When the Second Vatican Council addressed the need for devotion to Mary in the Church, it had in mind both the sectors of the Catholic Church that had neglected her as well as non-Catholics who have historically given little attention to her importance in the life of the Church. But the documents arising from Vatican II were not intended to introduce anything new into Church practice, but rather to recover the elements of faith that have always been present.
While the call to renewed honor of Mary was not an attempt to inject anything new into Church life, neither did it seek support from any document, but only referred to the ancient scriptural records. Such devotion is based on the powerful, yet simple records of Scripture that relate God’s acts in history. Most nations remember their heroes on special days and associate forms of ritual with that memory. And so President’s Day is remembered in the United States along with Columbus Day and that of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, with special observances. Should Christians do any less for the Mother of Our Lord?
Remembering sacred themes has always been a practice in the Church and forms a basis for liturgy. The earliest Christians were Jewish and went to Temple rituals, prayed at specific times and attended synagogue services for the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also remembered holy people of former days as models for behavior and as persons alive with the God who still helped them. Such instances are recalled in biblical records such as the Book of Daniel, in the Book of Deuteronomy, and several Psalms. But they were also Christians, and the reality of Christ’s resurrection colored all that they had read and heard in the Scriptures. So they broke bread, had prayer vigils and established the day of resurrection, Sunday, as the day of worship.
Christian ritual was essentially memory of the events and real people of the past. The Mother of Our Lord was an important part of this memory. The early Church remembered her as the Virgin Mother who said “yes” to God’s plan. It also remembered her as the obedient one who was open to the Holy Spirit and did not waver in faithfulness to God. Mary’s presence is felt throughout the Gospel records from Jesus’ infancy to His public ministry and to the post-Resurrection community.
Of course, devotion to Mary in the early Church did not take the exact forms we have in the twenty-first century, but it was nevertheless present in the worship of the Christian community. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius reminded us of this importance when he said that Mary is not only a guarantee of the humanity of Jesus, but she also has a special function in the working out of the plan of God for all time. Two centuries prior to this St. Clement of Alexandria had compared the motherhood of Mary to the motherhood of the Church for all Christians. These and many other sources from early Church history show us that the teachings, prayers and liturgy surrounding Mary have always been a part of Christian tradition.
The challenge for the total Church, both Catholic and non-Catholic, is to find inventive and creative ways of honoring the Mother of Our Lord. Writer Amos Wilder once described such creativity as being theopoetic, meaning all the ways we express meaning in music, art, writing and speaking. The Jewish scholar Ellie Wiesel once observed, “The opposite of history is not myth, it is forgetfulness.” If Christians forget their scriptural past and do not honor Mary, they will surely lose a part of their sacred history.
Common Meeting Place
A Muslim student in Rome asks to visit Santa Maria Maggiore Church and then explains the Muslim devotion to Mary. A Greek tour guide takes tourists through Eastern Orthodox churches resplendent with beautiful icons of Mary. And a Presbyterian minister writes a book on the Rosary and, as a result, incorporates it into his daily devotions. Perhaps it is no accident that in our world of harsh conflict and human insensitivity, people of many faiths should find a common meeting place in devotion to the tender Mother of Jesus. Perhaps she will bring her warring children together and teach them how to live as a family of peace. In the Blessed Virgin we find elements of all the world’s monotheistic religions. She is the Jewish maiden who became the Mother of Jesus and continues to be honored in Islam.
The Jewish Scriptures, through the prophet Isaiah, spoke of the Virgin who would conceive, and devotion to Mary came very early in the Christian community. In Eastern Europe, devotion to Mary is evident not only in celebrations but in the breathtaking beauty of icons which Russian Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky referred to as “windows into heaven.”
The holy book of the Islamic faith, the Quran, pays homage to Mary. There are many references to her in the Quran and, in fact, one of the chapters (Sura XIX) includes the Islamic version of the birth of Jesus. The Annunciation is presented in the words, “He said, ‘I am the Messenger of the Lord who will bestow on you a fine boy.’” Some Protestant leaders, following the example of Luther’s devotion to her, are realizing the importance of Mary in world history and in the quest for world peace.
Dr. Dickson is a college professor, Lutheran parish pastor and author of two books on Mary — “A Protestant Pastor Looks at Mary” (Our Sunday Visitor) and “Mary, A Handbook for Dialog” (PublishAmerica).