Then Along Comes Mary
Going along through this Church Year we’ve only had St. James to slow our parade from Pentecost till St. Michael and All Angels. Then, like a needle on a record, how apropos, along comes Mary whose Feast Day dates from the 5th Century. We only mark it when it occurs on a Sunday. The last time it did was 17 years ago. But then, along comes Mary today.
This festival comes along to clear out assumptions. Catholics celebrate today as The Assumption of Mary. Mary’s body and soul are said to have been assumed into heaven today. Pius XII on Nov. 11, 1950 made this a doctrine necessary for salvation. The official proclamation on Dec. 8, 1854 that Mary was free from original sin paved the way for this (Ev. Dict. Of Theo., 696). In Eastern Orthodox, today’s the Dormition of Mary, i.e. the Feast of Falling Asleep. After dying, Mary was raised and taken alive into heaven (OCC, 420). The story of her assumption into heaven only dates to the 6th cenutry through Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Tours. It was denounced by the church at the time as a forgery. It gained a sort of “doubtful credence” in the 9th century (ISBE, III, 779-80). The Dormition can be dated to the 4th century but an Orthodox bishop of the time casts doubt on the whole story ( Panarion, Epiphanius of Salamis, p. 635. 23.8).
How did we get to the point where the official Catechism of the Catholic Church can proclaim: “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ's victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life” (104, 411)? The trail to this passes through either Bernard of the 13th century (Papal System, 321) or the spiritual guide of St. Francis, Friar Leo of the 12th (taylormarshall.com/2012/02/red-ladder-of-penance-and-white-ladder.html). One or both had a vision of 2 ladders into heaven. Christ was at the top of one and Mary atop the other. Those trying to enter heaven on Christ’s ladder were always tumbling down; those on Mary’s always succeeded. The path to this over exalted place of Mary was first laid down by Jerome in the 4th century. His Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible mistranslates “she [Mary] shall crush” the Devil’s head not as Septuagint has it “He [Jesus] shall crush.” And he mistranslates Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, kecharit?men? into the Latin gratia plena, full of grace rather than “highly favored.”
But even contemporaries of Jerome didn’t follow him. Chrysostom charged Mary with vainglory and ambition. And says, “’Mary was more blessed by apprehending the faith of Christ, than by conceiving the flesh of Christ.’” (IBSE, III, 778). Augustine, too, although he wouldn’t charge her with sin, he did say Mary was guilty of original sin (Ibid., 779). Okay, we have Early Church competing views of Mary. What should we do with them? Test them against what Scripture says about Mary. Only of Jesus do the Scripture say He was fully human except without sin (Heb. 4:15). Only Jesus is exempt from being born without true fear, love, or knowledge of God. All after Adam and Eve are born in the image of their fallen father, not in God’s (Gen. 5:3). All except for Jesus are blind, dead, enemies of God says Scripture (1 Cor. 2:14, Eph. 2:1, & Rom. 8:7). But then along comes Mary and is this true of her too? You decide.
Twelve years after giving birth to God the Son, her and step-dad Joseph lose track of Jesus on a trip to Jerusalem. After at least 3 days looking, they find Jesus the last place they looked for a 12 year old boy: in the Temple listening to the teachers. Jesus wasn’t watching Roman soldiers drill, playing in the streets with other kids, skipping rocks at the pool of Siloam, but in church. And we have this exchange: “When His parents saw Him, they were astonished. His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? See, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ He said to them, ‘Why were You looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be taking care of My Father’s business?’” Is it sinful to charge the sinless Son of God with sin? Is it right to forget that God is Jesus’ Father not Joseph?
Or how about this exchange in John 2 when the wedding Jesus and His mother were both at ran out of wine: Jesus’ mother said to Him, “They have no wine.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with you and Me? My time has not come yet.” The ‘address’ woman is not mean but establishes the correct relationship between them. So do the words that follow. A demon says to Jesus in Luke 4 this same phrase: “What do you have to do with us, Jesus the Nazarene?” No, Jesus doesn’t think His mother is a demon. He does express to her that she has no part in the when, where, or how of His Messianic work.
This next passage makes it clear what Mary’s status is with Jesus. Go to Lk. 11:27-28. Doesn’t what this woman says sound like what a Catholic or Orthodox Christian might say? “’Blessed is the womb that carried you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But Jesus said, ‘Even more blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’” It’s important to duly note that Jesus doesn’t deny Mary is blessed, but even more so are those who hear God’s Word and keep it. This verse strikes the correct tone to take with Mary when she comes along. While we don’t want to fall into the errors of Catholicism, we don’t want to fall off the other side. The Word of God plainly records, “From now on all generations will call Mary blessed.” Do we want our generation to be the exception? So along comes Mary to not only to clear out wrong assumptions about her but to usher in certainty of salvation for us.
As confessional Lutherans, we do have a special view of Mary. Here’s what we say in a 1530 confession of faith: “Granted that blessed Mary prays for the church, does she receive souls in death, does she overcome death, does she give life? What does Christ do if blessed Mary does all this? Even though she is worthy of the highest honors, she does not want to be put on the same level as Christ, but to have her example considered and followed” (AP, XXI, 27). So today we celebrate Mary, Mother of God. Mary was first given the Greek title theotokos, Mother of God, in a 3rd century Egyptian papyrus (www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/BVM/SubTuum.html). At the 5th century Council of Ephesus it was agreed that Mary could rightly be called Mother of God. Cyril of Alexandria said in an epistle: “"for if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how is the Holy Virgin who bore Him not the Mother of God?" (Epist. 1, p. 15). Our Lutheran Confessions confess this truth: “Hence we believe, teach, and confess that Mary conceived and bore not a mere man and no more, but the true Son of God; therefore she also is rightly called and truly is the mother of God” (FC, Epitome, VIII, The Person of Christ, 12).
At the 5th century council some would accept Mary having the title Mother of Christ but rejected Mother of God. You can see what side Confessional Lutheranism fell on. That’s why it’s troubling that the LCMS, the WELS, and the ELS all have Mary, Mother of our Lord on their calendar today and not Mary, Mother of God. And you know why, don’t you? It can be misunderstood, right? As if God originated in a woman named Mary. No, what theotokos has always confessed is that Mary gave birth to one who is 100% God in flesh and blood. If you say she’s the Mother of the Lord, or the Mother of Christ, or even the Mother of the Son of God, with the emphasis being on the word ‘son’, you allow people to understand that the Lord, Christ, Jesus is God in a at least a secondary sense if not a lesser sense than the Father. No, no, a thousand times no. The early church was torn by that error for 70 years, and that error is always ready to come back. Why? Because it blows the mind to confess what Paul says in Colossians 2:9, “For all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ.” Therefore, let’s do what our confessions say we do and follow Mary’s example.
Go back to Luke 2 and the sharp correction Jesus gives her. Scripture says, Mary and Joseph “did not understand what Jesus was telling them” (50). But then we read, “And His mother treasured up all these things in her heart” (51). Is that what you do when you don’t understand something Jesus says? Do you treasuer it, ponder it, study it or reason, “If I don’t or can’t understand it, it must not be important”? And what about John 2: Though calling her “woman” isn’t an insulting but a distancing term, telling her she has no share in His messianic ministry is sharp. Remember Mary waited 30 years till Jesus began His public ministry. For 30 years she had prepared herself for a sword to pierce her soul too as Simeon had prophesied. But what does Mary do right after being told it’s none of her business? “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever He tells you’” (5). This isn’t me. When I get my feelings hurt by God’s Word spoken by another, my reaction is rarely: whatever God’s Word says to do I’m doing it.
I don’t do as well as Mary, but even Mary didn’t do ‘good enough.’ Even Mary needed the God and Savior she bore. In order to bridge the gap between God and Man caused by our sinfulness, the Savior had to reach all the way to both sides. He had to be 100% Man and 100% God; otherwise He would’ve been short on one or both sides. But to bridge the gulf of our sinfulness, He had to keep the Law perfectly in our place as a Man, and to satisfy the wrath of God against mankind, He had to suffer, shed blood and die. As true God, He had no blood to shed, couldn’t die or even suffer. As true Man, He had blood, could die, and suffer. But the death of a mere Man, even a holy Man wouldn’t, couldn’t satisfy the wrath of God. It had to be God’s death, God’s blood, God’s suffering. Only in the Person of Jesus could God do this. And He did.
There’s a lot of meat here. With Mary treasurer it, ponder it. According to the 1484 Malleus Maleficarum, demons refer to Mary as the Anomalous Woman (99). A human woman giving birth to God is pretty anomalous alright, so is a sinful woman giving birth to the Holy One as Gabriel said she did. But what greater anomaly could there be than sinners like us being saved by the Fruit of a sinner’s womb (Lk. 1:42)? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Mary, Mother of God (20210815); Luke 1:42-45