Sunday, 26 October 2008

An Anglican Worshipper's View of Mary the Mother of Jesus

This is a talk I gave at my Anglican church on 21st March 2004, which was Mother's Day.

Through the many centuries of church history, the mother of Jesus has achieved a status second only to Jesus himself in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other churches. She has been the focus of much debate and the subject of some of the greatest art in the Western world. Many of the finest medieval cathedrals are dedicated to her—including the Gothic masterpiece in Chartres, France.
In some denominations she has been venerated and worshipped, while in others she has been almost entirely ignored.
(1) Mary was young, poor and female, all characteristics that to the people of her day would make her unusable by God for any major task. But God chose Mary for one of the most important acts of obedience he has ever demanded of anybody.
A young unmarried girl who became pregnant risked disaster. Unless the father of the child agreed to marry her, she would probably remain unmarried for life. If her own father rejected her, she could be forced into begging or prostitution in order to earn her living. And Mary, with her story about being made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, risked being considered crazy as well. Still Mary said, despite the possible risks, “May it be to me as you have said”. When Mary said that, she didn’t know about the tremendous opportunity she would have.” She only knew that God was asking her to serve him & she willingly obeyed. Mary was obedient to God.
God’s announcement of a virgin born was believed by Mary. She believed the angel’s words & agreed to bear the child, even under humanly impossible circumstances. Mary was a woman of faith.
Mary worshipped God in a beautiful way. In Luke 1 v46-55 we see the Magnificat, when Mary proclaimed “My soul glorifies the Lord & my spirit rejoices in God my saviour”. This beautiful lyrical poem is called the Magnificat as that is the first word in the Latin translation of the passage and her song of praise to the Lord has been used as the basis for much choral music and hymns. The Magnificat also shows that despite being just a young country woman, Mary had a good knowledge of the Old Testament as it corresponds to the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 v 1-10 and it also quotes liberally from various Psalms. William Wordsworth declared this to be what all lyrical poetry should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”. Mary knew the Old Testament thoroughly and many portions especially the lyrical portions such as the song of Hannah, of by heart. That is why their language became the natural vehicle of her praises.
(2)Mary had confidence in her Son. An example being when Mary plus Jesus and his disciples were attending a wedding in Cana. When they ran out of wine, an embarrassing situation, which broke the strong unwritten laws of hospitality Jesus’ mother, looked to her son to solve this major problem. She said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you”. As I’m sure you recall from your Sunday school days Jesus solved the problem by turning water into wine.
(3) Mary was the one person to be with Jesus from birth to death. We see in John 19 v 25-26 at the cross of Jesus stood Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, his aunt and Mary herself. When Jesus saw his mother there and John standing nearby he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son", and to John “Here is your mother” and from that time on John took her into his home. Even after the ascension, Mary along with other women joined together with the disciples in the upper room to pray.

So how did Mary come to be so venerated and indeed worshipped in some denominations? Probably the earliest allusion to Mary in Christian literature is the phrase “born of woman” in Galatians 4:4, which was written before any of the Gospels. This was the only vague reference to Mary that St Paul made. The term itself was intended to establish that Jesus was fully human in contrast to the teaching of some that he did not have a completely human life. Both Luke and Matthew tell of the birth of Jesus in detail (Whether or not the story of the Annunciation in the first chapter of Luke is intended to suggest a similar parallel between Eve and Mary, this did soon become a theme of Christian reflection.) Writing at about the end of the 2nd century, the Church Father Irenaeus elaborated the parallel between Eve, who, as a virgin, had disobeyed the word of God, and Mary, who, also as a virgin, had obeyed it.
Of Mary's later life nothing is known. There is a tradition, probably from the 2nd century, that she went to live in Ephesus in Asia Minor. The veneration of the Virgin Mary possibly started there when the worship of the Roman goddess Diana, or Greek Artemis, whose great temple stood in Ephesus was transferred to Mary. This may have happened when paganism was outlawed and pagan temples destroyed in the 4th century.
The first widespread theological controversy over Mary had to do with the propriety of applying to her the title of Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” or “mother of God.” The title seems to have arisen in devotional usage, probably in Alexandria, sometime in the 3rd or 4th century; it was a logical deduction from the doctrine of the full deity of Christ, which was established as a dogma during the 4th century. The original aim of the title “bearer of God” for Mary was to honour the divine son. By the end of the 4th century, the Theotokos had successfully established itself in various sections of the church. Because it seemed to him that the supporters of the title were blurring the distinction between the divine and the human in Christ, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, objected to its use, preferring the less explicit title Christotokos, meaning “Christ-bearer” or “mother of Christ.” Along with other aspects of his teaching, Nestorius' objections were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 & Mary was solemnly declared to be the mother of God. In the Eastern churches this doctrine played a major devotional role and became a favorite subject for icon painters.
After Mary was declared to be mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, most theologians began to doubt that one who had been so close to God could have actually experienced sinful acts. In the 12th century the British theologian Duns Scotus asserted that she was free of sin from the moment of conception. Hence arose the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which became a dogma (something that must be believed) in the Roman Catholic Church in 1854.
The growth of popular devotion in the 12th century greatly advanced the role of the Virgin Mary. She became the “universal mother” the great intercessor with her divine son. The story of mother and son had great human appeal. Mary’s appeal was as the beloved mother and protectress of all men. No sin was too dreadful, no transgression too vile to escape her compassionate pleading with her son on behalf of the sinner. The introduction from the East of the rosary with its prayers to the virgin gave additional support to her cult in the West. Peasants, knights and kings begged her help and she became a romantic obsession. With the rise of the tradition of chivalry, Mary became the focus of a romantic cult that is difficult for the modern mind to appreciate. The great Gothic cathedrals cannot be fully understood until it is recalled that they were built partly as trophies for a beautiful woman, forever young, for ever kind.
In late medieval Europe religion became more personal, more individual. The suffering Christ replaced God, the stern judge. The pitiful Virgin Mary became more human and the cult of the Virgin became increasingly popular. Shrine after shrine was dedicated to her throughout Europe. The use of the rosary, the “Hail, Mary” and feasts of the Virgin became increasingly popular.
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the most recent dogma to be proclaimed. about Mary. Again around the 12th century most Roman Catholics had come to believe that Mary was taken up to heaven body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. By the 1860s many were petitioning that this belief be stated as a dogma. The church was at first reluctant to do so because there is no evidence for such a teaching either in the New Testament or in early church history. In 1950 Pope Pius XII finally confirmed the dogma, leaving open the question as to whether she had died first.
With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century came the teaching that the believer came into direct relation and union with Christ, as the one, only all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This meant Protestant churches could do away with the need for the Virgin as mediator between the sinner and Christ.
In 1993 I had the privilege of spending four months working with Catholics in Ireland. Before I went I thought of Catholicism as being an idolatrous denomination where Mary is worshipped and placed on the same level as Christ. However I found the true believers in the Catholic Church, those who seeked the Scriptures for themselves and were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit still greatly respected and indeed venerated Mary to a degree very few Protestants do without crossing the line into worship. It was a respect for a poor young country woman who was chosen by God for a quite scary task- to father his son, the saviour of the world and redeemer of mankind. It was veneration for someone who proved equal to this mammoth task, who despite the potential social suicide in those days of giving birth whilst still single with doubts about the father remained obedient, faithful, soaked up the scriptures and was a trusting and loyal mother to her son. On this mother’s day I would like to salute Mary the mother of Jesus.

1 comment:

Amanda Scroggs said...

Well said. I too misunderstood this religious concept. Thanks for sharing your insights.