Marian Reflections VIII: The Veneration of Mary (Part 1)

Marian Reflections VIII: The Veneration of Mary (Part 1) June 25, 2016

 Isaiah worshipping the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, Early 13th century.  Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: "Die Ikone"See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Isaiah worshipping the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus, Early 13th century. Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: “Die Ikone”  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps for those who have divided themselves from traditional Christianity one of the hardest and most difficult elements of that tradition for them to understand and accept is the veneration of Mary and the saints. Not only does it seem to them to be excessive but they believe it is idolatry. They suggest that the first of the Ten Commandments expressly forbids the “cult of the saints” with its use of images:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;  you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments  (Ex. 20 :2-6 RSV).

We know that at the heart of the Ten Commandments are commands which expressly put God above all things so that we find our love is centered upon him. What is being indicated by the Ten Commandments must have some value to us as Christians because, as we find in the New Testament, Jesus did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (cf. Matt. 5:17). We must be able to understand the Ten Commandments in a way that their meaning remains with us, even if they are transformed by Jesus in and through his fulfillment of the law.

In this way, though critics of the Christian tradition are correct in pointing to the Ten Commandments and what they have to say,  if there is confusion as to how they are to be followed, that confusion has to be answered. The Ten Commandments should be interpreted in light of the ministry of Jesus Christ. And this means, we must see how Jesus looked at the law.  It’s foundation, he said, is with the two-fold love of God and neighbor:

 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:37-40 RSV).

The law states that we are to love God with all our heart, with a pure and absolute devotion, where nothing and no one comes in the way of our devotion to God. Jesus made this clear when he preached about the demands he placed on those who would follow him: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37 RSV). God is to be the center of our love, and all that we do while acting out on that love  should be related to and participate in and be founded by our love for God. This is exactly what we see God proclaim in the Ten Commandments, and it is a point Jesus affirmed several times in his earthly ministry. We are to have no other gods, nothing else which is treated as an absolute, as an end apart from God. If we did, then it would find its place in our hearts instead of God. Thus Meister Eckhart in his commentary on Exodus, explained:

The reason for the addition “before me” in “You shall have no strange gods before me” is that many people do not appear to have “strange gods” from outside, who nonetheless before God who “sees the heart” (1 K. 16:7), truly worships many gods “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mt. 15:8, following Is. 29:13). Everything which anyone makes his end is a god for him, because God alone is “the first and last, the beginning and end” (Rev. 22:13), “although there are many gods and many lords” (1 Co. 8:5).[1]

We are to make no images of false or strange gods to place our devotion as a way to circumvent our devotion to God. These gods do not have to be seen only in the external, obvious sense as gods, such as found in polytheistic worship. It is more important that we do not create such gods in our heart, in our very thoughts, such as by lifting up our self as our god through pride. We find that our very self is usually the first idol which we place in front and over our worship of God, and so is the first which must be broken down and surrendered to God.[2] Of course, even if we do not idolize ourselves, we still find our hearts desire often is found to be somewhere other than with God and so we end up creating an idol which breaks the spirit of the first commandment. Any major theological error also becomes an idol which breaks the commandments.[3] We are not to see the greatness of some heavenly or earthly things as making them worthy of absolute or total devotion.

Rejection of idolatry should not be seen as preventing us from loving or serving those who are less than God otherwise we would not be told to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are shown we can have a love for our neighbor which is compatible with absolute devotion to God. Indeed, as God commands it, we must see it as a part of our loving God:

…because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so; therefore he must needs also love his neighbor, because God has commanded it: or whether it be that Scripture only mentions the love of our neighbor, as in that text, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ;” and again, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself;” and in the Gospel, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the prophets.” And many other passages occur in the sacred writings, in which only the love of our neighbor seems to be commanded for perfection, while the love of God is passed over in silence; whereas the Law and the prophets hang on both precepts. But this, too, is because he who loves his neighbor must needs also love above all else love itself. But “God is love; and he that dwells in love, dwells in God.” Therefore he must needs above all else love God.[4]

Loving God and loving our neighbor do not have to be seen as contradicting each other and put i opposition to each other because we find out we can love God through our love of our neighbors. Certainly if we glorify others in a way which transcends justice and treat them with greater love than we give to God, then even the command to love our neighbor can be tuned into justification for idolatry. The fact that we can turn abuse a good, such as love for neighbor, and use it for an evil end (idolatry) does not remove the command to love our neighbor, but reminds us why love for God is the first commandment and how it must be the foundation for our love of neighbor and not the other way around.

Having proper devotion to our neighbor, loving them for the good found in them, is a way we can have devotion to God. It is a recognition that all good things come from God, and so when we see a good and recognize it as good, we must recognize it a flowing from God and praise God for that good (cf. James 1:17). We are to follow the Psalmist who said, “Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!” (Ps. 103:22 RSV). We must recognize that his works, which includes especially the work which God has done in and through the saints, deserves proper praise: “I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well” (Ps. 139:14 RSV). Praising the work of God is praising God, and so is not a rejection of the commandment to love God above all things but is rather a way by which that love is given over to God. If we, on the other hand, end up ignoring or rejecting such goodness, we end up failing in our love for God because we end up denigrating God’s goodness by failing to praise his good work. This, then, should serve as the foundation for our study on how and why we are to venerate Mary and the saints.

More to Come


[1] Meister Eckhart, “Commentary on Exodus” in Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher. trans. and ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 80-1.

[2] “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Mat.16:24-5 RSV).

[3] See St. Bonaventure, Collations on the Ten Commandments. trans. Paul J. Spaeth (St. Bonaventure, New York: The Franciscan Institute, 1995), 40-42.

[4] St. Augustine, On the Trinity in NPNF1(3), 122. Augustine continues with this theme, adding to it:

But he sees his brother with human sight, with which God cannot be seen. But if he loved with spiritual love him whom he sees with human sight, he would see God, who is love itself, with the inner sight by which He can be seen. Therefore he who does not love his brother whom he sees, how can he love God, whom on that account he does not see, because God is love, which he has not who does not love his brother? Neither let that further question disturb us, how much of love we ought to spend upon our brother, and how much upon God: incomparably more upon God than upon ourselves, but upon our brother as much as upon ourselves; and we love ourselves so much the more, the more we love God. Therefore we love God and our neighbor from one and the same love; but we love God for the sake of God, and ourselves and our neighbors for the sake of God (ibid, 123-4).

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