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Mary: An ecumenical aspiration

Kieran Fenn fms

Scripture

December 2013

Kieran Fenn fms

Pope Paul VI’s great Marialis Cultus, published 10 years after the Second Vatican Council, called for a devotion to Mary that was ecumenically sensitive, especially to the centrality of Christ.

We need to recognise our own contribution to the Protestant reaction against Mary. The roots lie in the 16th century when Popes Julius II (1503-1513) and Leo X (1513-1521) ignored calls for reform. Julius was concerned to reinforce the political power of the papacy and Leo intended to strengthen the church through an impressive building programme centred on the construction of St Peter’s basilica in Rome.

Sadly, the 1545 Council of Trent came too late to channel the powerful reform movements in Switzerland and Germany.

A Mary for December

Many Protestants meet Mary only at Christmas and then as the sweet figure on cards and in carols, praised for her ‘yes’ to God before being retired for another year.

The reaction in Protestantism to Roman Catholic veneration and doctrine has its roots in the Reformation where the theotokos or God-bearer had been elevated to dizzying heights. Protestantism’s aversion from a time of excess makes Mary a victim of conscientious neglect. But the question arises as to whether this neglect is fair to the Mary of the scriptures. Has the Protestant tradition starved itself of a potentially significant contribution to their understanding of faith, discipleship and, (in R Radford Ruether’s words) ‘the feminine face of the church’?

The priority Protestantism is so fond of claiming, sola scriptura (scripture alone), opens a shared path, grounded in scripture, to reclaim the figure of Mary for Protestants.

A recent Anglican and Roman Catholic consensus on the Eucharist is another positive step on the road to Christian unity. In the 1970s, Protestant, Anglican and Catholic scholars collaborated on two significant literary works Peter in the New Testament (1973) and Mary in the New Testament (1978) which produced substantial agreement.

Seeing in a new light the old problems that separated the churches requires an honest appreciation of historical and scriptural issues, especially when it comes to agreement on what the oldest Christian sources said.

Mary and protestant origins

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), at the beginning of the Swiss Reformation, was chaplain to the monastery of Einsiedeln. His main task was to preach to the pilgrims who honoured a famous statue of the Virgin. He often preached on the Mother of Jesus, her annunciation and her presence at Pentecost and may well be regarded as the most Marian figure of the Reformation. He stood by the tradition of Matthew 12:48 where the visit of ‘the mother of Jesus and his brothers’ is simply a reminder of the subordination of human families to God, ‘for how could he who teaches to honour one’s mother, humiliate his own?’ (Huldrici Zuingli Opera 297-8). He honoured Joseph for his protection of Mary from the Law.

Zwingli assumed that good Catholics are in the habit of praying the Hail Mary. Given her relationship to Jesus, he saw it as right to praise her, but not to invoke or pray to her.

‘The Ave Maria is not a prayer, but a greeting and a praise,’ the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel at the annunciation and of Elizabeth at the visitation. He affirmed her permanent virginity and wrote that ‘she was without the smallest trace of a sin’. The only doctrine not reflected in his preaching was the Assumption. ‘Who then has ever known God better than the one Virgin Mary? If you wish especially to honour Mary, follow her purity, her innocence and her strong faith.’

Neither a pastor nor a chaplain but an Augustinian friar and scholastic theologian, Martin Luther (1483-1546), preached on the traditional feast days of Mary and wrote a fine commentary on Mary’s Magnificat. From Mary’s song one should draw ‘wholesome knowledge and a praiseworthy life’. One should hope also ‘to chant and sing it eternally in heaven’.

The doctrine in the commentary is sound in its Christology and links with the saving work of Christ. ‘Mary sings most sweetly of the fear of the Lord, what manner of lord he is and especially what his dealings are with those of high and of low degree.’

Devotionally, Luther does not hesitate to wish for Mary’s help in his writing, ‘May the tender Mother of God herself, procure for me the spirit of wisdom, profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers… May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of his dear Mother Mary. Amen.’

Luther honoured the human face of Mary, ‘She was but a simple maiden, tending the cattle and doing the housework, and doubtless esteemed no more than any poor maidservant today.’ And yet Christ ‘is born of the despised stem (ie, the impoverished line of David), of the poor and lowly maiden.’ Luther maintained the traditional doctrines of Mary’s virginity and title of Mother of God, ‘She became a mother in a supernatural manner without violation of her virginity. She sang her song to the glory of God, not for herself alone but for us all that we should sing it after her.’

A source for unity?

To leave Mary out is to betray the scriptures. She is the main female example of discipleship among a number of men. To continually ask women to try to identify with male models of discipleship subtly undermines the value of their femaleness.

Mary stood alongside the Beloved Disciple, making her an example for both men and women. Would it not be wonderful, something to be striven for, that in taking the longing for unity seriously, we could find in Mary a source for unity instead of division, realising that we have more that unites us than divides us, and we could sing Mary’s song together?

Dare we hope for a Marian revival in the face of the sad truth that apart from a few exceptions the evangelical churches have lost practically all interest in Mary.

And what can we say of our own?

Sources

Reality #66. 2005. Dewerse, Rosemary Reclaiming Mary. This material is reproduced with permission from Reality magazine.

Tavard, George. 1996. The Thousand Faces of Mary. Michael Glazier.