Saturday, November 21, 2009

Because . . . Gosh, Sometimes I'm Just Not Sure

There really are times when we Catholics give Protestantism a good name. In men's group today, one of our most learned members read from a chapter on Mary in the Apocrypha, from The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary by George H. Tavard. At the end, I could all but feel the pain of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

We human beings can complicate things so much. Mary, as presented in the four Gospels, is the slightest of characters. After the infancy narratives we hear her say of Jesus at Cana, "Do whatever he tells you," or words to that effect, and she never speaks again. She's there at the Cross, she's there in the upper room. But the most important scene of any biography is not given to us for Mary: her death, where, when, and how.

These matters—and so much more, to judge by this morning's reading—are given to us by tradition, some of which comes from the Apocrypha or, rather, as Bill (left) referred to it, the Epigrapha. The Apocrypha are the books that the Protestant “reformers,” Luther et al, left out of the canon, conveniently to their arguments. The Epigrapha are the books that were never in the canon to begin with, left out by the early Councils that decided the canon.  

The names of Mary's parents, Anna and Joachim? They come not from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but from the Proto-Gospel of James. Tavard calls this Epigraphal book “orthodox in doctrine,” but not orthodox enough apparently to be accepted as part of the canon. How about the feast days the Church celebrates to honor Mary—the Presentation, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, yes, even the Birth of Mary? None of these are given to us in the Gospels.

I know that I am stating the obvious for many readers, who are far better versed in these things than I am. And before I get over my head in waters where I cannot swim, I'm going to back out and just sit on the beach for a think.

Because when you start diving deep in these waters, considering the many accounts that are not canon and considering the Councils, composed of eminently human bishops, who gathered the canon, you can be overwhelmed with doubt: What do we really know? On whose word do we know it? And did they know it, or only argue, or suppose it? And so on.

I know Ferde will be all over me for this one. His e-mail signature reads: “Ferde. If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be right.” And while I'm not sure about the doctrine of papal infallibility, I can tell you pretty categorically that I do believe in Ferde's infallibility.

But I am not Ferde, and I am still on the beach, brushing off the sand and shaking my head. What I come back to is the Gospel, to the simple accounts of Mary there, and finally to virtually the only words she ever seems to have said, at least in anyone's hearing: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Christ tells us what to do in the Gospels and nowhere else. Everything else is after the fact. Everything else is canon, deuterocanon, Apocrypha, Epigrapha, orthodoxy, tradition . . . Do I believe that the Holy Spirit guided each and every one of these deliberations? Or do I instead see some merit in the notion of Sola Scriptura, held by Luther and the boys?

I gotta tell you, right now, I don't know. I'm just sitting on the sand (pretty cold here in New England this time of year) and I'm shaking my head.

But I'll be back at Mass in the morning.