"I'm just not a fan of how you Catholics venerate Mary," I said to my college friend Erica (not her real name) during one of our regular conversations about the differences between my evangelical Protestant faith and her Roman Catholic one. At that time, I was thinking about the "Hail Mary" prayer and certain statues in front yards, not the fact that the Oxford Reference Dictionary defines venerate as "to regard with deep respect."
Looking back at this conversation with Erica, I realize that I didn't really know what I was talking about; rather than understanding Roman Catholic theology, I was parroting what I'd heard others say. My comment was knee-jerky rather than thoughtful and informed.
To me, a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant, making Mary more special than any of the other folks in the Bible was just too Catholic. To me, Mary was … well, just plain Mary. She was the person I was loathe to play every year in my family's at-home Christmas pageant because it's embarrassing to pretend to be pregnant, especially when the only males of the house are one's father and eight-year younger brother. (I preferred the angel of the Lord and his speech to the cowering shepherds. Mary always seemed a little mousy.)
Erica replied, more graciously than I deserved, "You have to understand that through the veneration of Mary, women are given a model of how to follow God's lead. Jesus is a great example, of course, and we follow him. But he was still a man—and we're women. Mary is a wonderful model for us because she shows us how we, as women, should follow God."
That threw me for a loop. First, Erica answered my question even though I'd probably sounded like a jerk. Second, it was a good answer.
Certainly there are significant and important differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic understandings of Mary, as well as on several other matters of faith. Yet, though Erica and I had different theological perspectives on key points, we found unity in Christ. Our friendship grew as we together studied a fine arts program at a secular school that had few other Christians. What Erica taught me about Mary in that simple conversation has stuck with me since then.
I've remained Protestant in my faith and practice, but this Advent I've been thinking that Mary teaches us, to put it in Erica's words, "how we, as women, should follow God." This past year, I started to identify with Mary even more because I had a baby. I knew what it felt like to be "great with child," to waddle around and have to go to the bathroom every five minutes, to give birth the old-fashioned way. (I'm not trying to sound self-righteous about natural childbirth here, but seriously, that's what Mary did.) And I've realized that there was something about Mary that caused her to be highly favored.