Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Overview: On Mary

Of all the differences between Catholics and Protestants, the teachings concerning Mary are quite possibly the most contentious. They are also quite unfamiliar to someone like me, coming from a Protestant background. Yet I recognized that, while Marian devotions are often treated as de facto idolatry, it does not follow that they are intrinsically so, nor that we must reject them out of hand as spiritually deleterious.

Thus, after my notes on the Eucharist and on the Saints, a series concerning Marian dogma seemed to me a logical next step.

Mary, Mother of God introduced the topic by reference to the Marian dogma defined by the early Church: her role as Theokotos, "God-bearer." This dogma was asserted at Ephesus to counteract the Nestorian heresy that identified Jesus Christ as separately a human person and a divine person. On the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth was a single person of two natures; thus, the woman who bore him was not merely the bearer of the human Christ (Christotokos), but was the bearer of the full person, human and divine. Mary was the Mother of God.

This initial discussion clarifies several principles at the heart of Marian dogma.
  1. Mary's role in salvation history consists entirely in relation to Him; therefore, all Marian dogma originate in the context of Christology. We seek to understand the Son through His Mother, and to understand the Mother through her Son. It is for this reason that, in traditional Catholic and Orthodox iconography, Mary is always seen pointing to her child. It is her role.
  2. Marian dogma originated in the early Church and has been in a continual process of refinement ever since. It was not a late addition enforced by the authority of Rome.
  3. Marian dogma can be largely interpolated throughout New Testament passages -- that is, they have significant Scriptural support. These passages do not entail such readings in themselves, but that is not their function.
  4. Marian dogma developed largely in response to Old Testament typologies: that is, prefigurations of Christ and the New Covenant throughout Jewish history.
Mary, Ever Virgin outlined briefly the history of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity. Its pedigree is from the earliest liturgies and writings of the Church, and by the fourth century it was so firmly grounded in Christian orthodoxy that it would not be denied until well after the Protestant Reformation. The dogma arose in response to a particular typology: the identification of Mary with the Ark of the Covenant. The old Ark contained three elements (the Decalogue, the jar of manna, and Aaron's staff) that were clear antecedents to Christ. From there it was simplicity itself to link the Ark itself (overshadowed by cherubim and bearing the figures of Christ) to Mary Theokotos.

Mary, Full of Grace speaks primarily to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma was defined late in church history (initially in the fifteenth century, officially in 1854), but was grounded in the early Church. The Immaculate Conception is grounded in the typological reading of Christ as the second Adam and Mary as the second Eve. On this basis the Church inferred that Mary must have been in a state of innocence at the Annunciation, that she would be perfectly free to choose obedience, and that she would not be bound by a prior nature to sin.

Mary, Queen of Heaven primarily treats the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. The earliest marker lies in the nativity of Revelations 11:19-12:5, which speaks of Mary both as the Ark of the Covenant and as the Mother of God. But the imagery hearkens at yet another typology, from its regal imagery.  From the first verse of Matthew 1:1, Jesus Christ is identified as the Son of David and the rightful heir to the crown. Yet Solomon, who prefigured Christ, afforded great honors to his mother Bathsheba, and the Davidic line preserved the institution of Queen Mother for generations to follow. From this typology -- the relation of Mary to her royal Son -- the Church derived the dogma of her Assumption and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven.

Mary, Mother of the Church primarily concerns Mary's relation to believers today. This final note briefly touches on the typological connections between Mary, Israel, and the Church as the long-suffering servants and stewards of God (from which we derive the idea of Mary as 'co-redemptrix'). Indeed, the typology connecting Mary to the Church extends far beyond the idea of ongoing redemptive suffering. But Mary is not just a typology for the Church, for she is the Mother for another typology: Christ Himself. When Christ commanded the apostle John to take Mary into his own household and treat her as his mother, He addressed this command to all the faithful, all the disciples whom Jesus loved. Thus, Mary is entrusted to us as our own Mother, and receives our love and devotion in that regard. For we are the sons of God as we are brothers in Christ, and we are the children of Mary as we are the Body of Christ.

Having overcome my objections to Marian dogma, my next series of notes would treat the teachings on the Church, and the Catholic emphasis on ecclesiology.

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