Having been raised in a traditional Protestant atmosphere I was led to believe that Catholics placed far too great an emphasis on the Virgin Mary in their faith and practice and that such an emphasis deflected from the centrality of Christ.
In some 53 years of ministry in a Protestant tradition, I have learned that just the opposite is true. By upholding the importance of the Blessed Virgin, Catholics do not minimize the importance of Christ, but actually emphasize and underline His mission.
The Importance of Mary Was Lost
In order to understand what outsiders often refer to as “all the fuss about Mary” we need to take a quick glimpse back into Church history. Such an excursion will help readers appreciate how the importance of Mary was lost by some of the reformers amid the debates and struggles of the 16th century and why it needs to be recovered by all Christians.
A figure of great stature during this time was Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus, who was born in Rotterdam in 1466, some 17 years before the birth of Martin Luther. Eramus was a supporter of reform in the Church of his day, but he was also a loyal Catholic and would remain so throughout his life. He was a first-rate scholar who would produce a revised edition of the New Testament in Latin and would also edit the first Greek edition of the New Testament for the western world.
Erasmus is recognized as one of the leaders of the Renaissance. While he remained a loyal son of the Church, he didn’t hesitate to write essays criticizing those areas of church life which he felt needed to come under scrutiny. But he never criticized the teachings of the Church. Ersdmud maintained a friendship, as well as a dialogue, with Luther, Zwingli, and other reformers, but never joined their movement. He saw nothing good coming from a revolt away from the Church because he deeply believed in its basic unity.
First Step to a Denial of Christ
Erasmus remains of particular importance to modern day Christians because of his warnings against removing the Virgin Mary from her prominence in the Church’s devotional life. Between 1524 and 1529, he wrote several letters to both Luther and Zwingli in which he expressed concern over radical elements of the reform which sought to do this very thing. He viewed this as the first step to a denial of Christ.
That’s exactly what happened in later Protestant history with leaders of the liberal Protestant movement who emphasized Jesus as a teacher of morals and a model for social action rather than as the Incarnate Son of God. Each step in the process seemed to naturally follow on the heels of the one before it. Once they dispensed with the Virgin Mary, the Incarnation was unimportant, and when the Incarnation became unimportant, the uniqueness of Christ was lost.
When the Church ceases to focus on Mary, it loses its focus on Christ. That’s the reason for “all the fuss about Mary.” Protestant theologian J. Gresham Machen admitted, “The overwhelming majority of those who reject the Virgin Birth, reject also the supernatural content of the New Testament.” Without a right focus on Mary and the Incarnation of her Divine Son, the Church loses its unique position of proclaiming God’s salvation through the sacrifice of her Son on the Cross.
Without Mary, the Entire Christian Message Is Lost
It’s that simple — without Mary, the entire Christian message is lost. When a pastor administers the Eucharist, he is not bringing us mere symbols of the life of a good teacher or social reformer, but the Body and Blood of the Son of God who gave His life for our salvation.
When the Church gathers for worship, study or fellowship, and when it works to alleviate human suffering, it does not do so in the name of a social reformer — any human organization can do that — but in the name of the Divine Son of God born of the Blessed Virgin.
By proclaiming the unique position of Mary in history, the Church is not detracting from the importance of Christ, it is really emphasizing that importance. Devotion to Mary leads us to her Son, not away from Him.
Protestants need to appreciate this fact about Catholic tradition. The Marian festivals are just one of the ways in which the Church celebrates the Christ event. She is worthy of our homage because God chose her as the means of presenting us with the greatest gift in history.
So, why all the fuss about Mary? Because at stake is the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, the Atonement, and His Resurrection. Without these, the Christian faith is just another religion among the many.
The Church needs to continue focusing on the importance of Mary. In so doing, it will be remaining faithful to the commission given it by her Son.
DR. DICKSON is the author of two books on Mary: A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998) and Mary: A Handbook for Dialog (Publish America, 2009). He is a Lutheran pastor, a college professor, and a writer for religious periodicals.
|The Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer
The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved. She is “the mother of the members of Christ . . . having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head” (S. Augustine, De S. Virginitate. 6: PL 40, 399). Wherefore she is hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity. The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother (Lumen Gentium, No. 53).