The paintings, which were to go on either side of the altar, were beautiful. A top-notch studio specializing in ecclesial art had drawn renditions of them. One painting depicted the descent from the cross, Jesus’s limp body being moved into the arms of his grieving Mother. The other depicted Mary and the Christ Child. Both would flank the statue of the Risen Christ that currently is mounted above the altar. A visual, and perhaps visceral, reminder to all who came to worship, of the central tenets of the gospel: Jesus’s birth, death, and Resurrection. The paintings were expensive, but they were to be paid for by a gracious donation. I thought it was a proverbial “slam dunk” decision. What’s not to like?
I began to hear complaints: “It’s not about Mary!” and “It’s too Catholic!” Perhaps I was naïve, but the reactions against seeing Mary surprised me. We are Lutherans, and Luther’s evangelical devotion to Mary is well known. Certainly, there are Marian abuses. When Catholics push for Mary to be named Co-Redemptrix, other Christians are rightly concerned. As Pope John XXIII warned, “The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son.”
And when Catholics claim that all Christians, as a matter of salvation, must believe the late fully developed Marian dogmas in order to be saved, then both Protestant and Orthodox Christians leave the table. (This Lutheran Pastor believes that both the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception can be defended biblically, but they cannot be made dogmatic beliefs necessary for salvation.)
These pious Marian exaggerations have led most Protestants simply to reject any devotion to Mary at all. To my dismay, many Protestants have developed an “anti-devotion” to the Blessed Mother. The reaction against the paintings is a case-in-point. But can we have the Son without the Mother?
The basis for most of our thinking about Mary is the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. Even if these stories are rife with symbol and myth (which they are), it cannot be denied that Jesus was born of a real human mother. Paul, writing around 48 A.D., simply notes that Jesus, the Son of God, was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). There was a first-century Jewish woman named Mary who said “yes” to what God wanted to do in her and through her. Mary’s “yes” to God (Luke 1:38) was a necessary condition for God’s Son’s entering the world. Yes, she could have said “no.”
Some Protestants immediately reject this. Mary was chosen by God. Consequently, she had no choice. All she could do was to submit to what God had preordained. This, so it is thought, will preserve us from Catholic Pelagian or semi-Pelagian leanings in which there is a synergistic cooperation between the divine and human wills. Salvation is God’s work, not ours. Mary is an example of God at work, but she herself is a cypher, a zero.
The Protestant God is often portrayed as a sheer, awesome, and frightening Power. A Power who chooses some to do his will and rejects others. As Paul famously says in Romans, “Who resists his will?” It is in this theology that the anti-devotion to Marian devotion begins to take root.
Obviously, if you’ve read the Bible, then you know that there are many passages in the Book of Romans and elsewhere to support such a view of God. However, there are many other passages that suggest just the opposite. For example, the God of Genesis is a God who can be bargained with. He can change his mind and human beings can help him do so. He’s both infinitely powerful and forever playful. By divine decree he can harden hearts to reject his will. At the same time, he can call out to Israel like a forsaken lover trying to win back the beloved.
In other words, God is an unresolvable paradox. He controls all and frees all. He works his will in all and asks all to work his will. He tells us that we who have been overcome by sin must strive to overcome it (cf. Genesis 4:7). The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson wisely remembers a truth we are wont to forget: “If there is the biblical God, there can be free creaturely choices only and precisely because God’s will is so entirely of another sort than ours that he … can will [not only that we] choose this rather than that, but that our choice be in itself uncoerced by his.”
Mary is the perfect example of this “uncoerced” choice. She is essential to our theology because she is the representative of our paradoxical position as human beings. Like us, she is saved by grace, and must by the same grace freely consent by faith to bear the Son. Humanly speaking, we cannot resolve the paradox by logically separating the points of the tension—God’s will and our own. Nor should we try to do so. This is why St. Paul can urge, without any apparent sense of contradiction: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We want logically to separate God’s work from our own, but God’s work is “so entirely of another sort than ours” that our works remain uncoerced.
So, when Protestants reject Mary, they run the risk of rejecting the paradox of the divine/human relationship itself. It is because Mary is completely a human being that she exemplifies all human faithfulness and openness to God. If Catholics run the risk of resolving the divine/human paradox in favor of human free will (Co-Redemptrix), Protestants run the danger of resolving the paradox in favor of divine decree (double predestination—man is a zero). Both of these options are made possible either by ignoring parts of the Bible that disagree with our theology, or by thinking that God’s willing and the willing of humans are simply analogous. Mary is not the resolution of this paradox. She is its first Exemplar.
The Gospel writer Luke gets at this truth when he recounts the story of the angel coming to Mary, greeting her as the “favored one.” The root of the participle Luke uses is xaris, meaning grace. It occurs only twice in the New Testament—here, and in Ephesians 1:6, where Paul writes that all Christians have been adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ and have been “blessed/graced” (same verb Luke uses with the root xaris). We, like Mary, are “favored” in Christ. In other words, the same grace at work in Mary is at work in us.
Protestants need to recover a proper evangelical and catholic Mariology. We are her children in whom Christ is being formed spiritually, as he was formed physically within her womb. Like Mary, we are those who are “in the anguish of childbirth” until Christ be formed in us (Galatians 4:19). This is why we are all, whether we know it or not, “Marian” Christians.
And if this is all true, then it seems very natural for us to say to our grace-filled Mother, “Pray for us.” It is unnatural not to do so, as it is unnatural not to have a devotion to our mothers.
Eric Riesen is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, and soon to be senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Ashland.