On Mary

A friend linked to an article by an Orthodox Christian about Mary, making the traditional Orthodox and Catholic point that Christians can pray to Mary. These Christians believe Mary was raised to heaven, where she reigns as Queen. That we are part of the Body of Christ, and hence are connected to her (and all the other saints in heaven) through the “communion of saints.” Roman Catholics speak of her as “mediatrix of all graces,” and “co-redemptrix” (traditional terms long used that some are trying to get formally defined as infallible dogma). Roman Catholics believe she was “immaculately conceived” (i.e., preserved from the stain of original sin), and “assumed body and soul into heaven.” Orthodox Christians speak of her as “panagia,” or “All-Holy.” Songs are sung to her, prayers are addressed to her, her image is present in homes and churches and is carried in procession. In some ethnic festivals, money is pinned to her robe. In the wedding traditions of some cultures, the couple is wrapped in a rosary (or “lasso”), and they lay flowers at the feet of her statue. In May, her image is crowned with flowers by Roman Catholics. She is said to have not only been a virgin when she was found to be with child, but that she remained a virgin even in childbirth (that Jesus passed through her as sunlight through a window), and that she delivered without crying out in pain (having been free of the curse of the fall). She is said to have appeared to various people over the ages, at Fatima, and Lourdes, and Tepeyac, among other places, calling Catholics to pray the rosary and to dedicate churches in her name, and to make pilgrimage to these sites.

Protestants consider all of this mere human tradition–most would consider some aspects idolatrous, even.

The Bible record of Mary’s life is sparse. Luke’s first chapters tell the story of how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, greeting her, “Hail Mary, full of grace (or “highly favored”), the Lord is with you.” He said she would conceive and bear a Son, who would be the savior of his people. Matthew always speaks of the virgin birth, connecting it with the promise of Isaiah. Luke tells how Elizabeth greeted her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This prompts Mary to praise God for having had mercy on the weak and the lowly. Simeon and Anna prophesied to Mary of the suffering Jesus would endure, and of a sword that would pierce her heart. Luke says she was worried when he disappeared on the trip back from Jerusalem, and she and Joseph found him in the temple.

In Luke 11:27-28, a woman said, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

Mary came with Jesus’ brothers, and Jesus apparently gave them no extra honor or greeting, saying those who heard his word were his family (Mark 3:31-35).

When he went to his hometown, the people said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3).

John tells the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2), and tells us Mary was at the foot of the cross (John 19:25).

Luke says Mary was with the apostles praying in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:12-14).

And then nothing more is said of her. The apostles say nothing about her life after Pentecost. They are not interested in her death. They knew nothing about her being raised to heaven. They accord her no special place in the Church. She disappears from view. Like John the Baptist, her work was done.

So from the Bible’s standpoint, she was a woman of faith, who believed God when he promised the impossible. She followed him, regardless of the consequences. She nurtured her son, and took him to the Temple, and stayed by his side at the end, and was a part of the Christian community. But Jesus gave her no special honors, including her merely as one of many who believed, and did his will.

Everything else in Catholic tradition is of human origin and is, at most, unnecessary.  But when we talk of bowing down to her or her image, we are on dangerous ground. Even an angel warned John, when he knelt before him, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God” (Rev. 22:9). Catholics split hairs between worship and veneration, but the Bible says simply, don’t bow yourselves down to anyone other than God. The commandment is clear (Exodus 20:4)–“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

If the Mary who appears to Catholics were the Mary of the Bible, she would surely say the same thing as the angel–“Don’t bow down to me. Worship God! Don’t serve me, serve Him! Don’t obey my whims to build churches and go on pilgrimages and pray rosaries–Listen to Jesus! Do whatever he tells you to do!”

The Mary of the apparitions does not do that. That’s one criterion that suggests that she is not who she claims to be. The other is that the Bible consistently warns against communicating with the dead. It makes no distinction. It warns of deceitful spirits in the last days. And it tells us clearly (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10) that the dead know nothing.

Even the great 16th century Catholic mystic, John of the Cross, warned against apparitions.

I believe that these apparitions of Mary, and the  belief in communicating with the dead that underlies them, are a key part of Satan’s strategy that will culminate in the final deception. He has conditioned much of the Christian world to believe that the dead are not dead, that they speak, that we can bow down to beings other than God, that we can make icons and statues of them, and bow down to them, and venerate them, and dress them in fancy clothes, and decorate them with flowers.

There’s a hymn that I think Protestants need to remove from their hymnals. They’ve included it without apparently realizing that it is an Orthodox hymn to Mary. The title: “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.” Here’s the problematic verse, which addresses Mary and asks her to lead the angel choirs in praise:

O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Some Catholics will point to Martin Luther’s writings on Mary to urge us to reconsider, and to be open to church tradition. Yes, Luther wrote about her. He was even willing to accept the un-Biblical tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary (he retained many Roman traditions, including infant baptism and hostility to the Jews). But where he speaks of Mary, it is to lift her up as an examplar of faith–as one who believed the Word, and clung to it alone. He denounced the invocation of the Saints, and the Catholic cult of the saints, as among the abuses of the Antichrist.

Now, let’s come to the larger purpose of why I raise this issue. I’ve been posting about dialogue with Islam. Some Catholic apologists claim that their Marian teachings give them an edge in speaking with Muslims. The Qur’an speaks of Mary, and praises her. It affirms that she was a virgin, and that the angel gave her the news of the son she would bear. It affirms that otherwise, she was a normal mother, and cried out in labor pain. It affirms that she was chosen by God, and purified by Him for this calling. But it warns that only God is to be worshipped.

So the teaching of the Qur’an on this point is consistent with what the Bible affirms about Mary, and what it denies–yes, she was chosen by God, and was the virgin mother who gave birth to Jesus. But she is not to be bowed down to. God alone is to be worshiped. This provides an area of agreement, not between Orthodox or Catholics and Muslims, but between Protestants and Muslims. Islam believes that Muhammad was called to restore the pure religion of Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus, which had been corrupted by paganizing influences upon early Christianity. Protestantism, too, sought to purify the church. It objected to many of the things that Muhammad objected to: images, adoration of the saints, sacrifice of the Mass, worship of Mary. It, too, pointed men to the command of the prophets: Worship God, and Him alone!

Christians too often see Islam as monolithic, and think Islam is represented by the terrorists. Muslims, on the other hand, often do not see the distinctions between Christians. I’ve found in my dialogue with Muslims  that it is important to affirm that yes, God wants to purify his people. Yes, there were corruptions of Jesus’ message. Yes, idolatry and false worship entered the Church. But before the final judgment, when Jesus returns as the instrument of God’s justice, there will be a call, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:6-7).