A New Look at ‘Mary on a Pedestal’
The Second Eve shows us what human life should have been like but for the choice of the First Eve
Catholics have often been accused of a misguided relationship to the Blessed Virgin Mary, of “putting Mary on a pedestal.”
That’s not just a Protestant canard, either. Catholics who claim the mantle of following Vatican II argue that traditional Mariology elevated Our Lady at the expense of showcasing her as the “first disciple” of the Lord.
Well, I’m going to take that last claim, qualifiedly agree with it, and yet insist the practical sidelining of the Blessed Virgin Mary is still misguided.
I recently wrote a piece [here] putting forth in very basic format a thesis I have long been developing: that Mary, too, is an exemplar of true humanity. Starting with his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (no. 8), and continuing throughout his papacy, St. John Paul II constantly repeated the teaching of Gaudium et spes (no. 22) that Jesus Christ fully reveals man and his vocation to himself.
John Paul’s statement is important, because he emphasizes the humanity of Jesus: Jesus shows human beings what they are supposed to be. Yes, Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is also the Son of Man, with a real and active human nature. Jesus shows us how human beings should live.
What has always somewhat surprised me, however, is that — for his strong Marian focus — John Paul never quite seemed to develop that same idea with regard to Our Lady.
Now, there is a certain strain in contemporary Catholicism that gets the sniffles when we talk about humanism, thinking that somehow by doing so we undervalue our faith. I disagree.
George Weigel is on target when he writes that the issue for the Church in the first centuries was “who is God?” The early Church was torn by Trinitarian and Christological disputes. The issue for the Church at the start of the modern age is “what is the Church?” The 16th century Church was divided precisely over questions of ecclesiology. Today’s Church is riven by the problem “who is man?” The confusion about the human person — body and soul — made in the image and likeness of God runs in a continuous line from the totalitarianisms of the 20th century to the deconstruction of the human person (masquerading as “dignity”) today.
I’ll admit this became apparent to me many years ago. Back in the early 1980s, when I was studying moral theology and looking for a way to approach the discipline without ending up in the cul-de-sac of rejecting Catholic morals as understood through the ages, I found two modern thinkers to work through: Karol Wojtyła and William May. May had begun his career writing about Christology. It soon became apparent to him that many of the same body-nature-person problems that bedeviled Christology in the third through seventh centuries were reincarnate in strains of modern theological anthropology. So, again, if man wants to know how to live, look to Christ.
Now, Our Lady in a certain sense does not present the stumbling block (for some) of the hypostatic union. There are no human and divine natures co-existing in the same person. Mary is purely and simply human. She is privileged by being freed from all stain of sin, original and actual, by virtue of the prevenient grace that flows from her Son’s Redemption, but she is still human.
Her choices are human. Her life is human. And, as a simple human being, Daughter Zion teaches her fellow brothers and sisters what it means to be human. She teaches them in ways they might not obtain because, by virtue of the Immaculate Conception, she is free not just from the stain of sin but from the effects of sin, such as concupiscence. She thus teaches us that free will is not some neutrality between good and evil, each an equal option, but a choice for good that, because it is free, makes it not just the good but my good.
In other words, the Second Eve shows us what human life should have been like but for the choice of the First Eve. She fully reveals man and woman to themselves. The same might be said of her Assumption (“second fruits”) as the next logical step that follows from the Resurrection (“first fruits”) and leads to the resurrection of the body.
In putting Our Lady on a pedestal, then, we are not merely “exalting” her (though that is wholly appropriate). We are recognizing that the woman on the pedestal shows us from whence we have fallen and thus provides the model and exemplar for what the human person might have been. In honoring Mary, we honor the possibilities that God made man to be but for the human free choice of sin which, far from raising human dignity, cast him down.
It is, therefore, a false dichotomy to speak about the “pedestalization” of Mary and honoring her as “first disciple.” In honoring her as “first disciple,” we cannot bring she who is without sin down to our level; we honor her for her fidelity to God, a fidelity we threw away by repeating Satan’s non serviam in lieu of Mary’s fiat voluntas tua. Nobody except Jesus Christ Himself better reveals what the human vocation is.
In putting Mary on a pedestal, we recognize what we need to reach for, aware that we will never reach it in the way Mary did because of original sin — which is man’s fault. Honoring Mary as “conceived without sin” paradoxically functions something like the reverse lens in today’s cellphone cameras: by pointing the lens back at us, it serves to reinforce in a healthy way what recent popes have noted is modern man’s waning sense of sin. (It is healthy because it forces us to recognize we cannot pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps but can marvel at “what great things God has done for me” by His grace.) By honoring Mary, we in a certain sense also honor humanity with a humble recognition of our failure to live up to the pedestal God wanted to put us on in making us in His image and likeness (Gen 1:27), “a little lower than God” (Ps 8:5).
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