Friday, March 27, 2009

Mary: Part III The New Eve

The ancient idea of Mary being the New Covenant counterpart of Eve goes back to Ireneaus, Tertullian and Justin Martyr. These 2nd century church leaders were taught by those who were taught by the Apostles. Later in the 4th century Jerome also extrapolated from Genesis 2 and 3 that Mary was the prophetical woman (Eve) who would crush the head of Satan.

Early Christians believed that the man and woman in Eden symbolized God and His Bride, the church. When God commanded the two to be one flesh, God was promising that He would be one flesh with the church. As woman was created from the body of man, so the church was created from God. In a sense, the church was formed from the bruised and bleeding flesh of the crucified Christ.  As mankind is then birthed from woman, she is the man-bearer, so God's children are birthed through her, His bride, His church and are part of His flesh.

Yet, in the creation story, Eve did not retain her position. Her faith in and obedience to God failed and she brought sin upon her children. Because woman had been an intricate, indispensable part (half) of His perfect kingdom, the fall of womanhood itself was very great. And the redemption of that womanhood in the salvation of mankind was essential. 

To fulfill all, God appointed a New Covenant Eve, a young, humble Jewish woman not only to help in the plan of salvation, but to symbolize the bride, His church.

Eve's faith faltered and she disobeyed.
Mary's faith remained and she obeyed.
Eve became the mother of all the children born in sin, mortality and death.
Mary became the mother of all the children born of repentance, immortality and life.

We are not offended when Christ honored certain men as co-workers, through which He performed His acts of redemption and salvation: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, King David, Elijah, Daniel, John the Baptist and the twelve disciples. We see these men as God's great and glorious heroes. We somehow find honoring Mary, Jesus' mother who He Himself honored (see 5th commandment) as idolatry. Yet, there is no example of pure faith and unmerited grace as in the humble, faithful and suffering witness of Mary.

Mary did not earn any honor, she had no position, power or influence, she did not win honors in battle or performance of great works. The unmerited glory bestowed upon Mary was the gift of giving life. Motherhood itself was bestowed as co-worker with God. God chose to enter humanhood as a helpless clump of cells within a woman and be born through the body of a woman. This position of God-bearer would be symbolized in her womanhood and through the bride--God's children would be born through the waters of the New Birth (through the new Eve.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mary: Part II "Praying to Mary"

Step with me back into a distant, strange, ancient world. Here on the banks of the Tiber River, soldiers violently hit someone who does not bow when a leader moves past. The king is addressed on shaking knees with the vainglorious, sycophantic "most just and trusted king of kings, kind lord..." or the queen mother is petitioned with a plethora of flatteries. Christians trace a little cross on their forehead to get into the secret worship services. 

As independent, free 21st-century Americans, we resent the idea of being placed back into that time, but we must be careful not to judge our Christian ancestors, they had no choice. This culture is where Marian Dogma was born. They chose to honor Mary as Queen Mother as a statement to the Romans that their true allegiance was not to an earthly kingdom, but to a Christian kingdom. They were forced to kiss the king's ring, but they chose to kiss the hands of their bishops in full view of the Roman officers as a symbol of their true freedom in Christ as their King of Kings. 

Early Christians believed that those great men and women who died by torture for their faith were honored by God in heaven (II Tim. 2:11, 12, "Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him...." See also Rom. 8:17) They were given the responsibility to help those who remained on earth. Mary, as Queen Mother in heaven, is also there helping in the salvation of mankind. (This is reflected in the New Testament idea that we are a nations of priests, a royal priesthood. I Peter 2:9) So we can "pray" to these saints (translation: plead, petition, ask, beseech) these people to pray for us in the exact same way that we are to ask our earthly family, friends and spiritual mentors to pray for us. The Apostle Paul was constantly "praying" for those who he wrote letters to pray for him and each other. 

Asking Mary to pray for us in no way substitutes for prayer to God. Mary is just a human like we are. But the saints in heaven are not idle. They are busy ministering to us just like the angels.  Because many American Catholics understand the usage confusion in the word "pray" to Mary, they avoid using it. Catholics would never want anyone to think they are worshipping Mary. 

Last year I was reminded that not too long ago in America the word pray was more general. When I was standing in court after a traffic ticket, I was advised to "pray" to the judge for leniency because of my past record. It is officially called a "prayer for judgment." 

Some older Catholics (pre-Vatican II) still kneel in front of statues of saints in heaven and invoke their prayers. Again, this goes back to the days when you knelt before your superiors. It is meant as an honor and not worship. Catholics believe that we all are the body of Christ--both the saints on earth and the ones in heaven. As His Body we actively participate in the salvation of others. However, we are not Christ; we become invisible as we point others to Christ. Our prayers for each other, our honor of each other--what we do for each other is done for and to Him. So honoring Mary does not take away honor for Christ anymore than honor for a man's son takes away honor from the man. It IS honoring Christ when we honor His mother and His children. So when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her--as a human to another human friend, to pray for us and in unity we lift up the Corpus Christi.

The Joys of Catholic Mary Part I

"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women (Luke 1:28)
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death."

As I sat dangling my legs off the church bench at my great-grandmother's funeral, there was something cold, distant and unfeeling in the chanting of these words. This prayer to Mary was a pagan, idolatrous rite; it didn't feel like the Christianity I had known in my short life. Whew, I was safe, warm and comfortable in my Seventh-day Adventist church the next Sabbath. I never really thought about it again for thirty years.....

Mary. There is no word that encapsulates the unbridgeable great divide between Protestants and Catholics as her name. She symbolizes to the Protestant the idolatrous, scripture-rejecting, Jesus-demeaning rituals of the Catholics. She is the first name invoked as a plea to reject Catholicism---Catholics worship Mary.

Why I would even attempt, as a new Catholic, to venture into that deep, dense thicket of theology is madness. But eventually I will have to answer the accusations that I now worship Mary. I don't and neither do Catholics.

So where to start? First I will list the five Marian Dogmas of the church. These are what Catholics believe, any claims outside these are traditions that you may reject.

1. Mary is the Mother of God.
2. Mary was a virgin before, during and after carrying the baby Christ.
3. Mary was immaculately conceived.
4. Mary was assumed into heaven.
5. Mary is the mother of the church.

Three of the five Marian dogmas were decreed in the last century and a half. For 18 centuries they were considered tradition. What these dogmas mean, why were they instituted, the history of Mary and how Marian Dogma are based on scripture will be briefly dealt with.

Let's begin with statement about Mary from the Catholic Catechism (#273):

Only faith can embrace the holy mysterious ways of God's almighty power. This faith glories in its weakness in order to draw to itself to Christ's power. The Virgin Mary is the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that "nothing will be impossible with God" and was able to magnify the Lord, "For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name."

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Joy of the Catholic Worldview Part II (Church)

Church, for me, has always been the highlight of the week. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist who rest on Sabbath much like the Jews, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. When Friday would come we would all happily anticipate Sabbath and clean our rooms. Saturdays were filled with gratefulness to God. Although we turned off the television, radio and other "worldly" amusements, our family would infuse so much excitement into the day we hardly noticed. We busily would get dressed up in our finest apparel and head off to church, often stopping by Dunkin Donuts. We were very active in church, singing in choir, involved in Sabbath School. We could see all our friends and would almost always go out to eat afterwards. Sabbath afternoons we went for social walks in nature or debated finer points of theology with guests at our house. It was always a happy, fun social time. Sabbath just felt special.

Later, after leaving the church of my upbringing, I began attending many other Protestant church services. They are very much like the ones in the SDA church. People come to worship God through singing, praying and listening to a motivational sermon based on the Bible. The point of going to all the trouble to get your family dressed and actually go to church was fairly simple. We believe we encouraged each other in our spiritual growth by religious socialization. If you missed church, you didn't feel a great deficit except for in socialization.

The sermon is a big part of a Protestant worship service. It is imperative that the pastor's weekly homily is engaging because it is their main venue for evangelization. Not only must he encourage the flock, but the pastor's responsibility is to clearly explain the gospel in order to bring souls to salvation. An emotional call to give one's heart to the Lord or make a decision for Christ is common after a rousing sermon. Many a prayer is said for an unbelieving spouse or child, that he will hear the voice of God through the pastor and come to Jesus at church.

This is very different from a Catholic view of church. Here is a very short description of how Catholics view mass:

Every week, the Bride is summoned by her King and husband, Christ himself. It is His time to woo her with the beauty of the worship service. Her eyes are to be delighted by stained glass and paintings to remind her of His love through the story of His life. She is to be hypnotized with rapture when she hears the chants and love songs by the choir. Incense brings an exotic bouquet to entrance her. It is His time to glorify and fill her with His Spirit. He reminds her of the cross and His sacrifice for her every time she approaches the altar. He encourages her with the marriage supper where she tastes His Body and Blood in the bread and wine. It foremost is HIS time with His beloved wife, to forgive her, cleanse her, encourage her, bless her so that she can then go out filled with His Spirit to bless the world. Her response is to thank and worship Him.

Babies are baptized into the kingdom of God and are seen as full members of God's body. They do not then later need to be "saved." The emphasis in church is not becoming a Christian but living as a Christian.

The Catholic mass is not a place where evangelization takes place. The sermon is a very peripheral part--that is why priests often are not eloquent, nor is the sermon long. The pulpit is not the center, the altar where the marriage supper takes place and where God Himself is enthroned is. Though anyone is welcome to a Catholic service, they are seeing Christ love His Bride and watching her response to that love. Guests may decide to join the Body by attending a mass, but proselytization during mass is not the point of Catholic services. Priests are shepherds of the flock, the members of the church do the evangelizing outside of church. The Body, not the priests, have the responsibility to go out and be Christ's hands and feet. We, Christians, are to bring God's presence to the world with our acts of love and compassion, healing and forgiving. The Body brings Christ's love to unbelievers in so many ways, not just through preaching. When those who do not know Christ, respond to us, His Body, they are responding to Christ.

It is highly disturbing that so many of my Catholic friends do not fully understand the gospel and the beautiful treasure of Catholic doctrine. But I am beginning to understand why. The weakness of Catholicism is that they live the Kingdom of God so literally that they often forget to tell the citizens just how they got there. Although Catholics spend a lot of time with the cross of Christ right in front of their eyes, they see Him as children see a Father and take for granted their adoption into the family. They stress in mass, not how to get into Heaven, but how to act now that you are there.

Each week Protestants pastors drill into their members the process of getting into heaven. "You are saved by grace through faith" is the weekly mantra--the saving gospel. In Catholicism, preaching, teaching and living the gospel is the responsibility of the laity. Protestants give studies on how to give Bible studies. They teach their members how to lead a person to say the sinner's prayer and give a public pronouncement of their moment of being saved. Catholics direct their members to serve others humbly, meet their needs, love them through acts of charity (and those few who are called to preach must certainly do that too). But to a Catholic, not all are called to preach. Most are called to serve and through service we become Christ to others. When they respond to our love, they are responding to Christ even if there are no words spoken. That is why Catholics sometimes have difficulty explaining the gospel and repeating Bible texts. They were baptized into the Kingdom of Heaven as babies, they were saved before they could speak. Therefore, as they grow up in Christ's Body, the emphasis for Catholics is not how to be saved but how to live as Christians. 

The Joys of a Catholic Worldview Part 1

It is a dramatic step for a Protestant to enter the world of Catholicism. It is full of mystery, where contradictions lay peacefully beside each other like the lion and the lamb. It is fiercely rational and yet also at the same time wildly miraculous. Even with its own sullied past constantly present on the religious billboards for everyone to mock at and be reminded of, Catholicism has no animosity towards other religions or denominations. They realize God's Bride is slowly transfiguring from humble tatters to radiant adornment awaiting Christ's return for her. Catholics are patient with themselves, knowing Christ is patient with us.

In the book, The Privilege of being Catholic, I learned that to Catholics, the world is a marvelous thing. God did not retract His statement that the world was "good" and that man was "very good." Man still carries the likeness of his maker even though he is scarred from sin. Man is capable of great good as well as great evil. Though we are weakened to temptation, we can turn and resist temptation with God's help.

When you think of man as a mere worm, or fully and irretrievable bad, it is no tragedy when he behaves like the animal he has been taught to believe he is. Sin is then natural and expected. But when you see man as having the spark of divinity, having the very likeness of God Himself, his actions of hurt and destruction desperately contradicts who he has been created to be. Against such an ideal paradigm sin vividly displays its horror. Catholics have been around for two millennia, they are certainly not shocked or offended by a person's sin, we have been confessing our transgressions since the beginning. However, Catholics see the great crime against humanity and the fall from heaven we each take when we act against love.

Catholics believe the earth itself is a sacrament. We can still see the beauty of God through His creation and we can and should fully indulge ourselves in experiencing all the beauties of a God created world. We should never tire of the glorious morning, we should rejoice in every scientific breakthrough, we should be awestruck by the stars and a newly born baby. It is good! Catholics enjoy wine, but teach against alcoholism, they dance and make merry and enjoy every taste, touch, smell, sound knowing that it is all good! It is about living with thankfulness and gratitude the abundant life God has given us.

(written with thanks to GK Chesterton and his book, "Orthodoxy.")