A Celebration of Mary

A sermon preached December 1997 in the Dunedin City Apostolic Church, Dunedin, New Zealand

Over the last few years I’ve become conscious of the importance of the whole Church as the body of Christ. I’ve been increasingly aware that faith in Christ is something we share with people from very different traditions within his Church. And I’m continually reminded of the prayer our Lord prayed for us on the night he was betrayed—

“I do not ask for these alone, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17.20-21)

The most remarkable display of Christian unity that I have ever seen was at the memorial service for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at the Church of the Holy Name around the corner, with readings from a Methodist lady, a homily—a short sermon—by Bishop Boyle, prayers led by a Salvation Army captain; David Grant from Knox Presbyterian Church was there at the front, though I don’t remember that he had any active role in the service. The Scripture was read by mayor Sukhi Turner, nominally a Sikh, who was moved to tears by Christ’s words:

Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

In this service, and in the actual funeral as it appeared on television, I saw a kind of parable of what evangelism is all about. The Catholic Church had no need to push Mother Teresa down anyone’s throat—everyone knew what a wonderful woman she was—and the Catholics said to everybody, Come and share her with us. And if people could as clearly see the grace of Christ in his people, we could as easily invite them to come and share him with us.

Jesus in his prayer for us asked that we might be one, so that the world would know that the Father had sent him. And if you’ve ever been troubled about your prayers not being answered, think about this one.

At Christmas time we celebrate God’s sending his Son into the world, and today I want to look at the one person in the Christmas story who has been a major focus both of unity and of disunity in the Church—Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus.

Reading: Luke 1.26-56

If we could make a list of list of key people in the Bible, and rank them according to their centrality in the history of salvation as God has revealed it to us in the Bible, Mary would stand very high on that list, alongside people like Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul.

A very old creed, commonly called the Apostle’s Creed, begins:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary…

It has been the common faith of the Church from the beginning that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin, And this is accepted not only by Catholics and Protestants, but also by groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, and a good many others. It is affirmed by both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, which draw on two completely independent traditions of the early Church. The whole Church agrees that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. But the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understanding of Mary’s place in the faith has been a major barrier between them and us. Not all Catholics put the same emphasis on Mary—I have heard a Catholic woman express concern that a woman in her church was showing too much devotion to Mary, rather than to Jesus. But some part of the emphasis that we think of as Catholic has its roots in Scripture. When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, Elizabeth cries out,

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

This is not misplaced devotion, but the word of God to Mary, spoken prophetically by Elizabeth in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Mary herself says, in her song of praise that has come to be known as the Magnificat:

“From now on, all generations will call me blessed!”

This prophecy has truly been fulfilled, but not by us. It has been mainly the Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans, who have used the title Blessed in speaking of Mary as the Blessed Virgin.

Less comfortable still for us is the title, Mother of God. It presents too close a parallel to God the Father. It has come about as a Latin translation of a Greek word used of Mary since the early part of the 3rd century, the word theotókos. This can be translated into English as the one who gave birth to God, and it is as awkward to translate elegantly into Latin as into English—hence the paraphrase, mother of God. It expresses the great paradox, the great mystery, that Mary gave birth to a baby who was creator of the universe, the source of all that exists. In giving her this title, Greek-speaking Christians were intending more than anything else to honour the Son who was born, and Catholics are very careful to make the point that Mary is the mother of the Son of God only in his humanity. But even here, in Scripture, Elizabeth in the prophetic power of the Holy Spirit, says:

“How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

At this point I want to clarify where I’m going. Mary is one of the central figures in the Christmas story; after Jesus himself she is the central figure. In the list of key biblical characters I mentioned earlier, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul—and Mary, if anyone wanted to place Mary at the top of that list, I would have no particular quarrel with them. We agree fully with Catholics on the divine conception and virgin birth of Christ. While we don’t place the same emphasis on the unique blessedness of Mary, and we shy away from the title, mother of God, even after we’ve had it explained to us, both have their basis in Scripture. But there is a point beyond which we cannot go.

I want to make clear that in what follows, I am not attacking the Catholic Church; I want to see our Lord’s prayer answered, and a deeper sharing together of our common faith in Jesus. In recent years there has been a growing unity in the whole body of Christ, and this is not something that has been organized by the various churches, it’s a work of the Holy Spirit. This is the season of peace and good will, as we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world. But where we do disagree, it is good if we can understand one another.

There are Catholic understandings concerning Mary which raise problems for the rest of us. There is the perpetual virginity of Mary, the belief that Mary never consummated her marriage with Joseph after Jesus was born, but remained a virgin all her life. This is a problem for two reasons:

One, it contradicts the obvious implication of Matthew 1.25, which tells us that Joseph did not sleep with Mary until she had borne a Son.
Two, it is a rejection of the goodness of God’s creation in this one particular aspect.

A greater problem is the belief that Mary was sinless from the time she was conceived, the belief known as the Immaculate Conception. The Bible gives no hint of this, but it is important to realise that Catholics see Mary’s sinlessness as part of the redeeming work of Christ. Mary belonged to the sinful human race; she therefore stood in need of redemption. The Catholic Church acknowledges this fully, and states that Christ truly suffered and died for Mary; that her freedom from original sin is due, not to her own action, but Christ’s. We believe that the day will come for us when we are finally freed completely from the power of sin, beyond the reach of all temptation Catholics believe that Mary received this gift ahead of time, at the very beginning of her life rather than at the end of it.

The greatest problems arise in the Catholic understanding of Mary’s role in the redemption and devotional life of believers. The cult of devotion to Mary took centuries to develop. We find little trace of it in the first few centuries of the Church. The emphasis is on her virginity, and her role as theotókos, so that the honour given to Mary gives greater honour to her son. The idea of her life-long virginity arose in the late 4th or early 5th century. By the early 7th century, her status had been elevated to the point where Mohammed believed that the Christian Trinity consists of God, Jesus and Mary—This is significant.

From the 11th century on, the popularity of her cult grew rapidly. As Christ was our Lord, so Mary was seen as our Lady. Religious leaders exhorted their people to enlist the help of Mary as well as the other saints in persuading Christ to answer their prayers. One lay-brother of a certain order was heard to pray: “Truly, Lord, if you do not deliver me from this temptation, I will complain of you to your mother.” Belief in the Immaculate Conception arose in the 12th century, but was not made a binding belief until 1854.

A modern Catholic Catechism says this: (Now listen carefully)

While it would be wrong to say that it is absolutely necessary to be devoted to Mary in order to be saved, one who does not invoke her special intercession misses a valuable opportunity for grace to grow in Christ. The Blessed Mother wishes to show her spiritual children how to know, love, and serve her divine Son more generously. Without her maternal guidance, received through some sort of devotion to her, one will not mature in Christian worship and mission as Christ wishes.

Who does this actually sound like? Whose work is it to show us how to love, know and serve Christ? To enable us to grow in grace? To help develop us to maturity in worship and mission? Much of the work that the Catholic Church attributes to Mary belongs biblically to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, who Mohammed somehow missed.

There is a parallel between Mary’s ministry in the New Testament and the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. As Mary brought Christ into the world, so the Holy Spirit brings him into our hearts. As Mary instructed the servants at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, so the Holy Spirit commands us, Whatever he says to you, do it.

We have very much to be grateful to Mary for: she has brought our Saviour to us; she has set us an example of selfless obedience—it cost her much to become the mother of God’s son, to be thought unfaithful by Joseph who loved her, and to watch her Son die horribly in torment. It has been the greater tragedy of Mary to be at the heart of the main division in the body of Christ. It is my prayer that as the Holy Spirit moves in the hearts of all his people, so Mary will be given at last her proper place in the Church, and we will find our true unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Since I’ve taken issue with Catholic belief this morning, I’d like to give them the last word, because Mary did have a real key role in our redemption. When the angel Gabriel announced that she was to bear God’s Son she replied, “Let it be to me according to your word.” This is what one Catholic writer says about her response:

At the deepest level of her personality, she opened herself to the mysterious will of God. In humble and obedient faith she freely accepted the grace of divine motherhood. Her free agreement in faith to be the Redeemer’s mother expressed her willingness to play her part in the redemption of mankind. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the Blessed Virgin gave her consent “in place of the whole human race.” Because Mary accepted God’s will for her, we are able to accept the fruits of Christ’s redemption into our own lives.

The teaching of Christ, p. 224



See also:

The Protestant Reformers and Mary   A fascinating and surprising article by Ken Collins