The Cult of Mary
"Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
This prayer - known as the Ave Maria - stands at the center of devotion to Mary in the Roman Catholic Church. One hundred fifty small beads on the rosary help the worshiper keep track of the one hundred fifty times the prayer is to be recited to say the rosary completely.
The Ave Maria contains two parts. The first is a quotation of the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:28). The second part, beginning with the words "Holy Mary," became linked to the words of the angel as a prayer to Mary in the early sixteenth century on the eve of the Reformation.
In Roman Catholic piety Mary is viewed as an intercessor and mediator for Christians. She will be a go-between for us with her son. Jesus' love for His mother insures that He will listen carefully to her prayers on our behalf.
How did such attitudes toward Mary begin? The story is complex, but certain developments are clear. In the ancient world, society and thought were very hierarchical in structure. If someone wanted a favor from a person of importance, he usually could not approach that person directly, but needed a patron to help him. One needed to know somebody who knew somebody. It was rather natural then that Christians newly converted from paganism (and accustomed to polytheism) would think that to approach Jesus they needed a patron. Soon Mary and other saints were regarded as such helpers. As time went on the devotion to Mary grew, and detailed theological explanations as to her importance in the history of redemption grew.
One line of thought stressed that she was the second Eve. As sin had entered the world in the first place through Eve, now salvation entered the world through Mary. As this way of thinking was elaborated, theologians began to assert that salvation depended on the cooperation of Mary. The key Marian verse became Luke 1:30 where Mary responds to the angel, "Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word." Some theologians argued that all of salvation hung on that response. Mary had a free will and it was up to her to be the mother of Jesus or not. Her cooperation was indispensable to salvation.
Luther utterly rejected such an understanding of Mary and of Luke. In his fine commentary on the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Luther insisted that the heart of Mary's response to the angelic announcement was Luke 1:48: "for he has regarded the humble estate of his handmaiden." Far from salvation waiting on Mary's free will, Luther says that Mary acknowledges that she was part of God's sovereign, electing purpose. God's "regard" of Mary was not a reward for her goodness nor an appeal for her cooperation, but a selection of the undeserving for an important role in God's work.
A medieval story points to an even deeper problem with the Marian devotion. The story is that when Mary died and was taken up to heaven, she was greeted by Jesus who divided His kingdom with her and declared that henceforth He would be the King of Justice and she would be the Queen of Mercy. This story suggests that for medieval Christians Jesus tended to be seen as the stern judge and Mary as the sympathetic mother. The great error here is that the character of Jesus is misunderstood. He is construed as a rather unloving figure who must be cajoled into loving by His mother. Perhaps Jesus' divinity blinded Christians to the full measure of His humanity. They seemed to forget that He was true man, tempted in all ways like them, and a loving high priest. Mary who was purely human - untainted with divinity! - seemed more understanding. We must all be careful to reject any such misrepresentations of Jesus. No one can be more sympathetic, understanding, and loving than Jesus. We simply do not need Mary or anyone else as a go-between for us. Jesus wants us to come directly to Him.
Many Protestants have reacted to the Roman Catholic devotion to Mary by never mentioning her at all. They may preach on Abraham and David, but never on Mary. Ignoring Mary is wrong. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit she declared,
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me.Luke 1:48, 49
Mary was greatly blessed by God and in her faith and life we see the great things of God displayed. She is a model of faith and should be an inspiration to the people of God. In the blessing that God gave to her, all Christians should be encouraged to thank and praise the Lord as Mary did. She gave no glory to herself, but sang, "Holy is his name" (Luke 1:49). Let us not invent a mythological Mary, but follow the Mary of biblical history in glorifying God and finding in Jesus the only mediator between God and man.