Harold has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and lives with his family, a few minutes outside of Washington DC. Ever since an encounter with Jesus and his Mother in Lourdes, France, he has grown in his understanding and appreciation of the redemptive power of the Cross. Harold’s experiences have given him a means of being united to Christ. He is also a graphic designer.
“What Does Jesus Really Think of the Exultation Given to His Mother?”
By Harold T. Gomes
From time to time, we may encounter people who tell us that Catholics are wrong to venerate, honor, and love the Blessed Virgin Mary. How should we respond? We can either ignore the criticism out of fear or we can explain the reasons behind our beliefs, with confidence and charity. I believe that God would want us to choose the second option in most cases. Which one of us would not come to the defense of our mothers if she were attacked? And so, I would like to offer some answers to some of the more common criticisms or objections towards honor of Our Lady. As a side note, I’ve often been faced with these kinds of situations and they have led me to educate myself on how to answer. I have learned a lot about my faith, reading the Bible and the Catechism of the Church, good books on apologetics (the study of defending the faith), and other books related to our Holy Divine and Christian, Catholic faith. We have solid material with which to equip ourselves, we just have to be willing to stretch our brain muscles.
The following is actually taken from a recent discussion I had with someone about our Mother Mary. His objection was that Jesus would be displeased with the way that Catholics act toward Mary. What does Jesus really think of the exaltation that we give to his mother?
I believe that Jesus wishes us to love his mother as he loves her (can anyone love Mary more than Jesus?). It is also my sincere belief – – because I’ve experienced it myself – – that in coming to know and love, we come to know and love Jesus even more. I am a Catholic Christian who has come to love God, and is still growing and being transformed, through Our Divine Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit which he won for us. I know how this may sound to you, but it was Mary who helped me come to the knowledge of Christ. Knowledge of Mary cannot do anything other than to lead one to Jesus.
If the Church is known for its exaltation and honor of Mary it is because Our Head, Jesus Christ has first exalted and honored Mary. The Members of Body follow the Head. We strive to imitate and identify with, Christ, because that’s what a Christian does. So, the question then arises, how did/does Jesus Christ exalt and honor his mother, Mary?
First, Jesus being a perfect son of Israel, personifying Israel itself, would have kept the commandments perfectly. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Jesus tells the rich young man to keep the commandments including “honor thy father and thy mother.” (Matthew 19:16-21). Jesus kept this commandment and did honor Joseph and Mary.
Before this, from all eternity, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity exalted his mother. He created her to be his own mother and thus would have also uniquely and especially prepared her for it by giving her grace upon grace. This is why in Luke 1, the angel Gabriel addresses her as “full of Grace,” (in Greek, kecharitomene). In obedience, recognizing herself to be the handmaiden or slave, Mary gives her free consent to be the mother of Jesus, the Word made Flesh. When Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth greets her as the Mother of her Lord (Lord: a name for God himself, as well as the title for the rightful heir of King David. Jesus is both of these). Elizabeth recognizes, through the Holy Spirit, who Mary carries in her womb and therefore recognizes Mary’s blessedness as a consequence. And so too does John, in Elizabeth’s womb, recognize Jesus as his Lord. There is no other way that this could have been known to them except by the Holy Spirit. It is through the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Mary then responds by giving praise to God who exalts the humble. She says that all generations will call her blessed because the Lord has done great things for her. Note that all generations will call her blessed precisely because God has done great things for her. If God has done great things for her, it follows that God is responsible for all generations calling her blessed. If he is responsible for doing great things in Mary and for her, he then is also responsible for all generations calling her blessed. Therefore, God has himself exulted her (as he does to the lowly and to those who humble themselves in his sight).
Now, in light of this, how can we understand Jesus’ response to the woman in Luke 11 who cries out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”? At first glance, Jesus’ response seems to be a correction: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:28). But he does not say, “No, she’s not blessed, don’t consider her blessed” or anything like that. Jesus certainly knows and rejoices that his mother is blessed because he is responsible for it! As for us, can it be said that anything that had any contact whatsoever with Jesus is not blessed? Therefore, we can say that Mary is indeed blessed by virtue of conceiving Jesus, giving birth to him, caring for him, and nursing him. The Son of God has become her own son, after all. So, what is Jesus saying here? He is actually redirecting the praise—again, he is not denying Mary’s blessedness according to the physical order. Instead, Jesus is pointing out the root cause of her blessedness, abiding faith: she heard the word of God kept it.
Mary is blessed first and foremost because she believed and did the will of God (“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Luke 1:45). Because she believed and did the will of God, Mary bore fruit one hundredfold, and this fruit is Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 13:22). Mary’s first or primary relationship to Jesus is through her obedience, in faith, and it is this obedience that brought about her second relationship to Jesus, the physical bond. Another way of putting this would be in the words of St. Augustine who said that Mary conceived the Word by faith in her heart before she conceived him in her womb (Sermon 215). Jesus tells the woman who praises his mother that she too can be blessed if she does the will of God as Mary did. We have here the words of Jesus himself indirectly saying that you too can bear him and bring him into the world, spiritually, through faith. In fact, this is essentially what Jesus is saying in Matthew 12:50. When I read these passages prayerfully, I hear Jesus telling me, “be like my mother, Mary!”
Because of her faith and closeness to Jesus, which enabled her to learn firsthand from him, we can most assuredly say that Mary was the first disciple. She was the first follower of Jesus Christ, she is the model disciple. Indeed, we should imitate Mary’s faith and do the will of God as she did.
Now we can ask the question, why didn’t Jesus use the opportunities that came up to explicitly teach that his mother should always be honored and exalted? The main reason is that this is not the purpose of his teaching recorded in the Gospels. Jesus’ audience is not ready for this at this point in time. Why should they honor the mother if they are not fully aware of the identity of the son? In other words, if people hardly know who he is, how can they care to know anything about his mother? This then, is the main purpose of Jesus’ teaching to the crowds: to reveal his identity as both God and awaited Messiah, Davidic King of Israel; to teach himself and the fulfillment of the command to “love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Gradually, Jesus also goes on to reveal his upcoming mission in Jerusalem: his passion, death, and resurrection. Everything else, the Holy Spirit will reveal in time when the people will be able to better understand it (John 12:12–15). Once the people can understand the basic truths about Jesus will they be ready to delve deeper into the mystery. Only then can they see a more complete picture and will be able to love Jesus even more, with the help of Mary. You must first know in order to love, and love in order to understand.
The anonymous woman Luke Chapter 11 recognizes something great about Jesus and thus recognizes that his mother is certainly blessed for bringing him into the world. Notice that this is first of all a praise directed to Jesus himself. In her praising of the blessedness of Mary, this woman is praising Jesus. Jesus is the main end of the praise. “Blessed is the woman who bore YOU,” the woman says. This gets to the heart of everything that Catholics believe, and about Mary. Everything we believe about Mary praises, exalts, and glorifies Jesus. What we believe about Jesus explains why we praise Mary. All of her titles have a crucial relationship to truths about her Son. For example, we say that Mary is the Mother of God. We say this simply because Jesus is God, and Mary is the mother of Jesus. In the fullness of time, a human woman gave birth to her Creator! To deny this is to deny that Jesus is God.
What incredible faith that Mary exhibited throughout her life! She believed in something impossible (but certainly not illogical because God doesn’t do anything contrary to reason), trusting that with God nothing is impossible. She believed in the promise delivered to her by the Archangel Gabriel that her son would reign forever, even though she saw him die, “marred beyond all human semblance,” on an instrument of torture reserved for the worst of criminals (Isaiah 52). The Gospel of John, chapter 19, tells us that “Mary stood at the foot of the Cross,” while the sword that we read about in Luke 2 passed through her heart at the thrust of the lance. She was there participating in the pain of her son so that “the thoughts of many would be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).
At the foot of the Cross, Jesus gives Mary to be the mother of the faithful disciple, John. There are at least two things to note here: 1. If Mary and Joseph had other children, according to the flesh, then it would not make sense for Jesus to give Mary into John’s care. He would have left her in the care of one of his own blood siblings. There are other places in the New Testament where it can be shown that Mary was a perpetual virgin contrary to the claims that she was not. It’s simplistic for us to suggest that “the brothers and sisters of Jesus” were simply flesh and blood brothers and sisters when the usage of brother and sister often refers to cousin in Middle Eastern cultures, and in other cultures, even today. The word that is used, sometimes translated as “brethren,” in Greek “adelphoi,” does not always refer to blood siblings. 2. Jesus gives Mary to John, to be his mother. But this is not just some kind of legal arrangement. There is a spiritual sense to this. John is the faithful disciple, but as such, he represents all faithful disciples. Because we are to be faithful disciples, Jesus gave us all—every Christian—Mary to be our mother. If Jesus is our brother, if we are to identify ourselves with Jesus himself— that is really what a Christian is, a little Christ, then it would follow that Mary is our Mother. The mother of the Head of the Body is also the mother of the Body.
Even if there is a basis for honoring and exalting Mary, do Catholics fall into excess? Why is she wearing a crown in so many depictions of art? And why do we present petitions to her? Doesn’t it seem a bit too much, like it doesn’t square with what we read about this humble woman, this faithful, simple servant of the Lord? These are valid questions. In fact, these are questions that I had once. But I eventually came to understand the answers to these questions through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Mary as our Queen:
In the Gospel of Luke, the Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she has been chosen to bear a son who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary knowing her Old Testament Scripture would have immediately had her thoughts turn to the prophecy to David recorded in 2 Samuel 7:13–14: “He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” The son who Mary is to bear is the long-awaited Messianic King, whose kingdom will have no end (because he is also the Eternal God who has returned to be with his people). If her son is royalty, then she too is royal by virtue of becoming his mother. Jesus shares this great dignity with his mother. God has exalted her by the high calling he has called her to, namely, to be the mother of the long-awaited King.
We can see in the books of Kings and Chronicles, that whenever a king of Judah (that is, the king of the line of David) is named, his mother is also named. In the ancient near East, the King’s mother was Queen. Since the King had many wives, and only one mother of course, it was quite practical for the title of Queen to have been bestowed on the mother of the King. This is not simply an honorific title that we are talking about. The office of Queen Mother was a position of authority in the kingdom with certain duties and privileges associated with it. In Jeremiah 13 we read, “Say to the king and the queen mother: ‘Take a lowly seat, for your beautiful crown has come down from your head… Lift up your eyes and see those who come from the north. Where is the flock that was given you, your beautiful flock?’” (Jer. 13:18, 20). These words are addressed to the king and his mother together. Why the mother as well? Because she evidently shared in the governance of the people. Along with this, the people of the kingdom brought their petitions to the Queen mother. We can see this at work in 1 Kings 2:19 – 20:
“So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right. Then she said, ‘I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me.’ And the king said to her, ‘Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you’” (1 Kgs. 2:19–20). Not only that, we actually see it at work in the New Testament, in John chapter 2, at the wedding feast of Cana. The servants brought their request to Mary who in turn brought it to her Son.
A couple of things to notice: Adonijah presented a petition to the Queen Mother, Bathsheba, knowing that she could in turn present the petition to the King, her Son, in the hope that it would be granted. Also, we see that the king, Solomon, rose to meet his mother, bowed to her, and had a throne brought out for her to be seated upon, at his right side. Fast forward to Revelation chapter 12. While it is true that the woman clothed with the sun is corporately, individually she is understood to be Mary as the child she bears is obviously her son. The child is clearly a king and therefore his mother is a queen. This woman is crowned with 12 stars, she is portrayed as the queen of Israel, that is, the people of God. We go to her as the people of the kingdom of Judah went to her.
Is it really so surprising for Mary to be exalted as she is? Remember the words of Jesus who said that everyone who make sacrifices for his sake will receive back a hundredfold, and that those who are persecuted for his sake should rejoice for their reward will be great in heaven. Also, he said that the last shall be first and the humble shall be exalted. St. Paul writes that “if we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him,” (2 Timothy 2:1-12) and he tells us that we are fellow heirs with him, “provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17). And finally, in Revelation 3:21, we read him say: “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Does this not apply to Mary, and to a greater degree because of who she was and how she lived?
The exaltation of Mary glorifies the great generosity of God. He is never outdone in generosity. If you give him an inch, he will give you miles. God has done great things in and through Mary for his greater glory. God has exalted Mary because God is All Good. Thinking anything less about Mary is doing an extreme disservice to God because it seems to suggest that God is somehow unwilling to share his glory with his creatures. Nothing could be further from the truth. The honor and veneration that we give Mary is a recognition of the great things that God has done in and through Mary. Everything about Mary proclaims the greatness of the Lord! (And there it’s a lot more that can be said about Mary then what I have written here!)
In closing, Jesus wants us to identify with him, to the point of carrying our cross and loving as he did. If we are in Christ, if we are to become him, his mother is our mother. He loved her so we are to love her, in grace and truth. As St. Therese of the Child Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her enough. And Jesus will be happy.” My challenge to those who still may question devotion and honor given to Mary: please ask yourself if you would like to love Jesus as much as possible. If so, consider that loves Jesus as only a mother can, she loved and knew him to the greatest degree of any creature. Wouldn’t you want to love Jesus with her heart, and to learn Jesus from her? She is a gift from God so we can do precisely that.
I hope you find these reasons compelling and that they strengthen your faith so that the next time your friend or coworker approaches you, you will be better prepared to know what to say. God bless you for taking the time to read these words. And may Our Blessed and Immaculate Mother Mary smile upon us.