Time was, for Protestants, that the Virgin Mary was a once-a-year thing. "We dragged Mary out at Christmas along with the angels and placed her at center stage," says religious essayist Kathleen Norris. "Then we packed her safely in the crèche box for the rest of the year." That attitude, Norris and other Protestants say, has long denied the mother of Jesus her rightful place in Christian tradition.
Today, more and more Protestants are welcoming Mary back into their spiritual lives. Several new books by Protestant authors have spurred new interest in the Virgin Mother. And a joint Anglican-Catholic commission recently announced a landmark accord on Mary that could help bridge the gap between the two denominations. Mary's story, says Beverly Gaventa, a New Testament scholar at Princeton University and the coeditor of the book Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, "is a wonderful example of divine grace that Protestants have neglected. It was seen as Catholic territory, but now the lines between denominations are dropping."
Like many Protestants, Norris says she learned next to nothing about Mary from her Methodist and Congregational upbringing, but after spending time in Benedictine monasteries she grew to identify with her. "Like Mary, I am invited each day to bring Christ into the world in my prayers, thoughts, and actions," she says.
At the same time, however, the Mary revival troubles some evangelical Christians, who claim that Mary devotion detracts from a more proper focus on Christ. "Those who argue that Mary offers us a more compassionate understanding of God than is revealed in Jesus Christ alone insult both the person and work of Christ and accept the worst excesses of Catholic piety," declares R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
La Virgen. Enrique Gonzalez, pastor of El Mesias United Methodist Church in Elgin, Ill., worries that Marian worship has supplanted devotion to Jesus in his native Mexico. "That is the main reason the Protestant church is so liberating to former Catholics—the gospel of Jesus Christ brings freedom from the mistaken idea that we can come to God only through ' la Virgen, ' " he told Christian Century magazine.
Gonzalez echoes one of Martin Luther's key justifications for launching the Protestant Reformation. It is true that Luther considered Mary a paragon of faithfulness, who showed the importance of belief, instead of good works and donations, to achieving salvation. But he deplored her exploitation by churchmen selling indulgences who promised entry to heaven in her name. Said Luther's colleague Philip Melanchthon: Christ is "the only high priest, advocate, and intercessor before God. He alone has promised to hear our prayers."
Princeton theologian Robert Jenson, coeditor of the book Mary: Mother of God, says that the doctrinaire Lutheran pastor of his boyhood—who also happened to be his father—would have been appalled by his recommendation to pray to Mary. But for Jenson, appealing to Mary is not an insult to Jesus or God; it is much the same as prayerfully invoking the name of a deceased friend or relative.
Like Jenson, Gaventa views Mary as "the first disciple," someone who does not simply submit to God's will but who actively chooses to follow him. Other non-Catholics, like Shannon Kubiak, the author of God Called a Girl, find comfort in Mary's vulnerability. "She was a nobody from the middle of nowhere...and God chose to use her for the most incredible task of a lifetime," marvels Kubiak.
The Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States, has long revered Mary, dedicating chapels to her, honoring her with holy days, and giving her a place in the liturgy. In its recent accord, "Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ," the special Anglican-Catholic commission affirmed that followers of both religions could pray to Mary and that Catholic teachings on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were consistent with Anglican interpretations of the Bible.
Supporting role. Few other Protestant denominations are ready to adopt these doctrines. For them, Mary will continue to play a supporting role. She serves as "a powerful reminder that Jesus was truly and fully human," says Mark Roberts, senior pastor at Irvine (Calif.) Presbyterian Church.
Roberts says that Protestants have long appreciated Mary, but he credits Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ for taking that admiration to a new level, driving home Mary's motherly anguish and inspiring intense sympathy. "Nothing in church history has had a more significant impact on Protestant feeling for Mary than The Passion of the Christ," he asserts. "When we see the death of Jesus through the eyes of Mary, we feel the pain and horror of his suffering in a whole new way."
That doesn't mean that Protestants will be changing their theology or worship, says Roberts. But it does suggest that "the dividing wall of hostility between Catholics and Protestants has come down a bit."