WIT again welcomes guest poster Sarah Elizabeth Smith. Sarah’s bio can be found at the top of her first post with us here.
I lead monthly pub theology meetings for my church in Oklahoma City. We are an Episcopal community that is largely comprised of ex-evangelicals from a wide variety of protestant backgrounds. Few of them have ever given much thought to Mother Mary and her role in Church tradition and theology. It’s just not something Protestants generally think about. Historically, we have placed greater emphasis on Jesus and viewed praise of Mary with a bit of suspicion. I carried this “All Jesus, No Mary” attitude in my own theological view until I started my undergraduate studies at Notre Dame. I’ll never forget getting onto campus for my recruiting visit and being so perplexed as to why Mary was on the golden dome and not Jesus. But, once I started my theological education, immersing myself in Catholic thought and culture, I quickly learned why Our Lady was our university’s name sake and why she meant so much to my Catholic friends’ Christian piety.
When I lead pub theology meetings I usually start off introducing the topic. I give some context and historical background so folks can have a place to enter the conversation when I start posing questions. Usually, conversation quickly takes over and I simply moderate theological discussion among the participants. This time though, I had to do a lot of teaching and explaining the history and theology of Mariology, especially the dogmas (Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Theotokos and Assumption). Most of the traditional Marian dogmas were foreign to to members of the group and they brought up perplexing questions:. Why did Mary have to continue to be a virgin? Why was being a virgin important in the first place? How was she born without sin and does this mean she is better than all humans? And why did she not die like everyone else? Even Jesus died so does this elevate Mary over him?
I worked slowly through the logic behind these concepts and explained the theological pitfalls that led to Protestants and feminists to disavow them. However, I worked really hard to push for the one Marian concept I think is worth holding onto – Theotokos. Mary is the Mother of God. After going through each dogma, I asked them to spit out facts they knew about Mary from the biblical text or tradition. They mentioned things like Mary is the Mother of Christ, she has been said have been a virgin, she was unwed and very young, poor, and in the Davidic line. From this list of things we created I challenged them to take that knowledge and what we know about how Mary has been characterized throughout history and make up our own dogmas for her legacy.
One of my friends astutely critiqued that the existing dogmas all seemed to make Mary a very passive participant in God’s plan for salvation and incarnation. The dogmas emphasize what God does to her and for her and not what Mary decides to do for and with God as a partner and co-creator in the theological narrative. Therefore, we set out to make a new list of dogmas based on the virtue of Mary’s activity and agency that partnered with God’s plan. Below is what we came up with.
This is the one dogma we kept the same as our Catholic friends. Mary was chosen by God and accepted the choice to be the Mother of God, the God Bearer and Queen of Heaven. Her body, mind, and heart were an active agent in the creation of the physical body our savior Jesus Christ. Along with God’s action in history, in conjunction with Mary’s body, she helped make God’s incarnation into human flesh possible. She should hold a significant title and role in the Christian tradition because of her body’s work and her sacrifice of taking care of and rearing the god-child so that he could eventually do the work he came to do.
We acknowledge people’s experiences with encountering Mother Mary. Mary has shown up to believers in visions and dreams in life situations. There are relics and holy spaces attributed to her presence throughout time that we hold as sacred. Mary’s presence also functions as an intercessor for communication and prayer to God. Not all Christians practice this but many Christians find comfort in praying to Mary and meditating with rosaries saying the Hail Mary in order to connect with God. Based in lived experience, we lift up and name Mary’s active presence in our sacramental world as a source of comfort and access to the Divine. Her presence is perpetual and permeates our world if we dare to seek it.
Most of us Protestants are not convinced Mary was without sin. We are convinced that she made a series of choices to stay extremely faithful to her call from God to be Theotokos. Mary answered the angel Gabriel when he visited her to deliver God’s request and she agreed. Throughout her life, what we know of it, she walked with Jesus and cared for him and his community of followers. She was there when he was crucified and there when he was buried. She was also there with the other women when he came back as the Risen Christ. Her commitment to her God and her family is an example of Immaculate Faithfulness. It is not that she was without her shortcomings but that she chose to be loyal day after day. Her choice of faithfulness was what was perfect, the virtue itself is immaculate and she carried out that choice to its completion as she sits in Heaven as Queen.
Assumption of the Poor’s Dignity
In Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s Magnificat proclaims the joy and truths of her understanding of God. She foretells the gospel message to the poor that Jesus will preach on the Sermon on the Mount – that God will care for the poor and send away the rich. God will cast down the ones in power and bring up the lowly in society. There is an Assumption of preferential option and care for the poor. Those who need God’s love most are the ones that society casts out and looks down upon. Those in positions of wealth and power are questioned and stripped of their authority in this new theological realm. God’s power is different and God brings into God’s self the lowest of the low to give them dignity, respect, and power. Mary speaks her God’s truth publically and claims God’s authority in this world and beyond. Her words and body activate the gospel message Christ came to teach. And as a poor Jewish unwed woman, God chose Mary in her lowly position to give birth to our salvation, thus securing the theological importance of God’s option for the poor.
Although, Christians do not hold Mary as a divine being we should hold her in high regard as a symbol for Christian piety. Her story and significance are often cast aside during the Advent and Christmas Seasons. The Church should tell the stories of the great women in our tradition in a light that they deserve and is true to their legacy in the story of salvation and redemption. The power of narrative is strong in human life. Perhaps if we lift up this story, Mary’s story, as one that ties into our own in participation with God’s call on our life maybe we too can find ourselves acting in faithfulness and care for the poor. Maybe we can bring salvation and hope to each other as Mary did for us long ago.