As the woman who gave birth to God incarnate, Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands at the intersection of several currents running through Christian theology. Some of those currents seem to oppose one another, like humanity and divinity. Others seem to compliment each other, like scripture and tradition or piety and practice.
Christian denominations hold different beliefs about Mary and her importance in God’s plan of salvation. Today, churches that follow the Western liturgical calendar observe the Feast of the Virgin Mary, also called the Feast of the Assumption. Through the ages, the image of the woman who brought Christ into the world continues to reveal a lot about the theologies of Christian denominations.
When most people think of devotion to Mary, they think of the Catholic Church. No other denomination has given Jesus’ mother such centrality and prominence in its theology.
The Bible says relatively little about Mary beyond the birth narratives found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but the Catholic Church holds a number of beliefs that are not found explicitly in the biblical texts.
In 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed the church’s belief that Mary lived an entirely sin-free life, a dogma termed “The Immaculate Conception.” A century later Pope Pius XII proclaimed that upon her death Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. These positions have drawn criticism from Protestants who wonder how the church could add to what the Bible literally says about Jesus’ mother.
According to the Rev. Tom Lalor, the basis for Catholics’ belief about Mary is hinted at in scripture, such as in Lk 1: 46-55, where Mary says “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”
Lalor, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, said the church’s teachings reflect a belief that she played a central role in God’s plan of salvation.
It’s that centrality, however, that some Protestants question. The Rev. Jimmy Criddle, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, said Mary is clearly very important, but Christians shouldn’t ascribe to her god-likequalities.
“I’m not sure she understood the full implications of Jesus’ messianic identity,” said Criddle. Methodists, he said, focus on Jesus as the path of salvation and introducing another person into the equation confuses things.
Lalor said that for Catholics Mary doesn’t replace Jesus but she is viewed as someone close to her son that can intercede on behalf of sinners.
The Rev. David Eldridge wonders if Protestants have sometimes overreacted when it comes to Mary.
“Sometimes we say less about her than even the New Testament says,” said Eldridge, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo.
“We’ve sometimes gone to the extreme of brushing her off and ignoring her until the yearly Christmas pageant.”
Eldridge said there’s a “rich, Protestant tradition that would recognize Mary’s role,” as “the physical mother of the savior of the world.”
Though he shares Criddle’s concern about the extra-biblical piety devoted to Mary, Eldridge said, “To understand the New Testament is to understand the unique, one-time roll Mary played.”
Symbol of hope
Criddle said it’s no coincidence that the place in scripture where Mary is most prominent is in the Gospel of Luke. “It was written to the poor, the marginalized, to the little people of society,” he said.
Whereas in Gospel of Matthew the angel speaks to Joseph when announcing Jesus’ impending birth, in Luke he addresses his prophecy directly to Mary.
The Bible says that Mary was not married when she became pregnant, a fact that probably caused some public scandal. Many Christians find that fact very relevant in today’ culture.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics 40 percent of the babies born in the U.S. in 2007 were to unwed mothers. In Mississippi it was 54 percent.
The Rev. Cheryl Penson, co-pastor of Lane Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Tupelo, said many young, black women today find hope in Mary’s story.
Nationwide 70 percent of black babies are born to unwed mothers. Penson said many women in the black church are retrieving Mary as a symbol that “through God’s providence, things will work out for the good.”
Penson also noted a strong matriarchal current running through the black community. She said that within the black church, women are often the teachers and, “carriers of the faith.” That truth applies to Mary on both a literal and a symbolic level.
“Mary carried Jesus inside her,” said Penson. “She carried the object of our faith, within. That’s incredibly meaningful.”
Lalor said it’s hard to overstate the importance of Mary in Jesus’ mission. “A mother’s relationship goes beyond physical birth,” he said. “She nurtures the faith and helps shape the entire person.”
Criddle has always been impressed by Mary’s obedience and patience. Scripture records her standing at the foot of the cross watching as Jesus took his last breaths. “As a father, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to watch my child suffer,” said Criddle. “She showed remarkable faith and devotion.”
Criddle believes God’s choice of Mary says a lot about God’s love for humanity, including all its flaws. “She was a nobody, really,” he said. “Why would God choose any of us?”
Eldridge agreed. “There’s no indication that she had intellectual acumen, or good looks,” he said. “The angels must have been scratching their heads.”
Still, he added, Mary rose to the “God-sized task” put before her.
“She simply said ‘Here I am, Lord,’” said Eldridge. “I don’t know if God has ever asked anything more of anybody.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal