Today was the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. I probably would never have noticed the fact except that we happened to attend the local Anglo-Catholic church yesterday, and they were keen to make the most of the occasion. Ironically, we had attended the same church precisely two years ago for the first time, venturing through its doors on the Feast of the Assumption in 2009, and finding ourselves rather alarmed when, at the end of the service, everyone turned toward us (we happened to be seated right by the statue of the Virgin) and began reciting the Ave Maria. The experience prompted me to reflect a bit on the practice of praying to saints generally, and the precise nature of the Protestant objection thereto.*
This time, I wanted to reflect more specifically on the practice of Marian devotion (not, though, on the dogma of the Assumption specifically), and how Protestants ought to approach it. We Protestants certainly have a problem when it comes to Mary–so allergic are we to any sign of Marian devotion that we flip out and run the other way at any sign of it, including thoroughly orthodox phrases like “Mother of God” and “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
The first phrase is of course part of the touchstone of orthodoxy the Definition of Chalcedon, and is the proper translation of Theotokos–the preferred Protestant version (for those who even bother to recite it) is “God-bearer,” but this unfortunately names not the orthodox doctrine, but the heresy of Nestorius that Theotokos was coined to contest. (Note that I do not count myself an expert in 5th-century Christological controversies, but this is my understanding based on what I have read on the subject; feel free to shed light on this if you have any.) To call Mary the “Mother of God” was a truth that many Christians actually gave their blood and their lives to defend, and yet we Protestants have casually tossed it aside because it sounds icky and Catholic.
Likewise, the first part of the Ave Maria is of course straight from the Gospel of Luke: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And yet I found that the words caught in my throat during the service, as if I was saying something idolatrous. I daresay most Protestants could not even imagine reciting these words, unless they happened upon them while reading aloud Luke ch. 1.
In this, as in so many other such things, there are two warring impulses that it is hard to reconcile–the call to purity and the call to unity. On the one hand, we might be inclined to say that even those sorts of Marian devotion that are not in themselves idolatrous nevertheless are so prone to become so, and so often have, that we must lean in the opposite direction, and steer clear of the whole notion of honouring Mary, lest we should thereby dishonour God. Therefore we must be on guard even against forms of devotion that on paper seem legitimate, lest there lurk within them an idolatrous spirit. On the other hand, we might say that we are supposed to seek unity with Christian brothers and sisters in everything that we possibly can do, in everything that is not in itself wrong, and that includes seeking unity with the Church of past generations. For almost as long as the Church has existed, it has held Mary in a place of special honour, and seen fit to show that honour liturgically. No doubt Marian devotion has taken many harmful forms, but should we not defer to the consensus of many centuries of Christians that some kind of Marian devotion is appropriate and desirable? Therefore we should seek to engage, together with Catholics, Orthodox, Anglo-Catholics, and long centuries of Christian practice, in whatever forms of Marian devotion that are not necessarily heretical, idolatrous, or what have you, and try to assume the best of forms that seem dubious or ambiguous.
Having been so long exposed to the dominance of the first impulse, which on so many issues has had such a destructive Gnosticizing effect on Protestant churches, I am naturally inclined to try to give freer rein to the second impulse, but of course, balance is necessary. So I wanted to think through a little more specifically what it is that might trouble us in a service like the one I attended on Sunday. What forms of honouring Mary might prove to be idolatrous or heretical, etc., and as for the ones that don’t, is there any reason not to participate in them?
First, though, let’s ask what the point should be of honouring Mary at all. What do we mean by this notion? Protestants are likely to react against the entire idea, for to honour Mary–a creature–seems like it must necessarily be a way of dishonouring God. God only should be honoured, and no mere creature! But this is a product of that Puritan impulse that I have recently been harping upon, the impulse which insists that grace is a zero-sum game**, that God can only be honoured at human expense; that mankind must be correspondingly humbled as God is exalted. But of course, this is not what Scripture celebrates. Scripture celebrates the fact that God has condescended to us, and lifted us up to share in his glory. To celebrate the glories of an Abraham or a David or a Mary, or, most of all, the Church of which Mary has always been understood to be a symbol, is not to honour them for what they are in themselves, but to honour them as sites of God’s redemptive grace, as testaments to the incredible goodness of God that has seen fit to bestow honour on his creatures, to work in and through them as instruments of his purpose, and to raise them up to share with him in heavenly glory. Rightly understood, then, this is what honouring Mary should be all about.
For where else do we find such a stupendous display of the mystery of grace? In Mary, God took a lowly maiden who had done nothing at all but show faith in his promises, and not only made her the means for the redemption of the whole world, but actually came and made his home within her! As such, she is a symbol of God’s grace toward all of us, the Church, which God has, through no merit of our own, made the agent of his redemptive purposes toward the world, and in whom he mysteriously dwells in the person of his Son. In celebrating Mary, and her role in the history of redemption, we are not detracting from God, but rather celebrating the stupendousness of his grace; in honouring her, we are of course honouring Him. After all, to call Mary “blessed” is of course to make the statement that she has been blessed–by God–and that we are in awe of the bounty of His blessings.
This is, of course, a rather Protestant way of describing it all. No doubt a great many Catholics could agree with a great deal of what I just said, but certainly dogmas like the Immaculate Conception, the language of Co-mediatrix, and such teachings tend to obscure this notion that Mary is not honoured for anything special she did or anything special she was in herself, but for God’s grace exhibited to her and through her. The Protestant suspicion that to honour Mary is not to honour her as a creaturely object of God’s benevolence, but as a quasi-transcendent subject somehow alongside God, is certainly not unfounded, having a basis not merely in bastardised Catholic practice but also in Catholic dogmatics.
But if we are following the second impulse–the impulse of unity–then perhaps we will, even while holding such problematic notions and forms of devotion at arm’s length, heartily embrace formulations and practices that celebrate Mary as object and instrument of grace, Mary as a symbol of God’s grace toward all of us, Mary as the locus of the mystery of the Incarnation.
In that case, we should have no problem with hymns like this (which I sang on Sunday):
Virgin-born, we bow before thee:
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.
Blessed was the breast that fed thee;
blessed was the hand that led thee;
blessed was the parent’s eye
that watched thy slumbering infancy.
Blessed she by all creation,
who brought forth the world’s salvation,
and blessed they, for ever blest,
who love thee most and serve thee best.
Virgin-born, we bow before thee;
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.
Or even with hymns like:
Sing we of the blessed Mother who received the angel’s word,
And obedient to the summons bore in love the infant Lord;
Sing we of the joys of Mary at whose breast the child was fed
Who is Son of God eternal and the everlasting Bread.
[it continues in this vein for three more verses]
Or should we? I expect most of us still would be super-nervous about these, especially the second. For to honour Mary theologically in the way I described might seem like one thing; to honour her liturgically quite another. Indeed, Protestants have often made this sort of distinction. We claim to have a high doctrine of creation, but many Protestants–at least Reformed Presbyterians, don’t like creation to play much of a role in worship, purging our churches of any kind of imagery. While of course part of this might be legitimate avoidance of idolatry, more of it seems to be part of the same old Puritan fear that to honour God through his creations is to dishonour him. More theologically sound, I think, is the kind of worship that a hymn like “All Creatures of Our God and King” displays–praising God through praising his works.
And if we can worship him by praising his inanimate works like the sun and the moon, then why can’t we praise his infinitely greater works like the Virgin Mary and her story? Again, perhaps it seems legitimate in principle, but we are liable to be suspicious that such worship will quickly have the effect of making the Virgin an object, not an avenue, of worship. Certainly in some Catholic churches, where even devotion that might be prima facie legitimate is part of worship on a daily or weekly basis, this is a serious cause for concern. (Of course, I should add that based on my limited experience, most ordinary Catholic worship services do not feature displays of Marian devotion.) But I’m not sure that this would be a fair objection for a church that merely sings such hymns a couple times a year on stipulated feast days, like the one where I was worshipping.
Okay, so maybe we could justify all this thus far, and thus, for the sake of unity, and of respect for the historic Church, we should be happy to participate in this kind of worship. But what about singing or praying to Mary? After all, while it might’ve been fine for the angel to say “Hail Mary” or Elizabeth to say “Blessed are you among women,” they were looking at Mary when they said it. We aren’t. So why should we be addressing her in the second person singular in worship? Isn’t that something we only do to God? This seems quite a natural concern to have, and it does feel like you’ve crossed over some barrier when you go from saying “Sing we of the blessed Mother” to actually singing to the blessed Mother. On the other hand, it is not true that our hymns are exclusively addressed to God. A great many hymns are worded so that they are addressing one another, the communion of saints (e.g., off the top of my head, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”), or even addressing ourselves (“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”). In fact, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” mentioned above, goes so far as to address the inanimate creation directly, calling on “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” to praise God, and praising God for them. This being the case, we may reasonably ask what is wrong with singing
“Praise, O Mary, praise the Father, Praise thy Saviour and thy Son,
Praise the everlasting Spirit, who hath made thee ark and throne;
O’er all creatures high exalted, lowly praise the Three in One.” (At least, assuming–the poetry is ambiguous–that it is the Three in One that is “o’er all creatures high exalted,” not Mary herself.)
In a context like this, the second-person singular can be understood as a poetic invocation no more polytheistic than the invocation of “Brother Sun.” But of course, it often goes further than this. Most Marian devotion is not merely poetically invoking her, but genuinely praying to her–or, at any rate, asking her to pray for us. Of course, as I wrote two years ago, there is not necessarily any idolatry or heresy in the notion that we could call upon some deceased saint and ask them to pray for us, though we Protestants might well doubt whether there was any way they could hear us, and suppose that the practice, imputing to the dead in Christ godlike powers of prayer-hearing, would certainly lend itself to idolatry. So, while not wanting to consider all such “prayers” ipso facto idolatry, I would tend to personally draw the line here, and stop short of joining the congregation in “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
And then, of course, even beyond this are prayers or hymns to Mary that speak of her as someone not just with power to pray for us, but with power that sounds like it should be Christ’s alone–as in one anthem that the choir sang, which was mercifully in Latin: “Honour her that she may free thee from thy many sins. Call on her, lest the storm of sins overtake thee.”
When such genuinely idolatrous language is present in the service, it is of course reasonable to ask whether we ought not just to steer as clear as possible from the whole shady business, instead of going along as far as conscience permits. On the other hand, it certainly seems that Protestants have impoverished their faith by completely excising from it any real consideration of Mary, and the disregard this shows for the faith of the early Church does not boost our credibility when we claim to be recovering that faith. Finding the appropriate balance is sure to prove a difficult task, but continuing to neglect that task is not a responsible option.
*You can read my post on prayers to the saints (though as what I say here suggests, I have retreated a bit fromt the ground I tried to stake out then) here.
** For more on “the Puritan impulse” see here.