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"My soul shall exult in my God for he has clothed me garments of salvation..." (Isa 61:10)

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary?
Experiencing Marian devotion as a Protestant
By John Wilson | posted 1/29/01

During Holy Week of 1999 I was in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies. On the afternoon of Good Friday, instead of attending the scheduled business meeting, I decided to go to whatever church was nearest. That turned out to be Saint John the Evangelist, a Roman Catholic church, where I attended a performance of Franz Liszt's Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross).

Saint John the Evangelist was not stripped down, like some modern Catholic churches. There were grottoes and niches and altars all about. For some reason, I was taken back to my early childhood, to the experience of sitting in church when I didn't grasp the details of what was going on but was enveloped in mystery. It seemed that my brother was sitting next to me. I had the uncanny sense that he was seeing everything I saw.

Of course the Baptist sanctuaries where we sat as small boys didn't look anything like this, but it occurred to me then with a conviction I can't explain that we would have felt at home here. And for the first time, following the Stations of the Cross, I felt something more: a deep, piercingly sweet appreciation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, linked with the love my brother and I felt for our mother and at the same time suggesting the incomprehensible love of God for us. Before that time, I had understood Marian devotion intellectually, though like many Protestants I was mostly conscious of its excesses; I had never felt it.

I was taken back to that experience a few days ago when my wife Wendy and I were doing our reading from the Catholic prayer book, Magnificat, which we have been using for some time. Because we are not Catholic, there are times when we skip passages, as when we are directed to pray through the intercession of Saint John Neumann or Our Lady of Guadalupe. And we omit some of the Marian veneration as a matter of emphasis. But for the most part we are blessed by the daily readings, to such an extent that we have given subscriptions of Magnificat to several Protestant friends. The reality of the church is made manifest in these pages.

But in the morning reading for January 20th, Wendy and I came to a passage that stopped us in our tracks: "Mary has been made a full sharer in the resurrection of her Son. She is clothed with the beauty of his risen glory. Through her intercession as mediatrix of all graces, the church is robed in Christ through baptism." It wasn't sufficient simply to skip that passage; we had to dislodge it from our throats.

"Mediatrix of all graces"? That sounds awfully close to the "co-redemptrix" language of some Catholics, a determined group who hope to elevate Mary's status (as reported in an August 25, 1997, Newsweek cover story by Ken Woodward and, much more recently, in The New York Times). Of course, many Catholics, and not only Protestants, resist this effort.

For us this moment was an unwelcome reminder of division, but also a reminder that, if every Christian community from first-century Corinth to twenty-first-century Chicago has been flawed to a greater or lesser degree, God's loving care for his church has never abated. And so after a minute we continued the reading for that day with the next passage, from Isaiah 61: "I rejoice heartily in the Lord; in my God is the joy of my soul."