Thursday, August 20, 2015

Saint Mary the Virgin: The Mother of Every Christian

Isaiah 61:10-11 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 1:46-55 Psalm 34 or 34:1-9 

As a Christian minister, one of the most common theological questions I get from people is, “what is the difference between Protestants and Catholics?”

Once I explain to them that pitting Protestantism and catholic Christianity against each other is actually a false dichotomy, and that theologically serious and historically minded protestants also confess belief in “the holy catholic church” of the creeds-- that perhaps what they really mean to ask is, “what is the difference between the churches of the Reformation and the roman church?”—they usually respond with, “right, but doesn’t it have something to do with Mary?”

To the outside observer, the most obvious difference between Roman Catholics and most Protestants is that in the Roman Church, The Blessed Virgin Mary is up front and center, so much so that she at times seems to even eclipse her son in the honor and veneration shown to her, while in many Protestant churches she is hardly given a mention except for the obligatory reference at Christmas time. Even in our own Anglican tradition, opinions about the role and importance of the Mother of Jesus are often sharply divided between the Low Church and the High Church parties.

Despite this, disagreements about the Virgin Mary were not the primary conflict of the Reformation, which had more to do with disputes over the role of good works in salvation, the authority of scripture, and the primacy of the pope. In fact, modern Protestants are often shocked to learn what the reformers actually believed about the blessed virgin. Even as staunch a Protestant as Ulrich Zwingli wrote, 

"The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow."

Mary is not just for Roman Catholics or even high churchmen, but for every Christian! As the mother of our Lord, she is also the mother of the Church who is the body of Christ. Evangelicals and other Protestants who are rediscovering their heritage are increasingly becoming aware of the place of honor Mary has in our common faith.

The honor shown to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, goes back to the early days of the church. Even before Jesus was born, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth honored Mary with these words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” The child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, even leaped at the sound of her greeting.
In our gospel reading today, Mary herself prophesies, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

Besides Jesus, there are only two human beings named in our Creed: Pontius Pilot and the Virgin Mary. Pontius Pilot is singled out for everlasting shame as being the one under whose authority Jesus was crucified, but Mary for everlasting honor as the mother of our Lord. The third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, honored Mary by declaring her to be the Mother of God because the child she bore was not only man but also God.

Many will argue that although Mary should be revered for her faith, she should not be given any more special reverence than other men and women of faith. But the honor due to Mary is singular and unique. Other saints are imitators of Christ and enjoy spiritual unity with him, but Mary is preeminent among the Saints because she enjoys the closest possible unity with Jesus as the one from whom his human nature was derived, who carried him in her womb, and nursed him at her breast. What relationship is as intimate as that of mother and child? She is mysteriously and wonderfully singled out among human beings and exalted to a peculiar honor.

Martin Luther said of her, “For what are all the maids, servants, masters, mistresses, princes, kings, and monarchs on earth compared with the Virgin Mary, who was born of royal lineage, and withal became the mother of God, the noblest woman on earth? After Christ, she is the most precious jewel in all Christendom…She is worthy of praise and can never be praised and extolled enough.”
Her feast, which we celebrate today, commemorates the day when this most highly favored lady and precious jewel of the faith was received by God into heaven. It is called by many of the faithful, “the feast of the assumption” because it is believed that at her death, Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. This has been the long held belief of many devout and pious Christians, and was even raised to an official dogma by the Roman Church in 1950. Anglicans have been more hesitant to affirm it, since it cannot be demonstrated by Holy Scripture. Archbishop John-Charles Vockler put it this way, whether Mary got to heaven ‘by the express or the local’: that she is glorified there is the important matter.

There can be no doubt that the Blessed mother has a place of prominence in that great cloud of witnesses that continually watch over us, with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven that add their voices to our praises. As one great hymn puts it,

O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises,
Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord,

On this her feast, and in all times, she is worthy of our praises, but It seems as if we cannot adequately express the mystery of her honor without treading on the precipice of idolatry!

Even while we give her honor, we also must remember that she is one of us, a sinner redeemed by Christ. He alone is the savior of mankind. The devotion we show her must never displace the supremacy and Lordship of her son. The honor she has is as a vessel of God’s grace and mercy to us.

Our Lady does not seek her own glory but always points away from herself to her Son. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God who is my savior!”

She is the frontier of the Lord’s mission of mercy and the first life to be touched by his incarnation. He chose her to be the source of his blessing to us. Mary is a type and representative of all of us whom Christ has visited in our poverty and lifted up in our lowliness. He has indeed done great things for us. Holy is his name! 

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