Why Pray to Mary?
He also relates that Jim & Tony, two of the seminarians from UST that I studied with in Rome, have returned to the Eternal City to begin studies at the North American College and the Gregorian! And, Sierra, another fellow classmate, is also returning to Rome this week to live in Rome for a few years. Ooooooooo, those lucky people, God bless them all and pray God that I might get to rejoin them myself in the not-to-distant future!
A. M. D. G.
WHY PRAY TO MARY?
Why pray to Mary? The question strikes the Catholic as strange simply because the answer seems so obvious. Praying to Mary is just what Catholics do. We invoke our Mother’s intercession with her Son Jesus. But when asked directly, we find that words often fail us in our attempts to express the reasons so well known in our heart.
Our Lady’s intercession has characterized Christian prayer since the Church began. On the day of Pentecost, the Mother of Jesus and his disciples were all gathered together in prayer in the upper room. The prayer of the Immaculate Virgin Mother accompanied the Spirit’s outpouring upon the nascent Church (cf. Acts 1:14, 2:1.4). The Church’s foundational experience at Pentecost remains perennially valid in the mystery of the Spirit’s continual outpouring upon the Christian faithful. The prayer of Mary, the Mother of the Church, continues to accompany the outpouring of the Spirit in all who believe in Jesus her Son. On this account, all Christian prayer has an inherent Marian dimension whether it be explicitly acknowledged or not. Perhaps, then, instead of asking why pray to Mary, we should inquire why does Mary play an essential role in Christian prayer.
We will find an answer in the Johannine account of the wedding feast at Cana. The second chapter of Saint John’s Gospel provides the primary scriptural witness to Mary’s maternal intercession. The Mother of Jesus, Jesus and his disciples were invited to a marriage at Cana in Galilee. Ever attentive to the needs of others, Mary notices that the wine supply has unexpectedly run short. Without hesitation, she notifies her Son: “They have no wine.” In other words, our friends are in need. The Mother, confident of her Son’s unfailing love for others, intercedes with him on their behalf. Jesus’ immediate response strikes us at first as unduly harsh. “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). Undeterred by Jesus’ apparent refusal, Mary instructs the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Jesus immediately acquiesces, commanding the servants to fill the six stone water jars standing nearby. He changes ordinary water into the finest wine. Only the servants are aware of how Mary’s intercession and Jesus’ miraculous intervention not only averted a potential crisis but actually increased the wedding party’s joy.
Jesus’ actions suggest that his verbal exchange with his Mother is not the harsh rebuke that it initially seems to be. Let us consider his words in greater detail. The manner in which he addresses his Mother is highly significant. He calls her ‘woman’. Within the context of Scripture, the term has a depth of meaning not immediately obvious in contemporary discourse. The original Woman of Scripture is Eve. She is formed from the side of Adam in order to be “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). This verse in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament which the ancient Christian community read—reads in English translation: “an assistant like unto him.” God perfects the created order by fashioning Eve as an assistant who resembles Adam. She is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and on this account she is called Woman because she was taken from Man (Genesis 2:23). In addressing his Mother as ‘woman’, Jesus identifies her with the Woman of Scripture.
Mary is the New Eve. Her virginal obedience to God’s word delivered through the message of an angel rectifies Eve’s virginal disobedience provoked by the seductive deceptions of the serpentine devil. Already in the second century, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons attributed to Mary the title and role of New Eve in conjunction with the Pauline designation of Christ as the New Adam. This early patristic vision of Mary sheds a particularly helpful light on Jesus’ question to his Mother at Cana. The Greek of Saint John’s text reads literally in English: what is there to me and (at the same time) to you, i.e., what have we in common? In posing this rhetorical question to the New Eve, the New Adam by no means intends to dismiss his Mother. On the contrary, he rhetorically highlights their common cause in the mission of salvation. As we read in Genesis, God created Eve to be a helper resembling Adam. Theirs is a relationship of intimate collaboration. Likewise, the New Eve immaculately conceived uniquely resembles her Son who has, in fact, taken his sinless flesh from hers. Mary has been created, preserved from Original Sin and thus redeemed in anticipation by her Son’s death and Resurrection in order to be a fitting helper for him. She uniquely shares in his mission while any mission of her own has no meaning distinct from his. At the Annunciation, Mary’s acceptance of her divine vocation to be the Mother of God inaugurates the Word’s salvific mission in the world. At Mary’s yes, the Word became flesh. According to Saint Irenaeus, the New Eve is, on this account, causa salutis—the cause of salvation for the entire human race (Adversus Haereses 3.22.4). For, she brings forth our Savior. In this manner, Mary is the Mediatrix of all grace inasmuch as she maternally mediates to us the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
In the dramatic exchange at Cana, Jesus follows his rhetorical question so rich in meaning with a declarative statement. He indicates that his hour has not yet come. At first glance, it seems again as if Jesus still intends to rebuke his Mother. Apparently, she has a poor sense of timing. Mary’s intercession is embarrassingly premature. She inappropriately anticipates her Son’s hour. Yet despite his words, Jesus’ actions do not suggest that he begrudgingly concedes to his Mother’s request. Rather, once his Mother has instructed the servants to follow his commands, he responds immediately. Mary rightly anticipates Our Lord’s hour, for it is she who inaugurated it at Nazareth. According to an ancient tradition originating in the third century, Jesus died on 25 March—that is, he died on the anniversary of his conception. The hour of the Incarnation providentially coincides some thirty years later with Christ’s hour on Calvary—the hour of Divine Mercy. In terms of the Redemption, the hour at Nazareth and the hour on Calvary are effectively one and the same. Here it will be helpful to recall the Greek patristic tradition. By no means negating the Cross’ redemptive value, the Greek Fathers, nonetheless, place particular emphasis upon the redemptive nature of the Incarnation itself. Humanity is redeemed in the sinless human nature which the Divine Word assumes at the moment of his conception in Mary’s virginal womb. Mary’s yes—her fiat—marks the hour of our Redemption. From the beginning of the Christian dispensation, then, Mary’s divinely ordained mission is to ‘anticipate’ her Son’s hour. She does nothing less at Cana when she addresses her Son. Hardly forcing his hand, the Woman of Scripture graciously fulfils her mission as “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20).
Let us turn now to the hour of Divine Mercy itself, the hour of Redemption on Calvary hill, Jesus’ hour when he again addresses his Mother as ‘woman’. The Cross marks the absolute center of the fullness of time when “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). During this sacred hour, Jesus reveals the fullness of Mary’s mission—simultaneously confirming the exercise of her maternal intercession at Cana. From the Cross Jesus exhorts his Mother Mary beside whom the Beloved Disciple stands: “Woman, behold, your son!” (John 19:26). His commission reveals Mary’s universal motherhood. The New Eve fulfils what the first Eve had only prefigured. She is truly “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). To confirm this fact, the Crucified Christ says to the Beloved Disciple: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27). In remaining anonymous throughout the Fourth Gospel, the Beloved Disciple, traditionally understood to be the Apostle John, legitimately stands as a figure for Christian discipleship. Christ exhorts all the Christian faithful in him to behold their Mother. We welcome our Mother at the moment of our divine adoption wrought by Christ upon the Cross. Not only, then, does Mary’s maternal mission rightly anticipate Jesus’ hour, it also finds its fulfilment within it.
After Jesus has miraculously changed water into wine, the Evangelist concludes the Cana account: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Note the Evangelist’s words: Jesus manifested his glory. The same Greek term for glory appears in 1 Timothy 3:16 in reference to Christ having been “taken up into glory”. Such glory refers to the revealed presence of God. It is not insignificant, then, that Mary calls forth the sign which reveals Christ’s glory. For, her auxiliary mission is forever to make Christ known. An episode in the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola illustrates well Mary’s intercessory role in this regard. When God the Father placed Saint Ignatius with Christ at the small chapel of La Storta outside of Rome, our Father Ignatius understood the extraordinary grace to have been the answer to his prayer beseeching Our Lady to place him with her Son. Mary was God’s hidden agent in this divine revelation. Even Mary’s title ‘Mother of God’ defined at the Council of Ephesus points the way to Christ. It ultimately says more about Jesus than about Mary. It assures the unity of God and man in his one Person. As John Henry Newman astutely observed, those Christians who faithfully venerate the Mother of God are those who have never ceased to profess the divinity of her Son. Sound Mariology undergirds orthodox Christology. In its own way, Cana reveals as much.
As we conclude these scriptural reflections, one final observation is most definitely in order. We noted above that only the servants recognized both Mary’s intercession and Jesus’ miracle. Indeed, this is only fitting. For, God chooses to reveal to the humble, the poor and the lowly what he otherwise keeps hidden from the learned, the cleaver and the worldly wise. As Jesus prays in the Synoptic Gospels: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will” (Matthew 11:25-26; see also Luke 10:21). The humble faithful understand best of all Mary’s essential role in Christian prayer. If, therefore, one truly wants to know why we pray to Mary, he would do well to ask the elderly widow who kneeling in the back of church quietly prays her rosary. It is to such as these that God fully reveals the divinely ordained, intercessory mission of the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).
P. Joseph Carola, S.J.