Last Sunday, I read a weekly feature from Billy Graham, someone who I admire for his love of the Lord. I don’t expect his advice on the Christian faith to be Catholic, but I was still surprised at his answer to a person who asked him who in the Bible can we look to for an example of how to act, aside from Jesus. Graham answered that no one is perfect but God, that Jesus is obviously our best bet, and that we can learn from everyone in the Bible even if it’s by learning from their mistakes.
I knew he wasn’t going to suddenly preach about Mary’s Immaculate Conception or her Assumption into Heaven or that she is Queen of Heaven and Earth. Those are most definitely Catholic doctrines, and they’re not embraced by most Protestants. But I was still surprised that he didn’t regard her at all for her actions as recorded in Scripture.
Remember, she could have died for being pregnant out of wedlock. She could have been stoned to death. (And so Saint Joseph becomes someone else to emulate for his protection of Mary and the Christ Child.) But Mary did not say no to God’s request that she be the mother of His Son at the tender age of 14, or even question that this was possible. Remember that when Zechariah was told by Gabriel that his barren wife would conceive and have a son named John, he said it was impossible and was struck dumb for 9 months. Mary, on the other hand, believed what God said to her through His Angel Gabriel; she wasn’t sure how that would work since she was a virgin, but she didn’t doubt that God would find a way for it to happen. The faith of this young Jewish girl was amazing.
I am confounded how this, even leaving off all the Catholic doctrines I mentioned above, would not leave every Christian alive in awe of Mary. Who of us have this kind of faith, or even a tiny fraction of it?
And so I mentioned it on Twitter.
Do Protestants have ANY regard for the Mother of Our Lord at all?? Isn’t she at ALL special to them?
— Christine~Soccer Mom (@CatholicMomVA) October 21, 2013
Which started a firestorm not long after Stephen Greydanus echoed my sentiment.
…perhaps in response to Catholic excesses, real and/or perceived. “Mary was JUST…” is a characteristic phrase. @CatholicMomVA
— Steven D. Greydanus (@DecentFilms) October 21, 2013
Amongst the responses Steven and I got was this one, which started a whole new conversation:
— Jeremy M Doan (@JeremyMDoan) October 21, 2013
And while the back-and-forth was not going too badly on Twitter, we agreed it wasn’t quite the format that was most conducive to deep theological discussion.
Jeremy was kind enough to post on his own blog about the exchange, and I promised I’d answer in the same fashion.
So, on to the Blessed Virgin Mary:
I grew up Catholic, and so I’ve always loved Mary, but when I was a young adult I heard a lot of the arguments against venerating her that Jeremy brought up. What I learned while trying to understand why we treat Mary as we do in the Catholic Church changed my mind and made me realize that she’s more important than I ever thought while growing up.
First, let me start by saying that no one holds a place higher than God. God is all-powerful and deserving of adoration and worship. God alone is worthy of this. To worship Mary or adore her would be a grave sin against the First Commandment. But we are allowed to honor people and to even hold them up as examples to follow, which is what we do with all the saints in Heaven. After all, if you want a good example for your goal, you choose someone who has done what you want to do successfully. If you want to be a great basketball player, you look to Pete Maravich or Michael Jordan for inspiration. If you want to be an excellent writer, you might look to G.K. Chesterton or Shakespeare or Tolkien as heroes. If you want to become a world-famous cook, maybe you look to Julia Child to see how you can rise to fame from seemingly nowhere.
And if you want to go to Heaven? There are people we believe have lived lives of heroic virtue and holiness who behold the face of God and adore Him forever in Heaven. These are the saints, and we look to them for inspiration.
We also do not believe the saints are dead. Jesus said that if we believe in Him, we will have eternal life (John 11:25-26). Even on the Cross, Our Lord said to the Good Thief that on that very day he would be in Paradise with Him (Luke 23:42). And so those who die in Christ are not dead, but alive in Heaven. Thus, just as we would ask a friend to pray for us, especially one who we felt was particularly close to the Lord, we ask the saints to pray for us. We do this not because we do not believe we can go to Jesus ourselves, but because we believe that sometimes we can “storm Heaven” with our prayers and the prayers of our friends. We call on prayer warriors in this life, but the saints in Heaven have become perfected in Christ and see Him face-to-face. It’s natural to ask the holiest people we know to pray for our intentions; who is holier than someone who has already gone to Heaven before us?
But why is Mary singular among the saints?
As I said above, I’m surprised that even the idea that this young Jewish girl had faith enough to believe what God promised her at the Annunciation doesn’t garner more admiration for Mary. She was holy enough that an archangel appeared to her and said, “Hail, full of grace!” (For a bit of information on the best translation of the phrase from Greek to English, see this article.)
She was chosen to bear God in her womb – chosen out of all the women in history – and she said yes. Then she gave birth to the Son of God and raised Him (with Saint Joseph’s help) to adulthood. She raised Him to be a good Jew and to observe the Law (which He had written!), which meant following every Commandment, including that which commands us to honor our parents.
Honoring Mary takes nothing from her Divine Son, though. Instead, as her Magnificat says:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
(Luke 1:46-55 – for another translation go here)
In this bit of Scripture, we find several keys to our veneration of Mary: first, that her soul “proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (or “magnifies the Lord”). Mary herself would never want someone to place her above her Son, and Catholics do not do this. However, we do follow her prophecy that “all generations will call [her] blessed” when we honor her. In fact, when we pray the “Hail Mary,” we echo the words of Elizabeth in Luke 1:42 as we say, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of your womb!” We also echo Scripture when we call her the Mother of God (which to ancient Jews would be said as “Lord,” since they never pronounced the name of God).
Mary is special to us, in other words, for her singular role in Salvation: she brought forth the Lord into the world. She reflects God’s glory like the moon reflects the sun’s rays. She is the gateway through which Christ the Lord came into the world. It’s true that little was said of her in Scripture, and we don’t even see her own words written down anywhere past the Wedding at Cana. But those final words of hers in Scripture, as well as her actions at that moment, show exactly what she wishes us to do in our lives as Christians. She brought the waiters to Jesus and said, “Do whatever He tells you.” And this is Mary’s role in our lives: she points us to her Divine Son and prays that we will do what He tells us.
These are among the reasons Catholics hold Mary in higher regard than other saints. As holy as anyone else in the Scriptures might be, no other woman was holy enough for God to approach her with this proposition. Jesus cared for His mother all His life, and made sure she was provided for after His death by entrusting her to Saint John, even as He was dying on the Cross.
Reverence for Mary is nothing new, as this 5th Century poem demonstrates:
Hail, our desirable gladness;
Hail, O rejoicing of the churches;
Hail, O name that breathes out sweetness;
Hail, face that radiates divinity and grace;
Hail, most venerable memory;
Hail, O spiritual and saving fleece;
Hail, O Mother of unsetting splendor, filled with light;
Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
Hail, most limpid font of the lifegiving wave;
Hail, new Mother, workshop of the birth.
Hail, ineffable mother of a mystery beyond understanding;
Hail, new book of a new Scripture, of which, as Isaiah tells, angels and men are faithful witnesses;
Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying ointment;
Hail, best trader of the coin of virginity;
Hail, creature embracing your Creator;
Hail, little container containing the Uncontainable.
One quote I love about Mary and our love for her is from Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who gave up his life for another in Auschwitz:
“Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”
I’ll leave this post with a beautiful hymn, which emphasizes the idea that Mary, while worthy of honor and admiration, is a reflection of her Son’s perfection as God. (I’ve posted the lyrics below the video.)
Mary the dawn, Christ the perfect Day.
Mary the gate, Christ the heavenly Way.
Mary the root, Christ the mystic Vine.
Mary the grape, Christ the sacred Wine.
Mary the wheat sheath, Christ the living Bread.
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose bloodred.
Mary the font, Christ the cleansing Flood.
Mary the chalice, Christ the saving Blood.
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord.
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored.
Mary the beacon, Christ the haven’s Rest.
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision blest.
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.