Mary for  May

Mary for May

About fifteen years ago I co-authored a dialogue book with Evangelical journalist John Martin. The book was called Challenging Catholics and it is now out of print.

For Mary’s month of May I thought I’d publish here some of our dialogue about Mary. Here’s a particularly punchy passage:

John: Let me spell out my three problems with Mary and the Catholic Church.

First, the Catholic Church has surrounded Mary with traditions that are not simply unbiblical, but run contrary to some important doctrinal principles. The gravest example concerns teaching about the role of Mary in salvation and attempts to have her officially recognised a co-redeemer.

Second, the Catholic Church surrounds Mary with a whole lot of unnecessary clutter. To assert, for example, the perpetual virginity of Mary is a nonsense, not only because it’s clear from the biblical record that Jesus had brothers and sisters, but also because in Jewish tradition denial of conjugal rights to Joseph would have been a violation of the marriage covenant.

Third – and I’m sorry to be so tough – I think it sends out a wrong message about sexuality. As you know, for centuries before Jesus was born and well beyond, the cult of the girl flourished around the Mediterranean Basin. It was a cult that led to all sorts of aberrations including fertility rights, forms of worship that the Judaeo-Christian tradition from the prophets of Israel to St Paul utterly rejected. In our day, it takes a secular and materialist form and manifests itself in phenomena like Playboy magazine, page 3 girls and manifestations that are far worse. I fear that there’s a displaced form of this phenomenon in the attitudes of some Catholics, especially males, to Mary.

Now, having launched an all-out assault let me start again from what I see as first principles. It should be possible to salvage more than a few points in common.

Here goes. In heaven, when this old hack tries to blend in among the Angels surrounding the Throne hoping to get wind of a really good scoop, I’ll fully expect to find that Mary occupies the highest place that heaven can accord a human being. Speculations about words like theotokos will be well and truly lost in the mists of human time. They will have proved to be culture-bound, yet another of the many attempts of the Western mind to define and comprehend the incomprehensible. Mary herself will have seen to it that pious hymns like ‘Hail Holy Queen’ are banned from the heavenly hymnbook, except for use by people who choose to spend eternity enclosed by one of the assortments of clouds I’ve described earlier on.

More seriously, I agree with you that the human Jesus is a blind spot for many evangelicals and – apart from reaction to Catholic over-enthusiasm for Mary – this is a major reason why Mary is relegated almost out of sight. It doesn’t help that we’ve made the Christmas/Nativity season so sugary. Happily, present-day studies Jesus studies are redressing some of the losses and benefits are gradually percolating indirectly even to evangelicals who consciously try to steer clear of such enterprises.

I would want start to assess Mary’s significance with reference to Mary’s Song (the Magnificat) as recorded in Luke. The critics have wondered whether it’s traceable to Mary herself. For my part I see no reason to sweep it aside as inauthentic. Here is a song of joy to a God who sets his people free, quite an irony considering that having a baby and taking on its care and nurture requires big sacrifices of personal freedom.

Here is the ultimate act of hospitality. A young women gives her body to protect and nourish the God in human form whom she has conceived. She exults that the life within her will accomplish something that she doesn’t fully comprehend, something of even greater significance in the history of her people than the Exodus. She expects nothing less than that the victory of God will be accomplished through the life within her. It’s mighty stuff, and that is yet another reason why I think that all the sentimental guff about Mary that’s crept into devotion to her is a serious distraction.

Here too is the ultimate act of humility and faith. It’s very hard for post-modern persons, especially males, to comprehend what Mary’s choices implied. Right up until my Mother’s generation, which pre-dated modern contraceptive methods, women knew that marriage almost certainly meant child-bearing and thus putting aside any thoughts of independence or career. Mary knows all that and notwithstanding she takes on social stigma, ridicule, vulnerability and the risk of loneliness. I can’t begin to fathom the shadow side of her great elation in the Magnificat. I simply – and truthfully – want to say ‘Hail, Mary’. I want to say ‘Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus’. But I find myself swallowing hard at the phrase ‘Mother of God’. Somehow it leaves everything upside down.

Dwight: Are you really banning ‘Hail Holy Queen’ from the celestial hymnbook? Think of all those disappointed Catholics! Seriously, the view of Mary you’ve just stated is understandable and attractive. I’m sure it is an acceptable position for most Anglicans and many Evangelicals. I want to congratulate you on actually taking Mary seriously rather than dismissing her out of hand. But let me challenge what you’ve said about Mary earlier on.

I’ll address the points in your order. Continue Reading