The Lowly Ark of God

Why the Virgin Mary is one of my favorite Protestant saints

Ben Self / 8.31.21

“[T]he power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

– Luke 1:35

I grew up among the kind of Protestants — especially in my extended family — who were (are?) rather suspicious of Catholics. I think they always wondered just how “Christian” Catholics really are, and were uneasy with many of their rituals, doctrines, and the deference to papal authority. Perhaps most unsettling for my relatives were those rituals and beliefs about the Virgin Mary.

Of course, God has a sense of humor, and I ended up marrying a Catholic, dyed-in-the-wool Protestant that I am. So far in our marriage, we have elected to alternate Sundays between Protestant and Catholic churches, which has allowed me a front row seat to observe what the good folks across the Reformational divide are up to on a fortnightly basis.

Tom Root, “Holiday (Rest On The Flight To Egypt)”

To be honest, at least in my experience, most Catholic services seem barely distinguishable from, say, an Episcopal service. But as it happens, a couple Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a Catholic church on the Feast of the Assumption, a holy day of obligation devoted to the doctrine that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

Though I find some beauty in the idea, the Assumption is definitely one of several Marian doctrines that I do not subscribe to as a Protestant. I set it alongside the notion that Mary was conceived immaculately (without the stain of Original Sin), and that she thus lived without sin through God’s grace. (For those who might like further explanation of some of these beliefs, I found the BBC’s basic overviews on Mary’s Assumption and protection against Original Sin to be helpful. It might surprise you to know, for example, that Martin Luther was apparently a “firm believer in the Immaculate Conception.”)

Given my misgivings about the above doctrines, you’d probably expect me to struggle to sit through a service like the Feast of the Assumption. But over time I’ve actually learned to enjoy — or at least profit from — the Masses that focus on Mary, mainly through a practice of listening with curiosity. Which is probably a good practice in any religious service.

For all Christians, there are beautiful insights contained in the story of Mary. Protestants tend to emphasize these insights during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but they offer relevant inspiration to us throughout the year. Despite my numerous quibbles with Marian doctrine, I’d thus go so far as to say that Mary has become one of my favorite saints.

Why? Well, if I could boil it down to one basic reason, it might be this: She is a beautiful conduit for God’s grace in the world. Perhaps I am only stating the obvious here, but while I also find evocative her portrayal in much art and devotional custom as a grieving parent (i.e., “Our Lady of Sorrows”), it is her example as the one who literally bore Christ into this world (and nursed him, nurtured him, changed his diapers, etc.) that most resonates with me. Her conduit-ness seems to be the real point of her story, much more than her purity or righteousness or even her motherliness.

Perhaps my favorite of the many Marian hymns I’ve come across is one called “Mary the Dawn,” published in 1949 by Fr. Justin Mulcahy, C.P. and set to an old Gregorian chant. For Protestants still perplexed about the Catholic focus on Mary, this language might be helpful (it was for me): 

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!

Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!

Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!

Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!

It goes on in that vein for a couple more verses, but you get the gist. To me, this song isn’t just about Mary. Instead, she works here as a symbol for humanity. Like Mary, we are the gate through which Christ often enters the world. We are the cup from which Christ is often poured out. We are the temple filled with Christ’s spirit.

Unlike much of the other Marian poetry, that language actually works for me. What’s more, I find it touches my soul with the warmth of hope — the hope of the Risen Christ. It stirs in me a kind of renewed awareness that (as in Mary) God’s Spirit is alive in me, in all of us, and that God’s love can even be born through me into this world.

In his sermon from that Assumption service a couple weeks ago, the priest similarly compared Mary to a kind of “ark” chosen to contain God’s presence in the world. It is for this reason, he explained, that “we give her praise and honor, though we don’t adore her. We give her that praise because of what she accepted — to carry the Son of God.”

But to thus praise Mary — or to praise God for what God did through her — does not necessarily mean that we ought to set her up on any kind of spiritual pedestal, any more than you would other saints. For many Catholics, I think there’s a sense that if God was going to pick someone to be the mother of Jesus, it would have to be someone pretty special, someone “worthy.” But I actually don’t think that’s what the Bible suggests. Yes, Luke writes that Mary found “favor with God,” but what’s so compelling about her to me is precisely her ordinariness. And the real lesson of her ordinariness is that God picked her anyway

Mary herself basically says in her famous “Magnificat” that God looked “with favor” upon her “lowliness” — not her moral or social high-falutin-ness. And she emphasizes not her own role but God’s: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

God picked Mary anyway. That’s the lesson for the rest of us. Lowly as we are, God calls each of us to bear Christ into this world — but the initiative and power lies with God.

Of course, the Methodist in me wonders if we still have some role to play in opening ourselves up to God’s grace, or more precisely, opening ourselves up to let God’s grace flow through us. But if there’s any agency involved in what God is trying to do to us and through us, perhaps it’s best summed up by Mary herself, who simply assented, saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Which seems like just another way of saying “Not my will but yours be done.”

Ultimately, for all the doctrinal accretion that has occurred around Mary over the centuries, I can say this without hesitation: She was indeed “full of grace” and “blessed [was] the fruit of [her] womb.” May we all be so blessed.