Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Sunday is a day or the day (depending on your Christian tradition) to commemorate and celebrate the life and faithfulness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. My Eastern brothers and sisters call her the Theotokos, from the Greek for God-Bearer (or, roughly, Mother of God). Now, I'm a Lutheran, so for most of my life, I haven't had much to do with Mary. But I'm making up for lost time. It seems meet and right (and perhaps even salutary) that all Christians come to a renewed appreciate\ion for and devotion to Our Lady. To wit, these points and a commentary.

First, that the Western Church has all but abandoned the title Theotokos seems to me to be bizarre. At the Council of Ephesis (400-something -- sorry, my history is really bad), the Church Fathers (I know ... ) declared that the appropriate title for Jesus' mother is "Theotokos" and not (as some -- notoriously the Nestsorians -- would have had it) the "Christotokos'" -- the mother of (the) Christ. Last evening a theology-professor friend of mine argued on behalf of the Nestorian signifier because of it is less likely to offend and mislead non-Christians (notably Muslims) for whom the idea of God's being birthed is rank blasphemy. Now, I think that language is always a problem. But here doesn't language serve exactly the point we seek to make: That God took on human existence, thereby incorporating all that is human into the Godhead and all that is divine into humanity? (Remember: The "naming" controversy was not about Mary per se, but rather about Christology -- i.e., about who and of what nature/s Jesus Messiah was.)

But I think my friend does have a point on a decree of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (perhaps 500 -something) which declared the Theotokos "Ever Virgin". To the extent that that decree is used to argue that Our Lady's hymen was never punctured -- even during the birth -- seems to me to raise more questions about the humanity of Jesus than it answered. If Jesus' birth (we'll hold off on his conception, thank you) were so extraordinary that it violated all the laws of physiology, what does that say about his humanity (specifically, his " true" humanity)? Again, the Council was addressing, not the physical condition of the mother of Jesus, but rather the nature of his identity and being. But did they hand down something to us that is simply too much work to explain or revitalize or rehabilitate to be necessary? (Can anyone tell me the status of this decree in the Church?)

Lutherans have solved the problems and lost the joy and awe associated with Mary and her place in the "economy" of salvation by simply ignoring her. An interesting development: We kept the baby and threw the mother out with the bath water. That is both unwarranted and unwise. Luther knew that, and (according to the translations in the American Edition of his works) advised calling on her with these words" "O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, ... Hail to you! Blessare are you" (LW, vol. 21, p. 322). He insisted that such prayer is part of "accord[ing] her the honor that is due her" (ibid. p. 324).

So, then, why all the hullabaloo about praying to the Theotokos? It seems to me that "the great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds and supports us in our lives of faith is not limited to the saints of our own time and place. Rather, the saints of all times and places make themselves available to us -- both by their examples (renewed in recounting their faithful lives) and by their intercessions on our behalf. (The Lutheran Confessions grant that the saints pray for us; they are, of course I grant, less supportive of our praying to them for those prayers.) And just as we may and ought to request prayers from our brothers and sisters in our individual congregations (cf. the intercessions or prayers of the people), so may we invoke the prayers of the saints in heaven -- and pre-eminent among them the mother of our Lord. The vast majority of Christians in the world recognize this simple and not-necessarily-troubling fact.

I don't mean to suggest that the saints -- or even Mary -- offer any special favor or merit; nor do I suggest that they offer any kind of access to God unavailable to us through Jesus. And certainly don't believe or suggest that we have to work through some other channel to achieve direct access to God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- than by our own prayer.

But isn't it time we get with the system, here. We're missing out on a whole lot of important stuff if we "children of the Reformation" continue our indignity toward the mother of the Lord of the Church.

As I once said, "I shall raise my daughter to join Father Martin [Luther] in his prayer, "Ave Maria!"


Anonymous said...

When I pray, I try to be mindful that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. I try to remember that when I pray, the only relationship I am working with is my relationship to the one true God, which has manifestation in three "persons." And since it's hard to remember that aspect of God as I offer my petitions, I usually just address my prayers to "Lord God."

It has always bothered me that Roman Catholics pray to one saint for one thing, and to another saint for another thing. Patron Saint of Sore Throats. Patron Saint of Travelers. Patron Saint of Lost Causes. To me that sounds just like the ancient Greek or Roman God of War, God of Beauty, etc., and, to me, that is idolatrous.

So I always figured that the reason we Lutherans don't pray to Mary is because that would be making a god out of her, and thus idolatrous. I don't think we ignore her. I just think we are being careful not to be idolatrous.

I think honoring Mary is fine. Remembering her special nature is important. Thanking God for her is primary. But I never have, and never will, pray to her, or to any other saint.

Or am I missing your point?

Dwight P. said...

First, never say never. (You thereby deny my powers of persuasion and/or the work of the Holy Spirit.)

Next, prayer can be many things: When we seek the prayers of our fellow congregaants, we are praying to them. (It just happens to seem less like prayer, because we've re-defined prayer as something we say to someone/something we can't see. When we pray to saints and to the Theotokos, we don't pray for their direct intervention in the natural lives we have on earth; we invoke their prayers on our behalf. (Your criticism of the cult of the saints as it has worked out over time is valid: It represents the triumph of superstition over faith.)

Prayer to Mary does not presume any special influence on her part -- except for the fact that she does enjoy a special closeness to the Holy Trinity tha non-Mother-of-God people enjoy (don't you admit?). It simply recognizes that the communion of saints extends beyond our physical sphere. It is good to invoke their prayers both because it's one of the things Christians do (pray to and for one another) and because it reminds us to stay in touch with the Church that transcends the bounds of time and space and is held together in the eschatological prolepsis of God's love. (That means that the end of time has already invaded time and makes possible speech about the "already effective" resurrection in our lives.)

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I recant!
- dash