Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary and the Modern Church

In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), today is the day on the Church's calendar when we celebrate the life and witness of Mary, Mother of Our Lord.  In the Episcopal Church, today is known as the feast day of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord.  Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate Mary on several days each year, and today is known as the day they celebrate her assumption into heaven (Catholic) or dormition ("falling asleep" - Orthodox).

(Icon of the Dormition by Theophan the Greek, from the year 1392).

Late yesterday afternoon, on the eve of the day when the Church remembers Mary, our Churchwide Assembly elected a new Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, who is the current Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod.  I wasn't able to watch all of the election process online, but from what I did see, I suspect she gained a lot of support during the voting because of her candor in answering the questions posed to the nominees.  It was refreshing to hear someone acknowledge where we are as a denomination - wounded from battles that have raged about various matters since the merger that formed the ELCA 25 years ago, and the loss of almost 25% of its membership in those 25 years.

Also, judging from the various social media conversations about the election, once her candidacy gained some traction, a lot of the talk centered around the fact that her election would be historic - she would be the ELCA's first female Presiding Bishop.  Just a few years ago, the Episcopal Church elected its first female Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori.

I find it somewhat ironic that despite all of the talk about the leadership of women in the modern American denominations that descend from the Protestant Reformation, the leadership of Mary is still ignored by many. 

The typical Protestant reasoning for avoiding any discussion about Mary is the allegation that it takes the focus away from Jesus.  To the contrary, the life of Mary points to her Son.  For example, this reflection by a Benedictine monk (incorporating Eastern Orthodox theology) on the dormition shows how the role of Mary, properly understood, glorifies Christ:

"At Mary's death her Son appears like a heavenly midwife who has helped his mother give birth to herself into eternity.  Her newborn soul is represented as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, a thought-provoking reversal of his own physical birth when she wrapped him in swaddling bands and laid him in the manger (Lk 2:7).  She gave birth to him into time: now he regenerates her into eternity.  It is Mary's personal pascha/transitus, her journey through death to life: but like that of all other believers it is accomplished not through her own strength but because of the paschal mystery of her Son."

(From p. 264 of "Meeting Christ in His Mysteries: A Benedictine Vision of the Spiritual Life" by Gregory Collins, OSB).

When she spoke to the assembly yesterday, Bishop Eaton talked about the importance of the theology of the cross. Who was at the foot of the cross, watching the crucifixion of her Son?  Mary.  John 19:26-27 tells us: "When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'Woman, here is your son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home."

A theology of the cross that does not place us at the foot of the cross alongside Mary is no theology of the cross at all. 


  1. in the bendictine prayer book she has her very own day of prayer.
    SEXT: Rightly do we acclaim you, Mary,,heaven's Queen! From your bridal chamber there came forth the Sun of Justice".

  2. St Josemaria Escriva wrote in his most well-known work, Camino, #499: "Maria Santisma... pasa inadvertida, como una mas entre las mujeres de su pueblo...." Mary passes "inadvertida": unnoticed.... The Perfect Disciple.

    Compare the way of Mary to the "sanctified" Feminist Movement of the ELCA.

    "The leadership of Mary is still ignored by many," your write. What is the difference between humble service and a power grab?

    Mary stands at the Foot of the Cross, at the base of the Tree of Life. She is the "Entrance" to the Way. "O my God, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers...."

  3. This can be fine and good, provided it is Mary the person at the foot of the cross. Ie, she was present there, she is not a co-redemtrix and/or 4th person of the trinity to be worshiped and glorified. Granted, most Catholics say she is not to be worshiped, but walk in 20 minutes early to some masses and its another story. Far too many times, I've seen a bunch of pre Vatican II ladies saying the rosary before mass, and as the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...Its impossible to read hearts, but It sure doesn't look like anything pointing to Jesus.

    Also, consider that had not Mary been elevated to excess, the likelihood of the doctrines of her assumption and immaculate conception would have been about nil. In that regard, I look to the Old Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox as having a healthy balance between most protestants disdain and Catholic excess. We can look to the leadership example of Elijah without fear of making him into a god despite him being taken up to heaven in a chariot. He clearly is not a deity... One can come to similar conclusions as concerns the Dormition of the Theotokos,

    The election of Bishop Eaton was a wondrous thing, the stained glass ceiling has been broken in a huge way, patriarchalism has hopefully suffered a serious blow, and there is no danger of anyone worshiping her. This cannot be said about every belief and practice surrounding Mary. There in lies the danger which many of us object to.

    Bottom line, the life of Mary pointed to Jesus 2000 years ago, and as the Mother of God and a historical figure she deserves honor and respect. Making her into a deity points away from Christ, no matter how you spin it.

  4. It is my hope that the post-Vatican II ecumenical convergence regarding Mary will continue. On the one hand, the Catholic Church seems to be backing away from the possibility of further elevation of Mary - I found this interesting quote from Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, regarding the request by some to declare Mary as "co-redemptrix: "the formula “Co-redemptrix” departs to too great an extent from the language of Scripture and of the Fathers and therefore gives rise to misunderstandings...Everything comes from Him [Christ], as their Latter to the Ephesians and the Letter to the Colossians, in particular, tell us; Mary, too, is everything she is through Him. The word “Co-redemptrix” would obscure this origin."

    On the other hand, in recent years, at least some Protestants have begun reconsidering her place in the Church - see this article from a few years ago (which quotes one of my favorite modern Lutheran theologians, Robert W. Jenson)

  5. "God's work. Our hands." We are helping God "redeem" the world, are we not? This is all "Co-redeemer" means. Mary stands at the Foot of the Cross. This is a great symbol. If the Cross is, in Truth, the Tree of Life, then all Graces flow through Mary.

    Mary, Co-Redemptrix. Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces. (n.b. not All Grace) We will see the Fifth Marian Doctrine.

    1. And it will be a novum and thus heterodox like the previous...

      “I am frightened now, seeing that certain of you have desired to change the condition of important matters, introducing a new festival unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition. Are we really more learned and more pious than our fathers? You will say, ‘One must glorify the Mother of God as much as Possible.’ This is true; but the glorification given to the Queen of Heaven demands discernment. This Royal Virgin does not have need of false glorifications, possessing as She does true crowns of glory and signs of dignity. Glorify the purity of Her flesh and the sanctity of Her life. Marvel at the abundance of the gifts of this Virgin; venerate Her Divine Son; exalt Her Who conceived without knowing concupiscence and gave birth without knowing pain. But what does one yet need to add to these dignities? People say that one must revere the conception which preceded the glorious birth-giving; for if the conception had not preceded, the birth-giving also would not have been glorious. But what would one say if anyone for the same reason should demand the same kind of veneration of the father and mother of Holy Mary? One might equally demand the same for Her grandparents and great-grandparents, to infinity. Moreover, how can there not be sin in the place where there was concupiscence? All the more, let one not say that the Holy Virgin was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of man. I say decisively that the Holy Spirit descended upon Her, but not that He came with Her…I say that the Virgin Mary could not be sanctified before Her conception, inasmuch as She did not exist. If, all the more, She could not be sanctified in the moment of Her conception by reason of the sin which is inseparable from conception, then it remains to believe that She was sanctified after She was conceived in the womb of Her mother. This sanctification, if it annihilates sin, makes holy Her birth, but not Her conception. No one is given the right to be conceived in sanctity; only the Lord Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and He alone is holy from His very conception. Excluding Him, it is to all the descendants of Adam that must be referred that which one of them says of himself, both out of a feeling of humility and in acknowledgement of the truth: Behold I was conceived in iniquities (Ps. 50:7). How can one demand that this conception be holy, when it was not the work of the Holy Spirit, not to mention that it came from concupiscence? The Holy Virgin, of course, rejects that glory which, evidently, glorifies sin. She cannot in any way justify a novelty invented in spite of the teaching of the Church, a novelty which is the mother of imprudence, the sister of unbelief, and the daughter of lightmindedness”

      Bernard of Clairvaux, Epistle 174, in The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux (Sutton, 1998).

    2. If I am understanding this correctly, St. Bernard is speaking against the future doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. How very interesting! This shows exactly how Catholic Doctrine develops. Bernard lived from 1090 to 1153. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed in 1854, and the apparitions at Lourdes, confirming the Doctrine, were in 1858. (As far as I know, St. Bernadette was named after St. Bernard.)

      Catholic Doctrine develops from the Church. Here is proof that the Immaculate Conception was being discussed in the 12th Century. St. Bernard was just one man. He held one opinion. In 1854 the Doctrine was proclaimed, after much study and prayer, by the Magisterium, in concert with the entire Church.

    3. As a guest on Pastor Denne's blog I don't think it is my place to hijack his comment box, and I in fact agree with the basic premise of his original post. I will reply with two brief points and then leave the field.

      The innovation par excellence , Newman's development of doctrine theory, was required for the very reason demonstrated in the citation from Bernard. When the Vincentian Canon, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus , could no longer be credibly defended in the light of history, another basis for supporting extra scriptural Roman novelties had to be introduced.

      That a doctor of the Western Church would so strenuously object to a teaching unknown to the Church and ancient tradition and opposed to plain reason and reading of Scripture ought to give great cause for concern. Your take is backwards. The Church was able to stave off the error of the Marian Dogmas until 1854. It is telling that once the tether to Holy Scripture and Tradition had been cut by Newman in 1845 it only took 9 years before such an egregious proclamation occurred. His development idea was a product of the zeitgeist not the Heilige Geist .

    4. Awesome response. I'm not for hijacking nobody's blog, but nobody except you and I (well, maybe a couple of others) is going to be reading this! I am a simple creature. I believe in the miracles of Lourdes.