August 15th is the commemoration of St. Mary, the Mother of our Lord. Now, some of you may be looking at your computer screens sideways at me for even bringing this up. After all, isn’t that a Roman Catholic thing, to pay attention to Mary?
Well, yes and no.
As is well known, the Roman church has gone overboard in reverencing Mary for a very long time — since the fifth century, and even earlier, depending on who you ask. They make all sorts of untenable claims about her being a Mediatrix of grace, interceding for us with Christ, etc. Despite their denials to the contrary, they worship her. Whatever you pray to, turn to for aid and help, and rely on for support, that’s your god — no matter what kind of worship you think you’re giving. (Roman Catholics distinguish between a kind of worship only reserved for God, and a lesser form of worship that’s okay for Mary — a distinction without a difference.) At times they approach elevating her to divine status. This is plainly wrong. Christ is our only Mediator, and the only one we need (1 Tim 2:5). To say otherwise is rank blasphemy. There’s no way around that.
And yet, there needs to be more said than that.
It’s not only historically ignorant to degrade Mary, it’s also potentially dangerous to the true Christian teaching to do so. We pay attention to Mary not because she’s the one on whom we pin our hopes of being heard at God’s throne, but because of one very real fact: she did carry God in her womb. Repeat that out loud for yourself slowly if you must, in order to fully get it. It’s that important of a fact. For nine months (give or take) she bore the eternal, uncreated, infinite God within herself. The God who in His very nature has no limits, is bound by nothing save who He truly is, chose to cloak Himself in human flesh — and not just any human flesh. He chose Mary’s flesh to be His sustenance and life’s support, He who sustains all things by His infinite Word. The Athanasian Creed, which we all confess at least once a year (on Holy Trinity Sunday) says as much: “[Christ] is God, eternally begotten of the nature of the Father, and he is man, born in time from the nature of his mother, fully God, fully man, with rational soul and human flesh…” He is the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh — and that flesh became His through the personal union of God and man in the womb of a virgin. It is a miracle, one that we are so used to from Christmas cards and children’s Christmas Eve programs that we rarely stop to ponder the full implications of what it means.
Christ chose Mary as His mother when He decided to become one of us. Mary was the one whose umbilical cord tethered Jesus to air and food and life, who felt the baby within her kicking and knew that it was the God who makes the planets turn, who keeps the sun burning, who turns day into night and scatters the frost like ashes in the winter. The Lord God of heaven and earth chose to become a frail, hurtable human being, and He let Mary be the one who would bear Him as a baby.
Nobody else has ever had that privilege, to carry God in her womb. Nobody else ever will.
If you want to cut down Mary and shove her roughly back in line with the rest of humanity, the great unwashed, you’re in danger of starting to impinge on the humanness of Jesus — and that’s territory no faithful Christian wants to go. Because if Jesus is anything less than 100%, through and through, genuine human being, He is not your Savior. Then what took place on Calvary on Good Friday is a sham, just going through meaningless motions, like making shadows on the wall with your hands. Christ bore the sins of the world — our sins, the ones we commit every day — in His physical body, and if His physical body (which He received at least in part from Mary) was anything less than the totally genuine article, the payment for sins is not complete, cannot be complete. He cannot redeem what He did not first assume for Himself. Christ had to be true man in order to be able to suffer the abuses of wicked men and die a horrible death, one that would lift the burden of sin and grant everlasting life to all who believe in Him.
That’s why the Council of Ephesus in 475 decided it was proper to refer to Mary as Theotokos, God-bearer, and not just Christotokos, Christ-bearer. (Nestorius, a false teacher, wanted to push Christotokos as her proper title because he did not teach that Christ was truly God and truly man at the same time.) That’s why Christians, for centuries after — and even down to the Reformation (Luther sometimes said such complimentary things about Mary that you’d blush) — have given Mary a measure of special honor. Not because she intercedes for us or helps us, but because she got to carry the holy God in her own womb. We don’t want to fall into the error of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches of focusing on the Virgin Mary so much that we forget about Christ as the only Mediator, but we don’t want to fall off the other side either. Let’s not follow the path of modern Protestantism, which so often doesn’t understand what it’s throwing so hard out the window. Instead, let’s listen to Mary herself, in her song: “all generations will call me blessed” — and make sure we know why. God grant it, for the sake of the Word made flesh.