My interest in and understanding of the Mother of God comes from an outreach perspective. Let me explain: I have been a missionary to Hispanic communities for the last eleven years, both as a mission developer for the ELCA’s Division of Outreach and now as a parish pastor. A missionary needs to understand his context and to find points of connection and understanding with the people he is trying to reach. This has been my emphasis as I seek to bring more diversity into this church. I have used three resources in this task: our Luth-eran heritage, the patristic teachings and the background of the people we try to reach in our ministry.
A Reading of Mary by Our Liturgical Tradition
One way to understand Mary, Mother of God, comes from a liturgical understanding of her in our tradition. We often sing and pray, unaware of the theological implications of these acts. A sampling of liturgical feasts in the Lutheran Book of Worship and previous Lutheran liturgical books will demonstrate how these festivals are given a Christological emphasis. For example: February 2nd, Our Lady of Candlemas (Nuestra Señora de Candelaria) in the Roman Catholic calendar, is The Presentation of Our Lord. August 15th, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, becomes Mary, the Mother of our Lord in the LBW. The change of emphasis is notable. In both cases the same feast is observed, but with a Christological emphasis. In other words, as Lutherans, we celebrate the Mother of God, but always with the Child, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Christians reflect about Mary, Mother of God, one point of departure is their liturgical experience. This is the perspective of Mother Basilea Schlink, a Lutheran nun from Germany, as presented in her book Mary, The Way of the Mother of the Lord. Others from various Catholic persuasions, like Father Alexander Schmeman, a Russian Orthodox theologian, reflect about the Mother of God following the same approach. Vespers in these traditions reflect the Magnificat as a proclamation of the faith at the close of the day. Our own Lutheran tradition has always included this reflection about God’s acts as described by the Mother of God.
Very little of the original emphasis, especially in the case of the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, is apparent in the Lutheran Book of Worship, or the “green book” as we call it. But if we go back in time to the red book or the black book from either our German or Swedish Lutheran traditions, hymn options for this particular feast increase from one to five.
It seems to me that at some time, the wisdom of the team for the selection of hymns wanted to become so American in the process of acculturation that they forgot that the backbone of theology is worship. We sing and pray what we believe and proclaim. It is sad to report that in the planning of the new red book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, dialogue and awareness regarding this topic again fell by the wayside. An inquiry was made as to the possibility of including a Mexican American Marian feast: that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The expert team of liturgists working on the Evangelical Lutheran Worship project admitted that they had never thought about Lutherans celebrating this feast.
There is no end to liturgists and theologians doing theology from the ivory tower. If they will dare to go outside their Chicago office to any Lutheran Mexican American parish in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod on December 12th, they will find strong attendance at worship, rivaling the turnout for Santa Lucia on December 13th in the first parish that I served, many years ago. The team of liturgical experts do not reflect the practice of our congregations, whom they assume they serve.
In this author’s view, one of the failures of our recent liturgical endeavors is that our tradition, instead of widening with time, seems to be narrowing. We are not advocating the neglect of recent developments in liturgical music. To the contrary, a tradition like ours is all for the development and growth of diverse practice. We should always include new developments in music styles and forms, but we should always keep the integrity of the themes or theology so as to assure the expression of the liturgical tradition of the catholic faith. We can observe that Rap or Hip-Hop music communicates to some members of our congregations better than chanting. The church should be all for Rap and Hip-Hop as long as this musical form reflects the theological themes that the church has always celebrated.
Have theologians such as Eric W. Gritsch (The Views of Luther and Lutheranism on the Veneration of Mary), John Frederick Johnson (Mary and the Saints in Contemporary Lutheran Worship) or Maxwell E. Johnson (The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflections of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist) labored in vain? It would seem so, if we do not consider their contribution in our theological discourse and liturgical practice. The easy way out is to say that their views on Mary the Mother of God are too Catholic for us. I believe the reformers would take issue with that, especially if the Athanasian Creed continues to be one of the three creeds that we confess as a church.
An Inclusive Doctrine of the Saints Includes Mary, the Mother of God
The confessions of the church teach that our relationship to the whole church includes not only the living but also those designated by the church as saints, apostles and confessors. Luther included all the Marian feasts as Christological feasts, giving a relationship close to the original understanding that there is not doctrine about the Mother of God without the Son. In his article about the saints, Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn develops a solid understanding not only for a beautiful hagi-ology but also opens our eyes to see a doctrine about Mary, the Mother of God. Dr. Piepkorn developed this further in his article “Mary as Typos Ecclesia.” We know that the Reformation was not about questioning the veneration of Mary but about grace and salvation. It is not without reason that Dr. Gritsch wrote that Martin Luther encouraged the reformers to continue to pray in a devotional way to Mary even at the end of his life. Some researchers in Luther’s theology suggest a deviance or a development awayfrom this practice — however through the evidence of silence this concept is hard to support, given the iconography, liturgy and Marian sermons written by the reformer. It is always the case that researchers incorporate elements of silence for the strength of an argument when their own bias goes in different direction. As Justo Gonzalez expressed: the theology of being suspicious is necessary.
I would like to suggest a bold statement: Lutheran doctrine about Jesus Christ is so strong that veneration to the Mother of God only adds to the glory and place already given to the second person of the Trinity.
Mother Basilea Schlink (sister of Edmund Schlink) is the founder of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a Lutheran monastic movement that involves both women and men. In her book Mary, Mother of God Mother Schlink states that the lack of veneration to the Virgin Mary in her own life prompted her to “call her Blessed every day” as her acknowledgment of how poor her life had been in this regard. We as a church should also acknowledge this sad reality. As we come to terms with issues such as justification by faith, issues regarding the Mother of God need to be addressed in an ecumenical and practical way.
What the Creed Says about Mary Mother of God
The Concordia Triglotta states not only the confessional tradition of the Lutheran church, but also what it is the patristic support or backing for the Christological statement. It was a smart idea to provide an appendix at the time of the apologetic controversy to substantiate the Reformers’ continuous understanding of the Catholic Faith. (c.f. Catalogue of Testimonies both of Scriptures and Orthodox Antiquity). This appendix is seldom used in any theological debate and yet it has been a point of reference as to how the reformers did theology. This short appendix reflects a desire not only to endorse the catholic teaching of the fathers of antiquity, but also the intention to do theology and understand tradition as a dialog with the past and the present. I wish to apply this methodology to my thoughts about Mary, Mother of God.
The first element comes from the creed’s phrase “was incarnated by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.” Somewhere in our understanding of this mystery of faith in our tradition we have created an emphasis on the role of God’s Holy Spirit making the incarnation happen without noticing “of the Virgin Mary.” But then I read the Latin translation in the Concordia Triglotta: in the margin was “ex Maria virginie.” This was a preposition that I knew quite well from my first class of Greek when I was sixteen years old. As a devoted student I looked for my Greek version of the creed and it was “ek” — it was not the casual “of” or “de la”, but it was “ek”. I remembered the circle with the arrow coming out of it and the explanation of this preposition. Some people would argue that this may be an attempt to create theology out of a preposition. We should notice that this preposition is in nothing less than the Creed which is the essense of the mind of the early church conveying the right understanding of the faith once delivered to the apostles. When we look closely at the Nicene Creed, we see this preposition was added. My first teacher of Greek took an apple from his lunch bag and with a knife cut a perfect triangle to the center of the apple to explain that this seed is “EK” from the apple. (a. ex Patre; b. ex Maria virgine; c. ex Patre Filioque procedit.) The first two refer to the origin of the Son of God from the Father and from the Virgin Mary; the last one is in reference to the Filioque clause which describes the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son).
We should give the credit to the Nicene fathers that they did not spend a mere week discussing and putting together this creed, but it took more than 318 bishops about two months to agree on the final product of this confession of faith, in order to settle at least ten years of debates about the Divinity and the Humanity of the Son of God. We need to consider that many times our English or Spanish translations do not make the fathers’ intentions clear. When we consider the original Greek version that most of the fathers of the church wrote in, the same preposition “ex” appears.
Mary’s acknowledgment, praise, and veneration were encouraged by the early church fathers as a way to describe how God had become flesh in Jesus Christ. Hymns, iconography, poems and legends in praise of her came from the middle east, from Syria all the way to Spain. (Saint Ephrem said, “If the womb holds back the child, then both mother and child will die; may my mouth, Lord, not hold back my faith with the result that one perish and the other be quenched, the two of them perishing, each because of the other.”)
We believe that church, the Bible and the creeds are expressions of God’s love to the world. We dare to say that the creeds are the TRIA SYMBOLA Catholic seu Oecumenica of our church. They are not an option or an opinion but the right understanding of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can we express this presence of the Virgin Mary in our contemporary contexts?
This approach to the theology of the incarnation, acknowledging the presence of Mary, is another way that our theology articulates the organic and down to earth reality, the explanation “in, with, and under,” and becomes a reality when we praise and venerate the Mother of God.