dates, has rules for this eventuality: Catholics worldwide will mark the Annunciation on April 4, this year. (2005) But Maguire is not Catholic; he is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio. And in light of what he calls “a beautiful, poetic opportunity,” he says that rather than preach on Jesus alone this Good Friday, he will bring in Mary as well. “If you have Jesus’ entrance and exit on the same day,” Maguire explains, “ she should play a part in that—because she was the first and last disciple to reach out during his life.” There is an elegance to this plan; Maguire, who attended Princeton Theological Seminary is no theological naïf. But until quite recently, his decision to pair the gravest day on the Christian calendar with a Marian celebration would have struck most of his fellow Protestants as peculiar if not doctrinally perverse. For roughly 300 years until the 1900s, Protestants, while granting Mary her indisputable place as the mother of Jesus, regarded any additional enthusiasm as tantamount to “Mariolatry,” the alleged (and allegedly nonbiblical) elevation of the Virgin to a status approaching Christ’s that some understood as a cause of their initial breaking with Catholicism. Even as open hostility largely abated in the U.S., some taboos prevailed. Beverly Gaventa, a professor of New Testament literature at Princeton, has portrayed Mary as the poor victim of “a Protestant conspiracy of silence: theologically, liturgically and devotionally”
Most Protestants (excluding some high-church Episcopalians) can identify with the experience of Kathleen Norris, an author who has written of her upbringing, “We dragged Mary out at Christmas ... and packed her safely in the crèche box for the rest of the year. We...... denied [her] place in Christian tradition and were disdainful of the reverence displayed for her, so public and emotional, by Catholics’
But things have begun to change, and not just among theologians. Xenia, Ohio, is no radical hotbed. Campaign signs there still promote Bush, half the weekday-morning radio dial features conservative religious fare, and most of Westminster Presbyterian’s 300 members are middle-aged or older. Yet with a few exceptions, the 21 who recently gathered at the Rev. Maguire’s Bible class were fascinated by his thoughts on Mary. “I always thought of her as the first disciple7 said Corinne Whitesell, 74. “Rosaries and Hail Marys, that’s not right. [But] that total submission to God is one of the most beautiful things about her.” Said Gloria Wolff, 78: “We grew up in a time when women couldn’t be elected as church elders. It’s important to teach young women about the strong female role models in the church.” Remarked John Burtch, 75: Maguire is “the new guy on the block, and he’s got some interesting ideas. So we listen to him. We’re open to change7’
IN A SHIFT WHOSE IDEOLOGICAL BREADTH is unusual in the frag-mented Protestant world, a long-standing wall around Mary a ears to be eroding. It is not that Protestants are converting to Catholicism’s dramatic exaltation: the singing of Salve Regina, the Rosary’s Marian Mysteries, the entreaty to her in the Hail Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death:’ Rather, a growing number of Christian thinkers who are neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox (another branch of faith to which Mary is central) have concluded that their various traditions have short-changed her in the very arena in which Protestantism most prides itself: the careful and full reading of Scripture.
Arguments on the Virgin’s behalf have appeared in a flurry of scholarly essays and popular articles, on the covers of the usually conservative Christianity Today (headline: THE BLESSED EVANGELICAL MARY) and the usually liberal Christian Century (ST. MARY FOR PROTESTANTS). They are being preached, if not yet in many churches then in a denominational cross section—and not just at modest addresses like Maguire’s in Xenia but also from mighty pulpits like that at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, where longtime senior pastor John Buchanan recently delivered a major message on the Virgin ending with the words “Hail Mary ... Blessed are you among us all’
This could probably not have happened at some other time. Robert Jenson, author of the respected text Systematic Theology, chuckles when asked whether the pastor of his Lutheran youth would have approved of his (fairly extreme) position that Protestants, like Catholics, should pray for Mary’s intercession. “My pastor would have been horrified,” he says, adding, “The pastor was my father:’ Yet today Catholics and Protestants feel freer to explore each other’s beliefs and practices. Feminism has encouraged popular speculations on the lives of female biblical figures and the role of the divine feminine (think The Red Tent and The Da Vinci Code). A growing interest, on both the Protestant right and left, in practices and texts from Christianity’s first 1,500 years has led to immersion in the habitual Marianism of the early and medieval church. And the influx of millions of Hispanic immigrants from Catholic cultures into American Protestantism may eventually accelerate progress toward a pro-Marian tipping point—on whose other side may lie changes not just in sermon topic but in liturgy, personal piety and a re-evaluation of the actual messages of the Reformation.
The movement is not yet prevalent in the pews. And it has its critics. While granting that Mary shows up more in the New Testament than some churches recognize, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Southern Seminary, charges that those who use her full record to justify new “theological constructions around her are guilty of “overreaching “wishful thinking” and effectively “flirting with Catholic devotion.” Yet Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, co-editor of an essay collection on what might be called Marian upgrade, claims, “We don’t have to go back to Catholicism. We can go back to our own roots and sources. It could be done without shocking the congregation. I can’t predict how exactly it will all happen. Some of it will be good, and some of it may be bad. But I think it’s going to happen:’
THEY BURNED MARY IN WALSINGHAM IN 1538. In a spate of iconoclasm ordered by King Henry VIII, the founder of Anglican Protestantism, his commissioners stormed the Catholic pilgrimage center in the east of Britain. Its famous statue of the Virgin warranted special treatment: she was transported to Chelsea and publicly immolated. Nine men who objected were reportedly executed. A local ballad went, “Sin is where Our Lady sate: Heaven is turned to hell ...... Wal-sing ham farewell.” Walsingham, says Joseph Leo Koerner, author of The Refor-mation of the Image, was just one example of an ire that extended through Europe for a century: other Marys were chopped up for kindling or paraded through bor- dellos before their destruction.
Mary was not always such a lightning rod. Early on, Christianity rallied around her importance. The Council of Ephesus in 431 affirmed her to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God. Admittedly, the move was less about her than him . It repudiated a specific heresy—that Mary s son and the Messiah were two different beings—and in general it made the Incarnation much more immediate. God’s taking on human flesh became far less abstract when one discussed his human mother and the actual fact of his birth.
In time, Mary’s Mother of God role merged with several other potent personas. As monks meditated on Christ’s sufferings, Mary became a super co-sufferer, later dubbed Mater Dolorosa. She collected other titles: Queen of Heaven, Bride of Christ, Mother of Mercy, each reflecting a different attribute. Most important of those was as humanity’s merciful mediator. The church’s growing emphasis on Christ as the stern arbiter of Judgment Day left a kind of vacancy, and believers came to view Mary as a special pleader to him in our name. In 1568 Pope Pius V officially added to the popular Hail Mary prayer the line “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” Eventually, folk piety left doctrine in the dust, and believers intoned, “Our mother who art in heaven ...” Commented the horrified reformer Phipp Melancthon in the 1500s: “The fact of the matter is that in popular estimation, the Blessed Virgin has replaced Christ:’
Martin Luther was fond of Mary; he found in her a perfect example of God visiting his grace, unearned, upon the most humble. The former monk extrapolated that “Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, [and] prepared broth ... for God:’ But his generation of reformers condemned the “abominable idolatry” of her role as heavenly intercessor. Disgusted by a church whose earthly middlemen sold indulgences for sins not yet committed, they also yearned to demote cosmic mediators who they felt diluted God’s sovereignty. And, as Fourth Presbyterian’s Buchanan observes, “Mary was a kind of point person for Catholicism, so she took the biggest hit.” Catholics defiantly boosted Mary to even greater heights, eventually promulgating two additional doctrines: in 1854, Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and as late as 1950, her bodily Assumption into heaven.
Over time, Protestant anathemas against Mary lovers gave way to a kind of sullen neglect of the Virgin. That was more pronounced among Presbyterians, some Baptists and others with a strong Calvinist tradition. (The Presbyterian Church U.S.A’s 1991 Brief Statement of Faith praised the prophets, the Apostles and the Hebrew matriarch Sarah but omitted Mary.) Yet Protestants of all stripes could still appreciate a joke told by Harvard minister Peter Gomes about Jesus’ receiving a Protestant theologian at the pearly gates and making appropriate introductions: “Ah, Professor, I know you have met my father, but I don’t believe you know my mothet”
THAT WAS ROUGHLY THE WAY BEVERLY Gaventa found things in 1989 when the Princeton Scripture specialist was invited to write about Mary for a series called Personalities of the New Testament. She knew of the pulpit silence regarding the Virgin but was still somewhat shocked to find that her academic peers had been equally mute. “We were quite happy to yammer on about Mary Magdalene, about whom we know next to nothing:’ she remembers, “and you would find a bajillion essays on Doubting Thomas. But there was very little on Mary’s presence at the Cross She was further bemused when callers invited her to speak at their churches. “I would offer to do something on Mary:’ she says, “and there would be this embarrassed pause, and they would eventually say, ‘Oh, we’re mostly Protestant around here.” ’ In fact, she says, she approached her Mary work in “a Protestant sort of way. We pride ourselves on reading Scripture, so let’s read Scripture and see what we find.’
What she read—and what Protestants had been more or less skimming for centuries—was a skein of appearances longer and more strategically placed than those of any other character in the Gospels except Jesus. There is, of course, the Annunciation, where Mary’s earnest question “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” is followed (once Gabriel has answered) by her famous assent , “Let it be Less often preached or parsed was her interaction with her kinswoman Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, or Mary’s hymn beginning “My soul magnifies the Lord” (hence its Latin title, the Magnificat), which to the prediction Generations shall call me blessed” presents a powerful vision of a God it describes as having “put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree filled the hungry with good things, and the rich ... sent empty away:’
While Mary’s role in the Nativity is recalled dutifully each December, largely over-looked is the subsequent presentation of Jesus at the temple, during which the righteous old man Simeon tells Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul also:’ Also neglected are her maternal frenzy when her 12-year-old son goes missing to debate the temple elders and her role at the wedding at Cana, where, at her behest, he performs (somewhat grudgingly) his first miracle, changing water into wine. The most striking omission, at least from Protestant sermons, is a recognition of the import of her role at the Cross. Although the first three Gospels don’t place Mary there by name, many readings assume she is one of the women who remain, watch-ing Christ’s agony, after the male disciples have fled. In John’s Gospel she shares that witness with an unnamed disciple (often thought to be John), and Jesus, near death, commends them to each other, telling her “Woman, behold your son!” and telling John, “Behold your mother:’ Mary makes one final appearance, as the only named woman in a mostly male group gathered in an “upper room who, guided by the Holy Spirit, will make up the new church.
Gaventa’s conclusion was that although Mary’s appearances can be brief and frustratingly devoid of anecdote, “there isn’t a figure comparable to her:’ No major player appears earlier in the story, and none, she notes, “is present in all these key situations: at Jesus’ birth, at his death, in the upper room:’ Protestant treatments, Gaventa asserted, tended to limit themselves to what God does through Mary rather than talk about Mary herself. “You could say the same thing about the Apostle Peter—that the stories are not really about him,” Gaventa says. “But that doesn’t keep people from talking about Peter as a role model from whom Christians can learn things.
And so, in the book she finally wrote, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, and in essays and lectures, Gaventa began reviving or establishing Marian titles that, unlike Queen of Heaven, are more appropriate for Protestant use. Traditional commentary saw Mary’s “Let it be” primarily as a statement of obedience. But Gaventa, and many who followed, heard in it a thought-through acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah made long before any other believer’s. In a Christianity Today article, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., paraphrases some of the original reformers, saying, “If she had not believed, she would not have conceived.”
Gaventa also focused on the Magnificat. At a minimum, the song would establish Mary as rhetorical heir to the Old Testament prophets, whose voice and social concerns it reflects. But Gaventa claims it makes the Virgin a prophet herself, both by her eloquence and in the enunciation of the idea that “in Jesus, God is overturning things as they are;’ which will be one of Christ’s major subsequent themes. Scot McKnight, an evangelical moderate, has devoted a chapter of his own book, The Jesus Creed, to suggesting that the Magniflcat contains “virtually every theme in Jesus’ teaching and ministry” He imagines a kind of 1st century red-diaper baby: “I think she sang him to sleep with these kinds of songs and had a profound influence on him.
Gaventa’s example has emboldened other writers. Her collection Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (co-edited with Cynthia Rigby) presents a variety of feminist approaches. One slyly contrasts Mary’s situation with the standard conservative concept of “family values’ and another reinterprets the biblical refrain that “Mary kept these things to herself and pondered them” from a model of house-wifely passivity into a deep mode of reflection and prayer specific to motherhood. A more conservative collection, Mary, Mother of God, edited by Braaten and Jenson, features several evangelical scholars striving to rehabilitate that Ephesian title. They believe Matthew and Luke fully support the description. But they also hope that calling Mary Mother of God reminds people that Jesus was God, refuting the modem tendency to see him as simply a wise man or teacher. Baptists, says George, should no longer fear common cause with conservative Catholics: “We face a common enemy—secularism and radical pluralism and the demotion of Scripture.”
Almost all the revisionists find Mary’s presence at the Crucifixion inspiring in a way that their denominations seldom acknowledge. Without elaborating on the Gospel stories (as even Michelangelo’s Pietà does, since the Bible doesn’t mention Mary’s reception of Jesus’ body), they explore the late-medieval notion that Mary’s excruciating presence during her son’s death kept Christian witness intact almost singlehandedly through its darkest moment. Some focus on the absence of most of the male disciples. “She’s not just alongside the Apostles. She’s ahead of the Apostles:’ says Braaten. Others are reconsidering Jesus’ words from the Cross to his mother and John. Protestantism has traditionally rejected the Catholic interpretation that in naming Mary John’s mother, Jesus transmuted her into the “mother of all believers:’ But readers like George think it is equally strained to conclude that he was merely looking after Mary’s extended care. “I think that John does to some extent represent the church and that the scene indicates that Mary is to be honored and given a kind of recognition in salvation history, he says. “And I don’t think you have to be Roman Catholic to say it.’
THE REV. DONALD CHARLES LACY, 72, A Methodist minister, has been here before. In the early 1960s, as part of its Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church took several steps back from full-bore Marianism, maintaining the Virgin’s intercessory role, Immaculate Conception and Assumption but warning against “all false exaggeration” on her behalf (although the current Pope, it must be stressed, is a devoted Marian). Young Protestants like Lacy, discussing their apparent narrowing of differences with equally idealistic Catholics, were inspired to form new groups like the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But the moment passed. Lacy was denounced by a superior as a “priest” and ousted as pastor by one of his congregations. His work was largely rejected by Methodist publications-----until four years ago, when a Methodist house suddenly printed his Collected Works. “I stood alone for so many years,” Lacy says “It’s very gratifying to see [people ] begin to come this way. Lacy attributes the revival to the Holy Spirit. If so, the Spirit may be working increasingly through intermarriage. Methodist Mark Eutsler, a 4-H director in Linden, Ind., and a Lacy fan, began investigating his Catholic wife’s faith when they married 17 years ago. He admires the Virgin’s combination of uncowed curiosity and openness to God’s will when Gabriel calls. “You know that bracelet, WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?” he asks. “There ought to be another
one, HOW WOULD MARY REACT?
Mary is also gaining popularity at Protestant divinity schools, where her icons adorn future pastors’ walls. Even evangelical publishing is interested. Although one house was leery of a Marian guide for teens by author Shannon Kubiak if its title referred even obliquely to Mary (“They didn’t want to come across as ever elevating Mary, and they didn’t know how to touch her without elevating her,” Kubiak says), a second snapped it up. God Called a Girl: How Mary Changed Her World and You Can Too will appear just after Easter.
There were 11 years between the day.Mary Burks-Price, manager of pastoral-care education at a Louisville, Ky., hospital, gave. birth. to her own special child and the day a death seemed to cleave her soul.. But together they turned her into a Marian Baptist. Growing up, Burks-Price knew the party line: avoid spiritual contemplation of Mary, since Catholics had turned her into a graven image. But in 1987, at a Christmas Eve service two years after her ordination as a minister, Burks-Price experienced a surge of identification. She had had a difficult pregnancy. And cradling her 4-month-old son in a back pew of the church she attended in Louisville she felt for the first time that Mary’s pregnancy must have been as miraculous as Jesus’ birth.
Then in 1998 a close friend died in a plane crash. Burks-Priee fled to a rural retreat center run by a local Catholic convent and late one night went walking, “sobbing and praying and asking why” She found herself standing before a tall marble statue of Mary next to a barn. “Her hands were outstretched, and her face was looking down on me with this great compassion,” says Burks-Price. “I realized that she knew what it was like to see her son die on the Cross, to bear that sorrow and grief. I felt she was giving me a window into the compassion God had for me in my own experience:’ Burks-Price is still a Baptist, but her office is filled with Marys: porcelain statuettes, laminated prayer cards, icons. She keeps a Rosary for Catholic patients, and sometimes, she says, “I know the [prayer] better than they do:’
Burks-Price was drawn by what may be the most meaningful Marian lure: access to a central Christian image of love, at birth and through death, that Protestantism never officially repudiated but from which it has been estranged almost from the start. The hunger for this is illustrated by the evangelical reception of Mel Gib-son’s The Passion of the Christ. Conservative pastors interviewed by Christianity Today particularly lauded its treatment of Mary which featured scenes not found in Scripture : Mary witnessing her son’s scourging, sopping up his blood, kissing his bloody face—and her flashback as Christ stumbles in carrying the Cross, to a mom-ent in his boyhood when he fell and cried and she could cradle him in her arms.
That sequence also moved Fourth Presbyterian’s Buchanan, who preached last year, “We’re inclined, you and I, to think about our faith in terms of ideas and propositions and truth claims. [Yet] Mary reminds us that our faith is a response to a love that was expressed not in a carefully reasoned treatise but in a human life:’ Mary, he said, is “a reminder to the mother whose son was killed in Iraq last week ... [to] children and wives and husbands who wait in fear and in hope. Let her be a reminder of the mercy and compassion and nearness of God:’
Yet it is such sentiments that most upset Southern Baptist theologian Mohler. He is underwhelmed by the Scripture-based re-considerations of people like Gaventa. “Insofar as Evangelicals may have marginalized Mary’s presentation in the Bible, it needs to be recovered,” he concedes. “But the closer I look at the New Testament, the more convinced I am that it does not single her out for the kind of attention that is being proposed. We have not missed the point about her. To construct a new role for her is simply overreaching:’
He is most exasperated that “Mary is held forth as the maternal face of God, some dimension that is fundamentally absent from Scripture. God’s love is presented in biblical terms without any need for Mary as an intermediary. To suggest that need, even as ‘symbolic’ instead of doctrinal”—he pauses—”this is the Reformation in reverse. It’s simply profoundly unbiblical, and it leads to the worst excesses of Marian devotion:’
MOHLER’S JUDGMENTS MAY SOUND BLUNT but his questions are legitimate Protestant ones. The point at which Marian respect turns into Marian veneration is more easily parsed by theoreticians than by believers trying to work out its practice. For instance, pro-Mary Protestants who claim not to use her as an intercessor but readily admit they recite the “pray for us sinners” line of the Hail Mary may be living a contradiction. Similarly, can seminarians whose walls boast Mary’s icon but whose crosses (like most Protestants’) omit the figure of her son truly be said to be keeping his primacy in mind? And when her Mother of God role is emphasized, is there an easy way to prevent her from transcending humble humanity and becoming semi-divine in her own right?
In the end, Mary’s role may be less influenced by people like Mohler and Gaventa than by a group only now beginning to make its considerable Protestant presence felt. A man stands at the lectern at the El Amor de Dios church on Chicago’s South Side reading in Spanish, tears streaming down his cheeks. His text is a treatment of the Virgin Mary from one of the Bible’s apocryphal books. Another congregant follows, reciting his own verses to the Virgin from a dog-eared notebook filled with tin , precise printing. Flanking the altar are two Mary statues with fresh roses at their feet, and hanging from the hands of the baby Jesus is a Rosary . The altar cover presents the church’s most stunning image: Mary again, this time totally surrounded by a multicolored halo, in the traditional iconography of the Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The church is Methodist. “Right now Marianism is not a front-burner issue for people revising liturgy in major denominations,” says Marian agitator Braaten. “But I think it will come in because of the great influx of Hispanics into Protestantism Indeed, there are some 8 million Protestant Hispanics in the U.S., with the count climbing. Many hail from Mexico, where the Guadalupan Lady is as much a national icon as a religious one, and are from historically Catholic families. El Amor de Dios’ pastor, the Rev. Jose Landaverde, says his Marian additions are “mainly cultural.” But “in the context of this neighborhood and embracing these people, this is what they need:’ Our Lady, he says, “creates hope.” Church rolls have risen, Lazarus-like, from a dozen people to several hundred since he added the Mary elements.
Some of Landaverde’s fellow Methodists dismiss this new wonide. The Rev. Enrique Gonzales, pastor of El Mesias United Methodist in nearby Elgin, wrote a piece accompanying Christian Century’s Mary story asserting that Latin Protestants are especially wary of such enthusiasm because “the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not actually introduced to Roman Catholic people in Latin America because only Marian doctrines are taught to them:’ Yet Ted Campbell, president of a local Methodist seminary in Evanston, Ill., says, “This is a phenomenon that’s growing in a lot of Protestant churches:’ When he first heard what was going on at El Amor de Dios, he confesses, he thought, “Cool:’
“It raises interesting theological points,” Campbell explains. “It gives us a chance to look at our doctrine and to ask, ‘What do we actually teach?”’ Such reflections and questions will undoubtedly be heard more and more as Mary’s Protestant restoration builds, not just at Christmas or Good Friday but throughout the year.
—with reporting by
Chris Maag /Xenia, Tim Padgett/Louisvifle, Maggie Sieger /Chicago and Sonja Steptoe /Los Angeles
March, 21, 2005. (Pgs. 61-69)
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