Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Protestant Mary

As a Protestant believer, I am always a little uncomfortable with how to talk about Mary, the mother of our Lord, who stands at the center of the Christmas story. One of the dividing issues between Catholic/Orthodox Christians and Protestants is how we treat Mary.

I must confess that I love the Ave Maria by Franz Schubert. I consider it one of the most perfectly constructed songs that I know. Yet, I feel a little guilty about listening to it because the words are the "Hail Mary..." prayer that Catholics use when reciting the Rosary--in Latin.

The tendency to venerate Mary began very early in the church with the veneration of martyrs who were said to be "already in God's presence and glorious in His sight" (Early Christian Doctrines, J. N. D. Kelly, p. 490). Mary eventually was compared to Eve, "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3: 20), and was viewed as the proper owner of that title. The problem of how she could bear the sinless Son of God led to the belief that she herself was sinless. Eventually this led to the belief that she was born without sin (immaculate conception). In addition, there was a belief that she remained perpetually a virgin. Jesus' brothers and sisters were said to either be Joseph's children by another marriage or cousins.

An important controversy in the 5th century led to the rejection of Nestorius who claimed that Mary could be called Christotokos (Christ-bearer), but not Theotokos (God-bearer). This was rejected on Christological grounds: Jesus was fully human and divine and to separate the two is to argue for two persons. But inherent in the controversy was the growing tendency towards the worship of Mary as the Mother of God.

Protestantism was marked with the doctrine of sola scriptura by Martin Luther, who wanted to get back to the basic Christianity of the apostles and strip away the unbiblical beliefs and practices that had gathered like barnacles on the hull of the ship. But in doing so, we may have lost the wonder of the miracle of Jesus' birth and the incredible example of Mary, a holy and faithful believer who taught us all what it means to be obedient to God in the face of all opposition.

The angel brings incredible news with the greeting: "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1: 28).

After struggling with the incredible news, Mary, in perhaps one of the greatest examples of humble submission to the will of God says, "I am the Lord's servant...May it be to me as you have said" (vs. 38).

I believe it is wrong of us to disregard Mary. And we can learn much from her without having to exalt her to demigod status. After all, even Mary herself, in her great hymn of praise (known as The Magnificat) said: "For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed" (vs. 48).

And indeed we are all blessed by Mary's humble obedience to God over 2000 years ago.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Learning From the Herdmans

Another favorite novella that I try to read every year is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. I have even read it aloud to a couple of groups. It was a made-for-TV special with Loretta Swit a couple of decades back and is available on DVD. But to get the full impact, read the book. It should take less than an hour to read--but is well worth it.

At the center of the book is another redemption story. The six Herdman children are the unredeemed rat-pack who terrorize any child who has the misfortune of attracting their attention.

Barbara writes the book from a terrorized little girl's perspective. When little brother Charlie is asked at church to share something he is thankful for at the Thanksgiving service, he shares, "There are no Herdmans." Although this is heartfelt, it strikes at the heart of the dilemma of church life. If we build a safe and loving environment where we can escape from the world, does that mean we exclude the Herdmans? Aren't the Herdmans exactly what the church is there for? As Karl Barth, the early 20th century theologian put it, church is "community for the sake of the world."

Of course, the Herdmans show up to church looking for free snacks. And when mom is stuck running the annual Christmas Pageant, put on by the Sunday School, the Herdmans take over all the important roles, including Imogene as Mary. The scandal of it all! A telephone whisper campaign begins, threatening to call off the pageant entirely. But of course, the play is staged with the Herdmans there to do their part.

But the book helps us to look at the Christmas story through the fresh eyes of the uninitiated. And it gives the congregation the same opportunity. And we get to witness the power of the story of God's entrance into our world, like a great tsunami, as it washes over and transforms the Herdman family.

Why not try reading the ancient story from Luke and Matthew as if it was the first time you had ever heard it? A poor young couple, clinging to their belief in God's word to them, in spite of the scorn of a skeptical world, face the desperate journey to Bethlehem. They camp out with the animals as Mary goes through labor and childbirth in very trying circumstances. Yet, God reveals himself via a host of angels to the local shepherds and then brings worshipers from exotic lands with extravagant gifts. The child, who outwardly looks like any other baby, is revealed to be special--in fact the unique Son of God Himself! God's ultimate gift to us.

And hear the shout of little Gladys Herdman, playing the Angel of the Lord, ringing in your head--"Hey! Unto you a child is born!"

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Redemption of Scrooge

I absolutely love Charles Dickens' famous novella, A Christmas Carol. Besides owning several versions on DVD, I've re-read the book on my Kindle the last couple of Christmases. Perhaps my favorite is the TNT version with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge (although Michael Caine with the Muppets and songs by Paul Williams--and the made-for-TV George C. Scott--and the classic Alastair Sim versions are contenders).

Ebenezer Scrooge is ubiquitous at this time of year. And with all the versions out there, including derivations like Scrooged, it is evident that our society is in love with it as well.

What is it about this story that gives it such a pervasive appeal?

I believe that the key lies in the underlying theme of redemption. Most of us know hopelessly antagonistic materialists who seem impervious to the Gospel. For those who are most resistant to the message of God's love, deep in our hearts, we yearn to see them come to repentance.

J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis tell us that the power of such fiction comes from the power of the true story it reveals. The truth is that the Gospel has power to save even the most hardened skeptic. That's why Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..." (Rom. 1: 16).

At this time of year, our society is especially open to the wonder of God's love, expressed through his incarnation as a tiny baby, destined to die for the sins of the world. As Christians, let us not be ashamed of the Gospel.

And one more thing. If Scrooge can be redeemed, then I have hope for myself as well. Living in this world can begin to harden my naturally materialistic heart. If the Christmas message can melt Ebenezer's heart, then perhaps I am a candidate as well. Why not let yourself melt a little this Christmas?