Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden that the spices thereof may flow out.
– Song of Solomon 4:16 (KJV).
In November of 2015, I was well into my Catholic ordeal. Arenda’s parents had come to visit for a few days, and we were saying farewell when James came bounding into the room saying, “Look, Mom, I found a necklace!” He jumped onto the couch and showed us a circlet of beads with a cross dangling from the end. What on earth? I thought. That’s no necklace – that’s a rosary. I was taken aback by it, and as soon as my in-laws had left I asked James were he’d found it. He took me to the basement, to the small workshop room, and showed me the nail on the wall shelves where it had been hanging. We’d lived in that house for four years and gone into that room countless times, and I’d never seen a rosary hanging there. The previous homeowners had been Polish, so I assumed that they were Catholic and had forgotten the rosary there. But why, at that tender point in our lives, had we suddenly found a rosary hanging in plain sight that we’d never before seen? I didn’t know what to think of it. I was nowhere near becoming Catholic at that point, much less willing to pray to Mary, so I left it as just one of those things in life. But I did say to Arenda, “If we start finding more rosaries hanging about the house, I’m going to take it as a sign.”
We didn’t find any more rosaries. I did, however, return often to the question as to why we’d found it. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was everything. But the whole question about Mary remained one of the biggest obstacles in my acceptance of the Catholic faith. From what I know of other converts from Protestantism, this is often the case. There are usually two major objections: first, the Catholic teachings on Mary are not found in Scripture; and second, they obscure the work and glory of Jesus Christ. Even after I’d accepted that the Catholic Church was who she said she was, the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, I still found myself holding out against her Marian teachings. How could Catholics say the exalted things they said about Mary? And what was the point of it all, anyways?
Because of this, I turned a good chunk of my attention to studying those teachings. And I doubt I’m alone in having found that looking into their scriptural and theological foundations has been among the most rewarding parts of the journey to the Catholic faith. Mary is a living sermon about Christ and the sheer gratuitousness of His love. But since Rome’s claims about her are perhaps the primary obstacle to embracing the Catholic faith, I thought I’d respond to my former objections. In this post I’ll address the second of the above objections: that the Marian teachings detract from Christ’s work and glory; and in a future post I’ll address the scriptural foundations.
May as well dive right in with some of the Reformed-beard-sizzlers given to Mary by the Catholic Church: Queen of Heaven, Mother of Mercy, gracious Advocate, Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces. These offend Reformed ears because they appear to confer on Mary glory that belongs to Christ alone. Christ is our advocate [1Jn.2:1], the source of grace [Ep.4:7], the source of mercy [Ro.9:18], our Redeemer [Ep.1:7], and our royal Head [Ep.1:22]. These verses, and many others, proclaim these wonderful and rich truths about Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church, too, teaches those things about Christ, for she confesses every word of Scripture to be breathed out by God and binding for all men. But how on earth could she claim to uphold Scripture, honour Christ, and yet confer similar titles on Mary?
First of all, it’s important to be clear what is meant by these titles. Take “Mediatrix” for example. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy,
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all [1Ti.2:5,6 ESV].
How can the Catholic Church call Mary a mediator when Scripture says we have only one mediator? We can see in the above Scripture quotation what Paul meant by referring to Christ as our “one mediator”: He was the one “who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Christ stood in the middle, between God and man, as payment on behalf of man to God for the sins of the world. That’s not what the Catholic Church means in conferring on Mary the title, “Mediatrix.” She did not give her life as a ransom to God for our sins. Rather, what the title means is that Mary intercedes on our behalf to Christ. She brings our requests to her Son and by her intercession wins every grace that God is pleased to grant us. In fact, the very mediating work ascribed by Rome to Mary is commanded of us by Paul only a few verses earlier: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” [1Ti.2:1]. If Mary’s mediating work detracts from Christ’s work, then so do our intercessions.
The same thing applies to Mary’s title of “Advocate.” The Apostle John writes,
If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sin, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world [1Jn.2:1-2].
Just as Paul does, John includes here what he means in calling Christ our advocate: Christ was the sacrifice for the sins of the world. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, the holes in His hands and feet a constant deflection of God’s wrath away from our sins. That is not what Rome means in teaching that Mary is our advocate. She was not the sacrifice for the sins of the world. She has no holes in her hands and feet to prove that our sins have been covered. Rather, Rome teaches that Mary pleads our case before Christ that He would show us mercy and bless us with the grace we need to obey Him.
This, too, is an activity that all Christians engage in. Is there a Christian parent on earth who has not advocated before God for the souls of their children? Especially if those children are straying? Or do we not advocate for our friends or fellow church members who are not living according to the gospel? Do we not advocate for our nations when they enact wicked legislation? We plead many different cases before our God, imploring Him to show mercy and not wrath. In doing so, we are not taking an ounce of glory from Christ. Rather, we are doing the opposite, for in appealing to Christ this way we acknowledge that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. If calling Mary our advocate detracts from Christ’s honour, then so does any of our advocacy on behalf of others.
Further, there’s a false dilemma behind objecting that Rome’s teachings about Mary obscure Christ’s work. If a dying Reformed person, for example, were to ask his pastor for prayer at the hospital bedside, no pastor in the world would say, “No – you need to look to Christ now, not to me. I’m just going to sit here with my coffee and watch you die.” Clearly, it’s not a question of turning either to the pastor or to Christ. You would be turning to Christ through your pastor. That’s the third option that renders the dilemma false. Catholics seek Christ through the intercession of Mary. Just like beseeching others for prayer doesn’t mean you are finding your salvation in them rather than in Christ, so beseeching Mary for prayer doesn’t mean Catholics find their salvation in her rather than in Christ.
It’s the very nature of the salvation Christ has purchased for us that we are not spectators of each other’s salvation. We don’t just sit back and watch as our friends and family struggle or grow, find happiness or despair. Christ did not purchase for us a salvation that looks merely to its own interests. Rather, Christ purchased for us a communal salvation. God is Himself a fellowship of love, three Persons existing as one Being in a mystery that exceeds the striving of all thought, and He calls us into fellowship both with Him and with each other. That is why the two greatest commandments are what they are. The two greatest commandments are about participation: participation in the life of God, and participation in the lives of our neighbours.
But God has given some of His children a greater role in this communion than others. The Apostles laid the foundation of the Church. Pastors and teachers exert more influence in the Church than others, which is why James teaches that they will be judged more strictly [Ja.3:1]. James also teaches that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” [Ja.5:16 NIV], so the prayers of those who are more righteous are more powerful than those who are less righteous. Those of us who are weaker members of the body of Christ are thus called to seek the prayers of the stronger members, for their prayers are more effective than ours. The weaker are called to be humble, and the stronger are called to be generous, and so the whole body is built up together in love. The fact that there are greater and lesser members of the communion of saints doesn’t mean that the greater members rob Christ of glory. Christ promised twelve thrones to His twelve Apostles [Mt.19:28], and those thrones in no way diminish the glory of Christ’s throne. On the contrary, the court of a king is his glory, and the more majestic the court the more glory to the king.
According to the Catholic Church, Mary has been given the greatest role of all in the communion of saints. She is the Mother of all believers, and advocates for her spiritual children just as any earthly parent would advocate for their physical children. Because she’s the greatest saint, her prayers are the most effective. And just as Queen Esther did not rob King Ahasuerus of glory, but magnified his glory, so the presence of the Queen of Heaven in the divine court does not rob the eternal King of His glory, but magnifies it more than any other thing God has created.
So it’s important to understand what the Catholic Church means by the titles she confers on Mary. Rome does not attribute any of Christ’s unique work to Mary, nor do any of her titles, when properly understood, even suggest such a thing. Mary is not God; she is not the Word made flesh; she is not seated at the right hand of the Father; she was not the payment for sins; she is not the Judge of the world; it was not her death, resurrection, and ascension that accomplished the salvation of mankind; it is not her spirit that sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts. She is a creature, and thus falls infinitely short of the glory of her divine Son. Even “Co-redemptrix” and “Queen of Heaven,” which I’ll get into more when I discuss Mary in Scripture, are not meant to imply any kind of equality between Mary’s work and Christ’s work. In fact, many of Mary’s titles refer to work that all Christians are called to do.
But secondly, essential to all this is the nature of God’s glory itself, for this lies at the heart of the gospel. Scripture teaches that God is jealous for His glory. Through Isaiah, the Lord says, “I will not yield my glory to another” [Is.48:11], and “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” [Is.42:8]. That second quote especially shows the importance of the context of these statements. God does not share His glory with His enemies. God does not share His glory with false gods or with prideful and ambitious sinners. But Scripture teaches that He does share it with those whom He has brought into friendship with Himself. From the same prophet:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising [Is.60:1-3].
In fact, Christ Himself spoke plainly about sharing God’s glory: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” [Jn17:22]. And Paul confirms this as part of the essence of the gospel: “Those whom he justified he also glorified” [Ro.8:30]. Those whom God has brought into friendship with Himself He also makes worthy to share in His glory, and this glory becomes through them a light to the world.
Further, there’s a relationship of glory between God and the goodness of His creation, for “the heavens declare the glory of God” [Ps.19:1]. And how do the heavens do that? By being themselves glorious. I hope you’ve had a chance to see Venus blazing in the winter twilight. It’s one of the most glorious sights you will see, and it doesn’t cost a thing. No one who stares at that jewel in awe and says, “Wow,” is going to be rebuked by his friend for robbing God of glory. Of course not, because we all understand that by praising Venus we at once praise the God who made it. The fact that people travel from all over the world to see the Rocky Mountains doesn’t mean that they are glorifying the Rockies instead of Christ. On the contrary, the great beauty of the Rockies is a testimony to the great beauty of the Creator. Again, we all understand that to praise the works of God’s hands is at the same time to praise God Himself. His glory is manifest through His works, and the greater the work the greater the glory.
Yet the glory of creation is nothing compared to the glory of the saints. God did not become a star, or a mountain. God became a man. And He took the form of a human being for the purpose of conforming human beings, not stars or mountains, to God. The Apostle Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” [Ga.2:20]. No star can say that. No majestic peak can say that. But human beings can. Where fallen man lives in perpetual conflict with God for glory, as the first sin was an attempt to “be like God” [Gn.3:5], regenerated man is turned in the opposite direction. Regenerated man becomes a mirror for God’s glory, not a black hole. The holiness that the Spirit forms in the hearts of the saints is a greater sermon of divine glory than all the heavens, for that holiness is the very life of God Himself.
The Catholic Church teaches that Mary is the greatest saint, the most fragrant spice carried aloft by the Spirit from the garden of the Lord, the one whose will in this life was most perfectly conformed to her Son’s. Because of this she is also the most glorious creature in the universe. She magnifies the Lord more than anything else in all creation. So if mankind marvels at the stars, how much more ought mankind to marvel at Christ-magnifying Mary, the woman who found favour in the eyes of God? There’s a converse to all this, too. And that is, to deny Mary glory is to deny the glory of Christ. There are two kids standing on the shore of Lake Louise. One kid stares at the scene with shining eyes and says, “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life.” The other kid glances around, says, “It’s not bad,” and goes back to thumbing his iPhone. Which of the two has given glory to God? Which of the two has robbed God of glory? If the answer is obvious when it comes to the Rockies, inanimate and merely natural objects, how much more obvious is it when it comes to Mary, animated entirely by the supernatural life of her Son?
As mentioned, my purpose here was not to show where Scripture supports Rome’s teachings about Mary. My purpose was to demonstrate that Rome’s teachings about Mary do not detract from the work and the glory of Christ. On the contrary, Mary magnifies the work and glory of Christ. Further, diminishing her glory does not increase Christ’s glory any more than flattening the Rockies would increase Christ’s glory. It was not by reducing Solomon’s wisdom that the Lord brought glory to Himself, but by inflating it to the ends of the earth. It wasn’t because Solomon was no wiser than any other king that the Queen of Sheba, when she recovered her breath, exclaimed, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel!” [1Ki.10:9]. It was precisely because of Solomon’s great wisdom that she praised God. That’s how God’s glory works with His friends.
The best resource I found on the doctrines of Mary was a 12-part lecture series by Dr. Lawrence Feingold. The first two (hour-long) lectures are spent on Mary in the OT alone. You can find the lectures here.
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