Today is a very important feast day on the Church's calendar: the Assumption of Mary. It commemorates the day that Mary was assumed (i.e. brought) into heaven and it is the most ancient feast day in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Usually, this is a "holy day of obligation" but because the feast falls on a Monday this year, the bishops in the U.S. have relaxed the obligation to attend Mass for this year.
Mary is quite the stumbling block for many of our non-Catholic friends. Trust me. I know from personal experience all-too-well how big of an issue she is for non-Catholic Christians. But many Catholics themselves aren't all that sure about why she is given so much honor in the Church.
Now, lets take a moment to clear up a couple of very common misconceptions about who (or what) Mary is not:
1) Mary is not a goddess. Nor is she equal with God. Mary is a human being - a creature - just as we are. The fact that we pray to her does not make her divine. To pray to Mary (or any other saint) is simply to make a request for their prayers -- no different than asking any other Christian to pray for you. We Christians are supposed to interceded for one another. It is not the same as worship. Only God receives our worship and adoration. God alone. Mary may be honored and venerated by Christians but she is never worshiped.
2) Mary does not save us. Jesus alone is our Savior. Once again, we may ask Mary for her prayers and we may venerate her with flowery language ("our life, our sweetness and our hope" as one famous prayer says), and we can be sure that her prayers are very effective. But, it is Christ alone who saves us.
Now that those common misconceptions are cleared up, let's review who Mary is:
1) Mary was the first Christian. Mary was the first to accept Jesus as the Son of God. When she assented to the Archangel Gabriel, Mary became the first person to express faith in God's Son. (Luke 1:26-38).
2) Mary is the Mother of God. It may sound weird to some people, but the logic is quite simple: If Jesus is truly God, and Mary is truly his mother, than Mary is the Mother of God. If Mary is not the Mother of God, than somehow Jesus' nature is divided and/or we profess that he is something less than fully God. Take this one step further and contemplate that all the humanity that Jesus possesses came from Mary, for he had no natural father. So, Mary shares a bond (spiritual, personal and genetically) with Jesus that no one else could ever share.
3) Mary always points to Jesus. From the marriage feast at Cana where she instructed the steward "Do whatever he says." (John 2:1-11). Mary always point us to Christ, instructing us to "do whatever he says."
4) Mary is a model of Christian faithfulness. Even at the end, when darkness enveloped the earth and her son's head hung low in death on the cross, Mary stood by his side. Mary's faithfulness is something to which all Christians should strive to imitate.
So, on this day dedicated to Our Lady, let us thank God for her life and for her example. And let us pray that she intercede at God's heavenly throne ..."for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."