It wasn’t till I got home after my first Mass that something very strange occurred to me: I hadn’t heard a word about Mary in the Mass. Wait a minute…. I thought Catholics were all about Mary! I thought one of our main Protestant objections to the Mass was that Catholics worshipped Mary! If that was the case, why hadn’t I heard anything about her that morning at Mass?
It turned out that I actually had heard a few words about Mary in the Mass that morning, but they were so few and so low-key that I, expecting to be slapped in the face with the wet mackerel of Mary-worship, hadn’t noticed them. The Mass I attended had actually mentioned her twice, first in the Creed:
For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit
He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
As you can see, this profession of faith is one that Protestants make all the time. Conservative Protestants are staunch defenders of the Virgin Birth of Christ. This mention of the Virgin really isn’t so much about her as it is about Him. That’s why I didn’t even notice that we’d mentioned Mary in the Mass.
The second time Mary came up was in the Eucharistic Prayer:
May He make us an everlasting gift to You, and enable us to share in the inheritance of Your saints, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with the apostles, the martyrs, and all Your saints on whose constant intercession we rely for help.
Now that would have gotten the attention of most Protestants; after all, we’re not just talking about Christ born of the Virgin – we’re calling the Virgin Mother of God. That’s like waving a red Marian handkerchief in front of an already irritable Protestant bull.
Many Protestants experience misplaced outrage when they hear Mary referred to as the “Mother of God,” due to a misunderstanding of what is meant by the phrase. No one is claiming that Mary is divine, and no one is saying that she somehow predates God the way our human mothers predate us. “Theotokos” (“the one who gives birth to the One Who is God”) was a theological term applied to Mary in the fifth century to defend not her, but Jesus from the implications of heretical doctrine. Catholics insisted and continue to insist that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, both divine and human, while heretics were asserting various doctrinal aberrations – Nestorian heretics, for example, believed that Jesus’ divinity and humanity were two separate issues, dividing Jesus into two distinct persons, God and man. Catholics were struggling to proclaim Christ’s full humanity and full divinity in one Person, a complete and perfect union of His human and divine natures, and thus objected to the depiction of a human Jesus who was the son of Mary, and a divine Jesus who was not. The Catholic contention is that Mary gave birth to Jesus, and Jesus is God. Therefore, Mary is the Mother of … God! Again, this really doesn’t say as much about her as it does about Him. By insisting that Mary is the Mother of God, Catholics are primarily insisting that Jesus is God, a proposal that no conservative Protestant Christian would contest.
In my investigation of Catholicism up to that point, I had already become convinced that the term “Mother of God” applied to Mary was simply a statement of Biblical fact, and thus the announcement of it at Mass didn’t jab me in the eye the way it might have another Protestant. I had no problem with Marian doctrines like the Virgin Birth or the Theotokos, because they were obviously attempts to protect doctrinal truths essential to our understanding of Who Jesus is. In other words, these doctrines aren’t really about Mary – they are about Jesus, and I had no problem with that.
Had I attended a different parish which used a different form of the Eucharistic Prayer, I would have heard variations on this theme, all referring to her as the Mother of God, and referring to the blessed apostles, the holy martyrs and all the saints, asking that we be numbered among them and admitting that we rely upon their prayers for help. And had I attended my first Mass during the Lenten season, we might have begun by praying the Confiteor, asking for the intercession of said saints.
So I did hear Mary’s name mentioned at my first Mass, but not in the way I thought I might. When you’re fearing that Mary, a mere human being, will be playing just as great a role (or even greater!) in Catholic worship as Jesus, then these glancing references to the part she plays in the Communion of Saints don’t really register. Other than that, no reference is made to Mary in the Mass – surprising from a Protestant standpoint, but true.
Certainly a Protestant can’t condemn an occasional sermon devoted to Mary. Especially around Christmastime Protestant thoughts turn to the woman who was asked to trust God enough to bear His Son, and Protestant pastors may choose to mention her in passing, or even to devote the entire sermon to her role in salvation history, although heavy on the disclaimers. And in the Catholic Church we too will devote homilies to Mary on special days when we contemplate events in her life or aspects of her calling. But at the average Mass on an average Sunday – you’re just not going to hear a lot about Mary.
You may not realize it, but Catholics agree with you on this point. Protestants are quite right about insisting that no creature, no human being, ever be allowed to distract us from the worship of God. It is ALWAYS wrong when a creature attempts to usurp the worship due the Creator. It is wrong when a preacher subtly or not so subtly calls attention to himself by his sermon antics, building a following inadvertently more devoted to him than to the One he claims to promote. It is wrong when music ministers turn worship into a concert, the musicians into “stars” and the sanctuary into a baptized mosh pit. It is wrong when worship leaders whip the faithful up into a charismatic froth Sunday after Sunday, until believers are so wrapped up in themselves and their ephemeral, subjective experiences that they lose sight of the truth of the God they came seeking….
No human being can be allowed to commandeer the attention of the worshippers, distracting them from the worship of God.
The Mass is about Jesus Christ, period. It’s no more about Mary than it is about the priest who’s officiating or the cantor who leads the singing. Fortunately it’s no more possible to interject Mary worship into the Mass than it is to interject worship of self; the liturgy is designed to make that impossible. The liturgy is a powerful defense against the twisting of Mass to personal purposes. Protestant critics complain that the liturgy is so unbending, so uniform, the same in parish after parish, country after country, year after year. Get with the times, the spirit of the age! they cry. People leave the Catholic Church to go to a Protestant assembly with more “vibrant” worship – yet it is precisely this liturgy which makes the Mass
the ultimate Christ-centered prayer. When Catholics follow the liturgy, worship flows within totally Christ-centered boundaries, like a mighty river flowing within its banks. When worship overflows the banks of the liturgy, it is worship’s Proper Object Who gets swept away in the flood….
So, where’s Mary in the Mass? She’s right there – with all the other worshippers. And how could she not be there where her Lord is receiving glory, honor and praise? At Mass we “behold our mother” present as she was at the foot of the Cross, the woman who said, “My soul magnifies the Lord” and “Do whatever He tells you,” the woman who would be the last to try to preempt our attention at Mass. The Mass, the Church’s greatest prayer, isn’t about Mary. The Mass is no more about her than it is about me or you or any other human being. And from the Catholic perspective, that’s exactly as it should be.
On the memorial of Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro
Deo omnis gloria!