This veneration of Mary was not always so. The Council of Ephesus in 431 sanctioned devotion to the Theotokos -- "the Mother of God" -- only after considerable controversy. The theology that developed was Jesus was unapproachable, the royal son of God, clad in armor with a sword. It was becoming disrespectful to directly pray to Jesus; but surely he would listen to his mother.
Among the innovations of the Protestant Reformation was to attempt seeing Jesus as the approachable Christ of prayer. Marion devotion was discouraged, even banned in places.
Yet Mary lingers in popularity, and not just among Catholics. She is central to devotion in Eastern Orthodox churches, and many Episcopalians have Mary and the Rosary central in their prayer life. We may scoff at her apparitions on slices of toast, but Mary remains central to the piety of millions. She appears to people in dreams and in moments of extreme crisis.
I must admit to being puzzled by this, until a few years ago on this feast day we celebrate today.
We were traveling with our choir in Canterbury, and we were definitely pilgrims. I got up early on this particular feast day, and I went alone to the Cathedral. But instead of Eucharist at one of the magnificent altars, we were invited that morning into the catacombs and to a chamber barely lit by candles. There we celebrated our Eucharist, and our preacher was a Palestinian woman who was an Anglican priest.
I don't remember all that she said, but she talked of opening herself to all that God asked of her, devoting her life to service that others might live, and doing so under circumstances that are difficult, even dangerous.
That is when I got it about Mary.
Here are the words to the Magnificat, the words Mary is said to have prayed when the angel came to her in a dream and told her of the child she would bear (Luke 1:46-55):
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
The photo is of a Palestinian woman and child at the Ain al-Hehweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon; photo credit to Ya Libnan.