I might step on some toes with this post. Most likely Catholic ones. But I want to address the veneration of Mary, Jesus’ mom.
It seemed that no matter where we went in Italy, Mary was there, in all her glory. We saw her in the Cinque Terre, in little altars along the trails (roads) we walked. In Tuscany, she was prominently featured in every church we visited. And in Rome and the Vatican, we found the same thing.
One reason I want to discuss this topic now is that yesterday’s sermon at church addressed Mary and the appropriate Biblical response we can have to her. Our pastor took a nice middle road, one that doesn’t set Mary too high but also doesn’t neglect her importance as a wonderful role model for women, especially young girls. I thought it might be nice timing to show a little bit of what we found at Catholicism grand central.
I’m going to focus on one church in particular, out of the dozens we visited. This one epitomized for me all that was problematic about the Mary veneration.
The parish church of San Lorenzo isn’t among the major tourist destinations in Italy. In fact, it’s a ways outside of Florence, about 40 minutes by train. And it’s a decent walk from the train station (especially in 90 degree heat). What makes it so special is that it’s old, really old. It was built on an ancient Roman temple to Bacchus (that wine loving god) in the 10th century. Records indicate as early as 934 A.D. Another special feature of the church is its collection of artwork. For being a small parish church in a little town, it certainly has a lot of incredible art work. Below, you’ll find our video overview of the sanctuary.
Among the works is a Giotto, that medieval artist who is considered to have ushered in the Italian Renaissance. Despite its illustrious attribution, the painting isn’t particularly noteworthy in appearance. However, it’s come to symbolize a lot of Italian church art for me. The painting, from late in Giotto’s life (late 13th century), is titled very simply: Madonna. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice a disembodied baby hand touching Mary’s face. That would be the missing baby Jesus. Nowhere in the title do we learn about the child. Today, because of damage over the years, we simply have “Madonna.” And while once, Jesus probably played a larger role, now, it’s Mary who steals the show. She’s enrobed in queenly garments, with gold filigree and details (not the humble peasant image we get from the Bible). And she appears to be in her late 20s or 30s (not the teenager that Joseph married).
My beef with this painting is its putting all the focus on Mary. She’s not the main attraction. She’s important, but she shouldn’t get first billing. That little child in her lap (who currently happens to be missing his body), is the one who should steal the show. He’s the one who was miraculously born, he’s the one who stepped down from his throne in heaven to a humble life on Earth, and he’s the one who would grow up to die for our sins. Not his mom.
And the Pieve di San Lorenzo (The Parish Church of Saint Lawrence) gives us one more work of art that signifies the wrong attitude toward Mary. This work is by Matteo Rosselini from 1615 (I didn’t get to use flash, so the picture is a bit fuzzy). Its highly descriptive name is “The Saints Domenico and Francesco Interceding with Christ.” This painting bothered me a lot. Here, you have two saints down on earth pleading with a very angry looking Jesus. Jesus is poised with weapons, ready to hurl them down on the innocent looking men. This is more like the Jesus image I get for the last Judgement (toward the unrepentant and unredeemed), but here, Jesus seems to have no concern for the saints. It’s Mary, sitting at his right hand, pleading with him. She’s the one who is merciful. She’s the one who hears the priests’ prayers. What a messed up picture of grace!
We don’t need to pray to Mary, who then cools down her angry son. We have direct contact with God the Father through Jesus and the interceding work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26, John 14:16-17, & Luke 11:1-4). No Mary needed to talk with Jesus or The Father. And if you’re a believer, don’t expect Jesus to strike you down with his wrath. He’s out to save you, to do good for you (I John 2:1). For heaven’s sake, he died so we might live. Mary didn’t do that. Jesus did.
But in my doctrinal clarification, I don’t want it to come across that I hate Catholics or think that Catholics aren’t Christians. I love my Catholic brothers and sisters. I just don’t want any unbiblical doctrines to get in the way of the true focus, on Jesus.
We should rejoice because we have free and easy access to the Creator of the Universe. Don’t stick unnecessary mediators between you and God. Worship him freely, ask of him without reservations, and have that one-on-one relationship for which you were created.