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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The woman who is not there.

Appropriately enough for the month of May, the subject of the greatest discord between Catholics and Protestants has leapt to the fore.

The estimable Dawn Eden stepped on the third rail of Protestant-Catholic discourse in a fine post on the value of chastity, both within marriage and without. Nevertheless, it was her reference to the Blessed Virgin at the end that got the avalanche rolling.

Note that Dawn, as an evangelical with a significant Catholic readership, carefully framed the reference so as to allow for an endorsement by both Catholics and Protestants: the discussion of Mary's chastity is during the timeframe of the earthly ministry of Jesus. I think her point is well-argued, and very artfully posed.

Bzzzt! Not good enough, as the trench warfare demonstrates.

As a convert, it is extremely difficult to explain to cradle Catholics the visceral reaction the subject provokes. At the parish bible study, I've tried over and over to explain this to sensible cradle Catholics of differing ages and backgrounds. Despite my efforts, they are still puzzled.

I'm still sympathetic to the Protestant reaction. The place of Mary within Catholicism was the greatest hurdle to my conversion, and threatened to derail it at one point. [As an aside--there is one contemporary book by a Catholic writer on the subject that should never, ever under any circumstances be handed to an inquirer troubled by the subject, unless you really don't want to ever share a pew with him or her in even the most mystical of senses. I'll name it in the comments box below.]

The honor given to Mary is utterly alien to the Protestant mindset, even the most superficially catechized. "What--?" is the unvarying first reaction. And the consistent reaction for the next hundred times the subject comes up. Mary plays no role in Protestant religious life, the odd ultra-high church Anglo-Catholics aside. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Any but the most perfunctory of references to her detracts from the person of Jesus Christ, and so must be avoided. She is the woman who is not there.

As I said, I am still somewhat sympathetic to this--there are Catholics whose devotion to her sure looks like it passes beyond the far fringes of hyperdulia and reaches the level of latria. Furthermore, they seem unconcerned when excess is pointed out. And the treacly sentimentality is sometimes enough to lead to diabetic shock, even if that sentimentality manifests a significant truth about the relationship between a mother and her children.

Obviously, I got past it. And, ironically, it was "zip/zero/zilch" void that helped me hurdle it. The problem is that the most common Protestant response to the excesses of Catholicism is to offer the most grudging and minimal "respect" possible, heavily larded with qualifiers. After a while, it all sounds like the same set of talking points, reiterated though clenched teeth.

"Of course we honor her. She is our sister in the Lord, and gave birth to Jesus. Yes, that was important. She was the vessel.

But she was a sinner just like the rest of us and doubted him during his ministry and was rebuked by him on numerous occasions and in retrospect she was nothing really special after all because she had other kids so we keep it all in perspective."

You see a lot of this in Dawn's comment thread. In other words, the USRDA of Mary is no more than .5g in a 10,000 calorie theological diet. Even then, you'd better exercise a lot. In reality, she's given considerably less respect than a beloved pastor, exegete or theologian. It was a confrontation with this mindset that finally made it all click.

At the old Catholic Convert Message Board (RIP 2000--the one with the tan background), the free-for-all was briefly graced by a rather vociferous hyper-Calvinist (or perhaps just "hyper" without the hyphen) who went by the nom de guerre of "Riolion." Riolion's claims to fame were (1) being a stern foe of all distinctives associated with Popery, and (2) having been, at one point, a top 500 reviewer for Amazon.com. This latter item was a particular--and peculiar--source of pride to him. If nothing else, I suppose I have to concede that he was especially blessed with free time.

Needless to say, the invariable daily Marian thread at the CCMB was of great interest to him. He was, as many are, a devotee of the "All generations will call me 'vessel'" interpretation of Luke 1:48. Facing down some honest hyperdulia, he jumped in with both wooden-shoe clad Reformed feet, along the lines of:

"Mary was a vessel, nothing more. God, in His sovereign will, could have chosen anyone to achieve the divine purpose of the incarnation of His Son. That He chose her does not make her important. She was a sinner like the rest of us. Jesus did not pay her any particular honor, so no Christian should. The sentimental piety of Catholics regarding her is ludicrous, where not idolatrous."

QED.

Remember, this is a Catholic board. Talk about waving the proverbial red cape in front of a veritable herd of snorting bulls.

"Who knew badgers hated being poked with sharp sticks?" muses man following hand-reattachment surgery.

Leave aside that he wasn't being faithful to his own Reformed (and biblical) precommitments on this one. Lest we forget, we were all selected for our roles by Almighty God from before the founding of the world. In that light, suggesting that Mary was not special despite being chosen as the mother of the Redeemer is as ludicrous as suggesting that God went "eeny, meeny, miney, moe" over a list of the eligible women of Nazareth.

"If she doesn't work out, there's always Tova..."

More stunning to me was that his need to take the wind out of Mariolatry led him to use terms that, if applied to his own mother, would have led to a meeting with pistols at dawn, in a more civilized age. I framed my response thusly:

Scene: Mother's Day at the Riolion residence.

Riolion: "Greetings, Mother. As you know, today is Mother's Day. On this ersatz 'holiday,' I could have stood with the other pagans, baptized or otherwise, and gotten you a card, chocolates, some flowers or other sentimental frippery. But, as you know, I have no truck with that. Instead, I have chosen to recognize the day--and you--for what is truly important.

Mother, I hereby honor you for your essential, Godly function--namely, the bearing of one of God's elect: myself. After all, you, like me, are a sinner. More importantly, God, in his sovereign and omnipotent will, could have chosen anyone--indeed any thing--for this task: another woman, a card table, a wombat or even a cheese log rolled in walnuts. Nevertheless, He did choose you, so I will honor you with a non-idolatrous 'good show!' Enjoy the day, Mother!"

As I said, the blinders of theology were so thick on this one that he spoke of the Lord's mother in a way that he would never tolerate hearing of his own. That's because the woman who is not there has been forcefully ejected from what should be a place of some true honor, even if just to be consistent with other aspects of a genuinely-biblical theology. It was this kind of anti-witness that pushed me to accept the Catholic position. St. Augustine gets far more respect, and he merely bore witness to Jesus in explications of word and sacrament. As Thomas Howard notes, Mary did far more than that--she actually bore and nursed the Word Himself.

The woman who is not there played a role none of the rest of us will ever be privileged to play. I can understand balking at some of the Marian dogmas. What I can never understand is balking at true respect, gratitude, and yes, even love. She deserves far better than that. No mother deserves any less. At least if "honor thy mother" is more than boilerplate.

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