This week I reprinted the Order for Compline which my Tuesday Fellowship uses for a beautiful and intimate sung worship service. I decided to include an English translation of the Salve Regina.
The prayer as it is known now shows up in written form in a monastery during the 12th century and is a part of many forms of Daily Prayer throughout the Church. I desired to include it firstly because it is beautiful, secondly because many of the worshippers at this gathering come from a Catholic background, and thirdly because it is a part of Western Christian patrimony.
But it has a very troubling line:
Turn, then, O most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us
This would be a great line to say or sing, if it were about Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1). However, this line is addressed to ‘O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.’
Being the good Anglican Priest he is, Steve gently asked me what on earth I was thinking by inviting a congregation to sing this hymn. More particularly he asked me what it would mean for me to call Mary ‘advocate’.
How can Mary, a human being, be an advocate for me to Almighty God?
I do not think she is an advocate in the same sense the New Testament calls Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit an advocate. In 1 John 2 Christ is the advocate who comes alongside sinners with the understanding which comes from his human life. He sympathises with us and can comprehend our weakness. The Holy Spirit is called an advocate (Helper in the ESV) and is given to the Disciples as a comfort, help, teacher, and guide.
Does this hymn to Mary confuse the matter by suggesting that a human being can fulfil these roles in the place of the Persons of the Trinity?
To avoid an unnecessary conflict between people and God, let us reconsider this question. Let us assume that there is no zero-sum game in the Economy of Grace. We ought not think that if X then Y cannot be true. God is pleased to include human beings in the redemption of all creation. Indeed he has no intention of saving creation without us, this being the whole point of Israel, the Incarnation, and the Church.
If then we remember that human beings have always been invited to cooperate (or even not invited but cooperated anyway, c.f. Cyrus) in God’s saving plan, then we can reconsider the role other Christians have in our spiritual lives. We feel comforted and we are even made much more moral when we are surrounded by a real community of those who are earnestly seeking of obey Jesus.
Now take this one step further and think about the Church as a global and historic community. In the life of the Church there have existed many people who stand out in their days as wonderful examples of faith. These are examples for us, who still walk the hard road of salvation, but could they also be considered as examples to God?
Here we begin to approach a thoroughly Biblical God, Yahweh of the Hebrew Scripture. Consider the words of Psalm 22:2-5
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
The Psalmist asked God to remember the faith of a prior generation as a grounding for his present action. The Psalmist, in typical fashion, provokes God to act and appeals to his conscience. As Abraham said ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ (Gen 18:25). Here in Psalm 22 examples of others, even those long before, are cited in evidence as an advocating case that God should act.
Mary is greeted by an Angel who calls her favoured. The fact that she lived in such a way that God took notice of her for his saving work is a deep mystery to ponder and ought well be an encouragement in our own piety. However for the purposes of this reflection I only want to make the case that the advocacy of Mary is not that we who engage in such devotion are making her divine, but it is precisely her humanity which makes her an advocate.
Mary can be called an advocate because her fully-realised, grace-effected humanity is evidence for us and for God that with the Divine Help we can indeed become what we are called and do what we are commanded.
So, next time you are in a worship service with a little Marian devotion, perhaps do not stand defiantly silent (because you’re a pious Protestant), but maybe consider the Salve Regina in the same way we consider the Psalms and the awkward, confusing, and messy prayers of the Bible.
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears! Turn, then, O most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.