Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 2 (2016): Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, or the Madonna, is venerated in the beliefs or dogmas, devotions, daily life, prayers, art and music of the Roman Catholic Church but she does not hold as a revered position in the practices of the United Church of Canada.
    a) Why?
    b) What role or presence do the books of the Bible attribute to Mary throughout the life of Jesus that would warrant this veneration by the RCC?

The difference in the churches’ views of Mary goes back 500 years to the Reformation. The veneration of Mary goes back more than 1000 years earlier, and became official in the year 432 CE at the Council of Ephesus.

That Council was called to decide on whether the church would officially give Mary the title Christotokos “Christ-Bearer” or Theotokos “God-Bearer”. Bishop Nestorius supported the Christ-Bearer idea, and he lost. The decision created a Schism in the church at the time, with many churches in Persia, Syria and other places in the East leaving Orthodoxy behind to  become the Nestorian Christian churches.

The veneration of Mary is still active today in both Eastern and Western Christian Churches. The Catholics are the most devoted to Mary, but the Orthodox church honours Mary in liturgies, in icons an other art, and have done for centuries. Within the Anglican communion there is a mild version of the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary.

The title, Theotokos (“God-Bearer”) literally means “The One who bears the One who is God.” It is simplified and mis-translated as “Mother of God,” which is perhaps the title that Protestants in general find most offensive today.

There is a bit of theological hair-splitting going on here. Obviously no one could believe that a human woman could give birth to the Creator, who is eternal and has no beginning. But if you emphasize the idea that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and is therefore God, then Mary is the woman who brought God into the world in human flesh. That’s why she has that title.

In the Roman Catholic Church Scripture is considered authoritative, but so is tradition, and so are the decisions of Councils and the formal decrees of the Pope.

The Protestant Reformation specifically rejected the authority of Tradition, and of those Councils whose decisions seemed to conflict with scripture. That’s where the split began.

In the Bible, Mary is presented in various ways. Luke’s gospel presents her as the virgin mother of Jesus, while it could be argued convincingly that Matthew does not consider Mary a virgin.

Luke presents Mary as a cousin of Elizabeth, and therefore aunt to John the Baptist. Luke also shows Mary as a prophet: as seen in Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat), with a deep prophetic concern for justice for the downtrodden.

Mark’s gospel, in Ch. 3, shows us Mary showing up with the brothers of Jesus to restrain him. They had decided he was “out of his mind” and she was going to have his brothers take him away by force.

John shows Mary present at the crucifixion where Jesus entrusts her to the care of “the disciple he loved.”  Roman Catholic theologians have used this disciple to represent the Church and have given Mary the title “Mother of the Church” in connection with this event.

John also recounts the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where we see Jesus turning water into wine despite his better judgement, because his mother talked him into it. This passage is used to justify praying to Mary so she can intercede with Jesus and God. The idea is that Mary might have a more sympathetic ear for day-to-day human issues, like running out of wine at a wedding.

It is interesting to note that the Qur’an celebrates the virgin birth of Jesus, and that Mary is the only woman specifically named in the Qur’an. In fact, the 19th chapter is named after her.

Here are some parts of Mariology that have nothing to do with the Bible:

1    Her mother’s name is Anne. This is based on tradition and has no scriptural support. But why not? It might be true.

2    The Immaculate Conception – (this is NOT the same as the Virgin Birth.) This doctrine is Roman Catholic only, not Orthodox or Anglican. The idea is that in order for Jesus to escape the inherited taint of original sin Mary herself had to be sinless. To accomplish this,  God intervened when she was conceived (the usual way, no virginity involved) to protect her soul from inheriting Original Sin.

3    Perpetual Virginity. PARENTAL ADVISORY! This doctrine presumes that Jesus was conceived and born miraculously, so that Mary’s hymen remained intact through it all. There is even a story that tells when the mid-wife used her finger to check, her hand was withered for her impertinence. There is no biblical basis for this at all.

One side effect of this is that Jesus’ brothers, as mentioned in the bible, are suddenly demoted to cousins, or are considered step-brothers from a previous marriage of Joseph.

In my opinion, this bit of doctrine is really messed up. It ties in to old church teachings that sex is sinful and that original sin is passed on through sex. It fits the understanding that women lead men into sin as Eve led Adam into sin. Mary is even called a Second Eve, and her perpetual virginity is supposed to be a sign that she succeeded where Eve failed.

Part of what bothers me is that even the leading Protestant Reformers bought into it. Martin Luther supported the idea. John Calvin was uncomfortable about dropping it (Calvin also believed that Mary never had other children), and John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church 200 years after the Reformation, supported the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It is worth noting that these were all men. The Anglican and Lutheran churches still uphold this as a doctrine.

4    The Assumption of Mary. This is the doctrine that Mary was taken bodily into heaven at the end of her life. It is not clear whether she died first or not. Again, this is not from the Bible, but arises out of tradition. It has become doctrine in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, as well as others.

5    Mary Queen of Heaven. In this doctrine, Mary is given this title because Jesus is crowned King of all the universe,     and so she is basically “Queen Mother.” The idea is that she was received bodily into heaven and has been honoured as a queen there ever since.

Parallels with Jesus: Many of the things ascribed to Mary are parallels of theology associated with Jesus. She is even called “co-redemptor” with Jesus. The idea is that because she brought salvation into the world in the person of Jesus, she is credited with our salvation too.

Anthropologists have had a field day with the veneration of Mary. They note that most ancient religions have both masculine and feminine divine figures. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all insist on monotheism: one God, who is typically depicted as masculine. Anthropologists suggest that the veneration of Mary alongside of Jesus was a way to balance that unbalanced view of divinity.

The theology of the United Church is complicated and constantly developing. Official statements of faith tend to reflect what the Bible supports, which includes the virgin birth. However, the Reformation emphasis on reason, study and logic has been embraced by the United Church, so that modern teachings struggle with the idea that Jesus might be divine, let alone providing any special status to his mother.

NB: examples given below are often drawn from Voices United (VU), the primary United Church hymn book.

For the United Church of Canada, the feminine aspect of divinity is portrayed in several ways. The idea of Sophia, the feminine personification of Wisdom has inspired a number of people (see VU # 891, where this is expressed in the words of the Apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon). In the Bible, this portrayal can be found in Proverbs Chapters 8&9.

This feminine portrayal of Wisdom also gets combined with the idea of the Holy Spirit (VU# 379). There is an ancient tradition of the Holy Spirit separately has a tradition of being called “she”, although tradition is not consistent: the Spirit is also called “he” and “it.”

The United Church also deliberately draws out feminine imagery of God from the Bible (Ps. 103 VU# 825).

In the United Church various women are lifted up to balance the very masculine tone of scripture (see inserts into Psalm 99 VU# 819, Psalm 105 VU# 828). Mary the mother of Jesus is among them, but women such as Sarah, Ruth and Mary Magdalene get more attention than she does.

I suspect that this has to do with the traditional image of Mary. One ancient “virtue” attributed to Mary is that she submits to the will of God. That submissive image of women is not one that we want to celebrate. It has been tied to that whole idea that sex=sin and that the only pure woman is a virgin. For women, an impossible ideal has been set: remain a virgin and have lots of children! This has been used by the church to oppress women for centuries, as well as to deny them an equal place in the church and the world. Just look at how many churches still won’t ordain women.

The more we think about Jesus in human terms, rather than divine, the more sense it makes to think about his mother the same way. Nestorius understood that 1600 years ago, and was declared a heretic & banished to a monastery. Maybe we should declare him an honourary Protestant.

Today the United Church tends to think about Jesus in human terms most of the time. We rarely fuss about him being crowned king of the universe, so why would we think about Mary as queen of heaven? It just doesn’t fit our theology.

Over 500 years the theologies of the RC and protestant churches have diverged tremendously. Since the formation of the United Church in 1925 the split has become even wider,     and the contrary ways we view Mary, the mother of Jesus are a great example of that.

NB: Much of the information on Mariology comes from the Wikipedia entry on that topic and related links. My apologies for any errors I may have made here.


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