On this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I find myself wondering how many have heard this line or something like it. Often it’s a tagline for a joke, but as Homer Simpson would say, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Or, at least, it’s funny because it’s true that in the big pool of Catholic piety there swims a notion that Jesus is either too exalted or too busy to care for the picayune problems of the world. Who is closer to us than the King whose feast we celebrated two weeks ago? Who can get Jesus’ attention and coerce him into addressing our prayers? The answer seems to be that his mother, who is our mother in faith as well, convinces Jesus to take notice and to share his grace with his sisters and brothers.
Intercessory prayer is a gift, and the companionship and care of the communion of saints offers inestimable help as we walk our pilgrim path. Yet, this line of reasoning about Mary’s relationship to us and to Jesus raises my theological eyebrows because I think it gets the issue wrong. God has already drawn close to us in Christ and the Spirit; the question is whether we have drawn close to God. We have already got God’s attention; the problem is whether God has ours. In other words, I don’t need Mary get to Jesus’ attention for me; I need Mary to get my attention to Jesus.
It seems to me that is precisely what Mary does in Luke’s gospel. Mary tells us what we are either inclined to forget or fail to see: God’s attention to us—in other words, God’s mercy and faithfulness—has never wavered. While not always evident, the mystery of God’s salvation slowly infuses time and transforms history until God’s reign is brought to birth. This is what Mary says “yes” to in the Annunciation; this is the reason for her prophetic joy in the Magnificat.
If the way I think of Mary relating to Jesus is as a parent nagging a child to do something, the divine response seems likely to be “Fine, yeah, I’ll get to it, I promise.” All I can do in the meantime is be optimistic that her powers of parental persuasion will take effect and hurry the process along. In contrast, Luke’s gospel gives a picture of Mary overflowing with the Spirit’s knowledge. She renews hope that God lovingly attends the world, and insists that I discern God already at work fulfilling promises.
While we do call God to be present to us, our prayers are not reminders to an unapproachable or inattentive deity of our needs; rather, these prayers remind us of our need for the God who is already present, calling for our attention. Mary does not inspire a mere optimism that we can get God’s attention, but rather instills the hope that makes us attentive to God and nurtures our own prophetic “yes” so that we, too, may participate in God’s ongoing work of salvation.