Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Some Protestants warm up to Mary

During Christmas, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is everywhere.

She appears in Christmas pageants, on holiday cards and in Nativity displays around the country, but in a few weeks she disappears in Protestant churches. The Christmas costumes go back into storage, the Nativity sets are put away and Mary is forgotten, until next year.

A determined group of Protestant writers and teachers is trying to change that. With books like The Real Mary, and Mary for Evangelicals, and articles in magazines like Christianity Today and the Christian Century, they are trying to persuade Protestants to embrace Mary.

It's been tough going, says Scot McKnight, author of The Real Mary. Mary remains a divisive figure. While she is embraced as the "Mother of God" by Catholics and as the Theotokos or "God-bearer" by Orthodox Christians, Mary is still considered taboo by some among Protestants, said McKnight, a professor of New Testament at North Park University in Chicago.

"There is a stubborn resistance on the part of Protestants to talking about Mary," he said. "All I am trying to do is get Protestants to believe what the Bible says about Mary."

What the Bible says may surprise some Protestants.

For example, much of the "Hail Mary" prayer, often said during the Catholic rosary, comes from Luke 1:28, in the King James Version: "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

And rather than being meek and mild, as she often is depicted, Mary had a fiery side, said McKnight. That's something McKnight realized while reading the Magnificat, a song attributed to Mary in the Gospel of Luke. It reads in part: "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1: 52-53, New International Version).

At the time, Israel was ruled by Herod the great, a ruthless tyrant who killed anyone who posed a threat to his rule, including members of his own family.

"I wondered, what kind of woman would sing this kind of song with Herod the great on the throne?" McKnight said. "My understanding of Mary moved from an image of piety to a woman of great courage — someone more likely to lead a rally than lead a prayer."

Doctrine widened rift

The rift between Protestants and Catholics over Mary began during the Reformation and worsened in the 1850s, when the Immaculate Conception of Mary became an official Catholic doctrine. In 1854, Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary was "exempt from all stain of original sin."

The Immaculate Conception is a doctrine that almost all Protestants reject. In essence, it means that Mary was the first human being to be "saved," as evangelicals put it.

According to Catholic teaching, because of Mary's unique role in God's plan of redemption, "God preserved her from the effects of Adam's sin," said Bishop David Choby of the diocese of Nashville.

"She received in advance the gift of redemption that all humanity received in Jesus Christ," Choby said.

Catholics grateful to her

In explaining Catholic devotion to Mary, Choby said it stems from love for her son, the savior. "She's the mother of Jesus," he said, "If you have a close relationship with Jesus, it makes sense that you'd have a close relationship with his mother."

Catholics also feel a particular sense of gratitude toward Mary for her role in bringing Jesus into the world.

When the angel Gabriel told Mary she had been chosen by God to bear his son, she could have refused, Choby said. Instead, according to the Gospel of Luke, she said, "I am the Lord's servant . . . May it be to me as you have said."

"She is the first person to receive Jesus into her heart," Choby said. "She was the first person to welcome him into the world. Were it not for her welcoming him into the world, we could not welcome him into our lives."

And while Catholics do ask Mary to pray for them, they do not worship her, the bishop added. He said that asking for prayers is a common practice among all Christians.

"There's not a day that goes by when someone does not ask me to pray for them," he said. "That's one of the marks of Christian life. In relationship to Mary, the mother of God, of course we approach her with our petitions. Who is close to the Son?"

She can puzzle converts

Still, Mary can remain perplexing even to Protestants who become Catholics.

Robin Jensen, Luce Chancellor's professor of the history of Christian worship and art at Vanderbilt Divinity School, is an adult convert who attends Christ the King Catholic Church in Nashville. She grew up Lutheran and United Church of Christ, and recalls the first time she stepped into a Catholic friend's home.

"I was astonished by all the pictures of Mary and of the Sacred Heart of Jesus," she said. "I knew I'd entered another culture."

Jensen, who has taught about Mary at Vanderbilt and organized a 2005 conference on Mary, says she still hasn't embraced a Catholic understanding of the Mother of God.

She has come to understand the difference between how Catholics and Protestants see Mary. "Protestants have a more familiar and imminent relationship with Jesus," she said. "They pray to him and talk to him all the time. For Catholics, Mary can play that role. We need someplace to go where we can be comforted, where we can be accepted, where we can confess."

And when Catholics and Protestants get into trouble, they respond differently, Jensen added.

"If a Roman Catholic were in a car accident," she said, "they would probably cry out to Mary. When a Protestant is in a car accident — they cry out to Jesus."

Despite the difficulties, McKnight and Jensen say they will continue to try to get Protestants to take a second look at Mary. "I tell people, if you follow Mary you'll end up at the cross," McKnight said. "She'll point you to Jesus every time."
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