All Christians honor Mary as the Mother of God, (Theotokos – God-bearer.) She played a vital role in the incarnation of the God Man, Jesus. But the extent to which Roman Catholics are devoted to Mary goes further than most other Christian groups. It is unlikely you could find a Roman Catholic Church building without a statue that represents Mary in a pronounced or honorable place, with fresh flowers and perhaps even prayer candles situated in front of her so she may watch over all the prayers of the faithful who left their prayer in the form of a burning candle. Prior to or following a daily Mass (or both) there is a good chance you will find a devoted group of followers praying their rosary, (a series of repetitious prayers counted on a set of special beads that were introduced to keep track of the repeated prayers) not feeling complete until they have prayed at least one rosary before leaving the church.
It is likely because of the profound devotion that Roman Catholics have for Mary that Protestants soon after the Reformation looked upon her with less and less devotion. Protestants concerned with representing Catholic Theology soon after their split in protest of many of the Catholic Traditions and practices. It is an area where there is quite a difference between Protestant and Catholic views and requires some kind or reconciliation if the churches are to come together, and be viewed as one force for good.
Mary a growing devotion
I think even Catholics would be surprised by the lack of Marian devotion in the early church. The title Theotokos was first used in the second century, after all the apostles were gone, by Ignatius of Antioch, to oppose the “Docetist” view that Jesus was not a real man. The term “God-bearer” was used to fight off the opposite error that Jesus was not true God. It was not a title of Marion focus as much as the definition of Jesus as true God and true Man. The Roman Catholic Church with very little Mary in the day to day life, and today she has three Marian holy days of obligation compared to a total of the seven Holy days of Obligation. Additionally there are fifteen other days that are Mary Feast Days (in the U.S calendar), there is a Month dedicated to Mary, there is a different month dedicated to the Rosary and the first Saturday of each month is dedicated to a Marian devotion. Mary has come a long way in popularity and devotion in the Roman Catholic Church.
Let look a little deeper at this growth in Marion devotion. In the hundreds of sermons we have of Augustine (fifth century) there is not one preached about Mary, in fact there is more from him on Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala. When there is a reading that includes the Mother of Jesus Augustine does not find the deep importance in her role that modern preachers do. Using the Gospel of John, as Jesus looks down from the cross at Mary and John telling them, “Mother, behold your son” and “Son, behold your mother.” (19:27) any Catholic today could recall a Lenten service highlighting John taking Mary into his care as our protector, making her a symbol of the Church. But Augustine looks at the Gospel lines seeing she is given into John’s care, as if Jesus is reminding his disciples of their duty to care for the old and widowed. Mary, is not protecting, but in need of protection, as any woman without a male relative, would have required in that day.From Augustine's point of view, Mary, is not protecting, but in need of protection, as any woman without a male relative, would have required in that day. Click To Tweet
This devotion to Mary has been growing over time. Scholarship has slowly moved her from being a mother like any other who had found favor with God to a sort supernatural being. In the middle of the thirteenth century Mary had acquired a detailed biography memorialized in the “Golden Legend” by Jacobus de Voragine detailing a life that parallels her son; her birth involved an annunciation to her father, a visitation to her mother, a nativity with miracles, a presentation in the temple. It was a time when men paid escalating compliments to Mary, Peter Damien saying she was greater than the angels, taking her further out of reach as a model for other women.
More and more titles were rationalized for Mary. After all is there any privilege her son would deny her? (Would any good son deny their mother anything?) When the title of Immaculate Conception was first being proposed, the celebrated Marion devotee Bernard of Clairvaux (twelfth century) denied that she could have been immaculately conceived. Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century) argued forcibly against the immaculate conception of Mary. It was a time like now where speaking in opposition about anything Marian could bring a black mark and perhaps a shunning from the religious family. Yet, Aquinas insisted that all humans descended from Adam and inherit the mark of original sin. Exempting Mary from this human condition would mean Jesus was not born of man in the line of David, taking on the human condition of sin he was meant to defeat. Exemption from the historical human condition would make Mary somehow super human. Moving her even further away and out of reach as a model of other mother’s. In fact declaring she is immaculately conceived seems to push her out of reach as a mother model for any other woman. Given this declaration, what woman could possibly believe she too could have been mother to God’s son?
In the eighteenth century “The Glories of Mary” by Alphonsus Liguoir became one of the most influential books in the defense of Marion devotion. Alphonsus claimed Mary will deliver us from death. His defense came at a time during great secularism after the Protestant Reformation. The following century began a year of major Marion apparitions; Catherine Laboure (1830), the children of La Salette (1846), Bernadette at Lourdes (1858). Then came Pope Pius IX who had formed a devotion to Mary in his childhood. He felt his papacy was closely associated to Mary, as she appeared in LaSalette the first year of his papacy. Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as infallible dogma in 1854. And in Lourdes in 1857 Mary announced, “I am the Immaculate Conception” proving that Pius IX had done the right thing. Almost a century later Pope Pius XII declared the bodily assumption of Mary to be dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Questions about when, where and whether it preceded her death or not where not answered. These two declaration really elevate Mary in the eyes of the every day church goer. But are these two declaration important and necessary to the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation?The declaration of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption elevate Mary in the eyes of the every day church goer. But are these two declaration important and necessary to the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation? Click To Tweet
Pope John Paul II who like Pope Pius IX, was devoted to Mary as child and with this great devotion dedicated his Papacy to Mary. He considers Mary his intercessor during an assassination attempt on his life which occurred on the anniversary of the first apparition of Mary to the three children in Fatima. Pope John Paul II visited the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima and the bullet fragments taken from his body rest in the crown of her statue in the Fatima shrine. Pope John Paul II was eager to push the view that Mary was mediatrix of all graces, a title given to Mary, in a Papal document (encyclical) by Pope Leo XII. In 1997 Pope John II established a special commission to consider defining Mary Co-Redemptrix of the human race.
Wedding at Cana
Certainly as time has passed Marian study, popularity and devotion has increased and continues to increase as more and more devotees look at Mary and her role in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and expand further her role in God’s plan for redemption. Looking at recent history, in a 1976 book “Mary in the New Testament” an ecumenical board of scholars looked at all the scriptural references to Mary, and provided exegesis on the content. One passage they looked at was the “Wedding at Cana” from the Gospel of John.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [And] Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs* in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.
After this, he and his mother, [his] brothers, and his disciples went down to Capernaum and stayed there only a few days.
The ecumenical team that published “Mary in the New Testament” took a look at the role of Mary in these text and drew some conclusions. There is common agreement that the Cana scene was intended by the evangelist to carry a primary Christological message not a mariologial one. But Mary does have a role, the fact that she is pointed to in the first verse indicates she had a prominent role. What she intended when she informed Jesus they were out of wine is not entirely clear; perhaps she wanted him to do something about it, thus raising the point that she feels Jesus can do something about the need. Or perhaps she was merely informing him of the situation. Scholars can speculate but the dialogue is not clear enough to definitively say what was on the mind of Jesus and Mary.
In the passage Jesus refers to Mary as “woman” a term he uses for her at the cross as well. It is a term he uses for Mary of Magdala and the Samaritan woman in the Johannine Gospel. So if there is some specific meaning in this reference it is not Mary’s designation alone. There is no precedent for a son to refer to his mother as “woman” so scholars think there must be some specific significance in Jesus using this term. But, they have no definitive understanding why Jesus would refer to his mother this way.
The authors did look at the possibility of “woman” being a reference back to the creation story. Evoking the term woman can be seen as reference to the role of Eve in Chapter 3 of Genesis. Eve is referred to as “woman” and she is seen as instigating Adam to disobey God’s command. Mary addressed here as “woman” may be seen as asking Jesus to misuse his power to become a miracle worker. Additionally, Eve is not left without hope, she is told in Genesis 3 that God will put enmity between the serpent and the woman, and that her seed will bruise the head of the serpent. Returning to Mary, nearing the end of the Gospel John, Mary is seen at the foot of the cross addressed again by Jesus with the title of “woman” as she is brought into the family of discipleship. Therefore, the authors conclude, in the two references to Mary as woman we can see a reenactment of the Eve motif with a happier ending.
But, the authors further conclude that while there can be an interpretation of Mary as the new Eve reading the Gospel of John, they don’t believe there is any intention by John the Evangelist to make this a conclusion in the Gospel. The see John pushing a strictly Christological message and keeping the focus on Jesus, the miracle of the wine, even suggesting there might be some sacramental significance in the story that they have not completely expounded in the book.
Moving forward in time, a 2018 book by Edward Sri, a Catholic speaker and theologian entitled “Rethinking Mary” looks again at this and other discussions about Mary. Dr. Sri explores this same question of the Eve motif. Calling attention to John’s opening prologue and interpreting this opening prologue as following very much the opening of Genesis, Dr. Sri determines it is very possible that John did intend to see Mary as the new Eve and expects the reader to draw this conclusion. A different more definitive conclusion from the ecumenical group who authored the 1976 book. Accepting this scholarship inclines us to think more and more as Mary as the new Eve.
In another chapter Dr. Sri looks further at Jesus from the cross, announcing to Mary and John, “Mother, behold your son” and “Son, behold your mother.” (19:27) Referencing Pope John Paul II’s reflection on these words he asserts Mary’s maternal mission continues in a new way. She as the mother of Jesus now becomes the mother of all Christians who share in Christ’s life. This is a different focus than Augustine had in the fifth century. Of course with time and more scholarship, more and more levels of understanding can be revealed. Additionally these scholars only offer their scholarship, they are not declaring dogma that must be accepted and believed. Mary has been declared the new Eve and works like this book help harden the idea in the minds of devotees. She again has moved further away and out of reach as a model for other mother’s.
Both books look further at this story from John and define or support new roles based on other attributes of Mary. Through her instructing the servers to do whatever Jesus tells them, she is seen as the arbitrator between Jesus and those in need, a pointing to her role as mediatrix. Her mention in the first verse and prominent role in the story indicates she has a significant role in beginning Jesus’ first sign in his public ministry. These revelations further support the idea with deeper study, and standing on the work of previous scholars, more and more can be revealed from scripture, in this case particularly about Mary.
Over time Mary’s significance has grown. She is first seen as a simple mother of God’s son, like any other mother. She is also once seen as a simple disciple like another other in Jesus’s entourage. But today she is placed at a very high significance, challenging others for prominence in the story of God’s plan of salvation.Over time Mary’s significance has grown, first a simple mother of God’s son, also a simple disciple. But today she is placed at a very high significance, challenging others for prominence in the story of God’s plan of salvation. Click To Tweet
This slow expansion of Mary has seen the Roman Catholic Church changing in their view of Mary. There has been more preaching on Mary than the Trinity, more preaching on Mary than on the Holy Spirit. More churches are named for Mary, more religious congregations dedicated to Mary, more people praying the rosary on a regular basis than any other of the church’s prayers. This devotion has also led to confusion by outsiders when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church and it’s praising of Mary. Is the church praising or adoring, and does the average rosary devotee make a distinction when they are repeating of, “Hail Mary full of grace…”
Mary is popular and her popularity only grows in the Church today, with no end going forward. In fact to be seen opposing Mary, could invoke the ire of many dedicated followers who would not stop in their defense of all her accolades. I am not trying to dethrone or belittle any honor to Mary. But I do want to ask the question does this further the plan of God? How does the scholarship that declares Mary as the new Eve grow the faith of the casual church attendee or even attract a new disciples to Jesus? Does the dogma that she is the Immaculate Conception bring new followers to the church, is this its declarative purpose?
It seems like God had a plan to reach down to a human woman, a potential mother, to contribute to the humanity of his only Son. God bows down from heaven, reaching to the depths of humanity, to demonstrate an association with humanity. It is unlike any story we have heard. Certainly God chose Mary for her piety, holiness and willingness to be God’s handmaid. But going forward is God’s mission better served by a mother who is like any other mother on earth or by a grace filled supper mom who through time has been revealed as Queen, Immaculately conceived, highest of our race, specially named and treated beyond anything any other mother could ever imagine possible.
Did God want us to think the mother of his Son could have been any one of our mothers? Or does the mother of God need to be perfect, immaculate, holy, and untouchable so we who do not have perfect moms could use her to replace our earthly mom too? How many priestly men raise their mother to the level of Mary, seeing her as super human? Does this help God’s plan? I like to think God could have chosen my mom to be the vessel for his incarnation. In fact I have met so many beautiful mothers, that I can’t imagine how God could pick just one mom for his son.
Can we reclaim Mary to be more human? Is it possible to step back from all this piety, holiness and immaculateness and view Mary as a woman like any other? She was tempted, she had hard days. Can we view her as someone who walked around in something other than a blue dress with a modest veil that hid her beautiful womanly figure?
I believe it is possible to re-imagine the Cana wedding story as one of mother and son conspiring to help. Mary at the wedding enjoying herself, dancing, drinking some of the wine. a jovial Jewish woman. Perhaps that is how she noticed they had run out. What mother with compassion for the married couple wouldn’t try to help? Of course she would go to her son. I been in the situation myself, my mother attending a neighborhood party and discovering they were running out of beer. Knowing I was there with friends, tells me and knows I will go off to purchase more beer before it became an embarrassment. What son would say no to their mother in that circumstance? Maybe Mary was telling her son they were out of wine because he showed up with an entourage that was not expected and he should feel obligated to solve the situation.I believe it is possible to re-imagine the Cana wedding story as one of mother and son conspiring to help. Mary at the wedding enjoying herself, dancing, drinking some of the wine. a jovial Jewish woman. Click To Tweet
Can Mary be that mother who loses her temper and scolds her son for not doing as he is told when they find him in the temple at age twelve? Can she cry and be sad like any real woman who misses her husband when he is no longer around? Can she be a single mother who has to struggle to raise her son? Can we think about the stories of what it was like to be a mother in a world where being a mother is never easy? Can Mary be a figure that looks more like a mother than a saint?
The comparison of Mary to Jesus seems to be one going in two different directions. Paul in Philippians tells us:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (2:5-8)
If the son is a slave, what would he have expected of is mother?
I want to challenge followers to look at Mary a little differently. Bring her closer to human being and less supernatural. Let’s hold her up as a model that any woman could be and aspire to be like. Aren’t we expected to look at Jesus in the same way? Aren’t we asked to follow in his footsteps, to do what he did, even carry our own cross?
Imagine if we didn’t raise Mary to be immaculate, holy, beyond any other, highest of our race? Could Roman Catholics and Protestants come together on this topic with a common appreciation for the mother of God?
I would like to think God had millions of other woman to choose from as possible mothers for his Son. In fact I have met some mother’s that are such incredible models in servitude that they would make perfect Mary’s:
The mother whose son is born with a special cranial disease and she is told she has to feed him, clean him, and care for him the rest of her life. But she trust enough that it possible to have another child, a normal child. So she determines to have another baby to love and discovers the same cranial issue exist in her second child. She lives her entire life caring for both these children who to her are as beautiful a God’s son and in fact image Jesus to her and others.
The mother who having had two miscarriages finds she is pregnant a third time and told that the baby has a massive encephalocele. The baby’s condition makes it incompatible with life. Yet she refuses to end the life on her own and eventually is able to hold the baby lovingly for the almost two days the baby survives after birth. She will always remember her young Mary as a gift from God, bringing her a lifetimes of beautiful memories.
The mother whose daughter follows in her footsteps and becomes a nurse, celebrating with so much pride and excitement. That same mom finding out nurses training was so difficult her daughter became hooked on drugs. And she finds out by catching her stealing from the hospital drug store. Mom as her supervising nurse is responsible for reporting her and having her arrested. And then as her mom holding her as she detoxes and helps her put her life together after she has recovered and is free.
Or the mom whose daughter looks normal, and yet has a slight disability and will never be able to live without supervision, she will always need support and care. Yet at the same time the daughter demands independence and freedom. Mom does all she can to keep her adult daughter safe in a world full of people who will take advantage of a pretty young woman and still provide her as much freedom as possible to become the young woman she wants to become.
The examples of mom’s who stand at the foot of cross is endless. Any one of them could be the mother of God’s son and in fact are mothers to God’s children. Why can’t we bring Mary back to a place where any mother could imagine she too could be the mother of the Son of God?
For a God who bowed down to raise up humanity, why do we push his mother so high in the stars that no one could ever hope to compare themselves to her?For a God who bowed down to raise up humanity, why do we push his mother so high in the stars that no one could ever hope to compare themselves to her? Click To Tweet