Remembering his mercy: Marian doctrine and the Rosary prayer
A common criticism of Marian devotion is that makes the Blessed Virgin an intermediary between Christians and the one and only Mediator who is needful.
The most effective response to such criticism is to explore the concrete realities of such devotion. For, if we consider what we do when we pray the Rosary, it is to spend time standing with Mary gazing at our Lord. It is precisely by leading us into a deeper contemplation of her Son that Mary exercises her role as Mother of the Church. Marian devotion enhances our relationship with the Lord rather than detracting from it. (This in turn exemplifies a wider Catholic claim about the role of mediation in our encounter with God).
In praying the Rosary, we also learn something of the courageous and prayerful obedience of Mary. It is a mistake to imagine that the contemplation of God’s work in any of his creatures need be a distraction from our relationship with Christ.
No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. (Lumen Gentium, 62).
In contemplating God’s grace at work in creation we are not distracted from Jesus. Rather, we glimpse what it will mean for Christ to be “all in all” (Colossians 3.11).
Standing with Mary, contemplating our Lord
On first encounter, many Christians are surprised by how little the Rosary focuses on Mary. Clearly, the words being prayed are largely Marian, as those praying there Rosary contemplate each of its twenty Mysteries by praying the “Our Father,” ten “Hail Marys” and the “Glory be”. But the primary purpose of the words is to still the mind, and enable the one praying to contemplate each of these Mysteries. Eighteen of the twenty reflect on events in the Gospels, half of which do not feature Mary by name at all. They guide us through the central events of our salvation - five Joyful Mysteries focused on the incarnation, five Luminous mysteries focused on Jesus’ ministry from Baptism in the Jordan to the Last Supper, five Sorrowful Mysteries taking us from Gethsemane to Calvary, and five Glorious Mysteries leading us through the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, on to the Marian mysteries of her bodily Assumption and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.
The Joyful Mysteries
The first two Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation and Visitation) tell of Mary’s response to the saving work of God in Christ. In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Mary is the answer while Christ is the Word” . The incarnation requires both the action of God in Christ and the obedient consent of his Virgin Mother. Mary’s response gives answer to God, not just for herself but for the whole creation - her obedience and courage as the “new Eve” enabling the “new Adam” to undo the ruin of the fall. Her response is itself a work of grace, hence she is greeted by the angel in Luke 1.28 as kecharitomene, ‘graced one.’
The Visitation casts a light on Mary’s use of, and place in, the Hebrew Scriptures. We are told at the end of the infancy narrative that she “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2.19) The “things” Mary is “treasuring” are the extraordinary events she is experiencing, and we see from the Magnificat how her contemplation of those events is informed by her immersion in the Scriptures.
In his 1983 book Daughter Zion, Benedict XVI explains the light which the Hebrew Scriptures cast on the wonders Mary and Elizabeth are celebrating as they rejoice together. In the history of the patriarchs, Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Hannah and Penina are “pairs of women in whom the extraordinary element in the path of the promises stands out. In each case the fertile and the infertile stand opposite each other, and in the process a remarkable reversal in values is reached. In archaic modes of thought, fertility is a blessing, infertility is a curse.” The song of Hannah articulates “a theology of grace” which is developed from this “reversal of values,” which is then further explored and expounded in the Magnificat. 
In her great song, we see the fruit of Mary’s “treasuring” of her own story and that of Elizabeth. As Mary recognises, God’s choice of her as Jesus’ mother means that the centre of his action in history will be among the “lowly” and “starving” who are to be “exalted” and “filled with good things”. Loneliness and hunger are not spiritual metaphors. They describe the material conditions in which the word will become flesh and they speak of the transformations God yearns to see in the new life of his Kingdom.
Benedict XVI goes on to argue that “the typological identification of Mary and Israel, the presence of the type in the person, is clearly present in Luke’s writings—and, in a different way, in John’s.” The “theology of grace” seen in Sarah, Rachel and Hannah reached its fulness in the Virgin Mother. Into the New Testament portrait of Mary is woven “the whole theology of daughter Zion, in which, above all, the prophets announced the mystery of election and covenant, the mystery of God’s love for Israel.” The whole story of Israel is echoed in the story of Mary - of meekness raised on high as the mighty are humbled, of those the world counts as naught bringing God’s salvation to the nations.
The final Joyful Mystery (the Finding of Jesus in the Temple) offers a hint of the pain which Mary’s courageous “Yes” entails. Jesus’ filial obedience to his Virgin Mother and St Joseph are qualified by his ultimate obedience to the Father. While he returns to Nazareth to live under their authority until adulthood, Jesus’ behaviour in the Temple foreshadows the separations which form the subject matter of the later mysteries.
The Luminous and Sorrowful Mysteries
In the Luminous Mysteries, Mary remains faithful, even as Jesus’ ministry must obey imperatives other than those of her maternal concern and care (as we see in his reply to her at the Wedding at Cana in John 2.4).
Mary’s response is to speak courageously when she needs to, and at all times to remain obedient to the Father and his obedient Son: she takes the advice which she gives the servants at Cana to “do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). In the Sorrowful Mysteries, we see how this courageous, contemplative obedience brings her to the moment of greatest separation and yet of greatest union at the foot of the Cross. Here, she both participates deeply in the suffering of her son, and is commended by Christ to St John as “Mother” – both as an individual disciple and a type of the Church.
The Glorious Mysteries
As we pray the Glorious Mysteries, we enter into the meaning of this commendation. As Mother of both Christ and the Church, Mary shares the joy of the resurrection in both the particularity of her relationship with Jesus and the dawning of salvation for the world.
In the Ascension of Jesus, we see again a moment of separation. As Cally Hammond observes, it must have seemed to Mary and the disciples like “a final fracture, an end to the familiarity and custom of their daily relationship” . Mary’s characteristic response is to return with the disciples to Jerusalem so that “with one accord” they could “devote themselves to prayer” (Acts 1.14).
It was through the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary that God’s life became flesh in Jesus. On the Day of Pentecost, that same Spirit overshadows the disciples so that he might become flesh in each of them. The Church is following where Mary led: its openness to the Spirit enabling Christ to be embodied in each new context and generation.
Contemplation and Mediation
The journey of contemplation which is undertaken in these eighteen Mysteries – each focused on a passage in the Gospels – is illuminating in what it tells us aboutMary. We learn of her courage, her obedience, her contemplative heart. But in praying the Rosary, we do more than look upon Mary. We look upon Jesus with her. The Rosary teaches us how to “treasure all these things” – the stories of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit in our daily lives – as she did. It is when we learn how to contemplate, how to gaze and to ponder as she does, that we will become “full of grace” and learn her way of courage and obedience. As we stand with her and contemplate the Word, we will learn how to echo her “Yes”.
The worry about Mary’s “intermediary” status is therefore misplaced. She does indeed mediate God to us, but in a manner analogous to the way parents may model devotion, hold us in prayer and lead us to the Lord - and indeed the manner in which St Paul describes himself as the “spiritual father” of the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 4.15). Only an excessively individualistic understanding of the Church - one which has not taken to heart the Pauline teaching on what it is for her to be “one Body” of which Jesus is the head - could imagine that this process of mediation need distance us from Christ. The reality of healthy Christian community is of the different members of the body “building one another up in Christ” (cf Ephesians 4.2 and 1 Thessalonians 5.11), and the experience of praying the Rosary is one of being drawn closer to the Lord by learning the path of contemplative obedience from his Mother.
The Assumption and Coronation
The Church has always distinguished the worship of Christ from the veneration and love we give to those who have shown us the way to him. As Benedict XVI explains, the fourth glorious mystery (the Assumption) is the supreme expression of this veneration. Just as Mary was the first to give voice to humanity’s “Yes” to God’s redemptive work in Christ, so (this mystery declares) she is the first to attain the fulness of that redemption:
“Every veneration involves the predicate Sanctus (Sancta) and has as its presupposition life with the Lord; it only has meaning if the object of veneration is alive and has attained the goal. To that extent one could say that the dogma of the Assumption is simply the highest degree of canonization, in which the predicate ‘saint’ is recognized in the most strict sense, i.e., being wholly and undividedly in eschatological fulfillment.”
As Hammond observes, both Mary’s assumption and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven (the final Mystery of the Rosary) anticipate the end of every Christian – to be renewed, body and soul, in God (1 Corinthians 15.25-44) and to receive a crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4.8). In her destiny as the one who first answered “Yes” we find our own.
While Mary’s destiny foreshadows that of all Christians, it has a particular glory. To take the Incarnation seriously is necessarily to take seriously the uniqueness of Mary’s relationship with Jesus. When his humanity is taken back into God, Jesus’ relationship with his mother is not obliterated. Rather, it reaches it fullness. Her place in the story of redemption is such that “all generations” will call her “blessed” (Luke 1.48).
This Orthodox Hymn to the Theotokos captures both Mary’s role in the mystery of salvation - as Daughter Zion, uttering humanity’s “yes” to God in Christ, and as the mother of the Lord and of his Church - and helps us, on this above all days, to rejoice in her heavenly glory :
*Into his joy, the Lord has received you, Virgin God-bearer, Mother of Christ, You have beheld the King in his beauty, Mary, daughter of Israel.
You have made answer for the creation to the redeeming will of God. Light, fire and life, divine and immortal, Joined to our nature you have brought forth, that to the glory of God the Father, heaven and earth might be restored. *
- Hans Urs von Balthasar. (1982). The Threefold Garland: The World’s Salvation in Mary’s Prayer. Ignatius Press.
- Pope Benedict XVI. (1982). Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief. Ignatius Press.
- Cally Hammond. Glorious Christianity: Walking with Faith in the Life to Come. SPCK.