“I’m not sure how devoted I’ve been to Mary. But I know she has been very devoted to me.” That’s how a friend once described his relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. And his words capture an experience to which I can very much relate.
I grew up surrounded by Marian devotion in my home. Rosary beads by my mother’s chair. Pictures of Our Lady and the holy child in my room. Hail Mary prayers at my bedside at night. Most of all, I will never forget those quick visits to a Polish Carmelite monastery just three blocks from my home in a town outside of Chicago. Almost every day my mother would stop by that monastery on our way back from school and take my siblings and me into a small, dark chapel with nothing to illuminate it but the dim refracted, colored light from the stained-glass windows and the rows of flickering red candles in front of the altars. For a child, walking into this mysterious chapel was like stepping into another world—into the realm of the sacred.
Our brief visits always culminated with the lighting of devotional candles and a prayer in front of a very large painting of Mary crowned in royal splendor with twelve stars on her head. Each child would have a candle lit for their intentions, and we would kneel down before this picture of Mary as my mother offered very personal, heartfelt prayers to the Lord. God was real. Prayer was real. And I knew Mary was an important person very close to God, and somehow (though I could not have explained it at the time) a profound part of my experience in prayer. I would not want to give the impression that I had a particularly strong Marian devotion as I grew up and entered junior high and high school. But I did say my prayers, and thought of Mary from time to time, especially in moments when I was troubled. I suppose my relationship with Mary back then was similar to how many adult children relate to their own mothers: I love my mom. I sometimes take her for granted. I sometimes forget to call. But I know she’s always there for me. This youthful affection for Mary was severely shaken one night shortly after I went away to college.
On my dormitory floor at Indiana University, I met a joyful, outgoing Christian student named Rod. He called himself a “Bible Christian”—a term I had never encountered in my Chicago-area Catholic upbringing. But I figured that since I was Catholic and I also believed in the Bible, he and I would get along together quite well. One night in the middle of the fall semester, however, I found out it would not be so easy. Rod came knocking on my door. He had a Bible in hand and a serious look on his face.“Ted, can we talk?”“Yes,” I replied. “What’s wrong?”“Well, I’m worried about you.”“Why?”“Because you’re Catholic.”“Why are you worried about that?”“Because if you’re Catholic, I’m worried you’ll go to hell.”I was utterly shocked. When I asked him why he thought my Catholicism would lead to my damnation, he said that Catholics believe so many things that go against the Scriptures. He proceeded to drill me with numerous pointed questions about Catholic beliefs and the Bible.“Why do you Catholics confess your sins to a priest? Don’t you know the Bible says only God can forgive our sins?”“Why do you believe in purgatory? The word purgatory isn’t even in the Bible!”“Why do you believe in the pope? And why do you Catholics have all these man-made traditions? Don’t you know that only the Bible is inspired by God?”And then the questions about Mary came up.“And why do you Catholics worship Mary? The Bible teaches that we’re only supposed to worship God!”“And why do Catholics pray to Mary? Don’t you know we’re only supposed to pray to God? All this worship of Mary is idolatry!”
I had no idea how to answer all these objections. At two a.m., after several hours of what felt like intense interrogation, my head was spinning. I went to bed confused and discouraged—and filled with many questions: What does the Catholic Church really teach about these things? And is it really true? Thankfully,some good books and some good Catholic friends showed me how the Church had been thinking about these issues for centuries, long before Rod came knocking on my door. I started studying the Bible more. And I began reading the writings of the early Christians and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
When it came to the subject of Mary, the more I studied, the more I realized how much the Scriptures actually support Catholic Marian doctrine. I also began to realize how many misconceptions there are about what Catholics believe about Mary. I came to see more clearly, for example, that Catholics don’t worship Mary as we do the Holy Trinity, but we honor her, recognizing the great things God has accomplished in her life. And I came to appreciate how Catholics don’t “pray to” Mary like they pray to God, but we ask her to intercede for us, just as Saint Paul exhorts all Christians to intercede for each other.
I am very thankful for Rod’s difficult visit to my dorm room that evening long ago in Indiana, because it set me off on a quest to know and understand the Catholic faith of my childhood better, and it sparked a desire in me to pass it on to others. And that desire ultimately led me to pursue a doctorate in theology. As I look back now, I sense that Mary has, at least in some small but significant ways, been with me throughout this journey. I never set out to become a professor who would teach Mariology classes. But in my graduate studies I found myself developing a number of research papers on Mary and the Bible, and eventually I wrote a doctoral dissertation on this topic and have continued to publish articles and books expounding on the Marian texts in the Bible. Over time, biblical passages about Mary and their implications for Marian doctrine and devotion became one of the main topics for my study, prayer, and teaching.But along the way I also have found myself drawn to learning more from Scripture about the person of Mary herself—the young woman of Nazareth who dwelt in Galilee some two thousand years ago and was called by God to a most extraordinary vocation. What would it have been like to have been Mary? What would the angel’s message have meant to her? What might she have been going through during those early years of Jesus’s childhood—experiencing the humble, poor conditions surrounding her son’s birth, hearing Simeon’s prophecy about a sword piercing her soul, and later on losing her child for three days and then finding him in the Temple? And what was God asking of Mary at those pivotal moments in Jesus’s adult life—at his first miracle at Cana and at his death on the cross? Admittedly, the Bible does not offer a lot of detail about Mary’s experience, but the sacred texts do provide some insights that can serve as windows, however small they might be, into Mary’s soul and the particular spiritual path upon which the Lord was leading her.
In pondering Mary’s journey of faith more, I have found new inspiration and encouragement for my own walk with the Lord and a desire to imitate her more in my life. That’s why, even after many years of writing and teaching on Mary, in a sense I honestly feel I am only beginning to know her.
This book is the fruit of my personal journey of studying Mary through the Scriptures, from her initial calling in Nazareth to her painful experience at the cross. It is intended to be a highly readable, accessible work that draws on wisdom from the Catholic tradition, recent popes, and biblical scholars of a variety of perspectives and traditions. With the riches of these insights, we will ponder what her journey of faith may havebeen like in order to draw out spiritual lessons for our own walk with God. While there are many heroes and saints in the Bible who have qualities we can imitate, we will see that Mary stands out in Scripture as the first to say yes in the new covenant era and as a premier model of faith for us to follow. It is my hope, therefore, that whether you are of a Catholic, Protestant, or other faith background, this book may help you to know, understand, and love Mary more, and that it may inspire you to walk in her footsteps as a faithful disciple of the Lord in your own pilgrimage of faith.
Chapter One, Mary Walking with God
I knew what my eleven-month- old daughter was thinking. Josephine stood by a chair holding herself up, contemplating her first step, but not sure she wanted to let go. I was kneeling down only about five feet away with my arms open wide, ready to catch her if she fell. With a big smile on my face, I cheered her on. “Come on, Josephine! You can do it! Let go and come to Daddy!” She smiled back, and I could tell she was ready to make the move. She let go, abandoning the security of the chair, and stood all on her own for the first time. Would she now take that risky first step?
“Come to Daddy, Josephine! You can do it!”
Suddenly her knees started to quiver. Her legs began to shake, and the look on her face changed from excitement tohorror. In a panic she desperately reached back for the chair and caught her balance just in time. She clung on for dear life, wearing a sad look of fear as if to say, “No Dad. I don’t think I want to try this.”
But I egged her on and encouraged her to give it another shot. She eventually let go of the chair again, but this time, when her legs began to tremble, instead of going back to the chair she came wobbling toward me. She fell five steps forward and landed in my arms—her first steps! She laughed and crawled back to the chair to try it again. Seven steps on her second attempt. Back to the chair. We played this game for a long time that afternoon and she grew in confidence with each new step. Gradually she began walking for greater and greater distances, and within a few weeks crawling was just not as interesting. Walking became Josephine’s primary mode of transportation.
Our Walk with God
We all have experienced moments in life when we have had to take a step toward something unknown. It could be moving to a new city, going through a job restructuring, or starting a new relationship. Walking into uncharted territory often comes with a bit of fear and trembling.
Similarly, although walking with God in faith can be a thrilling adventure, it also has some unsettling elements. If we truly allow him to guide our lives, we will be challenged to step out into the unknown, give up control, and rely more completely on him. And that is not something we easily do. But it may be comforting to know that while our Heavenly Father invites his people to follow him with ever greater levels of trust and surrender, he calls them to take only one step at a time.
We see this in biblical heroes like Abraham. God promised him many blessings and descendants, but Abraham first had to leave his home and move to a distant land, trusting that God would bless him there. Similarly, Moses had to take those first steps out of Egypt into a barren desert, unsure of what trials he would face as he led the Israelites toward the Promised Land.
We see this also in the saints throughout the Christian era. These holy men and women did not become saintly figures overnight. They all had to learn to walk with the Lord one step at a time. And at each step they were confronted with new opportunities to grow in love and service. Saint Anthony of the Desert was drawn to sell all his possessions and give his money to the poor. Saint Augustine was called to give up a quiet life of prayer and study to serve as a busy bishop administering church affairs and attending to his people’s daily needs. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was inspired to seek out the people who hurt her and frustrated her the most and show them small acts of kindness. Some of the saints were drawn to give up something they liked, move to a new place, or let go of something comfortable and familiar. God called Saint Francis Xavier, for example, to leave Europe and bring the Gospel to the Far East. He prompted the extroverted Saint Teresa of Avila to give up extra socializing in order to cultivate a deeper interior silence and union with him. At still other times, God drew the saints closer to him through intense trials and darkness, persecutions and misunderstandings. Saint John of the Cross was mistreated and imprisoned in a dark, cramped dungeon for nine months by his fellow Carmelites. But it was precisely through his being deprived of all worldly security and comfort that he gained a deeper mystical understanding of the spiritual life and experienced a profound encounter, in the very core of his being, with a God who lovingly pours himself out to fill our emptiness and gives inner strength to souls amid the darkness. Mother Teresa faced decades of painful spiritual darkness in which she did not sense God’s closeness in her life, but eventually came to see that her feeling unwanted and forsaken allowed her to identify herself more with the loneliness and isolation of the poor and with Jesus himself who experienced suffering and rejection on Good Friday. Like a child learning to let go of the chair and walk, the saints gradually—through many ordeals—learned to abandon themselves ever more completely to God and walk in his ways.
The same is true for the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Christians may know Mary was an important woman in God’s plan of salvation. After all, she was chosen to be the Mother of God’s Son! And Catholics, in particular, have a special affection for Mary. They sing hymns dedicated to her, recite various Marian prayers, and celebrate special feast days in honor of Mary. Catholic churches are decorated with statues, pictures, icons, and stained-glass windows depicting her splendor. And Catholic theology teaches that she is the Immaculate Conception, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, and the Queen of Heaven and Earth.
We may know the Mary of sacred music, sacred art, and sacred theology—all of which beautifully express important aspects about the mystery of the mother of God—but how well do we know the humanness of Mary? How familiar are we with Mary’s pilgrimage of faith and the important steps the Lord invited her to take throughout her life? Mary was endowed with unique graces and privileges in Christ’s kingdom, but she was still a woman who had her own faith journey to make—and one that we can relate to in many ways. She experienced the joys of parenthood and the blessings of following God’s plan. But she also experienced the devastation of watching her son be misunderstood, rejected, and killed on the cross. Sometimes she was treated with dignity and honor. Other times she was humbled and oppressed. On some occasions God made his will clear for her, and she wholeheartedly committed herself to what the Lord was asking in that moment. But there were other times when it was not so apparent what the Lord was doing in her life and what she was supposed to do next.
When Mary was confronted with God’s call at pivotal moments in her life, she chose to remain open to the Lord’s plan for her every step of the way, even though what lay ahead for her was not always clear. Not everything was revealed to her all at once. There were moments when Mary did not understand what was happening and moments when she was not in control—moments when all she could do was prayerfully keep all these things and ponder them in her heart, awaiting God’s fuller revelation to her (Luke 2:19, 51). Like all followers of Christ, Mary had to walk by faith, and not by sight.
A Continuous Fiat
New Testament scholar Francis Moloney emphasizes that Mary’s faith was not completed at the Annunciation with her “fiat”—her “yes” to God’s call for her to become the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:38). Moloney explains that Mary’s assent had to be repeated over and over again as she watched her son grow from a child into a man: Mary’s Fiat did not lift her out of the necessary puzzlement, anxiety and pain which often arises [sic] from the radical nature of the Christian vocation. Despite her remarkable initiation into the Christian mystery, she still had to proceed through the rest of her life, “treasuring in her heart” the mysteries revealed to her, never fully understanding, but patiently waiting for God’s time and God’s ultimate answer.
Blessed John Paul II sees Mary’s “fiat” at the Annunciation as just the beginning of a profound spiritual trek. He describes it as “the point of departure from which her whole ‘journey towards God’ begins, her whole pilgrimage of faith.” Mary will be required to exhibit total trust in God, which means “to abandon oneself” to the living God and the mystery of his will. Indeed, Mary’s faith will be tested over and over again. And each time she will pass the test, “accepting fully and with a ready heart everything that is decreed in the divine plan.”
In this book we will walk with Mary on her journey of faith from the Annunciation to the cross to her sharing in Christ’s heavenly reign. The Scriptures will be our guide and our primary point of departure. We will focus on nine pivotal moments in her walk with the Lord—nine steps in the journey of faith that God invites her to take as seen in the Scriptures. The nine steps I map out in this book are meant to be an instructive device to help take in many of the key moments in Mary’s pilgrimage of faith. For simplicity, I focus on the Gospels of Luke and John—the two New Testament books in which Mary’s role in the narrative stands out the most, and the Gospels that provide the most information about her.
But before we begin walking with Mary, let’s put ourselves in her shoes at the start of her pilgrimage of faith and consider what her life was like as a young woman, betrothed to Joseph, in the small village of Nazareth.