Why the Paraments Are White Today
Extremes are to be avoided when discussing Mary, mother of Jesus. On the one side are the Catholics who focus on Mary; on the other side are the Protestants who ignore her. In the middle are the Lutherans. We celebrate August 15 as the day Mary died along with the early church which has done so since the 5th century. We don't, however, believe her body and soul were assumed into heaven like Enoch's. This first showed up in the 7th century. In 1950 Pope Pius XII made it an article of faith.
So Lutherans remember Mary on August 15 unlike the majority of Protestants, but we regard this as the day of her death unlike the Catholics who regard it as the day her body was assumed into heaven. However, notice the altar colors. On other days that we remember a Biblical saint the paraments are red. Today they're white. White is the color used for festivals of the Godhead, not of saints. So why is are they white not red today? That's the point of this sermon.
Lutherans believe that Mary is no different than us. She was born like an ordinary human being from ordinary parents. She lived the ordinary life of an ordinary first century Jewish woman. She died and was buried like any other mortal. Her body returned to dust just like ours will, and her soul is in heaven with all the saints singing the praises of her Lord, Jesus.
The Catholic church believes Mary is different than us. Here's what the last Catholic church council, Vatican II (1963-1965), said. Mary's bodily substance is different from ours. She was "fashioned by the Holy Spirit into a kind of new substance and new creature (Documents of Vatican II, 88)" She was free from original sin and "impeded by no sin," so she helped save mankind (Ibid.). Mary was "used by God not merely in a passive way, but as cooperating in the work of human salvation, through free faith and obedience" (Ibid.). She "was united with Him [Jesus] in suffering as He died on the cross (Ibid., 91)." In heaven, Vatican II goes on to say, Mary continues her saving work. "For taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving role, but by her manifold acts of intercession continues to win for us gifts of eternal salvation" (Ibid., 91).
To Catholics Mary is better than us and closer to Jesus, so they pray to her. A popular Catholic prayer to her begins, "O Mary! My Queen! Good Mother as I am your own, keep me, guard me, as your property and possession." Pope John Paul II was big on praying to Mary. He credited his recovery from a gunshot wound to Mary. The year after he was shot he visited Fatima to express his thanks to Mary for protecting his life. In 1990, he dedicated the earth to Mary (http://campus. udayton.edu/mary/prayers/concecrationofchurch.htm). Devotion to the saints in general and Mary in particular is ranked with devotion to Christ by Vatican II. It said "that those decrees issued in earlier times regarding the veneration of images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints, be religiously observed" (Ibid., 95).
Not only does the Catholic church teach that Mary is to be prayed to, it believes Mary helps save them. St. Bernard in the 12th century had a vision. He saw 2 ladders to heaven. One ladder had Christ at the top; the other had Mary. Those on Christ's ladder were constantly falling off. Those on Mary's ladder always succeeded in getting to heaven because Mary put out her hand to help them (The Papal System, 321-322).
In Catholicism Mary is different than the rest of us. This view lacks Scriptural support; it also lacks support from the early church. The literature for the first 50 years after the apostles is almost silent regarding Mary. The source for almost everything the Catholic church believes about Mary comes from writings in the early church that are considered false or inaccurate.
The Catholic church tries to offer Scriptural support for their views. They use Luke 1:28, which their Latin translates as "Hail Mary full of grace." They reason that since Mary is full of grace she must be valuable to sinners since sinners need grace. But this argument is based on a wrong translation. It doesn't say Mary is full of grace but "Hail you who have received grace." It's passive. Mary received grace from God. He graciously chose her to be the mother of the Lord Jesus.
The Catholic church has supported their view that Mary is Co-Redemptrix (their term.) by Genesis 3:15. Their Latin Vulgate has the Lord say to the devil, "She shall bruise your head." The pronoun "she," say the Catholics, is a reference to Mary, but the Hebrew and the Greek have the pronoun "he" not "she." The One who will bruise Satan's head is Jesus not Mary.
Scripture doesn't support the Catholic view that Mary is different than us. It supports the view that she, like us, is a sinner. At the wedding of Cana, when the wine ran out, Mary goes to Jesus expecting Him to do something. Jesus replies, "Will you leave that to Me woman? It isn't the right time." Mary didn't know where and when was the right time for Jesus to act. Her first prayer of intercession for sinners went nowhere.
Scripture doesn't support the view that Jesus thinks more of Mary than He does us, but it does support the view that we mean as much to Jesus and are as blessed as much by Jesus as His own mother. In Mark 3 when Jesus is told that His mother and brothers wanted to see Him, Jesus doesn't go. Instead He said that "whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother." Mary, the mother of Jesus, means no more or less to Him than you, an ordinary disciple, do. In Luke 11 when a woman says, "Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts that nursed you." Jesus replies that the real blessed ones are those who hear God's Words and observe them. What you're doing right now is more blessed than giving birth to Jesus.
The Catholic church is wrong. Mary is no different than us. She was born sinful, lived an ordinary life, and was saved only by God's grace in Christ. But some Protestants are wrong as well. Mary is incredibly different than us. How can that be? What makes Mary different is not who she is but Whom she conceived and gave birth to. Mary is the mother of God. The Christian confession of faith since the 5th century is not only that Mary is the mother of Jesus, not only is she the mother of our Lord, but she is the mother of God. Some wanted to call Mary Christ-bearer not God-bearer. But in order to emphasize that God became man, took on flesh and blood in the virgin's womb, Mary was called God-bearer or mother of God. Our Lutheran Confessions agree saying, "She also is rightly called and truly is the mother of God" (FC, EP, VIII, 12).
Mary is different than us because God chose to take on flesh and blood through her body. God set aside her womb for the holy use of becoming Man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us by means of the Virgin Mary. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in the body conceived in Mary's womb. Mary is special in the same way a church or communion vessels are special. They are special because they are the location of God's holy works. However, while there are many churches where God's Word is proclaimed, there's only one womb where God took on flesh. While there are many altars where Christ's body and blood are distributed, there's only one woman in whom the body and blood of God the Son grew.
Mary is special. You can't deny she had a special relationship with Jesus. Jesus shed His blood for the sins of the world, but Mary is a blood relative. While we agonize with Jesus on Good Friday as He sheds His blood to cover every one of our sins, we were not there, nor is our Lord also our son. Only of Mary is it said that a large, double-edged sword would pierce her soul as her Son suffered. And while we raise our children to follow Jesus, Mary raised Jesus. For 30 years, He was under her roof. It is difficult for us sinners to raise sinful kids. Think how difficult it was for a sinner to raise an absolutely perfect Son. How many times did Mary falsely accuse Jesus like she did when He was 12 and remained in the temple?
Mary is the Mother of God; Mary had a unique relationship with the Son of God. But this testifies to God's grace and power, not Mary's. God's grace is seen in that He chose to be born of an ordinary woman just like us. He came into this world by means of a woman's womb just like us. The holy, sinless Son of God has a bellybutton just like us. Rather than come to earth like He did in the Old Testament as an angel or as a full grown man, God became a zygote, an embryo, a fetus, an infant, a toddler, a teenager. God graciously took on our flesh and blood from its earliest beginnings, so that we might know without a doubt that He has redeemed us flesh and blood humans in all the stages of our development.
We celebrate today as St. Mary, Mother of God to remember God's grace and power. What power must our God have if He can become a holy Man through the womb of a sinful woman? What could be too wonderful for Him to do if He can do this wonder? If He can incarnate Himself in flesh and blood then it's a small thing for Him to give us His flesh and blood in Bread and Wine. What could be impossible with God if He can make it possible for a virgin to give birth? If He can make a sinful virgin give birth to a sinless Man, how much easier it is to give a holy rebirth to a sinful person in Baptism?
The paraments are white today because today isn't about Mary but about what God did through Mary. The Holy Spirit came upon her; the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and God the Son was born of her. We honor her today by remembering what she herself said. We call her blessed, not because she can do great things for us or because her name is holy, but because the Lord has done great things for her because He is Mighty and Holy is His name. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Mary Mother of God Sunday (20100815); Luke 1: 48b-49 f