The risen Jesus never stands alone, apart from any of his disciples. Forever he lives inseparably united to us as individuals and as community. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?” (Acts 9:4, 26:14, my emphasis), Christ called out as he knocked the dreaded foe of Jewish Christians off his high horse.
By remaining “faithful to the teaching of the apostles,” the church at Jerusalem soon realized the power of their intercessory prayer together, bonded as they were so intimately with Jesus and, therefore, with one another (Acts 2:42-47).
Early on disciples came to venerate those who had gone before them, especially heroes marked with the sign of faith like martyrs (witnesses with their very blood), confessors (who had withstood unusual sufferings for their faith) and ascetics (who had practiced severe mortification to live out their baptismal commitment).
To call upon the saints of heaven was and always should be a fuller way of praying “through Christ our Lord.” They should never be seen independently from Christ, a kind of alternative to him. Rather, each one reflects our Lord distinctively. To pray through a saint’s intercession thereby acknowledges Christ shining in him or her so transparently.
Special devotion to Mary crowns this orthodox veneration of saints in Catholic practice. We worship Jesus, the physical revelation of the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Graced with our vision of the total Christ, we then venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus and his first disciple – uniquely related to him from his conception through his upbringing, public ministry, death and glorification.
The late theologian, Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, was asked why there seems to be a decline of Marian devotion in the church today. He lamented the fact that for far too many of us, doctrines remain mere abstractions. “And abstractions don’t need a mother.”
The flesh and blood truths of our faith most certainly do. The Divine Word took flesh from Mary in order to pitch his tent among us (Jn 1:14) and experience everything human but sin. Mary, treasuring all the wonders of Christmas, pondered them in her heart (Lk 2:18). Yet 12 years later, a distraught mother found her lost boy in the temple and pleaded, “Son, why have you done this to us?” (Lk 2:48).
Mary gave Jesus a heads up at the wedding feast, and he worked his first miraculous sign respecting her concern (Jn 2:11-12). Yet soon after when they heard of the startling impact his ministry began to have, his relatives left home “to take charge of him,” in their struggle to understand what he was about (Mk 3:20-21; Lk 8:19-20 mentions his mother with the relatives). “This is surely the carpenter, the son of Mary,” his townsfolk kept reminding themselves in their confused, utter amazement (Mk 6:3).
Do these marvels and tensions, these touching bonds and uncertain moments sound only too familiar? Anything but an abstraction, the Incarnation plays out in real life circumstances. At every significant turn in the Nazarene’s life, note how Mary stands closely associated with her son.
Hushed in silence we come to the total abandonment felt by Jesus during his ultimate surrender to the Father. Near the cross stood his mother (Jn 19:25), her soul pierced by his excruciating pain (Lk 2:35). Her fidelity remained unswerving through the entire horror of his capital punishment until finally he “yielded up his spirit” (Mt 27:50).
After the Resurrection and Ascension, Mary joined the Jerusalem community in the upper room in fervent, expectant prayer (Acts 1:12-14). There she received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit that first Christian Pentecost (2:1), the completion of her son’s own Passover.
Jesuit Fr. Emile Mersch, a pioneer in the 20th century renewal of ecclesiology (theology of the church), attributed the exponential growth of Christianity after Pentecost to the ongoing intercession of the mother of Jesus during her remaining years here as a fellow-pilgrim, probably moving with the beloved disciple to Ephesus.
Now assumed into heavenly glory, her everlasting prayer and heartfelt compassion for all God’s children has no limit. The Mother of Jesus truly mothers the church, the Body of Christ, still journeying toward the “not yet fully revealed” (1 Jn 3:2).
We worship God alone. In his awesome plan, God wanted a mother whom, in turn, he gave to us. We gratefully venerate her, the first disciple of the Son, his clearest icon, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”