What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.
This Advent season, the last words of this hymn — specifically the last lines: “Haste, haste to bring him laud, / The babe, the son of Mary” — have been making me think quite a bit about American evangelicalism’s relationship with Mary. Wikipedia, I think, puts it best: “Marian devotions are important to the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions, but most Protestants do not accept them as proper.”
Now, I can’t speak to the anti-Marian motives of other cultures’ Protestants, but I’d hazard a guess as to why American Protestants pay Mary no regard (except, it seems, when singing Christmas songs): first, our forebears had a deep mistrust of anything Catholic; second, our forebears passed on to us their traditions — including practices that had their beginning in anti-Catholicism; third, modern Americans do not typically have a deep respect for authority (if Presidential approval ratings are any indicator). In light of these three things, it might do us some good to think about who Mary was and what she experienced in conceiving and giving birth to Jesus.
First: who Mary was. Roman Catholics and Anglicans (and some Protestants) call her the Mother of God. Is it correct to call her this? Actually, yes. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, it was decided that Mary was not just the Christotokos — the Christ-bearer, the Mother of Christ — but that she was the Theotokos — the God-bearer, the Mother of God. (The Orthodox call Mary the Theotokos to this day.) So, not only is it correct to call Mary the Mother of God, to call her anything less is, quite literally, a heresy.
Second: what Mary experienced. In Luke 1:35, the angel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The image is a lot like the burning bush — God’s power was on the bush, but it was not consumed. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons of the burning bush also show Mary. So, the miracle is not simply that a virgin gave birth; the miracle is also that God’s power covered Mary completely and she was not destroyed.
So, not only is it orthodox belief to reverence Mary as the Mother of God, it’s entirely logical that she deserves our reverence. After all, if you look at other times when people come in direct contact with God’s power — Moses, the high priests, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John, for example — they were either faced with possible death (in the case of the high priests), disfigurement (Moses), had a breakdown (Isaiah), or lost consciousness (Ezekiel, Paul, and John). So, the very fact that Mary was able to withstand God’s power and give birth to God is a testament to how much grace was upon her.
Thus, in the end, how little respect we show Mary says less about how we American Protestants supposedly treat Mary properly (over against the Mary veneration of the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox) and says more about how we’re reluctant to show respect when respect is due. Showing Mary a healthy level of respect may just help us with this problem.