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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Then in 1998 a close friend died in a plane crash. Burks-Price fled to a rural retreat center run by a local Catholic convent and late one night went walking, "sobbing and praying and asking why." She found herself standing before a tall marble statue of Mary next to a barn. "Her hands were outstretched, and her face was looking down on me with this great compassion," says Burks-Price. "I realized that she knew what it was like to see her son die on the Cross, to bear that sorrow and grief. I felt she was giving me a window into the compassion God had for me in my own experience." Burks-Price is still a Baptist, but her office is filled with Marys: porcelain statuettes, laminated prayer cards, icons. She keeps a Rosary for Catholic patients, and sometimes, she says, "I know [the prayer] better than they do."

Burks-Price was drawn by what may be the most meaningful Marian lure: access to a central Christian image of love, at birth and through death, that Protestantism never officially repudiated but from which it has been estranged almost from the start. The hunger for this is illustrated by the evangelical reception of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Conservative pastors interviewed by Christianity Today particularly lauded its treatment of Mary, which featured scenes not found in Scripture: Mary witnessing her son's scourging, sopping up his blood, kissing his bloody face--and her flashback, as Christ stumbles in carrying the Cross, to a moment in his boyhood when he fell and cried and she could cradle him in her arms.

That sequence also moved Fourth Presbyterian's Buchanan, who preached last year, "We're inclined, you and I, to think about our faith in terms of ideas and propositions and truth claims. [Yet] Mary reminds us that our faith is a response to a love that was expressed not in a carefully reasoned treatise but in a human life." Mary, he said, is "a reminder to the mother whose son was killed in Iraq last week ... [to] children and wives and husbands who wait in fear and in hope. Let her be a reminder of the mercy and compassion and nearness of God."

Yet it is such sentiments that most upset Southern Baptist theologian Mohler. He is underwhelmed by the Scripture-based reconsiderations of people like Gaventa. "Insofar as Evangelicals may have marginalized Mary's presentation in the Bible, it needs to be recovered," he concedes. "But the closer I look at the New Testament, the more convinced I am that it does not single her out for the kind of attention that is being proposed. We have not missed the point about her. To construct a new role for her is simply overreaching."

He is most exasperated that "Mary is held forth as the maternal face of God, some dimension that is fundamentally absent from Scripture. God's love is presented in biblical terms without any need for Mary as an intermediary. To suggest that need, even as 'symbolic' instead of doctrinal"--he pauses--"this is the Reformation in reverse. It's simply profoundly unbiblical, and it leads to the worst excesses of Marian devotion."

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