I’ll never forget the reaction of one of my co-workers at the homeless shelter the day I wore a bracelet with an icon of the Virgin Mary. You see, we were Protestants working at a Protestant mission, and, as a rule, any depiction of the Mother of God (outside of a nativity scene at Christmas) causes a Protestant to break out in a cold sweat. I was curious to see how my friend would react . . . okay, I knew how he’d react . . . I just wanted to watch his reaction for my own amusement. As I anticipated, the moment he noticed my bracelet his face contorted into a look of disgust and he exclaimed in a loud voice, “what are you wearing?”
Trying hard not to laugh I acted as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What do you mean?” I asked innocently.
“I mean, why do you have a picture of Mary on your bracelet?” he asked in bewilderment.
I responded to his question with another question (a little trick I learned from Jesus): “Why wouldn’t I have a picture of Mary on my bracelet? She is, after all, the mother of Jesus.”
His response: “You do realize that Mary isn’t important; I mean, God could have used any old tramp for his purposes?”
There is something about Mary that really freaks Protestants out. Perhaps we are not all as irreverent and demeaning as my friend, but most of us start getting a little nervous when her name is mentioned. We are especially uncomfortable at the thought that she played a significant roll in our salvation. We are so suspicious of Catholicism or afraid of slipping into Marian idolatry that we choose to avoid theologizing about Mary altogether.
To my fearful Protestant brothers and sisters I have this to say: (1) fear is never a sound basis for determining matters of faith and practice, and (2) the Bible has a high view of Mary and if we have a high view of the Bible then we should too.
With regard to the first point I will say this. Fear nearly always results in poor decision making–it clouds our judgement and often causes us to avoid things which are actually good. Consider the child who is terrified of going to the dentist. Her parents know that getting her teeth checked, while sometimes uncomfortable, is ultimately a great good. Why? Because the dentist will ensure the health of her teeth and gums. The child, however, is not thinking about the ultimate purpose of her upcoming visit; she’s simply afraid of being uncomfortable. She’s afraid that the cleaning might hurt or that the doctor might find a cavity and have to use his drill, and if it was up to her she would make the decision, based upon these fears, not to visit the dentist. We all know, however, that such a decision, if made, would most certainly be detrimental to her long term health and wellbeing.
The same rule applies to Protestants as they consider Mary. Fear of Catholicism and fear of Marian idolatry are extremely poor reasons to avoid Marian theology. In point of fact, most of the fears that Protestants have are based upon distorted conceptions of Catholic teaching and practice anyways. Is it truly worth missing out on the beauty and richness of the Biblical teaching on Mary–and, in turn, the incredible blessings of Marian theology–on the off chance that someone might decide to start worshiping her? We don’t stop teaching about angels or other great men and women of faith out of fear that someone might distort our words–so why is it that we suddenly become silent when it comes to our Lord’s mother?
The truth of the matter is our silence, and sometimes even destain, for anything to do with Mary is a serious problem. For turning our back on her, like turning our back on the dentist, will result in spiritual rot and decay (for a concrete example of this see Joel’s previous post).
This brings me to my second point, which is that the Bible has a very high view of Mary. Contrary to my friend at the shelter, the scriptures teach us that Mary was not just “any old tramp,” but like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David, especially chosen and highly favored of the Lord. Consider the angel Gabriel’s incredible greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” and his consolatory affirmation in verse 30, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Mary was someone special indeed, for she had been chosen to conceive and bear the very Son of God–our Lord and savior Jesus Christ!
Further on in Luke’s narrative, we find Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” exclaiming: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). Here we see Elizabeth, moved by the divine Holy Spirit of God, exulting Mary’s name and referring to her as the, “mother of my Lord.” Early Christians, inspired by Elizabeth’s words in this passage, began to refer to Mary as the Theotokos or “Mother of God.” This honorary title reminds us that Jesus was fully divine and thus testifies to the incredible role that Mary played in our salvation.
To understand this more fully, we must read and meditate upon Elizabeth’s words in verse 45: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” You see, Mary didn’t have to believe in the words of the angel Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life. Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit herself to the will of God. To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Against all odds, Mary conceived and gave birth to our savior. It was from her very flesh that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It was in her tender arms that our Lord was nurtured and loved as he matured to adulthood. Truly, Mary’s complete faithfulness and cooperation with the Lord, her total submission to the working of the Holy Spirit, brought about the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” For, through Mary’s womb, the very conqueror of Satan and death was brought into the world! This is why turning our back on Mary will result in spiritual death and decay; because turning our back on her is in some way turning our back on her son.
As we (fearful Protestants) contemplate these incredible truths we must ask ourselves this question: do we esteem Mary in the same way that the Bible does? Mary prophesied, saying, “henceforth, all generations will call me blessed; for he who is might has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49). Do we, joining hands with the Holy Spirit, call her blessed and revere her name? Do we truly rejoice and find an abundance of encouragement in what the Lord accomplished through her? Or, out of ignorance and fear, are we unwittingly turning our backs on the very mother of the One who redeemed us?