One week ago today Catholics were celebrating a holy day of obligation, a solemnity honoring the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into Heaven. Similarly, although today is not a holy day of obligation, it is the day set aside to contemplate the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and of the Angels. Protestants tend to get a tad cranky at the mention of these commemorations. After all, they huff, none of this is in the Bible!! All this talk of Mary detracts from the Main Point, Jesus! That’s what Catholics just don’t understand! MARY IS NOT THE POINT!!
And Protestants are absolutely right about that – to a point.
Many Evangelical difficulties with Catholic theology stem from a reluctance to think the Incarnation through, which is odd, since the Incarnation is a doctrine which Evangelicals embrace. You can’t find an Evangelical who denies the Incarnation. Jesus Christ, God Eternal, became man. It is a solid point of agreement between Protestants and Catholics – no problem there. Yet, Evangelicals want to leave it at that, while Catholics have taken the Incarnation and run with it, connecting it to all of our other doctrines. It behooves the inquirer to always keep the Incarnation firmly in mind when puzzling over the Marian doctrines.
That said, these Marian doctrines aren’t found in Scripture – and yet, they are.
A quick review of the Incarnation: in order to redeem mankind, God sent the archangel Gabriel to a virgin to ask her permission to bring His Son into the world, using her DNA to form His body just as every mother’s DNA is part of the formation of their children’s bodies. That’s as far as the Evangelical understanding of the Incarnation usually goes (if it goes that far – some Protestants insist that, had Jesus’ body been formed using Mary’s DNA, He would have inherited Original Sin from His mother, and therefore the Blessed Virgin was actually just a surrogate mom to the Son of God, an “incubator,” if you will. Had that been the case, however, Jesus would not have been a member of our species, but rather a species unto Himself – and would not have been able to offer up His life as one of us to redeem mankind). The Catholic understanding is that Jesus received a human body from His mother, Mary, so that all human beings might become a part of His body. It should come as no shock to anyone that St. Augustine expressed this far more beautifully than I ever could:
All men are one man in Christ, and the unity of Christians constitutes but one man. Let us rejoice and give thanks. Not only are we to become Christians, but we are to become Christ. My brothers, do you understand the grace of God that is given us? Wonder, rejoice, for we are Christ! If He is the Head, and we are the members, then together He and we are the whole man.
That is the meaning of the Incarnation. The Incarnation wasn’t just a blip on the salvation radar screen, necessary solely to make Christ’s death on the Cross for our sins possible. The Incarnation lay at the root of God’s inscrutable plan to make us His children and heirs, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). In order for the creature known as man to participate in the life of the Holy Trinity, he has to become a member of the body of the Second Person of that Trinity. That body goes by various names: the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, the Church of the living God.
In that body, Catholics believe, Mary occupies the place closest to Jesus; that is to say, Mary is the “neck” of the body of Christ. As St. Bernardine of Siena put this: “‘For she is the neck of our Head, by which all spiritual gifts are communicated to His Mystical Body.” In the sadly all-too-common Protestant understanding of the believer’s relationship with Christ as “me and Jesus,” the idea that one member of the body might be closer to the Head than the other members rankles. Yet, we are not particles floating through space, unconnected one to another; participation in the Divine life is impossible for a disembodied particle. Christians are a body; that body has a defined shape and parts. Understanding Mary as the metaphorical “neck” of the body helps to put into perspective Catholic claims that she mediates graces. Just as electrical impulses from the brain must pass through the neck (via the spinal cord) to get to the little toe of the left foot, so also do the graces God distributes to members of His body pass through the hands of Mary on their way to us. Just as it is God’s will that I, at certain times, may be His instrument in conducting grace your way, so also is it His will to route all graces through Mary, the body’s “neck.” In that light, St. Louis de Montfort’s “To Christ through Mary” makes a great deal of sense; if she is the “neck” of the body, then the other members’ connection to the Head is necessarily through her.
Catholics further believe that Mary is a “type” of the Church, just as King David in the Old Testament served as a “type” of the Messiah. That sheds light on the feasts of the Assumption and the Coronation. The Assumption and the Coronation are, simply put, down-payments on Christ’s promises to the Church.
Take the Coronation as an example (Rev 12:1). Evangelicals howl at the mention of all the preposterous, undue honor paid to Mary in this scenario – yet they themselves firmly declare
that believers will receive crowns in Heaven. A popular Protestant singing group has named itself “Casting Crowns” in reference to the fact that we will cast our crowns at the feet of Him Who gave them to us (riffing off Rev 4:10). So why should the fact that Catholics insist that Mary, “type” of the Church, has received her crown in Heaven cause a stir?
Same with the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Protestants and Catholics profess the belief that Christians will, in the words of St. Paul
…be caught up together with [the dead in Christ] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
From this perspective, doctrines like the Assumption and the Coronation, far from being preposterous, are examples of exactly what all those who believe God’s promises should expect will happen! We will be resurrected (1 Cor 15:42-44), we will be assumed into Heaven (1 Thess 4:16-17), and we will receive crowns (1 Pet 5:4) and rule (Lk 22:30, 2 Tim 2:12, Rev 20:4-5), even judging angels (1 Cor 6:2-3). The Bible says quite clearly that God will reward us according to our works (Mt 16:27, Rev 22:12). The Catholic Church is simply saying that Mary, as the preeminent member of the body of Christ by virtue of her fiat and sinless life, went first. What the Church is NOT saying is that Mary is somehow equal to her Savior, or more important than her Lord, or that she is a goddess whom the Church has deified. God forbid! Mary is NOT the point, but Mary is NOT beside the point, either – anymore than the head of a man is the “point,” while his body is merely “beside the point.” Mary is NOT beside the point because the Incarnation of Jesus is NOT beside the point. Jesus’ relationship with her as her Savior (Lk 1:47) made possible her incorporation into the body He is preparing for Himself, and that made possible the events in her life which Catholics celebrate in the month of August. The Incarnation is what makes possible our participation in the supernatural life of God as well; only as members of Christ’s body can we experience that participation. The reality of the Incarnation animates the body of Christ in the world today, and is the guarantee of our place in Heaven for all who are found to be members of that body.
And THAT’S the point of the Assumption and the Coronation.
On the feast of the Queenship of Mary
Deo omnis gloria!