A Reformed pastor calls for more attention to Mary



Maarten Stolk, RD

The Christian Reformed professor Arnold Huijgen calls for more attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Photo RD, Henk Visscher

Protestants are often wary of giving Mary too much attention. But that’s not good, says Prof. Arnold Huijgen. He pleads for the celebration of the Annunciation, the announcement of the birth of the Saviour. And for the daily singing of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.

A book about Mary from a theologian from the Dutch Christian Reformed Churches (“Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken”). Prof. Huijgen does not find this so strange. According to him, Mary is undervalued in Protestant circles. The professor at the Theological University Apeldoorn, therefore, wrote a book about the mother of Jesus. The Dutch version of “Mary: Icon of Grace” is published in June.

Protestants do not value Mary enough, you think. In what way?

“She is the mother of all believers. As God calls Abraham at the beginning of the Old Testament, so Mary is at the beginning of the New Testament. She hears the Gospel of the coming of the Redeemer, an incredible story. But she believes and accepts it immediately and spontaneously. Mary shows what surrender and grace mean. She does not count at all – a young woman from the periphery. But God looks out for her. And if He looks after her, He can also look after me. Luther rightly saw here the justification of the ungodly. The Reformation paid much attention to Mary. We have lost that.”

Yet Mary is no longer mentioned in Paul’s apostolic letters. Could it be that she is overvalued?

“In Roman Catholicism sometimes, but certainly not in Protestantism. In the New Testament, there are just a few people mentioned by name as often as Mary. In Protestant circles, there is a lot of attention for Paul but hardly any for Mary. I think that is an undervaluation.

In my book, it’s not my intention that we should talk about Mary only. That would be an exaggeration. It is all about God and His grace.”

You write that Mary, traditionally portrayed with a halo (corona), has something to say to a world in a pandemic. What?

“The columnist Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is certainly not a Christian. But in March 2020, at the beginning of the major outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe, he wrote in the Dutch daily NRC how he found comfort in a bronze statue of Mary in Genoa. I find it interesting that many suffering people in this world find solace in Mary. Of course, as a Protestant, I immediately add: they should seek comfort in Christ. Yes, but this motherly figure of Mary has some beauty, just like the “Vespers for the Blessed Virgin” by Monteverdi and the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi. Protestant church buildings are bare, our music is austere, but it is precisely in this corona pandemic that beauty can help and comfort.”

Has Protestantism “disenchanted” the world?

“That is Charles Taylor’s thesis. I think he exaggerates a bit because with Calvin, the mystery is concentrated in the sacraments. But there may well be something of a mystery, something that cannot be put into words. Perhaps we have become too rational in our experience of faith.

Many Protestant church buildings are called Bethel: house of God. What does that mean to us? The corona pandemic has brought this question into focus. The faith comes by hearing. So, you can also follow a service at home behind your laptop? We all feel that this is shabby. Why then? Because we cannot sing together but is that all?

I think we have to face the fact that church buildings, as places of encounter between God and men, represent a particular form of holiness. Look at the famous Bovenkerk in the Dutch City of Kampen. It has been there since the twelfth century. There God’s praise was sung, the Word was proclaimed. And now worship services are no longer being held there. That is something terrible. It touches the soul of our people."

You are critical of Marian devotion, yet aspects of it can enrich the Protestant tradition. What do you mean?

“As a Protestant, I quickly find Marian devotion to be superstition. In image cults, you direct your devotion towards something that takes the place of God in Christ. For example, Henri Nouwen describes in his book “Mary: The Reliable Guide” the comfort he finds in the French pilgrimage site of Lourdes. Then I think: you can just go to Christ, can’t you? So, there are some very negative aspects to Marian devotion.

Mary. Photo RD, Henk Visscher

At the same time, I see that many poor people in Central America find refuge and comfort in Mary. It says something about my theological style that I don’t want to just reject that but want to listen for a moment of truth.

Devotion to Mary is a form of concreteness that is often lacking in Protestantism. You could think about a derivative, like: celebrate Holy Communion more often, leave the Communion table in the church hall, make the church a place of beauty. That is where heaven and earth meet. This can also be made visible in beautiful architecture, in music, in art. Are people distracted by this? Now children sit in church counting organ pipes.”

The Heidelberg Catechism rejected images as books of the laity.

“In the sixteenth century, that had to be said. The images were in the church so that people did not have to read the Bible, thus as competition for the proclamation of the Word. It should not be like that.

Nowadays, people can read, we have Bibles, the Word is proclaimed. If you give art a place in the church, it has a totally different function than it did in the sixteenth century. Not too excessive, of course; let’s start with the music.”

Like the daily singing of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary?

“Luther even wanted to do that twice a day. In the Reformation tradition, we sing psalms because God gives them to us in His Word. Good, but God has also given us something in the New Testament, like the hymns of Zacharias, Simeon and Mary. These are New Testament psalms about God redeeming His people and about the Kingdom of God to come.

Mary sings about this: the humble are exalted, the poor filled with goods, the rich sent away empty. This puts our Western, capitalistic life into perspective. We may be rich and well off but beware: God comes and judges. Where do you stand then?

If I make a careful estimate, the Reformed denomination is not the least materialistic population group in the Netherlands.

Does it help to sing about that? Yes, you do not only sing the words out, but you also sing them in. Then you hum them again, and so the words enter your mind.”

The use of icons can be helpful for faith, you write, especially in today’s visual culture. How does that work?

“You can use an image of Mary to consider how great God’s grace is. To catch your eye. You don’t just look at the icon; you look through it, as through a window.

In case anyone is worried: I do not have an icon. I am an impatient person, and I find it difficult to concentrate for a long time, also in prayer. But I do see that icons can help, as long as they are meant to honour God.”

Why look at an icon of Mary when you can go directly to Christ in prayer?

“We must also go directly to Christ. But if you don’t want to look at an icon, the question remains: where do we turn our eyes then? To that beautiful BMW next door?”

You call Mary an icon of grace. What do you mean by that?

“In her, you can see how great God’s grace is. Mary is not waiting for grace. She is convinced by it and says yes. This grace remains until the end.

Mary is an example of how this grace works. Also, when she allows herself to be rebuked at the wedding in Cana. She is an exemplary believer precisely because she has nothing exemplary. This sounds very paradoxical: exactly when we try to believe, we do not believe. But it is when you surrender when you are nothing, have nothing, are nothing – then it happens.

Why should I look at Mary? In Reformed churches, they often preach in an exemplary manner: Look at Abraham, look at Jacob, look at Joseph, to see how their faith functioned. So why not look at Mary? That doesn’t happen much. My fearful question is: Surely it would not be because she is a woman?”

Or because a lot has gone wrong in history around the worship of Mary.

“Also, also. There is cold fear, but you don’t find that among the reformers, remarkably enough. Let us pay attention to Mary in a good way.”

You advocate celebrating the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th. How exactly do you envision that?

“I think we can use this celebration as a place of practice. Also, for the rediscovery of beauty. In particular, I would like to make it a musical gathering, in which the Magnificat is given a place.

One objection might be: another celebration in the middle of Lent. But if you celebrate Reformation Day, then I don’t see why you should ignore the Annunciation. The Reformation is an important event in history, for which we can be grateful. But it also meant a break in Western Christendom, so it was not just good news. The Annunciation is the beginning of the New Testament. We are still living in that new dispensation, and it started then.

The commemoration of the Annunciation fits perfectly in the Passiontide, as far as I am concerned. You highlight Mary as an icon of grace, how God’s grace fell upon her. And then the attention for Mary does not have to be at the expense of that for the suffering Christ. That is never the intention."

History shows that it can also go wrong in the attention to Mary. For example, the Pope proclaimed the dogmas of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (1854) and her Assumption (1950); she is called Co-Redemptrix. Would a little more prudence not be in place?

“I find these dogmas indigestible. They are church accidents. We must keep the balance, but the point is that we as Protestants have become unbalanced too. By the way, Rome does not officially teach that Mary is Co-Redemptrix, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

In the woman in Revelation 12, you see the form of Israel, the church, and Mary. Would you call her the Queen of Heaven, as is done in the Roman Catholic tradition?

“I think that Revelation 12 is also about Mary. She connects Israel and the church. The fact that we have forgotten Mary went hand in hand with forgetting Israel. We have found that to be an unforgivable error since the Second World War.

I would not call Mary the Queen of Heaven. I use that word mainly to explore the state of the soul of Europe. What is Europe, and where is it going? Then I find it fascinating to see how the designer of the European flag used Mary’s crown of stars as a model.”

And Mother of God?

“It surprised me that even an orthodox-Reformed theologian like Turrettinus uses this title. So, it is possible. It is “Theotokos”, the one who gave birth to Him who is called God. That is a title accepted by the early councils, the Reformers, and the Reformed churches. But it is quite a mouthful, so, understandably, people started using “mater Dei”, mother of God, in Latin. Although, of course, this does not mean that Mary is the mother of God in a literal sense as if God had a mother.”

Prof. Arnold Huijgen. Photo RD, Anton Dommerholt

How can Protestants properly value Mary?

“Adoration can be an acceptable term for Protestants, as long if it means recognising God’s work in Mary and gratefully appreciating it as encouragement and prompting. The terms “esteem” and “honour” are even better than the term “adore” as far as I am concerned.

“All generations will bless me”, Mary said. This means that we recognise that God has done something extraordinary and unique in her life and has a unique place in the Christian Church. Just acknowledging that this Jewish girl has that place helps us not forget Israel and forget the female voice. And that has often happened.

For me, the best expression of that reverence, honour or esteem, remains the musical form: the singing of the Magnificat. I can understand that people raise their eyebrows, but the question is always: what is the alternative? Using an icon of Mary may seem strange. But consistory rooms in churches are also often filled with photographs of ministers who have served that congregation. Such images refer to history. Those who consider how much grace Mary received show more than respect.”

“Maria: Icoon van genade”, written by Arnold Huijgen. KokBoekencentrum Publishers. 384 pages. Price € 27,99 (only available in Dutch)

This article was published previously in the Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad on June 24th, 2021



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