It seems plain that the Roman and Orthodox traditions have been more right than wrong about Mary. As a purely historical and scriptural matter, the perpetual virginity seems a fact so plain–even to the great Bible-men Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli–that it is astounding to me that the idea got lost along the way in American evangelicalism. Her sinlessness seems a matter of straightforward patristic consensus (though not of course by way of Immaculate Conception), so for Andrewesian Anglicans like myself who tend to set their doctrinal rudder by the first five centuries, this is no great hurdle as a historical matter. Even the most outlandish and extra-scriptural idea of her Assumption seems historically likelier than skeptics would admit (though little more than that) given that Mary’s cult never produced any relics, as was common with the other saints.
Despite all of this, the veneration of Mary has yet to enter my personal devotion. I have a hard time calling her “The Blessed Virgin.” The times I have referred to her as “Our Lady” have been affected. Alone in the lovely sanctuaries I seek out for prayer during the day, my attempts at invoking her directly have felt hollow and dishonest and I’ve left off of trying. I feel a reflexive Protestant inhibition. Is it a rational one, or pure prejudice and custom? It’s not the history, nor fear of mariolatry (a very real risk!), rather it is the reason for the devotion that I could not give an answer for. How theotokos comes to be more than a theological slogan, disclosing one’s orthodoxy on the Incarnation, is a mystery to the Protestant. If, as Roman apologists like to remind us ad nauseum “you can’t be a bigger fan of Jesus than Mary” then why make a stop at the middlewoman on the way to the Mediator?
I think I narrowed it down on a morning bike ride. My own incarnate son bumped behind me in the trailer, his blessed mother away taking our first to school. It comes down to the emphasis placed on salvation. Protestants after the Reformation name the Cross as the locus of our justification. The Incarnation is exposition to this. God needed to take on flesh in order to (in order of importance) 1. die on the cross, and 2. give enough quotations and episodes to fill a new testament.
On the other hand, it is pretty safe to say that the Patristic and Medieval traditions (East and West) tended to talk more about the Incarnation as the thing that really saves us. Divinity’s intimate contact with humanity purifies it. Like the tradition that Jesus’s baptism was actually Jesus “baptizing” the waters, not the other way around. It is not hard to see where the insistence on the sinlessness of Mary comes from, for if Jesus cleanses from sin and corruption even the woman who touched the hem of his garment, how much more so the woman whose womb he inhabits? Mary’s own salvation comes from her intimacy with Jesus, both carnal in utero and spiritual, as the bonds of affection and trust between a mother and her child are enhanced by divine energy.
Of course, these emphases are reconcilable, especially from an Anglican perspective. In the same way that West and East bickered over the precise moment the bread and wine changed into body and blood in the Eucharistic prayer, Anglicans wisely appealed to the unity of the movement from Words of Institution to Epiclesis (which is of course, the proper order). The rite elevates in intensity to its perfection at the sacrificial Fraction and the Great Amen. So too the incarnation reaches its perfection at the sacrifice on the cross. We can all say that Jesus was indeed “born to die” without getting into the knotty theories of atonement.
So much for theology. What about prayer? How do we get from appreciating to venerating (even at a theologically appropriate distance) the agent of our salvation? But what hit me on my bike was that Protestants do venerate their preferred agent of our salvation: the cross itself. We only need to look to the tradition of American Baptist hymns–indeed American Protestantism’s contribution to Christendom–to see how.
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross
The emblem of suffering and shame
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain
The tactile imagery is not a casual description of the accidental features of a Roman torture device. Like the “crimsoned boughs” of the ancient Vexilia Regis the refrain to the Rugged Cross here can only be called veneration.
And I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it someday for a crown
This one even edges a touch too close to adoration for comfort! One clings to the cross, even exchanges it for a crown in heaven. Perhaps this doesn’t reflect the pulpit teaching on the matter, but lex orandi, lex credendi I say. Nor could one call the theme an outlier, not by a long shot. Let this Baptist boy set you straight. A bouncier tune speaks to the Cross as location of salvation.
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light
And the burden of my heart rolled away
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day
Finally, Fanny Crosby’s best and most haunting refrain (especially as sung by Iris Dement) is probably the apex of this tradition of cross veneration. Here we get our proximity to the Cross as an image of the source of our soul’s rest and glory. The song is so good, it has to be printed in full.
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain—
Free to all, a healing stream—
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and Mercy found me;
There the bright and morning star
Sheds its beams around me.
Near the cross! O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day,
With its shadows o’er me.
Near the cross I’ll watch and wait
Hoping, trusting ever,
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.
The cross here could safely be called sacramental. The soul is united to its glory. Living water flows from it. Its shadow causes the believer to walk in blessedness. There is even the Petrine subtext of the ark of wood bearing the fearful soul across the waters of death. I love these lines. I sing them to my sons. My point here is not to charge anyone with crucioloatry. However, the agent of our salvation is being venerated here through Protestantism’s most (rightfully) prized liturgical medium of aural hymnody.
Imagine then being born into an Irish or Polish family, and the agent of salvation wasn’t an inert object but an actual person. Imagine furthermore being taught from a young age, in accord with good orthodox teaching, that she is not dead but alive in God. How might you feel about her? It doesn’t do to speak to two beams of wood, but it is proper to address a lady.
None of the above breaks down any theological barriers of course between traditions, but in our Anglican communion, where one may find Mary-venerators and abstainers alike, the walls of division need not be imported. Like the Eucharistic prayer, the movement of salvation is a unity that rises in excellence, the Law, the Prophets, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and Ascension. It is all one movement yearning towards perfection. Mary and the Cross are both the agents of our salvation to be encountered and venerated along the way in ways that are proper to them: for the inert Altar of Wood, in song, poetry, and genuflection, for the human Mother of all the Living, all of that seems natural too, but remember it’s also polite to call your mom from time to time! I grew up cherishing my Lord’s Old Rugged Cross, and if not me, then perhaps my sons will learn to do the same with the Blessed Mother of their Lord.