Luke 1:38 “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Another title of Mary’s, founded in the Word of God, is “Handmaid of the Lord”. It’s a title that isn’t heard as often as the others I have mentioned in previous articles but it is one that has been used and (dare I say) abused throughout history. Throughout the dark times of the medieval church the idea that Mary was the person who had carried Christ, and spent more time with Him than anyone else meant one thing... that she was the next best thing to God Himself. By using the reasoning of Saint Anselm that “one should ascribe to Mary so much purity that more than that one cannot possibly imagine except for God” many people fell into the trap of elevating Mary more and more until she had assumed a grossly inflated significance. So grossly inflated was she that Mary, a side character in the Gospel, became Mary the “Queen of Mercy”, while Christ was left as King of truth and justice, the judge of the living and the dead.
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Those of us who call ourselves “Reformed” or “Evangelical” are wise to listen to both the critiques of Marian extremes put forth during the Reformation and also the Reformer’s praise of Mary, the handmaiden of the Lord. It is true that Luther, Zwingli, especially Calvin, and all the other Reformers strongly protested against the "abominable idolatry" of medieval Marianism.
It sounds pretty blunt... “abominable idolatry”... and it is a damning phrase to use, yet it isn’t too strong when we think of some of the ideas and views about Mary that were common place during their time.
Take the co-redemptorix idea I mentioned above, where Mary was often portrayed as placating her stern son with milk from her breasts, not only did this idea lead to a craze amongst churches, cities and citizens to have vials of “Mary’s milk” as relics, in order to protect themselves from her angry Son’s judgement but the view of Mary as Mediatrix left many viewing her as the only way to get good with Christ, she became their only hope because only she was the “mediator with the Mediator”. It didn’t end there either, the view of Mary as Mediatrix led to a worship of Mary akin to something of the Pagan Mother Gods, with some even translating the Scriptures to fit a Maria-centric view:
1 Corinthians 15:22 "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive."became, "as in Eve all die, so also in Mary shall all be made alive."
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” became, "Mary so loved the world, that she gave her only-begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
And, the Lord's Prayer began: "Our Mother who art in heaven, give us our daily bread."
This kind of exaggerated devotion – which continues to this day (amongst the extreme fringes), was rightly denounced by the Reformers, who correctly said that it doesn’t praise the Virgin Mary but in fact robs her of her true place and debases her by making her into nothing more than an idol. Nowhere is the Reformed view of Marian excesses more clearly put than in Melanchthon's "Apology of the Augsburg Confession":
“Some of us have seen a doctor of theology dying, for consoling whom a certain theologian, a monk, was employed. He pressed on the dying man nothing but this prayer: Mother of grace, protect us from the enemy; receive us in the hour of death. Granting that the blessed Mary prays for the Church, does she receive souls in death, does she conquer death [the great power of Satan], does she quicken? What does Christ do if the blessed Mary does these things? ...But the subject itself declares that in public opinion the blessed Virgin has succeeded altogether to the place of Christ. Men have invoked her, have trusted in her mercy, through her have desired to appease Christ, as though He were not a Propitiator, but, only a dreadful judge and avenger.”
She had become in the eyes of the faithful, as Hugh Latimer lamented, “a Saviouress”.
Yet the Reformers were not only critical of the veneration of Mary, no they also expressed a positive devotion to Mary. Both Zwingli and Bullinger defended the well known prayer of Marian devotion, the “Ave Maria” or “Hail Mary”. Though for them it was not a prayer to Mary but an expression of praise in her honour. (Though I should point out that in their time the Ave Maria did not include the phrase "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." found repugnant by the Reformers). Even Calvin referred to Mary as "the treasurer of grace", because he felt that it was through Mary that we have received the precious gift of Grace from God.
In 1521, the other great reformer Martin Luther, while in hiding, prepared to print his commentary on the Magnificat. For him, Mary was, and indeed is, the embodiment of God's unmerited grace, to be magnified above all creatures, yet Luther noticed quite quickly that it is her humility, and lowliness that shine through as her defining features, they are what set her apart.
You see Mary is entitled “blessed” not because of her virginity, heck it’s not even because of her humility or lowliness, but simply because she was chosen as “the person and place where God's glory would enter most deeply into the story of humanity”. In Luther’s commentary we see that in his mind, were he to ask her what her place in the Kingdom of God is, she would reply "I am only the workshop in which God operates".
Yet Mary was also praised by Luther for another reason, which is of particular importance to us on the Reformed side of the fence. I'm not even going to pretend I knew this but after reading about it on a Lutheran forum I must admit I have come to the same conclusion, that Mary is the personification of sola fide because upon hearing the Word of God (literally) she responds in faith and is justified. She was faithful before she became a Mother because if she hadn’t believed, she could never have conceived Christ, and of course she could never have had faith but God must have given her grace. Thus we see that it is because of God’s grace towards her and her faith in Him that she was both made “blessed” and pregnant with Jesus. It is this unique combination of grace and faith that (to Luther) made Mary the poster girl of sola fide and sola gratia, because only she truly embodied the two, and it is in her role as the embodiment of a perfect combination of grace and faith that we too can respect and laud Mary!