We know the jibe against Catholic devotion to Mary: that it is blasphemous worship of a creature, rather than the Creator. We know the truth: devotion given to Mary cannot rival the unique worship given to God. Yet we can see how the mistake arises. Uniquely among members of the Church, Mary is the subject of dogmatic definitions (another object of opprobrium): she was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb; she was assumed body and soul into heaven. It’s easy for us to collapse the two: if she was preserved from sin, wasn’t she free from sin’s effects, walking about in prelapsarian splendor, with starry crown and sunlit mantle, the moon under her feet? Isn’t that pagan fantasy? A woman without sin—who among us could have any idea what that is like? How could she have any idea what our life is like? May as well believe that Athena sprang full-grown from Zeus’ head, or that one could be in the wrong sacred grove at the wrong time and fall victim to ablution-performing Artemis. The idea is not merely fanciful, it is threatening.
We declare Mary gate of heaven, star of the sea, higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, Sancta Dei Genetrix. How does this differ from hymning Athena as “the glorious goddess, bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin, savior of cities, courageous Tritogeneia”?(1) What distinguishes the title “Immaculate Conception” from Assyrian Ishtar’s “Ornament of Heaven”?(2) Are we not back to the idolatry decried by the prophets? Mary’s sanctity can seem mythological, far-removed from anxieties arising from the sin she never knew. How can the Mother of God understand the cares of the mother of Tim who-won’t-stop-pulling-his-sister’s-hair? How can the Virgin draw near to the young man struggling with pornography? The idols of incomparable women do not inspire confidence. Ishtar sings, “Who is equal to me? Who is comparable to me? Goddess I am—I am mistress; small and great I uproot, I lay low.”(3) Artemis takes her vengeance on those who spy upon her.
The Immaculate Conception destroys such idolatry: not only fables about untouchable objects of admiration and fear, but our own parsing of holiness as a fairytale kept at bay in another world. It is quotidian sinlessness, the holiness of a handmaid. Mary washed clothes, cooked dinner, heard Scripture, wept, told jokes, worried for her Child, chatted with her neighbors. Mary trampled Ishtar with feet caked in Nazareth’s dust. Charity burning beyond the stars lived in a heart concerned with a friend’s wedding, a heart that knows our needs because it knows its own. Mary needed a Savior as much as we do. Only the manner of her salvation differs, preserving her from all sin in view Christ’s merits. She stands to Christ as we do, as graced by Him. It is her title: kecharitomene, Graced One,(4) sharing the lowliness of our condition in an unstained soul that magnifies the Lord and shames all idols.
1. From the Homeric Hymns, Hymn 28, to Athena.
2. From the Assyrian Hymn to Ishtar (No. 6).
3. From the Assyrian Hymn to Ishtar (No. 4).
4. Thus Gabriel greets her in Luke 1:28: "Hail, Graced One, the Lord is with you."
Br. Columban Hall, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE