Still Our Mother Part I

It has become a common, and quite unfortunate, trend within Protestantism to reject those things emphasized within the Church of Rome on no other basis than that they are Roman. Many are quick to forget that the Reformed desire is not to be un-papal, but rather to be contrary to innovation (though it should be made clear that papalism is rejected for this reason). In fact, “Catholicity” was a term prized among the Reformers, and it was the catholicity of their common Latin (Read: Roman) heritage and her Saints that were heavily and strategically relied upon as a means of proof for their articles of faith, as can be seen in both the schools of Geneva and Wittenburg alike. The Second Helvetic Confession written by Heinrich Bullinger, for example, boldly teaches:

And in this way we retain the Christian, orthodox and catholic faith whole and unimpaired” (Chapter XI)

It is rather the papal inconsistencies with this, its own apostolic heritage, that is to be feared and rejected, not the heritage itself. It is due in fact to this common (and misguided) rejection of “Catholic” things due to their Roman associations that has caused much of the difficulties (Read: Heresies) within Contemporary Western Christendom, especially within the ever-marching tides of Evangelicalism. Most curious among this trend, it seems, is that it has become increasingly prevalent within many circles to focus this particular rejection on a Saint most undeserving of such malicious conversation, that being none other than St. Mary, the very mother of Our Lord. Over the course of several posts, I intend to explore the implications and detriments of this rejection, as well as the Biblical Duty of the Christian to honor the Blessed Theotokos, Mater Dei, or “Mother of God”, and eventually, to determine the appropriate biblical and Protestant titles to ascribe to St. Mary, particularly: Mother.

It is preferable to first ask if any Saint should be given specific honor, or rather, what benefit is there for adoring the Saints in general? The simple explanation is that the Christian should care because God cares. The Psalmist says that the deaths of the saints are precious in the sight of the Lord (Psalms 116:15). And not only this, but they are efficacious. The Lord told Cain that the blood of his brother cried out to Him from the earth (Genesis 4:10). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says concerning righteous Abel:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4)

So then, the slain faithful still have some part to play in the work of the Church Militant, that is to say, those of us who have not yet gone to be with the Lord and are still awaiting His return. Their blood still speaks. Jesus Himself tells the Scribes and Pharisees that they will be held accountable for the blood of Abel (Matthew 23:35). The blood of this one man, the first to be slain for righteousness sake, generations later condemned these men. That’s quite a profound consideration, that the blood of Saints past condemn the current generation, just it did in Christ’s day. Likewise, Holy Scripture teaches that God acts on account of men like His “servant Jacob” (Isaiah 45:4), or Abraham His “friend” (Isaiah 41:8), long after they have passed, though spoken of as present. One should then consider these Saints as contemporaries and fellow-laborers. St. Paul says himself that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”, and whether we are in the body or with the Lord we “aspire to please Him” (2 Corinthians 5:8-9). Those who have passed still have this same aspiration. This is exactly what Christ says, that those who we are tempted to consider dead are rather alive. He teaches:

‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26-27, Luke 20:37-38)

St. John’s Revelation gives the reader a picture of this by teaching that those who dwell in Paradise with their Creator worship and offer intercessions to Him there (Revelation 5:8, 6:9-11, 8:4), as we do so here.  This is what the Creed calls the “Communion of Saints”. That the Church is inseparably knit together in one Body (Romans 12:5), Beloved of God (1 Thessalonians 1:4, Ephesians 5:25), and that not even our ancient enemy Death is capable of separating the Christian from the Love of God that is in Christ our Lord (Romans 8:38). Therefore, when we speak of the Saints we are speaking of Living Christians, who are loved by God, and who participate still within the life of the Church.  And as living, praying, members of Christ’s Church, some have speculated that those Saints who have gone before us are even aware of our struggles here. That just as Rachel wept for her slain children during the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Jeremiah 31: 15, Matthew 2:18), those in Heaven form a “great cloud of witnesses”(Hebrews 12:1). This, however, is neither here nor there and does little to contribute to the question at hand. So then, to answer our first inquiry, why ought we to honor the Saints? For the sake of Love. For we ought to love Christ’s Church (1 Peter 2:17, Colossians 2:2, John 13:34), remembering that they are our Fathers, Mothers, Teachers, Brothers, and Sisters, but above all this, they are our very Body, and afterall “no one ever hated his own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29). At the second council of Nicaea it was said of by the humble Theodosius regarding his devotions to the Saints: “for in this I am but showing forth more clearly the affection and love of my soul which I have borne them from the first. ” This being the chief point, as love must always be the chief point, we now may explore what benefits lie within honoring the Saints? Firstly, the peculiar promise of the Christian faith is that God dwells among His people (Matthew 28:20, Revelation 21:3). Even stranger still is the promise of scripture to not only dwell with God but also to be partakers in His glory. St. Paul says: 

When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)

The saints are promised a share in the glory of Christ through His self-giving, that those things which are His by nature become ours by Grace (to paraphrase St. Athanasius). It is Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). That which the Son has received from the Father, He has liberally given to the Church (John 17:22). The glory and exaltation of the Saints is none other than Christ Himself and the participation of His divine life. The Song of Simeon, or Nunc dimittis, found within St. Luke’s Gospel teaches that Christ is the glory of God’s people (Luke 2:29-32). Likewise, God told the Prophet Isaiah that he displays His “splendor” in His people Israel (Isaiah 49:3). The familiar words of the Rev. William Williams’ famous Hymn come to mind: “Thou alone shalt be my glory”. Similarly, St. Chrysostom touching upon this says: “The charity of the Saints is not diminished by their death, nor does it come to an end with their exit from life, but after their death, they are still more powerful than when they were alive”. There then is a reward in store for the Faithfully Departed. St. Paul calls it a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) and St. John’s Revelation gives the reader another glimpse as the Martyrs are clothed in splendid white robes (Revelation 6:11). This blessedness is often called the Beatific Vision by medieval theologians. The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck says concerning this:

All the saints together will then fully comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19). They will together be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19, Col. 2:2, 10), inasmuch as Christ, filled with all the fullness of God (Col. 1:19), will in turn fill the believing community with himself and make it his fullness (πληρωμα, plērōma; Eph. 1:23; 4:10). And sitting down at one table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 8:11), they will unitedly lift up a song of praise to the glory of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 4:11; 5:12; etc.)

(Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 4)

The Christian should not then fear the glory of the Saints as if it robs God of anything, for that glory is derived from God alone. Again, as Bavinck said, God will “fill the believing community with himself”. The Protestant monergistic emphasis should lead to the conclusion that the celebration of virtuous Christians, even those numbered among the Church Triumphant, is in fact, the celebration of God as their virtue is His grace. This is especially true of those who now reside with Him personally as they graciously share in His glory to a greater degree and display a greater virtue. Their elevation is the fulfilling of His promise. To elevate them in honor should be natural to the Christian as it is something that was accomplished by God first within His heavenly kingdom in the sight of myriads of angels. The point then is this: To receive them is to receive Christ (Matthew 10:40, Luke 10:16, John 13:20), and whosoever honors them honors whom Christ has already honored. Secondly, they are ample guides for those of us who have yet to enter into Paradise. The Christian in all humility should join his voice with the Ethiopian Eunuch who said to St. Philip “how am I to understand if nobody teaches me?” (Acts 8:31). The righteous man (and all Christians should aim to be righteous) recognizes the need of good company and wise insight. The Book of Proverbs says:

“One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26)

And the Righteous Job says:

“For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out” (Job 8:8)

Holy Scripture commands the faithful to learn from those that have come before them and to surround themselves with goodly fellowship. Both of these exhortations are accomplished through the remembering and honoring of the Saints. The Saints serve as role models who have accomplished what we hope to. They are those who have already run the great race and reached the heavenly finish-line. Even Balaam the wicked prophet, through the leading of the Spirit, proved himself wise by saying “Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10). We too should follow his example and desire to die in the ways of the righteous who have gone before us. In living and dying like them, we may find ourselves counted among them in Christ’s company. St. Paul says “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The Saints show the promises of God accomplished in the lives of those before us. It was through the glorification of Moses and Elijah along with Christ on the mountain of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-6) that declared to the disciples there that Christ was in fact the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Similarly, the lives and glories of the Saints point out and teach the way of Christ. They encourage and strengthen us in virtue and should be followed in every way that they have proved themselves upright and followers of Christ. Let the Holy Spirit who resides within them lead us through their good example as we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Along these lines, St. Augustine teaches:

“A Christian people celebrate together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (Against Faustus the Manichean)

Likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession once more says:

“we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all” (Chapter XXIV)

Finally, with this in mind and keeping the example of our beloved Fathers and Doctors of the Faith, let us look to a Saint in particular who is more than worthy of our attention. This, of course, being the Virgin Mary herself. St. Mary is unique among Christ’s Church due to her special and intimate relationship with our Lord. The elevation, however, of St. Mary began even before His birth. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mother and says “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28). He goes on to explain St. Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation, that she would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and would conceive the Son of God, and directs her to her cousin Elizabeth who has similarly conceived. Elizabeth’s words are then recorded for our sake, she says to the Mother of the Lord: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). What is fascinating is not just that St. Mary is once more declared “blessed”, but that St. John the Baptist lept within his mother’s womb upon hearing St. Mary’s voice in celebration. Finally, Elizabeth herself exclaims that she is not worthy to be visited by the mother of her Lord. These are all honors that Holy Scripture has attributed to St. Mary herself. And finally, St. Mary declares in the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55): 

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name

This text teaches that Mary was favored, blessed, and shall be blessed throughout all ages. It seems then that the Scriptures instruct the Christian to honor the Virgin Mother. this of course should not be surprising from a strictly human understanding. That is to say, it is typical that when one is loved, Christ for instance, then those whom they love are also loved. And because Christ has loved His mother, it should be expected by those of us who love Him, to also love her. This can be seen often in the realm of marriage. It is not altogether uncommon for one spouse to refer to the parents of the other as either “mother”, or “father”. Has anyone forgotten the devotion of Ruth the Moabite to her mother-in-law Naomi? Such love existed between them that Naomi refers to Ruth as her “daughter”, that they were one family and inseparable despite all calamity. If human love prevails so, how much more so does the Divine? The love of God is only accomplished by the Spirit, then it is not at all strange to conclude that to love the things loved by God is just as much a work of the Spirit. Now, there are many significances portrayed in St. Mary that make her worthy of honor for all Christians, but I have purposely refrained to cite rather the biblical imperative. The types that St Mary signifies will be explored in another piece, soon to come. For now, I leave you with a small selection of quotations from three of the most significant Protestant Divines concerning Our Lady:

Martin Luther:

“Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the holy Mother of God rather not to be honored? This is the woman who crushed the Serpent’s head. Hear us. For your Son denies you nothing.”

John Calvin:

“It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor.”

Ulrich Zwingli:

“The more the honor and love of Christ increase among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow.”

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Part II ->

 

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