We have inherited a set of images of Mary, reinforced by forms of private revelation and private devotion. Many have not been very helpful for us. Many of us were formed in a type of Catholicism that stressed those elements and almost identified Catholicism with them, to the detriment of Scripture and to the detriment of ever knowing what "Jesus is Lord" is all about.
I was brought up in a Catholicism that had Mary at its center. It meant Tuesday evening devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help at our parish in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It meant making the five first Saturdays. Of course they never ended after five. You just kept going to Mass on the first Saturday of every month for years.In Fond du Lac during the Cold War, we got our piety from the women religious, who just gave us all the images they themselves had been taught. The images of Mary were used to reinforce papal patriarchy and various power positions in the church. They were dysfunctional images, but we didn't know it. They seemed to function very well for us at that time.
During the Cold War, we just knew that the Russians were coming, and that was because we weren't praying hard enough or consecrating the world, and especially Russia, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Russians were coming, and for some reason, they were going to land in Fond du Lac!God was very angry with the world. The image was of Mary holding back the angry arm of her Son.
Now that's dysfunctional family stuff. The father of the house is really angry at the kids, but mother is going to protect the kids from the rage-oholic father. That image had a deep impact on my spirituality. I didn't trust God. I was afraid of God. I didn't like God very much, because I didn't think God liked me very much. Jesus I liked a little bit better, because he was somehow more human. And with Mary I had no trouble at all. That was the gradation: we feared God, we were more edified by Jesus, and we just loved Mary. I really didn't believe I could have intimacy with God. I had to go through a medium, and that medium was Mary.
After all these negative images of Mary, I eventually said to myself: I need to try to learn what we know about Mary from Scripture, from the Gospels.
Scripture doesn't say a lot about Mary. She doesn't utter a word in Matthew's Gospel or Mark's and only speaks twice in the Gospel of John. The first time is when she addresses a human need: "They have no wine." The last words she speaks in John's Gospel are probably her most powerful words outside of the Magnificat: "Do whatever he tells you."
There are many ways Mary is used and abused, including the way the contemporary hierarchy in Rome tries to use her to enforce a patriarchal system and notion of priesthood, but they have no grounding in Scripture. All Mary says is, "Do whatever he tells you."
The community responsible for the other Gospel in which Mary speaks, Luke's Gospel, reflected on the phenomenon of her life, how she experienced God, and what it meant for their exiled and oppressed community for Mary to have a part in its transformation. Then they wrote down the Magnificat, Mary's stirring prayer in that Gospel.
Isn't that the height of pride? No, it is the essence of humility, because she immediately recognizes a Higher Power: "For the One who is mighty has done great things for me." The essence of being poor in spirit is to recognize the power of someone beyond yourself. When in the depth of your soul you know that, and experience that, you are allowing the reign of God to take over in your life. That's what Mary did, and that's what she articulates. "And holy is that One's name."
When we are a community in exile, under oppression, without our identity, how can we sing a song to the Lord? Yet in such a situation Mary begins to articulate the transformation that will come. "You have shown strength with your arm. You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, you have brought down the powerful from their thrones and have lifted up the lowly. You have filled hungry people with good things and sent the rich away empty. You have helped your servant Israel, remembering your mercy, according to the promise you made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever."
The Magnificat was talking about a world in poverty that is pregnant with hope that everybody is going to have a life that will be reordered. Power, possessions and prestige will be transformed to benefit not those with the wealth but those in poverty. In this prayer, Mary, the mother of the church, the model of discipleship, was talking about what all of us must do for the transformation of our world. It was turning the whole world upside down. In the midst of oppression. she was the model of liberation. If we allow the reign of God, and if we allow our souls to magnify that God, the transformation can take place. All we need are a few people who will live together and support one another in Magnificat communities. All we need are a few communities uttering this canticle and knowing what it means for the transformation of our world.
That was the turning point for me. That was my new understanding of who Mary could be in my life, because my life was dedicated to that transformation of the world, to reorder the power relationships. Mary is more radical than I can ever be.
We all need images--models that signify to us that it can be done in our contemporary life. My life now is to live that theology which was her spirituality--to bring the mighty from their thrones and raise the lowly to high places, to make sure no person is without food, to work on that transformation, and to do it in community. Mary's theology is to be lived out in our biographies, in our spiritualities. This is what should happen if we too "store up" all these things in our hearts as Mary did.