Looking back at my Evangelical Bible church background, there was someone missing. We had a strong faith in Jesus Christ. We were experts in Bible knowledge. We were taught to have a passion for evangelization and a compassionate heart to those in need. We had a warm Christian fellowship and were totally dedicated to the Lord — but we didn’t have Mary.
Built into our Protestant heritage was a strong anti-Catholic feeling, and if anything typified Catholicism it was the Catholic’s devotion to Mary the Mother of God. We loved Jesus, but we didn’t love Mary. There were no images of Mary and no sermons about Mary. She didn’t even appear on our Christmas cards, which tended to feature photographs of open Bibles with a candle and a poinsettia.
In his homily for the Solemnity of the Mother of God on New Year’s Day Pope Francis made the very clear point that we cannot have Jesus without Mary. The Pope taught, “The two were together, just as they were together at Calvary, because Christ and his mother are inseparable: there is a very close relationship between them, as there is between every child and his or her mother…This inseparability is also clear from the fact that Mary, chosen beforehand to be the Mother of the Redeemer, shared intimately in his entire mission, remaining at her Son’s side to the end on Calvary.”
The inseparable intimacy between Mary and Jesus is illustrated most perfectly in the beautiful renderings of the Madonna and child. There we see Mary and the fruit of her womb, Jesus. The intimacy between any mother and child is great because the child is of her flesh and grew within the mother’s womb. Because Mary was without sin and Jesus was God’s son their love was perfect and therefore their intimacy was perfect. The pope summarized by saying, “That is why Jesus cannot be understood without his Mother.”
Understanding the complete unity between Jesus and his mother unlocks another mystery which the human race desperately needs to experience. The incarnation of the Son of God, who took flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary means that a radical new way of experiencing God has entered the world. Because of Jesus and Mary religion is real. It is not simply an ideology, a plan to make the world a better place, a spiritual feeling or a vague philosophy.
So Pope Francis related the incarnation of the Son of God to the reality of religion, “Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst. Where can we encounter him? We encounter him in the Church, in our hierarchical, Holy Mother Church. It is the Church which says today: “Behold the Lamb of God”; it is the Church, which proclaims him; it is in the Church that Jesus continues to accomplish his acts of grace which are the sacraments.”
When we come to understand this profound link between Jesus and his mother a truth comes alive that we could not experience in any other way. Jesus as Son of God and Son of Mary becomes real within the reality of the church. The Church is not just a club or, as Pope Francis says, “just another non-governmental agency”. Instead the church is the family of God making present in the world the reality of Christ. She does this through the sacrament and through preaching the gospel and through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
At the beginning of this New Year, as Pope Francis travels to the Far East we see this reality in his ministry. He is not simply an ambassador of peace. He is not simply a grandfatherly figure or a spiritual leader. He is not just the CEO of a multi-national charity, a philosopher or theologian. The pope is the vicar of Christ on earth. As such he exercises the Lord’s teaching authority and his authority to administer and lead the church. His work as one man typifies and sets the standard for the entire work of the church. In his role as the steward of Christ’s kingdom we see Christ’s whole work and the work of his church being displayed to the world.
The Pope’s ministry and the work of the whole church would not be possible without the historic transformation of the incarnation of the Son of God. If Mary had not said “yes” to God there would have been no incarnation and no church and no salvation.
That’s why with Pope Francis, Catholics need to ask Christians who ignore or reject the Blessed Virgin Mary a probing question: “You would not have Jesus without Mary, so why do you want to have Jesus without Mary?”
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a parish priest in South Carolina. In Fr Longenecker’s new Lent book Slubgrip Instructs the demon Slubgrip teaches Popular Culture 101 at Bowelbages University. Learn more about this hilarious and inspiring book at dwightlongenecker.com.