radical ‘yes’ to God, she made a joyful home within her for God to grow. She lived in communion with Him every day of her life through highs and lows, and she was obedient to live a life much bigger than the one she thought she’d live. Mary saw miracles and she was transformed by her relationship to Jesus. And friend, in all of those ways, we can do the very same as Mary. One thing I’ve known in my own life to be true: Mary the Magnifier will show us how.
Well thanks so much for listening today, friend. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. Thanks so much for rating, reviewing, subscribing and most importantly, sharing this podcast with a friend. That really makes a difference in growing our community, so thanks. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with some resources related to today’s episode, so do check all of that out, but before we go, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.
Well, thanks so much for listening today, friend. I’ll see you next time.
This week, we take a look at how we view and describe Mary, both as individuals and as Church, and how these descriptors can help or hinder our relationship with her who is our Mother and who always points us to Jesus.
If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram or on my blog. If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s now a way to do just that, and thank you – visit me on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks as always for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow!
Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:
1. Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God, by Ginny Kubitz Moyer
3. Song: Mary, by Patty Griffin
4. Article: The Subversive Magnificat: What Mary Expected the Messiah To Be, by Jason Porterfield
5. Song: Ave Maria, Franz Biebl, performed by Chanticleer
7. Rosary: Recorded Rosaries from Fr. Frank McFarland at Boston Catholic Television
8. Video: A Primer on Mary from Fr. James Martin
9. Journal Prompts: What has been my experience with Mary so far? What words would I use to describe Mary today? If I could speak to Mary as a mother, what would I say?
11. The story of Pope Francis’ devotion to Mary under the title ‘Undoer of Knots’