|Image from Behold Thy Mother|
To start with, I call on Chesterton. His Everlasting Man is excellent Advent reading. I read the book several years ago, but almost every Advent I revisit the chapters that tell about the state of the world just before and at the time of the Incarnation. The chapter The Man in the Cave, about the Nativity, is profound and poetic. Do read the whole thing, but I'm going to excerpt the part that relates to my topic.
Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet. Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanization of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows I as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.Thomas Merton writes similarly:
The genuine significance of Catholic devotion to Mary is to be seen in the light of the Incarnation itself. The Church cannot separate the Son and the Mother. Because the Church conceived of the Incarnation as God's descent into flesh and into time, and His great gift of Himself to His creatures, she also believes that the one who was closest to Him in this great mystery was the one who participated most perfectly in the gift. When a room is heated by an open flame, surely there is nothing strange in the fact that those who stand closest to the fireplace are the ones who are warmest. And when God comes into the world through the instrumentality of one of His servants, then there is nothing surprising about the fact that His chosen instrument should have the greatest and most intimate share in the divine gift.Mary is not spoken of much in Scriptures, except indirectly. And this is the very point; this is why true Marian devotion only helps true devotion to God, and never detracts from it.
When Mary speaks in the Bible, she speaks to God or of Him, or she ponders mysteries in her heart. Her whole being is wrapped in the Trinity. You see this in all the Madonnas in art history, as well. Mary is always the tabernacle, the arms in which the Holy Child is enclosed, and displayed. Almost always, her gaze is directed away from the viewer, most usually down towards the Child she is holding.
In answer to the question asked by Mary of Juan Diego, "Am I Not Your Mother?" the answer traditionally given by the Church is in the words of some of Jesus's last words on the cross. They were spoken to the apostle John in particular, but by extension, like all His last words, to the Church in general:
"Behold your Mother".
So yes, Mary has a unique place in our understanding of the faith. The relationship is personal and deeply intertwined with our relationship with the Holy Trinity.
Here is Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, concluding the exhortation by speaking of Mary.
On the cross, when Jesus endured in his own flesh the dramatic encounter of the sin of the world and God’s mercy, he could feel at his feet the consoling presence of his mother and his friend. At that crucial moment, before fully accomplishing the work which his Father had entrusted to him, Jesus said to Mary: “Woman, here is your son”. Then he said to his beloved friend: “Here is your mother” (Jn 19:26-27). ...At the foot of the cross, at the supreme hour of the new creation, Christ led us to Mary. He brought us to her because he did not want us to journey without a mother, and our people read in this maternal image all the mysteries of the Gospel. .....The close connection between Mary, the Church and each member of the faithful, based on the fact that each in his or her own way brings forth Christ, has been beautifully expressed by Blessed Isaac of Stella: “...... Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul”.Pope Francis said yesterday in a message to the Americas:
When the image of the Virgin appeared on the tilma of Juan Diego, it was the prophecy of an embrace: Mary’s embrace of all the peoples of the vast expanses of America – the peoples who already lived there, and those who were yet to come. Mary’s embrace showed what America – North and South – is called to be: a land where different peoples come together; a land prepared to accept human life at every stage, from the mother’s womb to old age; a land which welcomes immigrants, and the poor and the marginalized, in every age. A land of generosity.This is very much in keeping with the theme of Evangelii Gaudium, which is on evangelization in general and concern for the poor in particular. Jesus came among us as one of the poor, and the first to embrace Him on earth was His mother. This becomes a type for what we are called to do as Christians. God did not have to ask humans to cooperate with His work, but He did, and Mary is an exemplar of that generosity, the cooperation, the closeness to Christ that is at the heart of the Gospel.