Hail, Mary

She was there at the Cross. Yet Protestants seldom talk about Jesus' mother at Easter — or at most other times. But they are starting to now

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This could probably not have happened at some other time. Robert Jenson, author of the respected text Systematic Theology, chuckles when asked whether the pastor of his Lutheran youth would have approved of his (fairly extreme) position that Protestants, like Catholics, should pray for Mary's intercession. "My pastor would have been horrified," he says, adding, "The pastor was my father." Yet today Catholics and Protestants feel freer to explore each other's beliefs and practices. Feminism has encouraged popular speculations on the lives of female biblical figures and the role of the divine feminine (think The Red Tent and The Da Vinci Code). A growing interest, on both the Protestant right and left, in practices and texts from Christianity's first 1,500 years has led to immersion in the habitual Marianism of the early and medieval church. And the influx of millions of Hispanic immigrants from Catholic cultures into American Protestantism may eventually accelerate progress toward a pro-Marian tipping point--on whose other side may lie changes not just in sermon topic but in liturgy, personal piety and a re-evaluation of the actual messages of the Reformation.

The movement is not yet prevalent in the pews. And it has its critics. While granting that Mary shows up more in the New Testament than some churches recognize, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Southern Seminary, charges that those who use her full record to justify new "theological constructions" around her are guilty of "overreaching," "wishful thinking" and effectively "flirting with Catholic devotion." Yet Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, co-editor of an essay collection on what might be called Marian upgrade, claims, "We don't have to go back to Catholicism. We can go back to our own roots and sources. It could be done without shocking the congregation. I can't predict how exactly it will happen. Some of it will be good, and some of it may be bad. But I think it's going to happen."

THEY BURNED MARY IN WALSINGHAM IN 1538. In a spate of iconoclasm ordered by King Henry VIII, the founder of Anglican Protestantism, his commissioners stormed the Catholic pilgrimage center in the east of Britain. Its famous statue of the Virgin warranted special treatment: she was transported to Chelsea and publicly immolated. Nine men who objected were reportedly executed. A local ballad went, "Sin is where Our Lady sate: Heaven is turned to hell ... Walsingham ... farewell." Walsingham, says Joseph Leo Koerner, author of The Reformation of the Image, was just one example of an ire that extended through Europe for a century: other Marys were chopped up for kindling or paraded through bordellos before their destruction.

Mary was not always such a lightning rod. Early on, Christianity rallied around her importance. The Council of Ephesus in 431 affirmed her to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God. Admittedly, the move was less about her than him. It repudiated a specific heresy--that Mary's son and the Messiah were two different beings--and in general it made the Incarnation much more immediate. God's taking on human flesh became far less abstract when one discussed his human mother and the actual fact of his birth.

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