Why I Pray to Mary: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It’s the time of year when it is acceptable for Protestants and Evangelicals to say something about Mary, the mother of Jesus. After all, as we set up our manger scenes in our homes, or attend Christmas pageants at Church, she is pretty well front and center, second only to the Christ Child lying in the manger. Every pastor knows the competition among the younger girls to be Mary in the nativity scene. The boys have a plethora of roles they can play. Joseph is a starring role, but it is clearly secondary. Yet, they also have a shot at the three wise men, or maybe a shepherd. For the girls there are fewer choices. After the angels are chosen, it is a camel costume or, heaven forbid, cross-dressing and wearing a beard.
Now, I do not consider myself to be an Evangelical. While I still have some Evangelical leanings, mainly owing to experiences in my younger days, the term itself is very much like a couple of forty year old coats that I have in my closet. I know the coats. I remember wearing them. I keep them in my closet out of a sense of nostalgic affection. The coats, however, no longer really fit me. If I try to put them on, they are restrictive and uncomfortable. Eventually, I may discard them altogether. For now, however, I hang them back in the closet as reminders of a different time and different circumstances.
I also do not really consider myself to be a Protestant. As an Anglican, I consider myself to be part of the Catholic faith that came to the British Isles in the first centuries of the Christian era and was firmly established by the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury in AD 597. The amalgamation of the Celtic and Roman traditions at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, created a unique Anglican Christian identity that was expressed in the singular liturgical formulation of the Sarum Rite in the eleventh century. Sarum would, in turn, provide the basis for the Book of Common Prayer. Although influenced by the continental Reformation, traditional Anglicanism has considered itself to be the English expression of catholic Christianity. It is not an expression of protest, it is an expression of continuity. So, if pressed to provide a label for my faith, it would be simply a Catholic Christian or, perhaps more precisely, an Anglo-Catholic Christian.
As such, I consider my inheritance and, indeed, my tradition, to stretch back far beyond the reformation movements of the sixteenth century. It begins with the formulation of Scripture, moves through the post-apostolic period, weaves its way through the conciliar era, takes up the learning and worship of the medieval Church, into the compilation of the Book of Common Prayer, the Caroline Divines, the Tractarians and, ultimately, lands me in the modern era. Of course, the central figure and the central focus of this two thousand year tradition, is the person of Christ himself. Yet, if we honestly evaluate the Church Fathers, the councils, the life of the medieval Church and even the writings of the Reformation (not to mention the Eastern Church) there is another important figure, and that is Mary.
I think there is a reason for this and it is not the extreme Protestant trope of “goddess worship”. Ambrose of Milan, described Mary as a “type” or “icon” of the Church itself. This is a consistent theme in the patristic interpretation of Scripture. She is obedient to the call of God at the annunciation, just as the Church is to be obedient. She bears Christ within her, just as the Church is to bear Christ within itself. She brings forth Christ to the world, just as the Church is to bring Christ to the world. In his earthly ministry, she follows Christ, as the Church is to follow Christ. She stands at the foot of the cross, as the Church is to stand at the foot of the cross. In the person of John the Apostle, Mary is given to the care of the Church, as the Church is given to the care of Mary – “Woman behold your son… Son behold your mother”. Mary is with the Apostles in the Upper Room on Pentecost, receiving the same infilling of the Holy Spirit, the same flame settling upon her.
For the Church Fathers, Mary was the “new Eve”, reversing Eve’s disobedience by her obedience. In the age of the councils, the second Nicene Creed is careful to include that Christ “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”. At the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, Mary was described as “Theotokos” a Greek term that literally means “the God bearer” (or, as translated in the West, “The Mother of God”) who was worthy, not of worship, but of veneration. As a type or icon of the Church, medieval believers sought her prayers on their behalf, just as they would ask for the prayers of a neighbor or friend, for the Church is both militant (here on earth) and triumphant (in heaven) separated only by the thin veil of death. Even among the reformers, Mary is seen as unique. While Luther’s view of Mary would moderate and shift over the course of his life, he believed in her perpetual virginity and advocated the use of the early version of the “Hail Mary” (that is, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”) as a sign of reverence for and devotion.
If one honestly approaches Scripture and tradition, there is little doubt that there is something unique about Mary. From her response to the angel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” to the radical reversal of values in the Magnificat, “He has scattered those who are proud in the thoughts of their hearts, He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” Mary is a model for the Church.
For myself, and I speak only for myself, I have no hesitation honoring Mary as “the God bearer”. I have no hesitation saying a prayer or singing a hymn that gives her praise. In fact, in doing so, I believe that I have scriptural warrant, “for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” Moreover, for myself, I have no hesitation asking her to add her prayers to mine, knowing that she loves the Church and that she models and exemplifies what it means to love God.
So, with the angel and believers through the centuries this Christmastide I can also say, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”