A New Perspective on Mary
Unity in the Body through the Holy Spirit
The heart of this paper comes from my personal passion for the unity of the Church, the advancement of Christ's kingdom and a desire for Christian's to thrive so that they might be in a position to advance the kingdom of God. I want to respond to the amazing paradox that though there are hundreds of thousands of Christians zealous for God's revelation and equally zealous in their desire to apply it, they wind up fighting against each other, rather than fighting against the “forces of darkness” and advancing the kingdom of God.
What do I believe has caused this paradox to exist and what can help solve this paradox? I believe that many Christians do not understand what it truly means to be a Christian and what the Gospel of Christ is (Christ's inaugurated kingdom). Because of these misunderstandings among a large number of the faithful of all three Christian traditions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant; false boundary lines are drawn concerning the definition of what a Christian is and hence unneeded ecclesial schism and division is caused. Unfortunately this has resulted in whole ecclesial communities and movements whose primary distinctions are as a result from an ignorance of church history, an over-reaction against theological error, and a lack of hermeneutical and exegetical acumen. No small amount of damage to the Church's ability to advance against the gates of hell has been affected. This paradox of division in the Body of Christ not only has caused great harm to the Church but also in the lives of many Christian families and individuals as well. Many sons and daughters of the Church who have been raised in this context are now disenchanted with the Church and are at odds with her. How can these faith communities advance the kingdom of God when many of their parishioners' lives have been shattered and are in ruin?
It is my desire to propose a theological reflection surrounding the Theotokos that would contribute to a "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I truly believe that a theology of Our Lady that emphasizes her as a will help contribute to the Church's unity that would assist in the reversal of the schism and division that is affecting so many churches and families across the United States and beyond. I believe along with Max Thurian, Brother of Taizé that, “Instead of being a cause of division amongst us, Christian reflections on the role of the Virgin Mary should be a cause of rejoicing and a source of prayer. ”
How the Problem Developed
As alluded to earlier, I believe that the various schisms that exist within the Church are a result of the theological pendulum that has been swinging since the inception of Christianity, and Mariology has been no exception to this phenomenon. Mariology has been and continues to be one of the most polarizing issues between Catholics and Evangelicals. The Mariology pendulum is the tendency of men and movements to overcompensate when correcting Marian theology or practice. Once the proverbial pendulum has begun to change direction away from one error, it often passes the mark of truth and swings into the opposite error. I want to avoid both the almost cultic Marian maximalist view and the typical Protestant minimalism that we see so often in Evangelical circles. It would be worthwhile then, before proposing a thesis on Mariology to first draw a brief sketch as to how Mariology developed over the last two centuries.
A particularly helpful work that assists with this endeavor is Truly Our Sister, A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints by Elizabeth Johnson. In this incisive volume, Elizabeth points out that as early as the fourth century Mariology began to be twisted when,
Places in nature where female deities had been honored with pilgrimage and prayer, such as grottoes, springs, promontories, mountains, lakes, and woods, became associated with Mary. Shrines and temples to the goddess were rededicated to Mary the Mother of God. Artistic symbols of the goddess accrued to Mary; her dark blue cloak, turreted crown, link with the moon and the stars, and with water and the sea.
So rather than stopping this syncretistic approach the officials of the church allowed this to go rather unchecked because of its appeal to cultures where the goddesses were venerated. By the end of the first millennium, the Church had slowly detached Mary from redemptive history and isolated her as a mediator of all graces. Jaroslav Pelikan, notes, “In both birth and death, therefore, she is different from other people; in both birth and death she resembles her divine Son. More and more, the attributes ascribed to her seem closer to those of Christ than to those of common mortals. She was conceived in a special way, she performs miracle, she intercedes for us, she was assumed into heaven.” Mary had become a new mediator between believers and the harsh Judge, Jesus. Rather than seeing Him as our personal mediator and one who could sympathize they saw Him like an Italian mobster who was ruthless and angry and whose only soft spot was for his mother. Elizabeth expresses this phenomenon, “The mother of God came to be seen as a particularly potent help to sinners, a heavenly power who because of her maternal heart would take the sinner’s side. Since she was also the mother of the Judge who was bound to honor her with filial piety, she was uniquely positioned to persuade him to save poor sinners.”
The majority of the medieval Church expressed this sentiment. A few samplings of this are below:
- Bernard of Clairvaux - [God] wills us to have everything through Mary.
- Bonaventure - The Blessed Virgin chose the best part because she was made Queen of Mercy, while her Son remained King of Justice; and mercy is better than justice.
- Bernardine of Siena - Every grace which is communicated to this world has a threefold procession. For from God to Christ, from Christ to the Virgin, from the Virgin to us, it is dispensed in a most orderly fashion…I do not hesitate to say that she has received a certain jurisdiction over all graces…They are administered through her hands to whom she pleases, when she pleases, as she pleases, and as much as she pleases.
The pattern and thread to all of this is that in Sacred Theology Mary had replaced Jesus and even more so, the Holy Spirit. Moving past the medieval era into the Reformation this dynamic increased even more as devotion to Mary equaled being a faithful child of the Church. This polarization occurred in the context of the Reformers emphasizing that Christ was the only Mediator. They asserted that Christ had been replaced by the hierarchical structure of the Saints. They showed how central the Incarnation was to Christ being our mediator because His human nature enabled Him to sympathize with us. Hebrews 4:14-16 was essential to this view,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
It should be noted though that the Reformer’s Mariology was significantly different from today’s evangelical view. For instance, John Calvin accepted Mary's perpetual virginity and the title "Mother of God" (meaning Jesus was God and she was His mother), as also did Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. In addition, Zwingli and Luther believed that Mary was sinless.
Some went even farther such as the pre-Lutheran reformer, John Wycliffe, who in the following statement reflected the Marian spirit of the age, "It seems to me impossible that we should obtain the reward of Heaven without the help of Mary. There is no sex or age, no rank or position, of anyone in the whole human race, which has no need to call for the help of the Holy Virgin. " Even both Zwingli and Bullinger would join in the “Hail Mary, full of grace” but not as a prayer for intercession to Mary but as an expression of honor to her and the role she played in salvation history. Calvin would also call Mary “the treasurer of grace” and said how Christ “chose for himself the virgin’s womb as a temple in which to dwell” (Institutes 2.14.1).
Though the Counter-Reformation addressed some of the concerns of the Reformers regarding the out of control Mariology, the overall projection of Marian theology remained unabated and continued into modern times.. The zenith of this Marian upsurge reached its crest during the papal proclamations of the two Marian dogmas, the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950). The idea that Mary was conceived without original sin was rejected by Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Dominicans and Thomas Aquinas, among other well-known scholars of the Church. Augustine did believe though that God’s amazing, penetrating grace was bestowed on her “for vanquishing sin in every part” (On Nature and Grace 36.42).
So themes of the Blessed Virgin's mediating God's grace and offering protection for the children of the Church filled the volumes of theologians, was proclaimed loudly in homilies, and was expressed with great passion by popes. Apparitions abounded along with lay societies dedicated to Mary.
Jaroslav Pelikan, “The theologians and bishops of the church, who ought to watch and to warn the faithful of the excesses in such piety, are actually the ones who encourage the excesses. In the autumn of 1950, in the very week when he proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII had several vision of the Virgin, during which he also saw the sun do a dance in the sky to the honor of Our Lady of Fatima.”
Slowly in the undercurrent of the Church though, an ever-growing undertow of concern was developing regarding the cult of Mary that had developed in the Church. During the 1950's, leading up to Vatican II, a split among theologians started to occur. On one side was the Marian maximalist or christotypical group that saw Mary "as an altogether special creature whose privileges paralleled those of Christ." They desired to see Mary defined as Mediatrix of All Graces. The other group, labeled ecclesiotypical was based on biblical, liturgical and ecumenical renewal movement along with a zeal for the patristics. Their Mariology was based on Mary as an ideal disciple who was herself a recipient of grace amidst the community of the faithful. Some of these theologians were Yves Congar, Heribert Mühlen, J. M. R. Tillard, and Avery Dulles and even favored the removal of the anathemas attached to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Edward Schillebeeckx, one of the ecclesiotypical group had written before Vatican II on Mariology. His views would greatly influence the counsel,
In the faceoff the mariological tendencies which were dominating at that time, to give Mary a place in so-called’ objective redemption’, I stressed that Mary must not be put on the side of Jesus Christ but on the side of reception by the community of faith. Because of the attempt to ‘keep Mary on our side’, at that time I preferred not to use the title ‘Mary co-redemptrix’ which was current in marian circles at that time, and preferred vaguer references like ‘companion in redemption’. That applies to her, as it applies to all Christian believers who through their fiat of faith enter into the state of redemption and, being redeemed, in return, by virtue of this grace of redemption, also become grace for others.
The ecclesiotypical group won out in Vatican II but there were still disappointments felt by this group because of the inadequacies of biblical exegesis regarding Mary in the Marian chapter. There seemed to be a capitulation to the minority group when after the third session of Vatican II had rejected the title “Mary Mother of The Church” by a majority of 1559 votes (October 29 1964), Pope Paul VI added it back in at the conclusion of the council. Also there seemed to be a complete lack of development regarding the Holy Spirit, which left the door open for continual false attributions to be made to Mary that should be made to the Holy Spirit. Another setback was Pope John Paul II's Marian encyclical Redemptoris Mater in 1987 that harkened back to the days of the christotypical group. John Paul II,
Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her son and humankind in the reality of their wants, needs, and sufferings. She puts herself ‘in the middle,’ not as an outsider but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her son the needs of humankind, and in fact she ‘has the right’ to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of an intercession.
Still yet it was Paul VI's apostolic letter entitled Marialis Cultus written 13 years earlier that still continues to burn brightly in championing the Council's view of Mary as set forth in the Constitutions. In Marialis Cultus, Paul VI outlined 4 principles for how the Church could honor and incorporate the memory of Our Lady in keeping with Scripture, Tradition and the conc iliar statements of Vatican II. They are as follows:
1. Biblical: Honor of Mary should be Biblical and based on sound exegesis rather than proof-texting. He desired that Mary be seen within the great themes of salvation history versus a separate schema as the maximalist group had pre-Vatican II.
2. Liturgical: Honor and memory of Mary should flow from and lead back to our focus on our weekly remembrance of the Paschal Mystery and be integrated in with the liturgical seasons that celebrate various aspects of redemptive history.
3. Ecumenical: Mary should be seen within the lens of sound Scriptural foundations and have Christ as its center and goal. Special care should be given to "avoid any exaggeration which could mislead other Christians about the true doctrine of the Catholic Church."
4. Anthropological: Memory of Mary should be closely related to the sciences of psychology and sociology especially as it relates to women.
Having traced some of the development of Marian theology, I want to take a look at two important discussions regarding Marian theology and ecumenism that have taken place very recently and that have a bearing on the thesis of this paper. The first discussion being between the Church of Rome and the Anglican Church and second being between the Church of Rome and American Evangelicals. These two meetings resulted in the production of two documents, namely: Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ: The Seattle Statement, produced by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (February 2004) & Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life: A Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (November 2009). I will be taking a look at these documents and the consensuses reached as a beginning point and possible foundation for moving forward in the Church's quest for unity that could be advanced by appreciating the life and ministry of The Blessed Virgin.
In both ecumenical discussions each side strongly agreed to the wording of the Second Vatican Council, “No creature could ever be counted as equal to the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. . . . The Church does not hesitate to profess the subordinate role of Mary” (Lumen Gentium 62). Both sides also agree on the biblical theology of Mary which we will now turn our attention to in order to offer a brief cursory view. When Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the coming Messiah, he states that Mary is “full of grace.” Mary then is a special example of humility and openness to the gracing power of the Holy Spirit. She responds in great faith to the angel’s announcement by saying, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary responds in song (The Magnificat) and states that “all generations will call me blessed.” So both Catholics and Evangelicals want to rightly call her blessed in the fullest Biblical sense. This is why both sides can now call her the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Sacred Scripture Mary is the long-awaited daughter of Israel who would bear the “consolation of Israel.” She is seen as the conclusion and summit of a long list of virtuous mothers such as: Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.
It seems right to also describe her as the New Eve, as other patristics did such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus because she fulfilled Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." As the New Eve, Mary fulfilled the promise to the first Eve that the seed of a woman would conquer sin and death that was the result of the Fall. Both sides also agree on the theological importance of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, “the God-Bearer” as the Council of Ephesus (431) deemed her to be, in opposition to the heresy of Nestorianism. This heresy asserted that Mary, the mother of Jesus gave birth to the humanity of Christ, instead of the divine Logos, God as a man. Thus Nestorius believed Mary should be called Christotokos, Greek for the "birth giver of Christ" and not Theotokos, Greek for the "birth giver of God". This was an unorthodox view because the Apostolic teaching is that the Virgin Mary is Theotokos because she gave birth to God as a man. Jesus was 100% GOD and 100% man, two natures in one person. In the word of the Chalcedonian creed,
“Born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
Both tradtions agree to the importance of being rigorous in opposing those who would confuse the term Theotokos with any pagan myths of goddess worship, fertility cults and the like. Our common honor of Mary is because it is inextricably bound up with what is said about Jesus our Lord. We both want to emphasize an orthodox Christology and one that gives honor to both the events and people involved with His Incarnation and Paschal Mystery. It is the goal of both traditions to balance any reflection on Mary by remembering that at the Magnificat and at all other times, Mary always glorified God and her Son and never herself. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) regarding this point in the context of Marian apparitions,
Private revelation ... can be a genuine help in understanding the Gospel and living it better at a particular moment in time; therefore it should not be disregarded. It is a help which is offered, but which one is not obliged to use ... The criterion for the truth and value of a private revelation is therefore its orientation to Christ himself. When it leads us away from him, when it becomes independent of him or even presents itself as another and better plan of salvation, more important than the Gospel, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit.
Pneumatological-Ecclesiological View of Mary
I now move towards discussing the recent groundbreaking idea of a pneumatological-ecclesiological view of Mary. A view that emphasizes Mary as fully graced and Spirit-filled. When Gabriel appeared to her, he called her “full of grace” or “highly favored”. Mary filled with the Spirit, exclaimed, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:28). She is spilling over with the fullness and joy of the Spirit. When Gabriel announced that Mary would be conceive by the Holy Spirit, the long awaited Messiah she says, “I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38). At the wedding in Cana she told her servants, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). In both instances, we see a complete faith and trust in God and in his Incarnate Son. We see a woman overshadowed, filled, consumed by the Holy Spirit. Saint Augustine emphasizes the important of her spirit-filled discipleship that is so often overshadowed by her motherhood, “Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood. Hers was the happiness of first bearing in her womb him whom she would obey as her master” (Sermon 72A.7).
Mary’s faith was not of one of passivity but one of courage and valor. It was an active-obedience faith where she walked in the steps she was called to walk in. She is an example of what a woman of God should be. This ministry continued after the ascension of her Son as we see her praying with the other disciples at the house in Jerusalem during Pentecost. It was Luke’s intention as the author to ensure that all readers knew that she was there. Both in his gospel as well as in Acts we see the thread of Mary’s fearless trust in God, such as when the disciples fled in fear during Jesus’ arrest and yet Mary remained. She was the consummate expression of someone who was overshadowed, filled, enabled and made fruitful by the power of the Spirit.
We also see Mary the wife, who was an ezer kenegdo/helpmate (an equal and corresponding help), and assisted and honored her husband Joseph. Often Mariology downplays the part of Joseph but it should be noted that in Scripture we have God revealing himself three times in a supernatural way to Joseph and only once to Mary. Thus Joseph’s part in redemptive history needs to be better articulated and integrated with contemporary Mariology. Seeing Mary as fully female and fully human in need of redemption like any other human but as someone that fully submitted to the Spirit gives hope to both men and women.
The Holy Spirit in the Communion of Saints
It is important to interpret Mary’s unique role that she played in salvation history within the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints where her faith finds significance “amid multiple relationships of mutuality formed by the Spirit.” So Mary find her place as a graced woman of God in the larger context of the communion of saints, which is the whole host of believers both here on earth and in heaven above who are children of God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. In the words of Schillebeeckx, “Mary must not be put on the side of Jesus Christ but on the side of the community of faith which is on the receiving end. ” With Schillebeeckx and Johnson, I propose a companionship model versus a hierarchical model to describe the communion of saints. They are a cloud of witnesses, partners, companions, comrades and co-disciples, not super-saints in heaven who are “situated between God and those on earth, with some more and some less powerful in intercessory pull…in heaven as benefactors who act as patrons for earthly petitioners.” For too long the Church has created a caste-like system in their version of the communion of saints and have subsequently closed a blind eye to the abuses that have stemmed from it. See Pelikan,
Although the official teaching of the church, with its separation between veneration and adoration, is a modern version of the distinction espoused by Augustine, the piety oat Lourdes or at Guadalupe or at Fatima demonstrates how blurred that distinction often becomes in the common mind. “St. Jude, help!” may mean officially: “St. Jude, I ask you for your intercession to our Lord Jesus Christ, before whom you and I both stand in judgment and in prayer. As you prayed with and for your fellow believers when you were alive, I ask you to pray with and for me now, that, if it be God’s will, I amy obtain divine help.” But in the personal life of the person who utters the prayer, St. Jude can help directly, therefore Roman Catholics often pray to him directly.
The more biblical view is where we are mutual partners in the Spirit, instead of a hierarchical one. Romans 14:7-9, “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” These clouds of witnesses in heaven, “are proposed not as exemplars to be imitated or helpers to be invoked, but as witnesses whose journey encourages those who are still on the way. It is a matter of being inspired by the whole lot of them and the wonderful testimony of their lives to the living God.”
Still yet there are some believers that I would call “paradigmatic saints" which are “specific persons emerge whose lives embody one or more central values of the faith in a strikingly concrete form.” It is in this group of paradigmatic saints that the Blessed Virgin belongs. She is in the presence of God among the community of the faithful who pray for the believers here on earth and still offer encouragement by their own past life here on earth for those of us still running the race so as to win. Her submitting to the Spirit so faithfully and humbly is what made her such a powerful witness to the world. Mary embodied what the Church is to embody corporately, a pure love for God humble submission to the Spirit. It is this pneumatalogical view that we want to emphasize. Elizabeth Johnson puts it so beautifully when she says,
The key to our theologizing is this: Mary is a woman of Spirit. She entrusted her life to the utterly gracious reality of the transcendent. Whether she was taking initiative, rejoicing, criticizing, pondering, suffering, or otherwise finding her way through ordinary days, her loving partnership with Spirit-Sophia inscribes in our history a story of grace. In this she is sister to all who respond to the gift of the Spirit in their own lives, in ways seen and unseen. Together they form the communion of saints.
By being partakers of the Spirit we are at one with the rest of the Saints. Ephesians 2:18, “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” and Ephesians 4:4, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called”. It is here that our reform of the communion of saints needs to turn. Many Protestants such as Elsie Gibson bewail the fact that Mary has replaced the Holy Spirit in so much of Catholic theology, “When I began the study of Catholic theology, every place I expected to find an exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, I found Mary. What Protestants universally attribute to the action of the Holy Spirit was attributed to Mary.” Mary is addressed with titles such as intercessor, mediatrix, co-redemptrix, helper, advocate, mediator of all graces, defender, consoler, counselor. It seems rather obvious from the witness of Sacred Scripture that these titles belong to the Holy Spirit and its operations and energies within the Trinity. Tradition should be read in union with Scripture not in such a way where it runs counter to the very main themes of Scripture itself. When the latter happens, tradition is not interpreting Scripture but instead it is essentially doing an “end run” around Scripture and ignoring it. So it is the Holy Spirit and not Mary that is the source of all life, including the Church.
In the light of what for me is now a clear new look (though of course it is old in Christianity), it is not Mary but the Holy Spirit who is ‘the mother of all believers’, the true ‘mother of the church’. For if we look deeper into our Christian tradition of faith, then we discover that even before ecclesiological titles of honor (e.g. the church as the “ark of the covenant”, the “seat of wisdom”, the “gates of David”, the “refuge of sinners”, the comforter of the oppressed”, etc.) are by mariological transference also bestowed on Miriam, the mother of Jesus (see the Litany of Our Lady), these ecclesiological titles of honor were themselves also transferred from even more original Christian honorific titles for the Holy Spirit – the primal source of all ecclesiological and subsequently mariological transferences.
Future discussion about Mary and Mariology then must revolve around the communion of saints in the Spirit who is the source and mother of the Church. All articulation of Marian dogma and doctrine should be carefully examined in light of a biblical pneumatology and Christology and then ecclesiology.
Theology and Praxis
Theology is more than just theory but it is inextricably bound and linked to practice. How can this New Perspective on Mary with a pneumatological and ecclesiological emphasis and framework be applied to ecumenism in the Church today? So many times, ecumenism only happens at the high academic level and the agreements, perspectives and new visions are never passed down to the common lay people. How can this hurdle be surpassed? I propose a three-prong plan. The first prong is to publish books, papers and blog articles on the New Perspective on Mary in language and principles that the common lay person can understand. The second prong would be to hold local conferences on this topic with the cooperation of the panoply of Christian traditions that are represented in that specific community. The third prong is to serve together in the community alongside other ecclesial communities as an express representation and application of the life of Mary and the other saints that gave their life in service and humility to God. Most often it is our love expressed in deeds that God uses to convert the soul and soften the heart in contrast with polemical argumentation for the various dogmas of Christianity.
In closing, I leave with a quote from Evangelicals and Catholics Together that so succinctly expresses the vision that I have attempted to lay out in this paper:
This Mary is not simply a passive instrument of God’s plan. She actively participates in the Spirit’s charismatic activity, which from generation to generation serves as a model for men and women who seek to proclaim the gospel “in the power of the Spirit.” Consequently, there is a pneumatological continuity between Mary’s unique vocation and the ongoing vocation of the Church that allows Evangelicals, with Ambrose (Expos. in Luc. 2.6–7) and Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 63), to affirm her role as a type of the Church (ecclesiae typus).