Idolatry, the Eucharist, and Our Lady

I. Idolatry
I know I’ve quoted this dialogue before, but it’s just too good to pass up right now. Mark Shea wrote an imaginary conversation between an Evangelical and a Catholic which I just love:

Evangelical: You must not worship Mary!

Catholic: Relax. I don’t worship Mary.

Evangelical: Oh, but you do!

Catholic: Actually, I think I’m the only one qualified to make that call, aren’t I?

Evangelical: But it looks to me like you worship her! You pray to her and ask her to intercede for you, don’t you?

Catholic: Yes, I do like to talk to my mother about things. But I don’t worship her and I don’t think she’s God. She’s a creature, a fellow Christian (albeit the great one). How would you feel if I said, “You worship your barber! I know you do, because you sometimes ask him to pray for you?”

Evangelical: That’s totally different!

Catholic: Actually, it’s exactly the same. Which is why Scripture says don’t judge by appearances. If you’d just ask me rather than telling me, I’d be happy to tell you what I worship. I worship Jesus Christ fully present in the Holy Eucharist-body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Evangelical: I don’t think the Eucharist is Jesus’ body and blood, but simply a symbol. But let’s not argue over such fine points of theology as “transubstantiation”. We both celebrate Communion in our own ways. And that’s the important thing.

Catholic: Did you hear me? I said I fall down in worship and adoration before something that looks just like a piece of bread and a cup of wine. I say “Hosanna” to it. I adore it as the very God of the Universe! The Eucharist is my Lord and my God, my salvation, my life, the very source of my being!

Evangelical: Yes. I think that’s a bit overboard, but let’s not argue about it. You have your version of Communion and I have mine. Now: about Mary worship–don’t you see how incredibly dangerous it is for you to commit the grave sin of idolizing Mary….

Non-Catholics might think that this dialogue is hyperbolic. Let me point you to a conversation with Catz206, the same Blogger who presented what she felt was a Protestant answer to Ignatius earlier. In a recent post, she’s argued against the veneration of images because it’s too close to idolatry. My first response was “I don’t see how you can think that the use of icons in the Church (which we don’t worship) is too close to idolatry, but our worship of the Eucharist is simply a ‘minor misunderstanding‘ that John turned a blind eye to when it caught on even amongst his student Ignatius of Antioch?”

The conversation got more surreal after that. She was initially confused by my comment; after I explained, she responded, “As for the Eucharist, I think I see what you are saying now. Do Catholics actually worship the Eucharist? If they do, this may be something important for me to consider.” What makes this all the more bizarre is that she’s studying Greek, reading the Early Church Fathers, responding to St. Ignatius of Antioch’s comments that the Eucharist is the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, and somehow not realizing that we’re worshiping the Eucharist. Catholics today and Catholics then: if you think that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, how can you not worship?

When I clarified this, she responded:

“Yes, you are right in this and I think I will have to take back my earlier comment. I don’t like saying this but I think this really could be considered a form of idolatry. Still, I know that I am not immune to this charge as a protestant and am very well aware that I often elevate things I shouldn’t and am condemned in my own thoughts.”

I suppose that I appreciate that she’s trying to be nice about telling me I’m an idolater, but she’s making the same mistake that’s got her convinced that venerating images might come close to idolatry. Idolatry is used in two senses in the Bible. The first is the literal, intentional worship of an image; and the second is a metaphoric use to describe serving something or someone more than you serve God. A third form of “idolatry” is now used, not found in the Bible, where Protestants call anything given more esteem than what they think it’s worth “idolatry.” This third form is a cheapening of the metaphor that Christ uses – He says that you can’t have two “masters,” not that you can’t think two things are important.

Someone who spends more of their time obsessed with money than interested in what God has planned for them may be guilty of committing the second form. But there’s a mile of difference between that and worshiping a $100 bill. If Catholics are wrong about the Eucharist, they’re not just guilty of spending more time thinking about bread and wine than about God. If we’re wrong, we’re literally worshiping bread and wine. That’s virtually nothing like elevating the importance of unimportant things.

Protestants of an earlier age outright suspected that Catholics did the first, intentional blatant form of saint-worship or Mary-worship. Protestants today tend to hint that Catholics do this, but just because they elevate things beyond their import. In a few cases, Protestants will believe and argue that Catholics love Mary and the Saints to the extent that we place them above God in practice, even if we don’t intend to worship them. Usually, they don’t even go that far these days: just that we love Mary and the Saints too much, and that it’s probably dangerous somehow – it’s the watered-down, non-Biblical third form of “idolatry.” And she’s right on one part: if this is all that Protestants are saying, then they’re just pointing out a speck that they think is in the Catholic eye, without having a whole lot of understanding about Catholic liturgy, worship, history, etc., while they have their own things blown out of proportion.

II. The Eucharist
This isn’t even possibly a case of the second or third form of “idolatry.” We aren’t torn between our allegiance to the Eucharist and our allegiance to Christ. We believe that they’re One and the Same. If they’re not, we’re committing the first form of idolatry. Which brings me back to the question that I posed regarding St. John and his student, Ignatius. If Ignatius was committing idolatry, worshiping the Eucharist, and thinking it was literally Christ when it was really just a metaphor for Christ, could John possibly have let this rank heresy continue? He would have to know that as the last living Apostle, his student would carry a lot of weight for the future of Christianity. Anyone wanting to understand the Gospel of John would do well to listen to what his students taught. Can we really imagine that John had such poor teaching skills, poor judgment, and/or so little backbone to either correct this heresy or expose it, particularly given its obvious consequences? Can we imagine the Holy Spirit permitting Christianity to become this permanently distorted within a half-generation? After all, while Christians may squabble about their own view of how to read John 6 (as obviously Eucharistic or confusingly symbolic), I don’t know of anyone who argues for another view of Ignatius – he’s so blatantly and baldly Eucharistic that if he’s merely symbolic, everyone is.

So sure, I’ll accept that the stakes of this are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ or rank idolatry. But we Catholics and Orthodox have a compelling reason to believe that the Apostles taught it was the former, in addition to the Biblical evidence. What reasonable Protestant response accounts for this evidence from the Fathers?

III. Why Catholics Honor Mary, Our Mother
As it stands, the same Ten Commandments which forbid (actual) idolatry also command us to honor our father and mother: which means that the Ten Commandments explicitly don’t contemplate that third form of “idolatry” as being a violation (otherwise honoring anyone besides God would be a potential sin). We authentically believe that God is our Father through Baptism, and that we should honor Him not only as God (the First Commandment), we also honor Him as Father (the Fourth Commandment / Fifth, if you’re Protestant). Likewise, we believe that Jesus gave Mary to us on the Cross (John 19:27). The Beloved Disciple is there with his biological mother, and receives Mary as his mother, just as she receives him as her son. In a literal sense, this applied specifically to John – he took Mary into his home from that hour – but we believe that it applies to all of His “Beloved Disciples.” Revelation 11:19-12:17 supports this conclusion. There, we see the Ark of the Covenant appear, immediately followed by a woman who gives birth to Christ [an obvious parallel to the Ark, and who we think represents Mary as well as Israel/the Church]. In Revelation 12:17, all of those who follow Christ are called the offspring of this woman. So within the family of the New Covenant, we believe that God chose to make Mary mother to all of us, just as He made Christ (Mary’s biological Son) our Brother (Hebrews 2:11).

We don’t think that Mary is more important than Christ, be we do believe that Christ, who fulfilled the Law, honored Her, just as the Ten Commandments command, and continues to do so even in Heaven. She served, serves, worshiped, and worships Him as Her God and Savior (Luke 1:46-48); but He honors Her as His Mother, who raised Him and taught Him from infancy, almost certainly even teaching Him the Faith (Luke 2:51-52). If entering into the New Covenant enters us into relationship with Christ as our Lord and Brother, God the Father as our Father, and grafts us into the entire genealogy of Israel, it’s not exactly unreasonable to conclude (particularly with the Biblical support cited above) then Mary’s part of that list, and is our mother in a particularly special way.

So perhaps the better question is why aren’t Protestants honoring Our Lady more?

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