Hail Mary...

As we move through Advent towards Christmas, there is more talk in Protestant and Evangelical circles of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus. Perhaps many of us are watching The Nativity Story. It seems Christmas time is when we Protestants feel least nervous about using 'the M-word.' In the wake of a greater ecumenical consciousness emerging among evangelicals there has been lots of recent discussion and a flurry of books by Evangelicals about Mary.

Of course, the popular perception is that differences in how we regard Mary is one of the prominent differences between Protestants and Catholics. I will not explore the question of "official" Roman Catholic teaching versus popular practice on this subject, though I personally find the official teachings much more agreeable than some of the more pagan-looking popular practices (about which I know very little). As C.S. Lewis said in the preface to Mere Christianity, Protestants see an over-emphasis on Mary as striking at the root of Monotheism itself. Anytime we here language about "co-redeemer" our worst fears about the Roman Catholic excesses seem to be confirmed - since clearly only the Lord can save, only the Lord is our mediator (as Vatican II also affirmed).

I've been thinking alot about Mary lately myself and how integral she will be to restoring the unity of the church (Pope John Paul II/'the Great' said as much in Ut Unum Sint). As I have been thinking about Mary several things have come to the fore for me. Mary is, in Scripture (especially in St. Luke's writings), the first and exemplar disciple, even the paradigmatic disciple. She, in perfect and humble faith and obedience, gave of her very physical essence to make possible the Incarnation of the Word of God - of her very flesh God became flesh! She is always near Jesus - present for the whole of his ministry, beginning from his conception to his birth; she carried him on his prophecy-soaked return from exile in Egypt as a child. She nursed him as a child and supported his ministry in many ways. Of course she must know him in more intimate ways than is possible for any other disciple or saint.

Mary was present at his first miracle where she told the servants concerning Jesus "whatever he says, do that." (John 2) She was faithful even to remain with him at the foot of the cross. She bore much pain and sorrow for Christ, her son, whom she bore and whom she buried. Mary is the link between the old and new covenants - a daughter of Israel, the mother of a prophet like Hannah before her, who also was present in the upper room with the disciples, awaiting the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. The angel repeatedly calls her the "favored one" and the Spirit, through Elizabeth says she is "Mother of my Lord" and "blessed are you [Mary] among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary herself is a prophetess singing words that are now Scripture: "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior...for the Almighty has done great things for me...from this day all generations shall call me blessed." By God's sovereign choice and Mary's faithful response, she is utterly unique among all the saints and has a uniquely pivotal place in salvation history. As Tim Perry puts it in his book Mary for Evangelicals “if Mary did not bear God in her womb – if she is not Theotokos ("God-bearer" or "Mother of God") – human beings are not saved” (p. 271).
And since Christ is the Messianic King of Israel - the "son of David," she must surely in some sense be "the Queen mother," who is a very important figure in Hebrew notions of Kingship (or so I am told by Catholic and Evangelical scholars). So in light of all this, let us let go of our Protestant excesses and fulfill her prophetic word by calling her blessed.
Here is an article at "First Things" by Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and one of my favorite Evangelical scholars (because he is ecumenical in scope), along these lines arguing that Evangelicals can recover their own Mariology. He says Evangelicals (without ceasing to be Evangelical) can and should emphasize 5 aspects of Mary's calling. She is 1) THE daughter of Israel, 2) the virgin Mother of Jesus, 3) the Theotokos, 4) the Handmaiden of the Word and 5) the Mother of the Church. He explores these themes in Scripture, the Early Fathers, and the Reformers (who generally had their own sort of Marian devotion that Protestants have since lost) arguing that they are perfectly congruent with Evangelical theology and he ends with a Marian prayer that he has composed.
A very appropriate Marian prayer that may be used on a regular basis by Protestants attempting to recover a Biblically-balanced Mariology is Collect for the feast of The Visitation (May 31) in The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (p. 240):
Father in heaven, by your grace Mary the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In reflecting on Mary I have also composed (and begun to use) several Marian prayers, shorter and longer variations on the same basic idea.
Almighty God our Savior,
you are holy, glorious, and good:
We thank you for the witness of all your saints,
especially your [favored] servant, the Virgin Mary.
Blessed is she among women and blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus.
She believed your word of promise,
And by your great power she has become the Mother of my Lord [and Theotokos].
Look with mercy upon us, O Father,
And grant that we may follow in her courageous faith
As we humbly pray with her:
'Be it done to us according to your word,'
That our spirits may rejoice in you
And our lives magnify your glorious Name;
Through your Son and Mary's Son: Jesus Christ,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit
One God, now and forever. Amen.

I am as yet undecided (though I will investigate this until I am decided) on the issue of how the saints may intercede for us and whether we should ask them too - that is, what kind of intercourse exists between the living and departed saints (and whether this must imply the omni-presence of the saints?). This prayer could be interpreted to mean that we pray for ourselves while with the expectation that Mary intercedes for us (which may satisfy Roman Catholics) - or simply that we pray using the same words that she once used (which should satisfy any Evangelical Protestant), or any position in between.

The wording generally comes from Luke 1:28-30, 38, 41-48 (and 48-55), as well as the theological formulation of the Fourth great Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451. This prayer could be used daily or weekly (either of those would be my preference) and may be especially appropriate during: Advent and Christmas, The Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), The Feast of the Visitation (May 31), Mothers' Day (2nd Sunday of May), and The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (Aug. 15) (all dates are Anglican usage).
On an interesting side note, I recently read that Luther himself (at least for a while) argued that there was an appropriate way for the Christian to use the "Ave Maria"/"Hail Mary" without necessarily being trapped in 'Roman corruption' and all that. Certainly his own Mariology is apparent in some of his sermons about her faith. This is, along with Luther's continuing the practice of Eucharistic Adoration (thought limiting it to a few moments within the mass itself) rather surprising to me, based upon my presuppostions as an American about what is "Protestant."

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Blogger lehall said...

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11:01 AM, December 12, 2008  
Blogger lehall said...

An interesting analogy on saings' intercession: We consider it perfectly appropriate to ask the holy people in our lives to pray for and with us. I ask my mom to pray for me all the time. If we believe that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and that the communion of the church is not bound by time, then praying 'to' the saints, in the form of asking their prayers for us should be an acceptable and worthwhile practice.
It would not, in my view, be appropriate to pray only to the saints. Just as I can't have a prayer life simply by merit of my mom's praying for me. But praying with the heroes of the church throughout the ages seems to me a faithful way to live out our claims about the church's universal scope in time as well as in space.

11:04 AM, December 12, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...


Yes, I've heard that explanation before and it makes perfect sense of the practice - as James says "the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective" - and who better than some great widely-recognized saint.

What I am unclear about it the level or clarity of the intercourse that exists between us on this earth and those who have died - who are waiting "with the Lord" (presumably in "Paradise" or "Hades - the good part") for the general resurrection. I am uncertain as to whether they can hear us at all, or if they are simply witnesses who see us - or if we are simply connected into communion with them by some general communion together with the Spirit (as I am in communion with Christians in Spain at this moment, but can in no way hear them).

Also potentially problematic (especially in the case of Mary and other oft-petitioned saints) is the question of human finitude. If 700 million people all pray to Mary at the same moment, can she (assuming that saints on the other side can hear us) hear them all? Are saints "timeless" in the same sense that God is (as they share in his eternity), once they pass out of this life? I'm unsure about that since, the future resurrection seems to imply a temporal existence, and it seems unlikely that we would regress from timelessness to temporarity. But, as I freely point out, much of this is speculation. I have very little clear warrant in scripture to work from here and the earliest voices in the tradition are likewise unclear as far as I can tell.

7:31 PM, December 15, 2008  

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