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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In time, Mary's Mother of God role merged with several other potent personas. As monks meditated on Christ's sufferings, Mary became a super co-sufferer, later dubbed Mater Dolorosa. She collected other titles: Queen of Heaven, Bride of Christ, Mother of Mercy, each reflecting a different attribute. Most important of those was as humanity's merciful mediator. The church's growing emphasis on Christ as the stern arbiter of Judgment Day left a kind of vacancy, and believers came to view Mary as a special pleader to him in our name. In 1568 Pope Pius V officially added to the popular Hail Mary prayer the line "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." Eventually, folk piety left doctrine in the dust, and believers intoned, "Our mother who art in heaven ..." Commented the horrified reformer Philipp Melancthon in the 1500s: "The fact of the matter is that in popular estimation, the Blessed Virgin has replaced Christ."

Martin Luther was fond of Mary; he found in her a perfect example of God visiting his grace, unearned, upon the most humble. The former monk extrapolated that "Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, [and] prepared broth ... for God." But his generation of reformers condemned the "abominable idolatry" of her role as heavenly intercessor. Disgusted by a church whose earthly middlemen sold indulgences for sins not yet committed, they also yearned to demote cosmic mediators who they felt diluted God's sovereignty. And, as Fourth Presbyterian's Buchanan observes, "Mary was a kind of point person for Catholicism, so she took the biggest hit." Catholics defiantly boosted Mary to even greater heights, eventually promulgating two additional doctrines: in 1854, Mary's Immaculate Conception, and as late as 1950, her bodily Assumption into heaven.

Over time, Protestant anathemas against Mary lovers gave way to a kind of sullen neglect of the Virgin. That was more pronounced among Presbyterians, some Baptists and others with a strong Calvinist tradition. (The Presbyterian Church U.S.A.'s 1991 Brief Statement of Faith praised the prophets, the Apostles and the Hebrew matriarch Sarah but omitted Mary.) Yet Protestants of all stripes could still appreciate a joke told by Harvard minister Peter Gomes about Jesus' receiving a Protestant theologian at the pearly gates and making appropriate introductions: "Ah, Professor, I know you have met my father, but I don't believe you know my mother."

THAT WAS ROUGHLY THE WAY BEVERLY Gaventa found things in 1989 when the Princeton Scripture specialist was invited to write about Mary for a series called Personalities of the New Testament. She knew of the pulpit silence regarding the Virgin but was still somewhat shocked to find that her academic peers had been equally mute. "We were quite happy to yammer on about Mary Magdalene, about whom we know next to nothing," she remembers, "and you would find a bajillion essays on Doubting Thomas. But there was very little on Mary's presence at the Cross." She was further bemused when callers invited her to speak at their churches. "I would offer to do something on Mary," she says, "and there would be this embarrassed pause, and they would eventually say, 'Oh, we're mostly Protestant around here.'" In fact, she says, she approached her Mary work in "a Protestant sort of way. We pride ourselves on reading Scripture, so let's read Scripture and see what we find."

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