November 26, 2020

Advent IV: The Honor and Humility of Mary

By Chaplain Mike

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

• Isaiah 7:14, NIV

It’s time again for the annual “Mary” discussion. This is the one time of year when Protestants are forced to consider her as they read OT prophecies of the Virgin Mother and the NT nativity narratives. For Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions, Mary is emphasized throughout the year in various ways, particularly through the use of such liturgical texts as the Magnificat. However, for children of the Reformation, the Advent and Christmas season is one of the few times we hear her name or think of her story.

Last year, I wrote this about Mary:

Evangelicals tend to ignore or downplay Jesus’ mother, in reaction to what they perceive as overemphasis or even heretical devotion to her by the Roman church and other traditions. However, the Gospel of Luke gives her great honor, portraying her as the true and ultimate matriarch of our faith. Mary joins and surpasses Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Ruth, and Hannah, and is presented as the mother through whom God brought his redemption promises to pass.

As the Mother of Our Lord herself put it,

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,”
holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49, NIV)

On this fourth Sunday in Advent, as we hear Isaiah’s word about the virgin to whom will be born the promised child, Paul’s greeting in which he points us to God’s Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh,” and Matthew’s Gospel story of the young woman who was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit,” let us consider how one of our prominent Protestant forefathers thought about Mary.

Madonna and Child, Lippi

Martin Luther honored Mary highly. He held her in high esteem for her role in God’s salvation plan. The former monk retained beliefs he had from his Roman Catholic upbringing and training, such as Mary’s immaculate conception (though his views on this are complex) and perpetual virginity. He venerated her as the Theotokos (Mother of God), said that Christians should likewise consider her their “spiritual Mother,” and called her the “highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures.” (Sermon, Christmas, 1531)

Though he venerated Mary and even conceded that she prays for the church, Luther’s view also offers a protest against the abuses of Catholicism with regard to over-emphasis on Mary. For example, consider these words from The Defense of the Augsburg Confession (1530):

Granting that the blessed Mary prays for the Church, does she receive souls in death, does she conquer death (the great power of Satan), does she quicken? What does Christ do if the blessed Mary does these things? Although she is most worthy of the most ample honors, nevertheless she does not wish to be made equal to Christ, but rather wishes us to consider and follow her example (the example of her faith and her humility).

One of Luther’s clearest writings concerning Mary is his Exposition of the Magnificat (1520-21), composed for a young prince who had supported and interceded for him. One aspect of this study that may surprise Protestants is that Luther began his exposition with an invocation to Mary herself:

May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom, profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers, so that your Grace as well as we all may draw therefrom wholesome knowledge and a praiseworthy life, and thus come to chant and sing this Magnificat eternally in heaven. To this may God help us. Amen.

In his explanation of this great hymn of praise from Luke 1:46-56, Luther noted first of all that Mary was of humble birth and background. She had little to distinguish or set her apart from the ordinary maidens of the land.

The tender Mother of Christ . . . teaches us, with her words and by the example of her experience, how to know, love and praise God. For since she boasts, with heart leaping for joy and praising God, that He regarded her despite her low estate and nothingness, we must needs believe that she came of poor, despised and lowly parents. Let us make it very plain for the sake of the simple. Doubtless there were in Jerusalem daughters of the chief priests and counselors, who were rich, comely, youthful, cultured, and held in high renown by all the people; even as it is to-day with the daughters of kings, princes and men of wealth. The same was also true of many another city. Even in her own town of Nazareth, she was not the daughter of one of the chief rulers, but a poor and plain citizen’s daughter, whom none looked up to nor esteemed. To her neighbors and their daughters she was but a simple maiden, tending the cattle and doing the house-work, and doubtless esteemed no more than any poor maidservant today, who does as she is bidden about the house.

Madonna and Child with Angels, Botticelli

Furthermore, any honor Mary received comes solely from God’s grace, by which he gifted her with the great privilege of being Christ’s mother.

Mary confesses that the foremost work God wrought for her was that He regarded her, which is indeed the greatest of His works, on which all the rest depend and from which they all derive. For where it comes to pass that God turns His face toward one to regard him, there is naught but grace and salvation, and all gifts and works must needs follow. . . . And that Mary herself regards this as the chief thing, she indicates by saying, “Behold, since He hath regarded me, all generations shall call me blessed.”

Note that she does not say men shall speak all manner of good of her, praise her virtues, exalt her virginity or her humility, or sing of what she has done. But for this one thing alone, that God regarded her, will men call her blessed. That is to give all the glory to God as completely as it can be done . . . .

From this we may learn how to show her the honor and devotion that are her due. How ought one to address her? Keep these words in mind and they will teach you to say: “O blessed Virgin, Mother of God, thou wast naught and all despised; yet God in His grace regarded thee and wrought such great things in thee. Thou wast worthy of none of them, but the rich and abundant grace of God was upon thee, far above any merit of thine.”

Next Mary also freely ascribes all to God’s grace, not to her merit. For though she was without sin, yet that grace was too surpassing great for her to deserve it in any way. How should a creature deserve to become the Mother of God! Though certain scribblers make much ado about her worthiness for such motherhood, I will yet believe her rather than them.

She says her low estate was regarded by God, nor was that a reward for anything she had done, but, hath done to me great things. He hath done this of His own accord without any doing of mine. For never in all her life did she think to become the Mother of God, still less did she prepare or make herself meet for it. The tidings took her all unawares, as Luke reports ( Luke 1:29). But merit is not unprepared for its reward, but deliberately seeks and awaits it.

Finally (and here I quote from another sermon by Luther on this passage), Mary remained a humble, faithful believer, even with the great honors God bestowed on her. In his remarks on Luke 1:46 (“Mary stayed with Elisabeth about three months, and then returned to her own house”), the Reformer commends her as an example of one who lived out the grace of God by remaining faithful in her ordinary vocation.

See how purely she leaves all to God, and claims for herself no works, honor, or reputation. She behaves just as she did before any of this was hers–seeks no greater honor, is not puffed up, vaunts not herself, calls out to no one that she is the mother of God, but goes into the house and acts just as before–milks cows, cooks, scrubs the kettles, and sweeps the house like any housemaid or housemother in the most menial tasks, as if none of these overwhelming gifts and graces were hers. Among the other women and neighbors she was esteemed no more highly than before and did not ask to be. She was still a poor townswoman among the lowliest. What a simple pure heart was hers! What an amazing person she was! What mightiness was hidden below her lowliness! How many there were who met her, talked with her, who, had they known, would have been overpowered in her presence.

• From “Visitation,” in Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (ed. Bainton)

One of the greatest Latin hymns is known as the Stabat Mater. There are two forms of this hymn, the Stabat Mater Dolorosa (The Sorrowful Mother Stood), and the Stabat Mater Speciosa (The Beautiful Mother Stood). The first describes Mary’s sadness at Jesus’ death, the second her joy at the birth of her Son. A few stanzas from this great hymn may complete our meditation on Mary today and help us to enter into the fellowship of her joy in God’s gracious Gift.

 

The beautiful Mother
stood joyously at the crib
in which her child lay

Through her exultant soul
Dancing with joy
Went a song of rejoicing

O how jubilant and blessed
was the immaculate
Mother of the Only-begotten

O how happy and laughing
And exultant did she watch
The birth of her divine son

Who would not rejoice
If he saw the Mother of Christ
In such comfort?

Comments

  1. Thank you, Mike. Lovely.

  2. Great post. Thorough and fair.

    I’ve heard Mary likened by a good Catholic teacher to the burning bush. It was the vessel through which God delivered His message to Moses in the Old Testament. She is the vessel through which God delivered the message of the New Testament. She was, of course, more than that. She was also the New Testament model of obedience.

    In my limited experience and observation, Catholics overemphasize Mary in inverse proportion to their scholarship. The Catholic Creed teaches very reasonable things about her. Even the puzzling doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is supported by the obvious fact that you can’t carry clean water in a dirty cup. But then the less learned people go right ahead and pray to her as one should only pray to God Himself.

  3. Even the puzzling doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is supported by the obvious fact that you can’t carry clean water in a dirty cup.

    But it’s not so obvious a fact as far as the Orthodox Church is concerned: http://www.antiochianarch.org.au/Orthodox-view-on-Immaculate-Conception.aspx

    In fact, for the EOC it’s a wrong fact.

    • What I meant by ‘obvious fact’ was only the water and cup statement as it pertains to actual water in an actual cup. That statement is a fact we all can, I hope, agree to. The analogy doesn’t prove the Immaculate Conception. It only supports and illustrates it, for those who believe it or want to believe it.

      Thanks for clarifying.

    • Well, either way, Mary was sinless – a cup cleansed outside and in. The Catholic Rosary has nothing on the OrthodoxAkathist to the Mother of God – probably the most purely lovely hymn to Mary there is.

    • As the article mentions, the Eastern Church never fully embraced some of the concepts Augustine is regarded for in the West including the concept of Original Sin. If, from an Orthodox perspective there is no inheritance of Adam’s Sin (refered to in some Orthodox circles as Original Guilt) then it would make no sense, or rather it would not matter that Mary be born without Original Sin. Or at least that is my understanding…

    • Jonathanblake says

      Great article, thanks for posting

  4. Dan Crawford says

    More than twenty years ago, I was asked to do an Advent series at an evangelical church. My fourth presentation used Luther’s Magnificat commentary. It attracted the largest attendance and some rather remarkable discussion, including the admission by a number of life-long (non-Catholic) church members that they indeed asked Mary to pray for them. Some of the testimonies were rather moving – including the assertion that Mary was better positioned to pray on their behalf because she understood women’s experiences.

    One of the ancient titles of the Virgin Mary found in the RC Litany of the Virgin Mary is “Ark of the Covenant”. This more than any theological argument has helped me understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Her womb contained the Holy One.

    Thanks for a lovely reflection on the Mother of the Church.

  5. Mary for Evangelicals by Tim Perry and Mary Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan, might be good books for non-Catholics/non-Orthodox. And then there’s the quite nice and easy to read (kind of a “Mary for Dummies” book) The Everything Mary Book: The Life and Legacy of the Blessed Mother by Jenny Schroedel and Reverend John Schroedel. They’re Eastern Orthodox, but the book is ecumenical and covers all faith traditions about Mary.

  6. For those who want to make much of Mary, is it not troublesome that she is not mentioned by name in the New Testament after Acts 1 even once? In fact, the epistles, those great expressions of Christian theology and practice, contain only one reference to her, where Jesus is the one “born of a woman”. It is amazing to me that someone like Luther could even contemplate believing in the immaculate conception of Mary or her perpetual virginity. Luther is instructive to me in this regard, but only to illustrate how even the best of us get it wrong sometimes.

    • If we were to look at the Gospels as a drama or play, it would be sufficient to say that Mary’s part would be sought after by those wanting to participate. My meaning here is that the only other person in the Gospels besides Jesus who has as big a part is Peter, both in lines and in action. If she was as insignificant as some claim why would the different communities who wrote the Gospels even bother with her once she gave birth to Jesus. Obviously she must have meant something to those communities. She could have instead been given as much focus as let’s say… Joseph. And yet she wasn’t. Hmmm….

      • I did not mean to imply she is insignificant, but that the silence of Acts and the epistles about her should give us pause before we start making doctrines about things llike her immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, or her ability to mediate in any way between Jesus and ourselves. This is especially true since her part in the drama after the nativity is neither prominent nor unambiguously positive.

    • Though I don’t hold Luther’s specific views with regard to some of the doctrines about Mary (and I hasten to add that they were more complex than I have told here, and that he was not alone among the Reformers in holding them), I think the Protestant church has most certainly diminished her importance.

      As for Biblical evidence, I don’t think her absence in the epistles tells us a great deal. After all, these were occasional letters, and if you think about it, they rarely mention any of the events or people we know so well through the Gospels. You might say the Twelve weren’t very important either for that matter, or John the Baptizer. I think your comment reflects a common perspective among evangelicals—that the epistles are really the foundational documents of our faith because they contain the doctrines whereas the Gospels primarily contain the stories. I am coming to a different view wherein the Gospels should have the prominent place. When you do that, characters like Mary appear in a different light.

      Mary and Joseph and the others whose stories are told in the Gospels hold a place in Christian faith akin to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the First Testament did for the Jews. They are, as it were, the founders of the New Covenant age, the fathers and mothers who brought Jesus to us or pointed him out to us in a foundational way. In the course of salvation history, these are the ones who were privileged to personally introduce the Messiah to the world. Mary may be viewed as one “most highly favored” because of her unique role as his birth mother.

      • Chaplain Mike,
        Thanks for the further insight.

        I once heard a phrase that gave pause…..

        When it comes to Mary,
        if Catholics stand guilty of over-emphasis, Protestants stand guilty of amnesia.

        • That’s a really great quote, and although having a certain disarming humor about it, it really captures in my opinion the essence of where the two sides stand.

      • I appreciate very much that you have a gospel centered, as opposed to epistle centered approach. To be frank, I’m not sure Luther shared it. Romans and Galatians interpreted the meaning of Jesus to him, and were the foundation of his theology. I remember taking a seminary course devoted just to Luther and his writings, and it was clear that Paul, not the gospels alone, were the key to his radical break with Rome.

        Stories are crucial, but stories need interpretation. Mary and Joseph are to be highly honored, yes, but I don’t see anything in the gospels or epistles that tell me that they should be honored above other fallen but righteous humans such as the patriarchs you mentioned. Actually, I think Mary has been ignored too much, but I can also say the say thing about the Baptizer, whom our Lord called greatest among those born of women.

        My real complaint is that any attempt to exalt Mary to a status above a redeemed sinner is to me a perversion of the gospel, and a blurring of the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man. Honor her? Yes. Raise her to a different plane than Abraham, Sarah, David, and the Baptizer (and others). No.

        • She sure does raise strong opinions, doesn’t she?

          Kinda makes ya wonder why.

          • And the point of speculating about the motives of people we don’t know would be…..?

          • My apologies if you saw this as speculation concerning your motives.

            This is not speculation about anyone, it is simple comtemplation concerning her and why she evokes such emotion.

            Peace to you.

          • My apologies for being snarky

        • I actually think Luther is a good example of what you are emphasizing here, Daniel—honor without raising her to a different plane. The statement from the Augsburg Confession quoted in the post makes that clear.

          As for doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, it appears from what I’ve read that it was Luther’s way of trying to explain how Jesus was sinless, and he emphasizes that it was a special grace given to Mary for this purpose. He may have been wrong and the doctrine unsupportable from Scripture, but he held the doctrine in an evangelical context.

          As for perpetual virginity, that was the accepted orthodoxy of the day, Protestant or Catholic. Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger and others also held it. Even John Wesley affirmed it years later. I don’t, and I haven’t really studied all the reasons why these men were convinced of it. I know that Luther did make remarks indicating that such virginity should not be held up as a pattern of sainthood for others to follow, but a special calling for Mary.

  7. Thank you for the lovely presentation. As a convert from evangelicalism to the Catholic Church I have only begun to experience the graces of being touched by Mary. One quibble, which one of your Luther citations actually supports: we do not pray to Mary but with her and thorough her. She is a wonderful comfort.

    Tom

    • Yes, prepositions do matter. Thank you, Tom.

      • Prepositions matter, but prepositions (and verbs) change in meaning and nuance. ‘Pray to” once meant in English–and pretty recently–“make a request of.” (A little earlier, as late as the early 19th century in England, even “worship” wasn’t a verb limited to God but applied readily to human beings; cf. the Anglican marriage service and judicial titles.)

        Catholics hold on to the expression “pray to” with regard to the saints and angels because it’s part of our religious vocabulary, but as the verb increasingly becomes delimited to meaing “make a request OF GOD,” you’ll hear some Catholics saying “We don’t pray to Mary but ask her to pray for us.”

        The upshot is that Catholics do pray to Mary (in the older, traditional sense of the verb); but do not pray to Mary (in the Protestant, and increasingly universal, sense of the verb).

  8. As one that was called out of the Roman Catholic faith tradition one Sunday at Mass to a less formal/liturgical faith journey, the emphasis of Mary prior to my exodus of no great weight spiritually. I did not pray thru her or to her or think her position in the hierarchy of saints/significant ones as important as my desire to know her Son. My personal preference though without any implication or apologetic posture. Same with the sacrament of confession. Simply was not comfortable with its limitations as I personally experienced it. There is much tradition surrounding the RCC & EOC worship expressions & litany of saints. Many find comfort in such. I did not. Raised RCC, was a devout altar boy & eventually recruited for the priesthood. My sensitivity to God from an early age expressed itself thru a seeker’s questioning & true desire to know God. How that was presented in the RCC tradition something I had to wade thru. Once in high school, my own quest to delve deeper into RCC tradition & teaching began to peel back the ways which faith had become enmeshed in how it was expressed. At the age of 20 I had a personal encounter with Jesus about a month after a very dramatic auto accident. His revelation though did not use my religious tradition at all. No reference or filter of RCC teaching/doctrine was used. Neither was the then unknown Protestant Reformist position or that of the EOC or the charismatic/Pentecostal one used either. There was no doctrinal em-PHA-sis or specific denunciation of what I had previously been taught or what I had concluded. That event so incredible it has been the anchor point of my faith journey the past 36 years. Mary’s place in the amazing saga of divine reconciliation can be, & has been, robbed of its visceral humanity by the faith traditions that do like to super-saint thru claims & legend & other focus on spirituality vs. humanity. Just my own observation. This is done with Jesus also. He becomes so ethereal He simply cannot get His feet dirty walking the dusty roads of Galilee. He was this way or that way we like to paint Him. And we do like our saints clean. No muss. No fuss. No real sexual tension in Mary & Joseph’s marriage. They both were content with abstinence. However, if it was never consummated according to Jewish law & custom of the time, it violated the marriage covenant. Same with RCC teaching today. I suppose there was no need for a midwife in that stable. No afterbirth. No umbilical cord to cut. No birth pains. No blood. No sweat. No stretch marks either. Jesus & Mary too divinely enmeshed in an uber-spiritual existence to have to deal with real human issues. We like how the messy details are avoided. We like how the super human abilities elevate the special into a saintly realm that does make them seem, well, closer to God. That is the problem I see with the emphasis of doctrinal rightness especially during this Christmas season. The divine Gold Standard of holiness & righteousness actually left His place of glory that moment in human history to dwell among us. And He came to us in the usual manner (cue Harry Chapin song) other than His Paternal origin. Once the desire is to make some special exemptions with its necessary doctrinal proofs surrounding Mary, I find the human element removed & a plaster version put up in place of that reality. Again, just my own personal perspectives. And how the Incarnation is viewed by others does not obligate me to accept or resist its specialness. I see qualities of Mary in my own mother, God rest her soul. And characteristics of Jesus too. That is what I can identify with in my own faith journey at this time. Merry Christmas everyone. And peace to men on earth whom His favor rests…

    • You make some good points about maintaining our grasp on humanity. Thank you.

    • It’s a danger in popular Catholic piety, to be sure – making Mary into a hollow plaster statue with no reality to it. Seeing the doctrines but not seeing the woman who embodied them. (I don’t know about us doing that with Christ – how do you look at a crucifix and not see His humanity? Or attend Mass, or the Triduum services?) When it comes to Mary, I tend to swing Orthodox – referring to the Dormition instead of the Assumption, for instance. She’s just as honored in the East, if not more so, but somehow more human at the same time.

      • The litany of saints & the sanitized version of their lives as taught to a naive student in parochial school had me feeling the second class kingdom citizen. The over emphasis of ‘saintly’ qualities they were revered for the most effective way of diluting their humanity. It was quite the reverse expectation for me. These holy ones supposedly exemplified a life of devotion & supra-natural favor+divine destiny. In our little missionary church there was an almost life-sized crucifix with Jesus sorrowfully looking down on the quivering students kneeling beneath it in the darkened sanctuary. The blood stained look did not convey love for the sinner, but more like, “Look what you did to Me…” Funny (not in a ha-ha sense) how some religious trappings have the opposite effect on those already sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s nudge. For some the plaster 3D representations or the painted icons a way to identify with the spiritual elements they point to. As such they are appreciated for the richness of tradition they are part of. For me they are unnecessary as my connection with the divine a very real time experience. My best conversations with God sitting out on furrows of a farm with dogs & cats in tow. No need for the church & its subdued atmosphere with the lingering smell of incense. The contradiction of how God was represented in St. Alphonsus Church vs. my private devotions out on freshly plowed fields the beginning of a lifelong search for a divine connection more substantial than what was being taught me. I did experience that dramatic epiphany a few months after my 20th birthday. A few months after that I was called out of the Catholic worship expression during Mass by the now familiar Holy Spirit’s small still voice. Since this is my own personal journey+experience it does not represent a divine precedent nor does it imply affirmation or denunciation of any one Christian faith expression. My church attendance resume quite checkered. And I have experienced enough religious hypocrisy during my sojourn to sour me to the way church is expressed at times. But my faith in God has not wavered even though His children can be downright nasty no matter what faith expression they claim allegiance to. I see Jesus’ humanity in the faces of the least of these ministered to at our small church. We have a heart for the homeless & families struggling to get by in this harsh economic climate. Simple people being helped in His Name. The gospel in action. It is a sacramental expression of dedicated saints taking the “red letters” seriously. It is a James 1:27 religion in its simplest expression…