Hail, Mary

Hail, Mary
Had the Rev. Brian Maguire hit on
the idea 30 years ago, he might have
found himself facing some very annoyed congregants. Four hundred
and fifty years ago, someone professing similar notions might even have
been hanged.

The 35-year-old pastor’s brainstorm concerned a scheduling conflict
on the day of the Annunciation. The holiday, which celebrates Mary’s
learning from the angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the
Messiah, always falls on March 25, precisely nine months before
Christmas. But this year the 25th is also Good Friday, when
Christians somberly recall that same Messiah’s Crucifixion.

Roman Catholicism, which traditionally observes both
dates, has rules for this eventuality: Catholics worldwide will mark
the Annunciation on April 4 this year. But Maguire is not Catholic;
he is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio.

And in light of what he calls “a beautiful, poetic opportunity,” he
says that rather than preach on Jesus alone this Good Friday, he will
bring in Mary as well. “If you have Jesus’ entrance and exit on the
same day,” Maguire explains, “she should play a part in that—because
she was the first and last disciple to reach out during his life.”

There is an elegance to this plan; Maguire, who attended Princeton
Theological Seminary, is no theological naif. But until quite
recently, his decision to pair the gravest day on the Christian
calendar with a Marian celebration would have struck most of
his fellow Protestants as peculiar, if not doctrinally perverse. For
roughly 300 years until the 1900s, Protestants, while granting Mary
her indisputable place as the mother of Jesus, regarded any
additional enthusiasm as tantamount to “Mariolatry,” the alleged elevation of the Virgin to a status
approaching Christ’s that some understood as a cause of their initial
breaking with Catholicism. Even as open hostility largely abated in
the U.S., some taboos prevailed. Beverly Gaventa, a professor of New
Testament literature at Princeton, has portrayed Mary as the victim
of “a Protestant conspiracy of silence: theologically, liturgically
and devotionally.” Most Protestants can identify with the experience of Kathleen Norris,
an author who has written of her upbringing, “We dragged Mary out at
Christmas … and … packed her safely in the creche box for the
rest of the year. We … denied [her] place in Christian tradition
and were disdainful of the reverence displayed for her, so public and
emotional, by Catholics.”

But things have begun to change, and not just among theologians.

Xenia, Ohio, is no radical hotbed. Campaign signs there still promote
Bush, half the weekday-
morning radio dial features conservative religious fare, and most of
Westminster Presbyterian’s 300 members are middle-aged or older. Yet
with a few exceptions,
the 21 who recently gathered at the Rev. Maguire’s Bible class were
fascinated by his thoughts on Mary. “I always thought of her as the
first disciple,” said Corinne Whitesell, 74. “Rosaries and Hail
Marys, that’s not right. [But] that total submission to God is one of
the most beautiful things about her.” Said Gloria Wolff, 78: “We grew
up in a time when women couldn’t be elected as church elders. It’s
important to teach young women about the strong female role models in
the church.” Remarked John Burtch, 75: Maguire is “the new guy on the
block, and he’s got some interesting ideas. So we listen to him.

We’re open to change.”

In a shift whose ideological breadth is unusual in the fragmented
Protestant world, a long-standing wall around Mary appears to be
eroding. It is not that Protestants are converting to Catholicism’s
dramatic exaltation: the singing
of Salve Regina, the Rosary’s Marian Mysteries, the entreaty to her
in the Hail Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our
death.” Rather, a growing number of Christian thinkers who are
neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox have concluded that their various traditions
have shortchanged her in the very arena in which Protestantism most
prides itself: the careful and full reading of Scripture.

Arguments on the Virgin’s behalf have appeared in a flurry of
scholarly essays and popular articles, on the covers of the usually
conservative Christianity Today and the usually liberal Christian Century . They are being preached, if not yet in many churches
then in a denominational cross section—and not just at modest
addresses like Maguire’s in Xenia but also from mighty pulpits like
that at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, where longtime senior
pastor John Buchanan recently delivered a major message on the Virgin
ending with the words “Hail Mary … Blessed are you among us all.”

This could probably not have happened at some other time. Robert
Jenson, author of the respected text Systematic Theology, chuckles
when asked whether the pastor of his Lutheran youth would have
approved of his position that Protestants, like
Catholics, should pray for Mary’s intercession. “My pastor would have
been horrified,” he says, adding, “The pastor was my father.” Yet
today Catholics and Protestants feel freer to explore each other’s
beliefs and practices. Feminism has encouraged popular speculations
on the lives of female biblical figures and the role of the divine
feminine . A growing
interest, on both the Protestant right and left, in practices and
texts from Christianity’s first 1,500 years has led to immersion in
the habitual Marianism of the early and medieval church. And the
influx of millions of Hispanic immigrants from Catholic cultures into
American Protestantism may eventually accelerate progress toward a
pro-Marian tipping point—on whose other side may lie changes not
just in sermon topic but in liturgy, personal piety and a
re-evaluation of the actual messages of the Reformation.