Robbie Low contemplates
Mary our Mother
I have just stayed, briefly, at the home of a very dear and elderly Protestant friend. She had enlisted my help to find an elusive manuscript on the bookshelf of her very private ground-floor bedroom where I was startled to come across an icon of Our Lady! Hastily my hostess explained to me that it was a gift from a well-meaning Catholic friend and kept out of public view lest anyone think she herself had succumbed to that kind of papistical taradiddle. The reaction of this kind and godly soul, a lover of the Word and a regular attender at the holy mysteries, reminded me of one of my grandmothers. A lapsed Northern Ireland Protestant, she could have been the Presbyterian lady in the joke who famously remarked, ‘What a pity Our Lord’s own mother was a Roman Catholic!’ That was on a good day. On a bad day the BVM could easily have been mistaken for an enemy of the faith!
By a strange coincidence, though in our household we tend more towards providence, I had just finished a volume of testimony by an American Presbyterian who had become a Roman Catholic. She had struggled with the papacy, she had wrestled with the Real Presence, she had been in combat with the communion of saints. All of these mighty trials were, however, as nothing compared to the battle to overcome her deep rooted animosity towards and distrust of Mary. No question, the BVM was the final and toughest hurdle. What is it about this woman?
For all the terrible divisions that have followed from the Great Schism Catholic and Orthodox find a common bond in their devotion to Theotokos, the God-bearer. Yet, in the West, Mary appears as one of the most significant fault lines in our shattered communion. That an aggressively secular society like ours should shun the miraculous and deride chastity is scarcely a surprise but the resentment of the Blessed Virgin is older and deeper than our current errors. To recall that there was a time when England was so deeply enamoured of her Catholic vocation that she was called ‘Mary’s dowry’ is beyond the historical imagination of most modern Christians. It seems to be assumed, largely without investigation or question, that ‘Mary’ is a deviant Roman Catholic hobby. You can also find it, apparently, in those strange ‘high’ Anglican churches where the Oedipal priest seems to be intent on creating his own doll’s house and, as one Protestant theologian muttered darkly to me, ‘Judaizing Christianity’ – presumably a reference to incense and sacrificial priesthood!
Now I am second to none in my dislike of insipid Marian statuary. (Why is the BVM always portrayed as a fragile, washed out blue-eyed blonde who wouldn’t last five minutes on a rocking horse, never mind make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nine months gone, on a donkey?) But aesthetic revulsion or artistic prejudice are not an excuse for avoiding the question .
The Reformation, after all, did not set out to abolish the faith but rather to discover the Apostolic Deposit, the teaching of the Fathers and the Councils of the undivided Church. Some of its doughtiest proponents never flagged in their devotion to Mary and would have been astonished to find themselves in a Church which did so. Indeed they would have thought such developments unscriptural.
Some years ago a visiting preacher at my home town Baptist Church put it very succinctly. ‘The inspired word of God tells me that Mary prophesied “All generations shall call me blessed”. How come,’ he continued, ‘in all my years of Free Church worship and preaching I have never even heard us say a good word about Jesus’ mother, never mind a blessing?’ He was never invited back. For his own personal safety it is perhaps as well that he did not embark on a full advertisement of the Rosary. Even this simple devotion provokes a strange response from those who ought to rejoice in it. What, after all, could be more deserving of the enthusiastic support and practice of Reformation Man than a pattern of prayer which focuses the believer on the key events in the life of Christ? To the unlearned it taught the Gospel, to the learned it encouraged a deep meditation on it.
The prayers which accompany it are entirely scriptural, the Paternoster, the Glory be and the Hail Mary. Assuming that even the most determined opponent of Marian devotion would grant the first two as unarguable, we might dwell for a moment on objections to the third. And the objections must be limited to one phrase alone. The rest is scripture and doctrine with which no Christian Church in any age would seek to argue.
The phrase is, ‘Pray for us’. This simple request marks out one of the great divisions of Western Christendom. There are those who simply do not believe that the Saints can or will pray for us. The relationship between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant seems not to exist in Protestant eyes. Yet one would have to hermeneutically torture sections of the Revelation to get it to deny this heavenly activity and the key section of Hebrews would have to be evacuated of sense and meaning to refute it. What does such a negative and reductionist interpretation make of John 5 and John 8, or of the Transfiguration or the Ascent of Elijah or Elisha’s opening of the young man’s eyes to the heavenly reality? Jesus overwhelming refutation of the Sadducees in Matthew 22 and his promise to the penitent thief do not square with an afterlife of suspended animation. If, as Jesus declares, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is ‘God of the living, for all live in him’, these characters and a host of the faithful departed must have radically changed to be so newly indifferent to the fate of their heirs and successors if the strict Protestant view is to be maintained.
This radical severance of the life in Christ makes no sense to the Catholic mind and heart. For the rest of us the support, encouragement and prayers of the Saints are an irreducible part of the joy of being in the Body of Christ. To ask the prayers of the congregation in my parish church while neglecting to ask the prayers of the great congregation above would seem to me a strange neglect of resources.
But let us allow for differences and misunderstanding here. Whether St John is having a flight of Catholic fancy in recording the prayers of the Saints ascending with the smoke of the incense (another entirely scriptural sign little used in non-conformist gatherings) or simply recording the inerrant Word of God and his self-revelation, surely the reaction to Mary is still too hostile to be simply about more or less prayer!
The key ‘fact’ seems to be the suspicion that Catholics, Orthodox and other unreformed elements actually worship the BVM The short answer to that is that anyone who did so would be neither Catholic nor Orthodox. But there is, it must be admitted, a possible confusion of language here. Had I lived four centuries ago I might have approached my parish priest and said, ‘ I prithee (pray thee) pray for me.’ My request to the priest would not have implied worship of him but earnest entreaty, begging his good offices in prayer before God. In that sense the believer ‘prays’ the Saints. There is no confusion about the recipient of the prayer or the One to whom alone worship is due.
The relationship between the believer and the Saint is properly described as devotion – an admiring friendship of an exemplar in the Way. Just as a stately home has its walls plastered with portraits of noble forebears and the humbler abode decks its piano, sideboard and photo albums with those we love, so the Church of God has her family album on the walls, the iconostasis and the stained glass windows. We do not worship the icon or confuse it with the reality. Rather the icon aids our worship, an inspired prayer written in love for God. And they are a vital part of our witness. Iconoclasm, which regularly rears its heretical head, denies the Incarnation. For what cannot be represented cannot be incarnate. Our devotion, therefore, is a regular purgative of this Docetic tendency.
To kiss an icon of a much-loved saint is no more extravagant than for me to kiss the photographs of my wife and children when we are temporarily apart and holding each other in prayer. I do not worship them but I am devoted to them and grateful for the love that God has given me through them.
The society we live in has little time for or understanding of reverence, honour and devotion. Perhaps it is not surprising that it should easily confuse it with worship, another concept it finds difficult. No such excuse for the Christian. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians that reverence, honour and devotion is peculiarly applicable to the mother of Jesus. Who else’s life has been so inextricably woven with that of the Redeemer, the God–man. Who else, by obedience to the Word, has been overshadowed by the Holy Ghost, felt the quickening, seen the Adoration of the Magi, fled refugee, heard the prophecies at the Temple and pondered all these things in her heart? Who else has followed the life of her child, provoked his ministry, given the servants the motto of the Church, ‘Do whatever he tells you’, understood the wedding of heaven and earth? Who else has stood the Way of Sorrows and at the foot of the Cross, the mother’s agony, no power to save her dying child? Who else has witnessed the dereliction, cradled the broken body? Who else has seen the revelation of the Resurrection life and waited while the Pentecost came and saw others now ablaze with the fire of the same Holy Ghost so that they too would bear Christ into the world for its salvation?
Special? I would say so.
It is for this reason that so much of the time of the Great Councils, to which we reformed Christians defer, was spent in defining the role of the Blessed Virgin. For as with everything in the life of Mary, it points to Jesus.
To call her Theotokos, God-bearer, is to affirm the Christians’ outrageous and extravagant claim for Jesus.
To understand, in Jesus command from the cross to adopt the beloved disciple, Mary’s motherhood of the Church, the body of Christ, is also to bring the disciple(s) into the brotherhood of Christ.
To insist on the virginity of Mary against all smears and reductionist Christology is to defend the uniqueness of Christ and insist on the Godhead of the second person of the Trinity. Without that the cross remains an instrument of torture but is no longer the place of redemption.
Our forefathers understood the vitality and importance of the place of Mary. Those of us who are struggling in the wreckage of the twentieth century Western Church might ponder a moment whether our neglect of the saints and the Mother of God have played any part in our ruin.
Democracy and Tyranny
Because, in the West, we are post-Enlightenment babies, we have seldom paused to question our omniscience. Onward and upward, converts to the beguiling heresy of ‘the ascent of man’, we have assumed our superiority over all generations that have gone before. Uncorrected by their wisdom, we have sought to remedy their ‘primitive understandings’ in doctrine, ethics and liturgy. Too often we have simply created a Church in our own image. We have abolished the three and a half millennia long ‘democracy of the dead’ in favour of our own immediate dictatorship. In so doing we are robbing the future generations of the Apostolic traditio by muddying the deposit of faith with our own particular confusions. An example:
A generation obsessed and over-exercised by its sexuality rather than its spirituality has studiously avoided its traditional reference points. Profoundly ignorant of womanhood, embarrassed liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics (oxymorons both) have fled before accusations of ‘headship’ as misogyny and ‘patriarchy’ as tyranny. They have fled, for the most part, into the arms of their accusers, confectors of the current dominant heresy of feminism – itself the ultimate misnomer. No Christian Church that paid the slightest attention to the role of Our Lady would be deceived by this deeply misogynistic philosophy which is the very antithesis of the feminine, scarcely denying its rebellion against creation and its pagan attitude to life. That the liberal Protestant Churches particularly have collapsed so easily to this lobby is directly due to their extreme marginalization of the new Eve, the Mother of us all. The rejection of chastity, motherhood, betrothal, marriage and sanctity of life are part of the rejection of Mary, the second part of Old Simeon’s prophecy we too often forget. Revelation 12 is quite clear as to who we are fighting in this battle. Faced with the age-old enemy who hates the life of man, Mary may be pierced by our rejection but her warrior motherhood is what brings forth the Christus Victor.
On August 15th Christians from all over the world gathered, as usual, at the ruins of a small stone house in Turkey. On the hillside, behind the enormous archaeological treasure that is the city of Ephesus, is the last earthly dwelling place of the mother of Jesus. Here she was cared for by the Apostle John, the beloved disciple, as bidden by Christ from the Cross. The festival is called the Assumption in the West, the Dormition in the East – it is the coming home of Mary to Heaven. This is depicted in Orthodox icons by showing the Risen Christ holding the soul of his mother in his arms, like a newborn, just as she once held him in the stable at Bethlehem. In that mystery and paradox, the final journey of Christendom’s greatest saint, is depicted the hope of all Christians. It is for this and all the many other reasons that Christians of all ages and in every generation have found Our Lady a great companion in prayer and an example for their lives. Obedient to God, open to the Holy Ghost, bringing the Word to a world in need of salvation. And through it all a heart of love for Jesus.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary ,Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.