Who is that young woman gracing all of the crèche scenes of the Christmas season? Edward Sri, a professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, is the host of the video series Symbolon: A Catholic Faith Explained (from the Augustine Institute) and the author of Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross (Image Books), which is now in 3,000 parishes.
Sri talks with National Review Online about Mary and how a year’s walk with her helps a Christian live a life of growing holiness . — KJL
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: In the intro to your book, you recall being in your dorm room in college and being asked a series of that questions you, a good Catholic boy, didn’t have answers to. Among them being “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” And “Why do Catholics pray to Mary?” How do you answer such things at a cocktail party, in a comments section, or in an interview nowadays? Does one have to be a Biblical scholar to do so?
Edward SRI: It’s quite simple. Catholics don’t worship Mary. We honor her, which simply means we recognize the great things God has accomplished in her life. Just as the Bible praises God for his spectacular natural works of creation — the sun, moon, stars, mountains, seas — so we should praise God for his supernatural works of salvation in the saints.
More amazing than the entire cosmos is the fact that God can take weak, fallible, sinful human beings and transform them with his grace so that they become sons and daughters of God. That is certainly worth praising God about! Just as one praises an artist more not by ignoring his works but by recognizing his masterpieces, so Catholics desire to give God all the praise they can by recognizing his supernatural masterpieces, the saints.
The work God did in Mary, who is the first and model disciple in the Bible, is recognized in a particular way by Catholics, but I should stress that any attention we might give to Mary is not meant to focus on Mary for her own sake — Mary wouldn’t want that! It’s to help us understand, praise, love, and serve her son Jesus better.
Similarly, Catholics don’t pray to Mary in the sense that we pray to God. We simply ask Mary to pray for us, just as I might ask a friend to pray for me. We certainly go to God directly, but Saint Paul emphasizes the importance of intercession, of sharing needs within the body of Christ and praying for each other. All this helps us grow in love in the body of Christ. And Mary and the saints remain a part of the body of Christ even after they die. They are not cut off from the body. If anything, they are more profoundly living in the body of Christ in heaven. So it’s not on their own power that they can hear our prayers, but through Jesus Christ, the head of the body, they can hear our prayers and intercede for us.
LOPEZ: How does one actually walk with Mary?
SRI: The Bible reveals Mary as the first and model disciple. God singles her out as an outstanding example for us to imitate. In my daily life, I find myself thinking of her example of total love, trust, surrender, and service. She inspires me to love and serve God more, to surrender my life to him more, and to follow him wherever he may lead, even if it means following him to the Cross, as Mary did.
LOPEZ: Practically speaking, you write: “In pondering Mary’s journey of faith more, I have found new inspiration and encouragement for my own walk with the Lord and a desire to imitate her more in my life.” What does that look like on a daily basis? And, say, when looking over the year and ahead?
SRI: Throughout every day we have opportunities to either grow in our relationship with God or turn away from him. Mary stands out in Scripture as someone who every time God invited her to take another step of faith — to surrender more, to trust more, to give up more for him — she said yes. And she did this over and over again in her life. Her “Fiat” to the angel Gabriel was just one yes that was continually renewed throughout her life from Nazareth to Calvary. So Mary’s exemplary faith at every step inspires me to say yes in the many opportunities, big or small, that God gives me each day to love more both him and the people he has placed in my life.
For example, Mary gave a prompt, joyful obedience to God’s will. That’s what her response to the angel’s message — her statement “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) — actually means. That encourages me in my daily life not just to do the right thing but to do it promptly and joyfully. When my child wakes up at 3 a.m., or my wife needs me to run an unexpected errand at the last minute, or a colleague at work didn’t do his job and I need to pick up his slack, I might hesitate to serve. I might be tempted to grumble and complain about it in my heart. But Mary said yes to the needs of the moment, and she did it joyfully. She rises above her own needs to serve God and others. When she hears that her elder kinswoman Elizabeth is pregnant, she immediately goes in haste to help her, bringing her relative great joy.
I’ve also been deeply moved by Mary’s humility. Many of us Christians know we should be humble. If we were given a quiz asking, “Are you dependent on God?” we’d all say yes. But Mary had the humility of the saints, an experiential humility. She’s the mother of God and plays such an important role in the coming of the savior, yet knows at the core of her being that she’s completely dependent on God and that on her own she’s nothing. She recognizes it’s God who has done great things for her (Luke 1:49). Mary’s example encourages me to realize ever more profoundly my own littleness and how I am totally dependent on God for absolutely everything — how desperately I need his grace. When we forget that, when we rush around thinking we can do it all on our own — whether it be our family life, our work, or our ministry — God leaves us on our own. But for those who know their littleness, God will look upon their lowliness and do great things for them, as He did for Mary. I say in the book, “Only when we are convinced, like Mary was, of how little we can really do on our own and how utterly dependent we are on God can the Lord begin to act in magnificent ways in us and through us.”
LOPEZ: What is important about the humanness of Mary to understand?
SRI: Christians often marvel over what God did for Mary, and Catholics especially are moved by the unique graces God gave to her. But we can’t forget that Mary was still human, someone to whom we can all relate. God did give her unique privileges, but she still had moments of discernment, moments of uncertainty, and moments of darkness. The Bible says there were times when Mary did not understand (Luke 2:50). I can relate to that Mary! Mary had opportunities when she could have been selfish but chose instead to be the “servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). She had times when she could have pursued her own plans in life but wanted to use her life for God’s purposes and not her own. Mary also experienced surprises, unexpected turns of events, trials and sufferings. Again, that’s a woman to whom I can relate. But what makes Mary so inspiring is that in the midst of all these challenges and difficulties in life, she found God there. She grew. She always responded to the graces given to her and moved forward in her journey of faith. When we see this human dimension of Mary and how she cooperates with God’s grace, it gives us comfort and encouragement in our daily walk with the Lord and inspires us to be faithful as she was.
LOPEZ: So who is this young girl, really, from Nazareth we are all looking at on Christmas cards and other decorations and Christmas scenes?
SRI: Most manger scenes beautifully portray one aspect of Mary at the nativity — her ardent devotion to the baby Jesus. But there was a lot more going on in Mary’s life at the time. And some of it would have been somewhat traumatic. The Bible reports she suddenly had to go on a four-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And she’s not going for a vacation, but to be counted in a census for Roman taxes. And when she gets there she doesn’t receive a royal welcome. Mary couldn’t give her baby the basics of what any mother would want to give a newborn. She has to place the baby in a manger for the animals — not a fitting place for the holy Son of God.
I like to think of what Mary was going through in these days. A lot of this is quite perplexing. Nine months earlier, Mary was told by the angel that this child was Israel’s messiah-king. But if her son is really the messiah, why is he treated this way? Why does he enter into this world in conditions of such poverty, humility, and rejection?
How does Mary handle this situation? She doesn’t complain or get discouraged. And she doesn’t doubt. The one thing, the Bible tells us, is that she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
LOPEZ: What does it mean when we are told that she pondered things in her heart? How is that a practical modern-day strategy for Christians seeking to be Christian?
SRI: It’s a Scriptural expression that describes individuals mulling over a mysterious event. They’re not sure what it means, but they want to know its significance for their lives. It’s as if Mary is asking God, “What are you trying to show me through this?
As Mary keeps in her heart the puzzling fact that her son, the messiah, was born in this way , with such poverty and rejection, she comes, I tjink, to see that God is showing something important. She’s getting an even clearer picture of what kind of king her child will be. It’s a foreshadowing of the cross. Her Son enters the world in humility and rejection because that’s how he going to establish his kingdom when he dies on Good Friday.
There’s an important lesson here for all of us. When we experience unexpected turns in life, when things don’t turn out the way we had hoped, or we encounter some trials, the cross, we need to do what Mary did. We need to “keep and ponder.” We need to ask God, “What are you trying to teach me, Lord?” As Christians, we should always have hope — confidence that no matter what is happening on the outside of our lives, God is always wanting to bring about some good, some growth, in our souls. Maybe God allows us to experience certain trials so that we can grow in patience and trust. Or he allows us to fail so that we grow in humility. Or he allows us to experience some suffering so that we will grow in compassion for others who suffer much more than we do. Whatever may be happening in our lives, we must be like Mary and “keep and ponder.” We must not rush into panic mode, desperately trying to fix our problems, or fall into discouragement. We must first ask the Lord what he is trying to teach us, how he is inviting us to grow.
LOPEZ: What would you have a more accurate nativity scene than the ones under our trees look like?
SRI: The traditional images of Mary with her hands folded or outstretched are beautiful, and as I said earlier, they do accurately depict her love for her newborn child. But in addition to that, I think I’d also like to see a Mary who “keeps and ponders” more — a Mary who looks as if something is weighing on her heart, a Mary who is wondering, “Why?” She’s still peaceful, but pondering something in her heart, talking to God about it, seeking to understand more.
LOPEZ: Why was getting Mary to Bethlehem so important?
SRI: On a basic level, she’s simply accompanying Joseph, who must go to his ancestral town to be counted in the Roman census. His family is from Bethlehem, so he needs to go there to be counted. Mary goes with him.
But the Bible shows something more at work. Bethlehem is the city from which David, Israel’s great king, came. And there was a prophecy about a future ruler, a new Davidic-like king, who would come to gather the people together again. And that king was expected to come from Bethlehem (see Micah 5). So at first glance, it seems like it’s merely Caesar’s decree that uproots Mary and Joseph. But the careful reader of Scripture can see the irony in the scene. Even more powerful than Caesar is God. God can use even the rulers of this world to bring about his purposes. Jesus is born in the city of David, and the great prophecy is fulfilled.
LOPEZ: What was her “renewed fiat,” and why is it important for us?
SRI: Mary’s walk with God reminds us that faith is not a one-time act — I came to believe, now I’m a Christian, and that’s that. No, Christ is calling us to lifelong discipleship, which involves imitating him, cooperating with his Spirit in our hearts, growing in love, becoming ever more like him through his grace.
I jokingly like to say that Mary reminds us that we’re not called to be a Chicago Cubs Christian. I’m from Chicago and a long-suffering Cubs fan. After decades of mediocrity, it seems as if the Cubs never aspire to greatness. If they get to .500, that’s considered a good year. And maybe once a decade or so they can make it to the playoffs. But the World Series? That’s too much to strive for!
We’re not called to be stagnant, mediocre Christians. We’re all called to be saints, to be transformed by God’s grace, to be imitators of Christ. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a lifelong process. It entails saying yes to God not just once when we were baptized or said some prayer or had a conversion in our adult years — that “yes” is meant to be renewed over and over again whenever God gives us more opportunities to love him more and to grow spiritually.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.