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Mary and the Problem of Christian Unity

Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D.
May 8, 2011 No Comments

We are living in a remarkable age. As we approach the third millennium of Christianity in the year 2,000, we are watching a world in extremes. Amid the rapid onslaught of secularization and irreligion, we find hordes of people seeking solace in religion.

Amid the ravages of war and violence, we find the comfort and love of those who care for the poor and disadvantaged. Amid the lightning pace of modern life, we find souls searching for deeper meaning by retreating to monasteries and ashrams for solitude.

Two of the most powerful inspirations in late twentieth century Christianity are the drive toward greater unity among Christians of widely differing backgrounds (ecumenism) and the rapid growth of Marian devotion all around the world. This century has seen unprecedented efforts to bring together Christians who have been separated by misunderstanding and prejudice. And just when the ecumenical movement on a formal level seemed moribund, a new surge of grassroots ecumenism is finding ways of bringing together Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians. Whatever the outcome of these efforts, the air of this last decade of the second millennium is filled with the scent of Christian unity. It seems that Christians are grasping every opportunity to reconcile their doctrinal differences and to find the sweet savor of “brothers dwelling together in unity” (Ps 133: 1).

If this is an age of ecumenism, it is equally a Marian era because no century since the birth of Christ has witnessed such an outpouring of devotion to the mother of Jesus. As many observers note, reported apparitions and locutions have multiplied,  leading numerous Christians to an unprecedented devotion to the humble handmaiden of the Lord who was privileged to bring the world its Redeemer. In tandem with these grassroots movements, there is a monumental effort within the Catholic Church for the Pope to define as dogma Marian doctrines that have long been present in the Church (Mediatrix, Coredemptrix, Advocate). Whether or not the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church decides to act, there is unlikely to be any diminishing of devotion to the mother of Jesus.

On the other hand, many non-Catholic Christians are mystified by such devotion to Mary. Some feel strangely drawn to honor her, but are afraid of falling into excessive focus on Mary to the exclusion of Jesus. To others, Marian devotion borders on the blasphemous. To still others, Catholics are idolaters. It is not an overstatement to say that no expression of historic Christianity has ever placed Mary in such a high position of honor as has the western Catholic tradition. And even though the Eastern Orthodox Churches have long honored Mary as the Mother of God, they do not have fully developed mariologies as the Western Church has.

The juxtaposition of ecumenical and Marian movements seems odd at best. On the surface, it appears that Mary would be the last subject chosen in an ecumenical dialogue. One might think that all the areas on which common agreement might be achieved should be addressed first, and then deal with the thorny question of Marian doctrine. Better to leave Mary until last. However, I am now convinced that questions about Mary must be addressed up front if any true ecumenism is ever to be achieved.

On a purely human level, no genuine friendship can ignore beliefs which are central to one party while those same beliefs are at best questionable to the other. Further, it is not completely honest for Catholics to pretend that Marian doctrines and devotions are not important and central to our lives. We ought to state openly that the Catholic faith does not allow the Church to ever change its defined dogmas about Mary. On the other hand, we must admit that not everything that goes on under the term Marian devotion is necessary or beneficial for the Church.

What can talk about Mary do to promote the cause of ecumenism? The answer depends on what we mean by ecumenism. One definition, and the one most common, sees ecumenism as a process of negotiation between different churches whereby one church gives up some aspect of its faith and the other partner relinquishes its claim to some of its distinctives. This process proceeds through a number of steps until a lowest common denominator is reached. The result is a church or some other official body which has a reduced form of faith and practice so that it might accommodate each respective member. This has largely been the pattern of ecumenism in the United States and the Western world for the better part of this century. In my judgment, such attempts have been a monumental failure. Mary cannot help with this type of ecumenism.

The other definition of ecumenism is not founded on the concept of negotiation, but on seeking together the truth of God’s revelation. It begins with confessing that we don’t apprehend God’s truth completely, and that we must always seek to have the mind of Christ. In this conception, unity of heart and mind does not come from negotiated agreements, but from all parties, recognizing and embracing the objective truth of God.

It is a commonplace that married couples do not achieve success by each giving fifty percent to their marriage, but by each giving one hundred percent of themselves. In the same way, Christian unity comes from full commitment to searching for truth in a spirit of humility. Ecumenism begins with recognizing that unity already exists in God, that Christ is the center of unity, and that the Holy Spirit is the operative agent in bringing Christians together. Mary has everything to do with this kind of ecumenism.

Mary: The Sign of Unity ?

How can Mary help in promoting Christian unity? Many may feel the weight of disunity among Christians and long for a greater oneness in Christ, but can Mary really give us that greater oneness? Mary has been a source of division between Catholics and Protestants for a long time. What good will focusing on Mary bring? How can Christians be one when the very Marian devotions so precious to Catholics are viewed as idolatrous by Protestants? To human eyes, it seems that almost any other Christian doctrine would be better suited to bring unity than doctrines of Mary. And if we think of Mary just as a set of doctrines, that would be true. But Mary is more than a set of doctrines. Mary is a person. She lived her life on this earth as the mother of our Lord with her own character, mind, and idiosyncracies. These things are true regardless of what we believe about her. Mary is what she is apart from our beliefs.

There is one unmistakable fact that we must remember about the real Mary—the Son of God lived in her womb for nine months. This is how Mary can be an instrument of unity. She united the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, with His human nature in her own body. Mary united more than any human being has ever united. She united God and man in the small confines of her own womb. Ponder this amazing reality. In Mary’s womb, heaven and earth were joined, not as two separate realities, but perfectly united in the one person of the Son of God. No wonder it says that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). It is a reality beyond words.

Mary was the instrument of unity for the body of Jesus Christ and this is why Mary has long been thought of as mother of the church. The church is the body of Christ and Mary was the mother of Christ’s body, both physically and mystically. It is clear from Scripture that Jesus Christ is the key to unity among Christians, but the one Savior Jesus Christ would not be what he is—the perfect God-man—without Mary’s being the means of uniting His divine and human natures in one person.

Mary’s example of obedience and discipleship also forms the foundation of unity. Mary gave herself unreservedly to Jesus her Son. Every Christian wants to be an obedient disciple of our Lord and needs examples of obedience to do so. Mary was filled with grace, and this allowed her to listen to the commands of her God without delay. Mary was on earth what every Christian will become in heaven, filled with grace. Obedience means a readiness to say YES to God, a spirit of humility that says “Let it be” (fiat). Unity cannot be achieved through negotiation. It must come through obedience to the apostolic teaching given by Jesus to Paul and the other apostles. Without a willing spirit, we can never achieve God’s desire for unity. Mary’s life of obedience and discipleship calls us to unity with God through obedience.

The unity we seek is not human but divine. Its source is the divine life of Christ the Redeemer. It is that unity for which He prayed when He said, “Father, that they might be one.” This kind of unity doesn’t come from each group of Christians giving up some belief or practice for the sake of unity; it comes from each individual or group submitting to the authority of Christ and from the work of the Holy Spirit bringing oneness where it is humanly impossible. Like salvation itself, Christian unity is not within the grasp of human power. All we can do is open ourselves to the ministry of the Spirit to produce the unity that is impossible through negotiation.

It is because Mary has been such a stumbling block for Christians that a fuller embracing of her person and role will achieve a greater unity than we might expect. If we view Mary apart from Jesus, then Mary cannot help us. Yet she was never meant to be seen apart from her Son. Just as the Magi found Jesus “with his mother” (Mt 2:11), so we find Mary involved with her divine Son, cooperating in His work and plan.

We cannot solve the problem of how to be one in Christ. Not by negotiation, not by one or the other side caving in. But God can solve our problems. God specializes in the impossible, just as He once said to Mary (Lk 1:37). If the Holy Spirit can form within the womb of the Virgin Mary a new entity—the unique God-man—then He surely can bring together Christians divided by history, suspicion and misinformation. Perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to be unified and let God do what we have failed to do. No one can see precisely how this will happen, but we know it won’t happen without embracing the fullness of salvation in Christ himself.

Mary and the Unity of the Trinity

The unity we seek does not result from negotiated agreements. Our Christian unity must be founded on truth. It must be unity of heart and mind, a permanent oneness that is not shaken by the changing tides of custom and culture. The New Testament concept of unity is nothing less than union with the Holy Trinity. Jesus our Lord prayed that the oneness of His disciples would resemble and flow from the oneness experienced by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: “That they all may be one, Father, as you are in me and I in you that they may also be one in us” (Jn 17:21). Jesus Christ does not want our unity to be like his and the Father’s. He wants our unity to be the same as He and the Father have.

Mary is both a sign and an instrument of the unity coming from the Holy Trinity because she bears a unique relation to each member. Let’s see how Mary is related to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. First, however, a word of caution. In A.D. 431 the ancient Christian Church defined Mary as the Mother of God because the Church wanted to protect the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. This title, Mother of God (or better God-bearer), asserted that the child in Mary’s womb was nothing less than fully God and fully man. But the title Mother of God never has been nor should be interpreted to mean that Mary is the mother of the Trinity. Mary bears a distinct relation to each member of the Trinity, but she is not the mother of the Father, nor of the Holy Spirit.

Mary is the daughter of the Father. When Mary proclaims herself the handmaiden of the Lord (Lk 1:38,48), she is declaring her filial obedience to the will of God. The love she has for the heavenly Father shows itself in her desire to be His vessel of bringing salvation to the world. What better sign of unity than this act of submission to the will of God? If we only follow Mary’s lead, we will find ourselves united in heart as her heart was united with the heavenly Father’s heart.

Mary did not negotiate with God, bargain with Him nor seek a compromise. She acknowledged her dependence on His grace and sought to perform His bidding. The will of the Father is unity for us who profess His Son. We will have unity only when we have submitted ourselves to the Father as Mary did.

Yet Mary is more than a sign. She is an instrument of unity. How is this true? Without her obedience the Savior would not have been born. Some Christians think that if Mary had refused Gabriel’s invitation to bear the Savior, God would have found another woman. There is not the slightest evidence in the New Testament for this view. Mary freely gave herself to God’s will of giving the world its Savior. By her instrumentality Mary united the Father to the world through His Son. In a profound sense, Mary united us to the Father through the Son. And that is how we will find a greater degree of unity today. By seeking to imitate her obedience and by seeking submission to the same Father through the Son she bore.

Mary is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel proclaimed that the Holy Spirit would come over her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her (Lk 1:35). This is the language of marital love (see Ruth 3:9; Zeph 3:17). Mary was united with the third person of the Trinity in order to give flesh to the second person. As the spouse of the Holy Spirit, she gave her body to the service of God so that she might receive the fullness of God. And so Mary is a sign of how we too must seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit to do the will of God (cf Eph 5:18). It is the Holy Spirit who brings Jesus Christ today just as He brought the divine Christ to the womb of Mary (cf. Jn 14:17,18). When we are filled with the Spirit as Mary was, we are united to Jesus and we become more united with one another. Mary’s union with the Holy Spirit brought us the Son who poured out the Spirit that we might be united with both Son and Spirit. Her union brings about our union.

Mary is the mother of the Son. Through her, Christ’s divine and human natures were united into the one person that would save us from our sins. As Jesus’ mother, Mary signals that our unity will only be in and through her Son. When Paul says that Jesus was “born of a woman … that we might receive the adoption” (Gal 4:4,5), the apostle implies that true unity comes only from being members of the same family—the same family in which Jesus is the firstborn Son.

We cannot be members of many different families that have a tolerance for one another’s beliefs and worship. No doubt tolerance for cultural and historical differences is essential, but that is still not the New Testament ideal of unity. Unity means being in the same family as Jesus (“one Lord”), having the same content of belief (“one faith”), living in the same Church body (“one baptism”). Only then can we be sure that we have the same “God and Father of all, who is over all, through all and in all.” See Ephesians 4:4-6.

Mary: God’s Woman of the Hour

Now is the time for unity among Christians. As we approach the beginning of the third millennium since Christ’s birth, we see an almost unprecedented call to unity. Christian leaders the world over have caught a glimpse of Christ’s will that “they may be one, Father, as you are in me and I in you” (Jn 17:21). The desire for unity is laudable and ought to be pursued with vigor. Yet the only unity worth pursuing, the only unity that will last is the unity that already exists in the Holy Trinity. This kind of unity is not something we achieve. It is something given to us as a gift. This unity is infused in our souls and expressed by oneness of mind and heart (doctrine and love).

Truth without love is barren and sterile. Unity without truth is empty and fruitless. Jesus was a kind and compassionate man who proclaimed the truth. The Lord who wept over Jerusalem’s obstinacy (see Mt 23:37-39), and who was moved with compassion over the “sheep without a shepherd,” (Mk 6:34) is the same Lord who said that the truth of His words would not pass away (Lk 21:33). If Jesus is our Lord, then we must follow with equal vigor His truth and love.

Insistence on truth at the expense of unity will not do, nor will embracing unity at the expense of truth. Truth and unity are equally ultimate. Yet even now, we must realize the impossibility of reconciling truth and unity with human schemes and ingenuity. The only way to have unity is by having unity in Truth. The truth that brings unity is Jesus Himself who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). The truth Jesus gives is the complete teaching of His will as expressed in and through the Church of the apostles.

The Church is Jesus’ idea and institution; it is part of the will of Jesus. And it is Christ’s Church that wrote and gave us the Holy Scriptures and the truths of faith passed down from generation to generation. Obedience to Jesus means obedience to Jesus’ Church. It is no accident that Christians have spoken of the Church as our mother for centuries. Classic Christianity spoke this way: the one who wants God as a Father must have the Church as a mother. Why is it necessary? Because Jesus is nurturing our faith through our mother, the Church. And that is why Mary is so important.

Jesus is our model but we must remember that even our Lord learned some of His commitment to truth and compassion from His mother. All we have to assume is that Mary lived her own words to see that this is true. She loved truth enough to consent to Gabriel’s invitation to bear the Son of God (Lk 1:38). She was filled with compassion enough to see God’s “mercy from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). Mary was a woman of truth and love. Her commitment to God’s truth and love lead her to the unity of the Son of God. Her submissive heart that willingly embraced God’s truth and her devoted love for God brought about the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures into the perfect unity of His one divine person.

So Mary’s commitment to truth and unity is both our model and the means of our unity. She modeled our path to unity by her embrace of the divine Son within her womb. We must embrace Him too. Mary is also the means of our having unity because without her act of submission to God we would not have the one Savior who can unify us.

It is time to lay down our defensive postures, to lay aside our personal and political agendas, to give up our dearest visions for the Church and to embrace the complete will of Christ. I believe that if we could simply be like Mary on that day when Gabriel came to her, we could then say with her, “Let it be done to us according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Perhaps, she could say with us:

Lord, we are your servants.

Heal our divisions and

Let Your Son reign as Lord within.

Let Your Word dwell within us

And make us one.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D.

This article is from Ken’s  book, Mary of Nazareth:  Sign and Instrument of Christian Unity. [Queenship Publishing] 

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