Having been brought up in a Baptist church, living and working in Poland has exposed me to some very unusual theology concerning the person and place of Mary in the church. In Poland, Mary is commonly referred to as the mother of God and is revered in churches in pictures, statues and paintings and is also given the title of Queen of Poland in songs and speech. Thousands of Polish and foreign Catholics go on pilgrimages to sights in Poland that boast, for example, special pictures of Mary with the promise that miracles happen for the faithful who go there and expose themselves to God and her blessed influence.
Catholic belief and practice here, is often sincere and fervent. Church going is pervasive. So on the positive side, much of Catholic theology is orthodox in the protestant sense of the word, for example, in the catholic church Jesus is God and this aspect of the gospel remains true to scripture. Also Catholics reject more liberal interpretations of the bible on issues such as creation, abortion, and divorce.
Nevertheless, my credibility and sense of what is right and wrong are stretched by the general view of Polish Catholics on Mary, as well as the Catholic practice of using art and icons extensively and in non protestant ways, in Catholic places of worship.
This article is an attempt to set out simply and systematically my own (protestant) beliefs and thinking about the role of Mary in the church and the place of art and icons in worship.
The Titles of Jesus
Son of God and Son of Man
Jesus of course knew who his father was (not Joseph) and that he was the son of God. He knew that though he was a man, he was also God. Jesus knew that God was his Father in Heaven and that the Holy Spirit was the second person in the trinity. It seems clear then that to avoid confusion and to differentiate himself from His Father in Heaven and from The Holy Spirit, Jesus called himself, "The Son of man". (man here in the generic sense, as actually he is really God and the son of a woman.)
Counter intuitively, scripture often refers to Jesus as being a direct descendant of Abraham and of David, King of Israel, scripture and the Lord Jesus never refer to the Christ as the son of Mary. Scripture then is in opposition to the Polish Catholic practice of referring to Mary as, "Matko Bosko" or Mother of God. Mary can only be recognized as the mother of the man Christ Jesus, who often referred to himself as The Son of man.
Thus, while on earth, Jesus identified with humanity by calling himself the son of man. He also clearly communicated that he is God. He said, "I and The Father are One" and, "I Am God's Son". Not only did Jesus often make verbal claims to be God, he also backed up his verbal claims by his deeds. For example, he forgave sins; he healed the sick; he fed hungry crowds of people using only a few loaves of bread and fish. Jesus also gave sight to the blind. Not only did he do miracles in his lifetime on earth but after a Roman crucifixion he rose from the grave alive, and death had no hold on him!
All of these miracles he did , not only to offer immediate relief to individuals in dire need of help, but also to offer a tangible representation of who God is and what God is able to do for fallen mankind to relieve both spiritual darkness as well as the physical results and manifestations of the original sin of Adam and Eve and of each human individual! Appropriately, Jesus simply and powerfully offered eternal life and freedom from condemnation to those who accept his words and believe in Him.
Both the words and deeds of the Son of man declare him to be the long awaited Jewish messiah and Savior who, according to ancient prophesy, is to reign forever on the throne of King David.
Jesus claimed not only to be the son of man as a result of being born to a woman married to a man born in the line of David, but he also claimed to be the biological Son of God and contained in his humanity the very essence of God. While ministering on earth, Jesus justly, clearly and unmistakably declared himself to be God, The Son of The Father in Heaven.
Why not The Son of Woman?
Significantly, in scripture he never called his mother, "mommy", just, "dear woman". Jesus certainly inherited features of Mary's humanity and genetic code. But Mary's importance is limited to this fact that she is an ordinary person, fully human, the wife of Joseph and the mother of several of their children, both sons and daughters.
Perhaps it is because of Mary's completely human qualities, that Jesus, four times in scripture, clearly limits Mary's authority over him.
Twelve Years Old in the Temple
The first example of Jesus limiting Mary's authority over him occurs when Jesus is just a boy of twelve.
The story is told in Scripture of how Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem at the temple, asking questions and listening to the teachers there. His parents travel on for three days without him. They think he is somewhere in their group with them, but with family or friends. When they discover he is nowhere in their party, they hastily return to Jerusalem to find him. When they find Jesus again, in response to their questions as to why he had stayed behind he answers, "Didn't you know I was in my Father's house?"
Jesus shows in this incident that he believed it to be his duty to be learning more about his Heavenly Father under the authority of the temple priests rather than to simply enjoy being in the presence of and under the authority of his mother and her husband.
The Wedding Feast
Early in Jesus' ministry Jesus limits Mary's influence on him at a wedding feast. She asks him to do the wedding couple a favor so that they would not be embarrassed that they had run out of wine. Jesus responds to her request like this, "Dear woman," he says, "why do you involve me? My time has not yet come."
Although he later turns the water into wine, it is as a demonstration of his divine power and grace, not just because his mother asked him. His response to her shows that he considers her only to be the object of his sonly affection and that she does not have the authority to involve him in anything unless he chooses to be so involved. Also he refrains from placing himself under her authority in her role as his mother. In his speech he does not recognize her role as his mother as having any baring whatsoever on his ministry. To him, in his capacity as God and the son of man she is only, "dear woman." With reference to his divinity, she is no more or less than this, though she is his mother.
My Brother, Sister and Mother
Next, when his mother and brothers come looking for him to take him home because they thought perhaps he had gone mad, he says, "Whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother." Notice the order in which he says this; first brother, then sister and then mother. He puts her, his parent in the last place!
Behold Your Son
A final example of Jesus limiting Mary's significance in her role as his parent happened as Jesus was dying on the cross. At this point in time Jesus actually passes her role as mother and his role as her son to someone else. Jesus had a disciple called John and he said to this disciple as he hung on the cross, "look, there is your mother," and to Mary he said, "look there is your son." From that day on the disciple took Mary into his own home and looked after her. This was a duty that Jesus may have been expected to carry out for his mother in her old age, as the eldest of her sons.
Mary's True Status and Significance in the Church
So why does Jesus not refer to Himself as the Son of a woman? Because Mary's role in God's master plan for the salvation of the lost, is simply and significantly, her very ordinary human status.
Jesus - Born in the Line of David, Both The Root and the Offspring of David - Not Mary
Mary, as the mother of Jesus, is married to Joseph. So, in the biblical social order, people recognized Jesus as the son of Joseph and as a direct descendant of Adam, Abraham and King David.
Thousands of years previously, God had made promises to Adam, Abraham and David about their descendant(seed). The Bible calls Jesus both the Root and the Offspring of David. This is true since God gave life to David, and David's descendant Joseph is reckoned, in fulfillment of prophesy to have given life to Jesus, though actually his humanity is his through his mother. (One could argue that if Mary was a cousin of Joseph, she too would have been in the line of David. However, scripture does not record the genealogy of women and we can only speculate.)
The promise of God to David was that his offspring would be King on his throne forever. God promised Adam that his descendant would finally crush the serpent's head. Scripture, therefore, focuses not on Mary but on Joseph in his role as the male (step)parent and on Jesus and his role in the redemption of mankind. So, Mary is just a small link in the chain of people and events that set the scene for God, the Great Creator and Sustainer of the universe, to enter the stage of human history. This happened in fulfillment of the promises God had made to Abraham, Adam and David through the prophets so long ago.
Angels are Amazed at What God Did Through Mary
The fact is that what God did through Mary is amazing. To think that God could be conceived in, be given birth to, and cared for by a woman, is an awesome concept.
The fact that God could become an ordinary man as though he were not God and yet remain God as though He were not a man is astonishing. Scripture says that even angels long to look into and understand the unimaginable nature of this subject: infinite God limiting himself to a mortal, human frame and family with the many limitations that go with this!
Of course, Mary is highly favored to have been given this privilege of virgin conception. Scripture explains that after it was announced to her that this miracle would happen, the bible tells us that God the Holy Spirit over-shadowed her: that is, the power of God influenced her in such a way that she became pregnant miraculously, without any contact with a man, but by the power of the Holy Spirit's influence, so God became flesh, through the seed of Adam, that is, the body of Mary. This moment of conception probably happened to her while she was completely unconscious of the working of God's Spirit, and as she went about her daily duties. Miraculously, as the shadow of God's Spirit fell on her, she conceived. Even though she was still a virgin and 'untouched' by any man.
Wonderful as this event is, her role thereafter was to be no more and no less than that of the human parent of The Savior, the Son of God.
To sum up then, it is right and appropriate that, having been reconciled to God in Christ Jesus, people should worship God. We are, however, warned in scripture not to bow down and worship the sun and stars or any other element in nature. We are to worship God alone. We are also commanded not to worship and bow down to any image representing any part of nature or a being on earth or in heaven.
Our role as believers is to obey the commands of scripture. At the same time we do not confine ourselves to a dark room, refusing to look at the sun or moon in case we worship them. Also, though the bible calls us not to be drunk on wine, we don't forbid that wine be manufactured. Though art includes the making of many different kinds of images representing much in earth and heaven, we do not forbid art. Even if in India, in the Hindu religion, real men and women bow down and worship in front of strange idols representing strange gods, we cannot forbid that non-Christians do that in their religion.
As for ourselves, God promised to give us his Holy Spirit to remind us of His commands and to empower us to keep them. Thus, each person must keep a check on himself, that in his own heart he is not offending God's Spirit in what he does with the images that religious art devises, or that nature itself consists of (or may be reduced to, for example, through photography).
As far as both protestant and non-protestant denominations of believers are concerned, men and women who claim to be devoted to Jesus Christ and to be servants of the son of man; in scripture are warned not to judge the servants of God because God is able to "make them stand"; despite our doubts as to their spirituality and standing before God, and in spite of our perception of their behavior in debatable areas of Christian life and practice.
Disputable areas in which we are instructed not to stand in judgment over our brothers and sisters may include christian practices which do not touch faith in the divinity and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, areas such as forms of worship (hymns or choruses) and meeting hall decor preferences. Other problem and much debated areas are, the attention given to 'minor' details like diet, baptisms, which days of the week to use for worship and perhaps in the appreciation and use of art and icons in the church - or even as to what role and place is given to Mary in the church.
Despite these differences in the expression of love for our savior, God is able to make his servants in other denominations of his church stand in the power of the Holy Spirit, washed and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, just as He is able to make us in our own denomination stand firm in faith and in his Spirit and truth.
If we judge other believers according to the law as we interpret it, then, according to scripture we take on a role that belongs to our Savior and we overstep our authority. Instead we are called to allow people the freedom to follow their own conscience (in the light of scripture and subject as individuals to the Holy Spirit's guidance).
We are called to allow others freedom in their worship of God, without writing them off, even if they choose to separate themselves from us or other believers by the methods and habits of worship they may choose! On occasion, or in special circumstances, we are especially able to fellowship with such believers if their personal character tends to conform to biblical character requirements for believers and their lives produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the greatest touchstone for fellowship among Christians of various denominations is a common sense of gratitude and love for our saviour and for his people, both those within the church and those still on the outside.