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One of the major differences Protestants have with the Roman Catholic Church is over what has been called the cult of Mary. This reached a peak in the 19th century when the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary—that Mary was bodily taken into heaven. This doctrine, alongside the teaching that Mary was perpetually a virgin, makes Protestants wonder where the Bible is in all this.
The problem is that we tend to repeat the age-old mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In recoiling from the near deification of Mary, we have settled into practically ignoring the mother of God. The season of Advent and Christmas is a good time to reverse that trend.
A good place to start is the most prominent passage in the Bible about Mary: Luke’s story of the annunciation and what follows.
The angel addresses Mary as a woman who is especially favored by God. Out of the whole human race, God chose this young, perhaps very young, woman to be the first earthly home of his only begotten Son. Mary is obviously more than a mere vessel, a handy womb. She alone is counted worthy, not only to supply the eternal Son’s flesh and blood, but to be the one who nurses him, sings to him, comforts him, and guides him in those crucial years of childhood.
It is her cousin Elizabeth who first realizes the staggering truth. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). By the way, did you notice that her first words are also the first words of the Roman Catholic rosary? Mary too understands her own importance:
“for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name” (vv. 48-49).
The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 made a startling claim for Mary. She is theotokos, mother of God. At stake for the council was whether Jesus is fully divine. Nestorius, Bishop of Antioch, claimed that Jesus was was divine only according to his divine nature, not in his human nature.
The Council saw that this compromised the Council of Nicea’s claim that Jesus Christ was truly and fully divine. The Council of Ephesus countered with the claim that already had been heard in the church for some time—that Mary is the God-bearer, the mother of God. That is, the human Mary gave birth to the divine Son of God so that in his humanity, he is also divine.
Calvin did not hesitate to echo this claim. “[Elizabeth] calls Mary the mother of her Lord. This denotes a unity of person in the two natures of Christ; as if she had said, that he who was begotten a mortal man in the womb of Mary is, at the same time, the eternal God” (Harmony of the Synoptic Gopels, Calvini Opera, vol. 45, 35).
So we too pause on our way to Christmas and call her blessed, the blessed virgin Mary. She is a model for all of us. This young woman said yes in answer to one of the most difficult and harrowing calls ever God has ever given to a human being. She is the First Lady of the Christian church, the original disciple, a singular example to all of us of obedience to God’s call.