Considering Mary at Christmas: a Generous Reading of Barth
When considering Karl Barth’s treatment of Mary in Church Dogmatics 1/2, one is likely to think of his excursus against Mariology, which Barth denounces as a “diseased construct of theological thought” (§ 15.2, 139-146). He rejects it as a falsification of Christian truth in that it propagates “the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike (ministerialiter) in its own redemption” (143). For the Roman Catholic Church, the problem of creaturely cooperation is manifested in its doctrine of Mariology, and this heresy explains all the rest. For Barth, Mary must rightly be rejected as having any kind of mediatory or even relatively independent role in salvation. She must not become a subject in the divine redemptive activity. This would be an attack on the miraculous nature of revelation.
Of this, Barth is adamant, and gives the following evangelical response:
There can be no thought of any reciprocity or mutual efficacy even with the most careful precautions. Faith in particular is not an act of reciprocity, but the act of renouncing all reciprocity, the act of acknowledging the one Mediator, beside whom there is no other. Revelation and reconciliation are irreversibly, indivisibly and exclusively God’s work. (146)
The human creature must not be confused with God. This is the thrust of much of Barth’s writing. To be sure, Mariology is a later innovation and perversion, and does not represent either the Scripture or the early Church in their presentation of the mother of God. Barth necessarily puts Mariology in its place, but where does that leave Mary herself?
Though she can seem overshadowed by discussions of the doctrine named after her, a generous reading of Barth may find Mary pointing readers in a worthy direction. In the midst of his polemic, Barth does cast a positive light upon Mary. We may even find he presents in Mary a model of the right and proper response of the human to revelation.
To begin, he reminds us of Mary’s primary place in dogmatics when he states, “Mary is spoken of partly for the sake of Christ’s true humanity, partly for the sake of His true divinity, but not for her own sake” (140). In Luke Barth finds there is “not a single statement that does not point away from Mary to Christ” (140). He agrees with Luther that the greatness of Mary is in her directing interest away from herself to her Lord, evidenced in the Magnificat. What is the object of special consideration concerning her? It is not her worthiness as a cooperator with the divine, but rather in her lowly estate and in “the glory of God which encounters her” (140). There is nothing meritorious in her person. She is simply the one “to whom the miracle of revelation happens” (140). Barth portrays her as standing at the crossroads of the Old and New Testaments representing all of humanity in their reception of the sovereign gift of revelation. This is a significant role, not because of Mary’s action, but God’s.
She is the first to receive Christ, in a space that was created by God and not of her own capacity. This is how any man must receive Christ. Barth goes on to say later in § 15 that man is involved in the form of Mary, but, “only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely be ready, merely let something be done to and with him” (191). Some might seize upon this in isolation and conclude that Barth really has no place for true human participation in revelation. If Mary is not a cooperator, then she is simply a receptacle to be taken over and used by God, forced upon by the Holy Spirit. Yet we know that Barth considers the human to be an active participant, with a free and truly human agency. Mary’s humanity is not eclipsed by revelation, rather, it becomes active. Our “yes” to God matters, as did Mary’s “be it unto me according to Thy word.” Indeed it was according to the Word himself. Yet her role remains as recipient; her “yes” was a response and not a precursor of God’s activity. We follow Mary ever mindful of the primacy of God’s revelation.
Finally, we find a less guarded picture of Mary a few pages prior to Barth’s defensive polemic. It is in this picture that we are joined by a few other characters with whom Barth was wont to associate generously. It is the picture of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Barth is well known to have considered his vocation as one similar to the Baptist of Grunewald’s central panel, ever pointing a finger toward the Crucified Christ. Here Barth describes another panel of the Altarpiece (125). It is the picture of the incarnation, and it is here Barth ponders Mary’s role. The angels are welcoming the child Jesus with a musical chorus, and perhaps in Barth’s mind they are playing Mozart. Mary is pictured twice. She is the mother who holds the child and indirectly beholds the light of the Father in the infant’s face. She also appears as the recipient of grace, representing all who come before and after her, leading the Church in adoration of Christ. In the end, Barth leaves Mary standing with John the Baptist, and this is where the Church must stand as well. We stand facing a mystery, a mystery which has come and dwelt with us by divine freedom and grace. We are not cooperators, neither are we spectators. There are things we can and must do in light of the glory in the face of Christ which has encountered us. With the Baptist, we point to the mystery, and with Mary too, we point to this glory with praise on our lips.
As Christmas approaches, it is fitting even for Protestants to ponder this picture of Mary. In her we are reminded of the greatest miracle of Christmas – not the virgin birth, but what it signifies, that in Christ God became man and is still willing to enter into our humanity. It is this mystery we proclaim with Mary at Christmas. Through her, Barth reminds us that we are first of all recipients, but that our response matters. Hers was the first “yes” to Christ, and we echo her acceptance. Hers was the first hymn of praise to the Word become Flesh, and we join in adoration. Hers was the first pointing away from empty humanity to the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ. Barth invites us to stand with her, with the Baptist, and with the heavenly orchestra, giving our only fitting response as those blessed of God:
“For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.”