Editorial: There’s something about Mary
The month of May is particularly associated with Mary the mother of Jesus in Catholicism. Not that there are too many months that aren’t associated with Mary in Catholicism.
The first of January is the solemnity of Mary, marking the day, eight days after Christmas, when Jesus was circumcised; 2 February is the purification of Mary; March brings the annunciation, when the angel told Mary that she would conceive the Messiah…
These are individual feast days, but the whole month of May has become devoted to Mary in recent centuries. I understand that, in different regions of the Catholic Church, altars are set up in homes, churches are decorated with flowers and images of the Blessed Virgin are crowned.
Devotion to Mary goes back much further than this. There are records of Christians praying to her from late in the fourth century.
By the fifth century, controversy over the practice of venerating Mary as theotokos, the Godbearer or Mother of God, triggered one of the Church’s perennial theological pile-ons. The question was not so much whether Mary should be venerated, as whether you could say that Almighty God was once a mere foetus, confined to a womb. Once the imperial Church decided that you could indeed say that, churches increasingly celebrated Mary’s feast days, brought her name into their liturgy and named themselves in her honour. The theological authorities of Wikipedia tell us that the first church in her name was the fifth-century Church of Kathisma (Mary’s Seat), outside Jerusalem, where she rested on the donkey ride to Bethlehem.
As an incorrigible Protestant, I come to this very much as an outsider and talk of what I do not know. I wonder though if there is something good in the veneration of Mary that Protestantism has missed out on.
The Reformation project was to tear down all the institutions that stood between a person and God. Has it sometimes, though, just erected other, more male institutions in their place? Reformed religion is built on words and rather a lot of those have been from the voices of male reformers, male theologians, male preachers and even male writers of scripture. Catholicism, with its place for Mary and the saints, the theologian Tina Beattie told Reform in April 2014, has had ‘a very, very rich maternal, female presence’.
Could it also be that Protestantism, with its ideal that nothing should stand between me and God, can get too individualistic? The idea that Christianity is simply about my salvation and my relationship with God is neither biblical nor healthy, but it is perhaps quite Protestant. Perhaps if our devotions included honouring the Godbearer and other departed saints, and asking them to intercede for us, we would have a better sense that we belong not just to ourselves, or even to God, but to each other, and depend on one another.
This article was published in the May 2022 edition of Reform