“The Virgin With Angels,” William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1900
Evangelical Enthusiasm and Eccentricities
Evangelicals are enthusiastic about many things: Jesus, evangelism, the Bible, worship bands, small groups, young adult conferences, and of course a good potluck after church. I suppose I should know since I spent a good twenty-one years of my life from infancy through college thoroughly immersed in my Christian faith and the broader American evangelical ethos. At fourteen I experienced a deep inner conversion to Christ resulting in my baptism and public profession of faith. My desire to know and follow Christ led me to memorize Bible verses, read through the Bible annually, teach Sunday school, lead college small groups, attend discipleship groups, initiate campus outreach, participate in “street evangelism,” share my testimony on retreats, attend national youth conferences, read theological works, and pray often for myself and the world. My only desire was to love and adore Christ as I knew him through the Scriptures. My world revolved around all things evangelical and therefore all things Christian and all things Christ—or so I thought.
Something of the mystery of the incarnation slowly started to unsettle my evangelical mind during my college years. Not that I ever found the incarnation puzzling or troublesome per se as an evangelical, but the Catholic understanding of the incarnation left me unsettled. I had no problem believing that the eternal God took on human flesh in Christ Jesus and was born of Mary–provided we say no more of Mary! She played her role two thousand years ago and is now worshiping Jesus in heaven, so why all this praying to Mary business? Why the Immaculate Conception, the Perpetual Virginity, and the assumption into heaven? Why the various pompous titles such as Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Virgin of Virgins, Mother of the Church, Our Lady of Victory, et cetera? Why all the feast days, rosaries, icons, statues, devotions, confraternities, and churches dedicated in her honor? Does not this all amount to so much superfluous praise and unnecessary devotion if not idolatry plain and simple? Why is devotion to Mary necessary when we can just pray directly to the Lord Jesus? Does not devotion to Mary tend to impede true devotion to our Lord?
The Marian Dilemma
So many questions arose in my mind yet I could not ignore Mary any longer; I had done plenty of that for the previous twenty one years of my life. My evangelical exposure to Mary was safely limited to the Christmas service, a few Christmas hymns, and the occasional excursion through the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Any mention of Mary in a sermon read more like the warning label on a bottle of medicine than a serious theological reflection: “warning: may cause serious side effects including idolatry, irrationality, heresy, and Catholicism. If symptoms worsen during treatment, seek biblical help.” Of course a lot of this was born more out of ignorance and fear rather than antagonism or hatred. But why the theological blackout on Mary among evangelicals; why the allergic reaction? Is she really that threatening and dangerous? I cannot say I found anything particularly threatening about Mary; in fact something about her was quite intriguing and mysterious, but it was just slightly awkward trying to relate. I mean, what do I say? Does she hear our prayers? It all seemed rather silly, childish, and foreign at first, so I decided I would start by talking to Jesus about Mary since I figured he could probably help me relate to his mother!
At this point I had finished college and had enrolled in RCIA at my local Catholic parish. My journey to the Catholic Church from evangelical Protestantism came via the road of authority. Only once I became convinced that the Protestant paradigm of authority, aka sola Scriptura, was theologically, biblically, philosophically, historically, and practically untenable did I start taking the claims of the Catholic Church seriously. As an aspiring Catholic I tentatively acknowledged the infallible teaching authority of the Church on matters of faith and dogma, including the Marian dogmas, yet my approach to Mary remained quite Protestant even as I pursued full communion with the Catholic Church. Unknowingly I had embraced Catholic theology while still following the basic contours of Protestant spirituality. Although I asked for Mary’s intercession in the prayers of the mass and occasionally prayed a Hail Mary or even a rosary, I did not see Mary as an essential, even necessary path to Christ. Certainly I believed in the validity of praying to Mary and the power of her intercession, but I viewed this devotion as merely supplementary and not as a vital and necessary component to my devotion to Christ.
“Crucifixion”, Gabriel Wuger
Mother of the Church
However I began to understand that there is something disingenuous about a love for Christ that does not extend to his very mother. Without devotion to Mary our faith is stunted and our love incomplete for to love Jesus but act indifferently towards his mother is to disregard the very Sacred Heart of Christ. It is the Catholic conviction that there is a depth and perfection of love for Christ that can only be acquired through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Can we imagine that in heaven Christ is embarrassed and ashamed of how often and devoutly people speak to his mother? Christ is not a jealous demiurge that spurns association with lowly men but rather he is our very brother through the humanity he received from Mary. Simply put, if Christ is our brother then Mary is our mother. God formed the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the virginal womb of Mary and likewise he produces Christ in all the members of his mystical body on earth through Mary. As St. Louis De Montfort eloquently explains,
“If Jesus Christ, the Head of men, is born in her, then the predestinate, who are the members of that Head, ought also to be born in her, by a necessary consequence. One and the same mother does not bring forth into the world the head without the members, or the members without the head; for this would be a monster of nature. So in like manner, in the order of grace, the head and the members are born of one and the same Mother.”
Within this theological framework one can see how passages of Scripture like Mary and John beneath the cross in John 19 and the vision of the woman and the dragon in Revelation 12 carry deep spiritual meanings concerning the relation of Mary to the work of Christ’s redemption. What Jesus declared unto John and Mary his mother in the eve of his passion represent an exemplar for all the Church. Christ did not merely commit his mother to John for her safety and well-being and John to his mother for her maternal care. We cannot merely interpret these words in a situational and temporal manner. After all Jesus did not say “John take Mary as your mother” and “mother, take John as your son;” rather he declared “woman, behold your son” and “behold your mother.” These words hearken back to the original woman Eve whose disobedience brought death to all mankind and who became the mother of all the living by means of physical generation. At the foot of the cross Mary becomes the Second Eve through faith and the mother of Christ’s mystical body through spiritual generation. Like John, we are committed by Christ to Mary at the foot of the cross. Concerning John and Mary, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen comments that,
“…in him all humanity was commended to Mary, who became the mother of men, not by metaphor, or figure of speech, but by pangs of birth. Nor was it a mere sentimental solicitude that made Our Lord give John to His mother, form a human point of view. The import of the words were spiritual and became fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when Christ’s Mystical Body became visible and operative. Mary as the mother of the redeemed and regenerated humanity was in the midst of the Apostles.”
“Pentacost” by Jean Restout II, 1732
When we read in the twelfth chapter of the Revelation of John of a woman “clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” We discover that this woman gives birth to a child “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” and she is identified as the mother of “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.” Coincidence? I think not! If anything can be learned about Mary from the Scriptures it is that Mary is anything but an ordinary Christian with no significant role in the redemptive work of Christ beyond the virgin birth! It is true that the woman also signifies the people of God but these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. As the Anglican convert Blessed John Henry Newman explains,
“Now I do not deny of course, that, under the image of the Women, the Church is signified; but what I would maintain is this, that the Holy Apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image, unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary, who was exalted on high, and the object of veneration to all the faithful.”
As a “Bible-believing” Evangelical it was too easy to miss or gloss over these significant spiritual truths since I viewed the Scriptures through non-apostolic interpretive traditions. In other words I approached the Scriptures with a set of assumptions and beliefs that were foreign to the faith handed on from the apostles to the Church. For example I assumed that any practice or doctrine not explicitly taught in the Scriptures such as prayer to the saints or devotion to Mary was “unbiblical” and therefore non-apostolic. I certainly did not believe in the communion of saints since I assumed that the saints in heaven have no direct role in aiding and interceding for the body of Christ on earth. You would think the cries of the martyrs under the altar and the intercessory role of the angels in the book of Revelation would have cleared this up! The difficulty lies in that Scripture is never alone and is always interpreted through the lens of a preexisting faith. The real question becomes whether or not that faith is apostolic and in continuity with the teachings of antiquity. Once I saw that my evangelical interpretive tradition was incongruent with the faith of the early church I had to seriously reconsider Mary in light of the teaching of the early church fathers. Talk about a radical paradigm shift!
Later as a young Catholic neophyte I still had a somewhat deficient understanding of the necessity of devotion to Mary and the depth of the Church’s teaching on her. I certainly believed in the importance of devotion to Mary, but I probably would not have said it is necessary for salvation, and yet this is just what our holy Church teaches us. Hence St. Louis De Montfort pointedly declares “He who has not Mary for his Mother has not God for his Father.” As the Catechism teaches “She is mother wherever he is Savior and head of the Mystical Body.” After all, Mary’s intercession and that of all the saints is superfluous if our prayers alone are a sufficient means of obtaining every grace necessary for salvation from God. Certainly Christ is the only mediator between God and man, but Mary’s intercession “in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power.” God has freely chosen to associate man in his work of redemption, and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Mary Immaculate We cannot help but contemplate in awe her sublime faith and humility and spontaneously declare with St. Elizabeth, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”