Christmas is a great time of year for ministering the gospel of Jesus Christ. People in general have “Christ” in their frame of reference. Many are more willing to attend a church service, and therefore be exposed to the gospel. The Charlie Brown Christmas special alone has broadcast the gospel message to millions over the years.
Alas, Christmas also brings certain challenges, one of which is the worship of Mary. Adherents of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity insist they do not worship Mary or other saints. In my opinion, to pray to a being is to attribute to that individual a privilege that God alone deserves. However saint worship is justified, the sad truth is practically millions of people seek help from Mary and other “saints” before and more often than they seek help from God.
The worship of saints, including Mary, is entirely absent from the Bible. Mary herself knew that she was priveleged to give birth to the Messiah only by God’s grace. She responded to that blessing with worship of God, not exaltation of herself (note Luke 1:46-55). Then where does the worship of Mary come from? As with many heresies, prayer to and worship of Mary developed over time. Here’s a brief rundown:
In the second century AD, sometime around AD 150, the non-inspired Gospel of James was written. This is the first place where the idea of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” is found in a written source. This concept grew out of a negative view of sex and an exaltation of celibacy. In the Bible Jesus has brothers and sisters (cf. Mark 6:3), which clearly refutes the idea that Mary was perpetually a virgin.
Mother of God
The exaltation of Mary continued as an unintended consequence of debates over Christology in the fifth century AD. Nestorius, a church leader of that time from Constantinople, held that Jesus had two separate natures. He taught that Jesus was human given his human mother Mary, and only later in his life became the Messiah, Logos, and divine. In part of this discussion, Nestorius posited that Mary should not be referred to as the “God-bearer” (θεὸτοκος), but rather as the “Christ-bearer” (Χριστοτοκος). The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 was the first attempt by Christians to address this teaching. Very long story short, Nestorius’ view was rightly rejected, and Mary continued to be called the “God-bearer.” This label for Mary snowballed later into “mother of God,” which is theologically inaccurate and gives Mary undue prominence.
Mary Worship in Ephesus
Not long after the Council of Ephesus, the tradition regarding the Assumption of Mary emerged in Ephesus. The Assumption of Mary is the belief that Mary never died a physical death, but was assumed into heaven directly. This is not found anywhere in the Bible. Ephesus had been a center of the worship of the goddess Artemis since 550 BC. Since the town was used to a female deity, it is not surprising that after embracing Christianity, Ephesus latched onto an exalted Mary. Ephesus even had its own “church of Mary.”
Later, in AD 787, the Council of Nicea II attributed to Mary hyperdulia. Dulia means veneration, or homage. Hyperdulia means the highest form of veneration given to created beings. Thus, according to this church council, Mary is worth more veneration than any other human being. Significantly, regular saints were accorded only dulia (where does that leave the rest of us?). To be fair, those at the Council of Nicea II were trying to make a distinction between worship of God (latria), and veneration of saints via images (dulia). They thought they made a clear distinction, but in practice there’s not much difference today between worship of God and veneration of saints.
The Immaculate Conception
One thousand years later, Pope Pius IX declared the immaculate conception as Roman Catholic dogma. The core concept of the doctrine of “immaculate conception” is that Mary was free from original sin from her conception. This has no basis in the Bible. It became a popularly held Roman Catholic teaching, and was made official Roman Catholic teaching in AD 1854.
The Assumption of Mary
In AD 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary as official Roman Catholic doctrine. While it had been popularly believed since the fifth century AD (see above), it was never formalized as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until 1950. Some Roman Catholics hold to the Eastern Orthodox version of this teaching, which holds that Mary died, was raised from the dead and then assumed into heaven. Others simply hold that she never died and was assumed into heaven. Neither version is found in the Bible.
Queen of Heaven, Co-Redemptrix, and Mediatrix
Several other Roman Catholic traditions about Mary developed over time. Some believed Mary to be the “Queen of Heaven” who reigns in part over the world. Others, again building on traditional beliefs dating to the middle ages, believe that Mary gave consent for Jesus to live and die as the Redeemer of mankind. As such, she is referred to by some as the “co-redemptrix.” Another popular belief is that Mary argues on behalf of sinners to God. In this role she is referred to as the “Mediatrix.” None of these teachings are found in the Bible. Many were discussed at the Roman Catholic church council called the Vatican II, but they have not yet been dogmatized, though several popes refer to Mary as Jesus’ associate in redemption.
The key observation in this brief historical survey is this: none of the traditions that exalt Mary are based in God’s Word. Mary is blessed, because she was chosen to give birth to the Messiah. She considered herself to be God’s humble servant, and recognized that she needed God’s mercy. She worshipped God, and did not exalt herself. She is never stated as having any role in the salvation of sinners. She is presented as a model of faith, not as a super-human to be prayed to and worshipped.
Don’t pray to or worship Mary; she wouldn’t want you to. In fact, she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:46-48). We would do well to follow her example.