Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Recent news reports speak of a reflection said to be of the Virgin Mary on the windows of the Seminole Finance Corp. in Clearwater, Fl. The account brought to mind similar reports made in the past.
I recall being in a campground, years ago, tenting next to a Roman Catholic family. The man joined us at our campfire and promptly began telling of his own encounter with the Virgin Mary. He claimed to have been at a site where the Virgin Mary had repeatedly appeared. While he was there, it had happened. The Virgin Mary came and spoke to certain individuals who were sponsors of this, event. How did he know that the Virgin Mary had in fact appeared? He did not see her – but there was the smell of roses. And the rosaries of those present had turned into gold. Sadly, the man had forgotten his own rosary. It lay in his dresser drawer. But when he returned home, lo, the rosary also had changed into gold!
The old tales are still being repeated – and with increasing frequency. The Denver Post, December 21, 1996, records details of one of the latest incidents:
Some say that when the Virgin Mary comes down, they smell roses. Some say they see the sun wheeling in the sky. When she appears, some see her blue robe shimmer.
Some say she turns the chains of their rosaries to gold.
When the Blessed Virgin comes to Donna Pendleton, the young mother from this rural part of Maryland. says, Mary just slips quietly into her heart.
Nothing “like a lightning bolt,” says Pendleton, whose face is radiant as she stands on the dark sidewalk outside St. Joseph’s Church.
Her visit feels like “a tingle,” says Pendleton, who wears her little boy’s crystal rosary around her neck, inside her ski jacket. Then “everything opens up and becomes clearer.”
Snow may or may not come this night to Emmitsburg, a town with one street light, surrounded by farms. Pendleton thinks not.
But the Virgin Mary will be here, because this is a Thursday and she comes every Thursday night, believers say. Pendleton is one of the many who regularly flock to this gray stucco church to hear her weekly message and feel her mysterious presence.
With incense and candles burning, they gather in the sanctuary and murmur “Hail Mary” after “Hail Mary,” the beads of their rosaries slipping through their fingers as they wait.
In these times of sin and confusion, in these days of approaching millennium, believers say the Mother of God is visiting Earth with increasing regularity.
“Oh yeah,” says David Zappardino, a musician and a regular here at St. Joseph’s Church, “…she is part of the plan.”
…The Bible contains sparse references to the mother of Jesus, but that has not stopped scholars from delving the Scriptures for
clues to her character. And it has not stopped generations of devotees from shaping her to their disparate needs.
She’s been portrayed as both virgin and mother, saint and fertility goddess. She’s ridden to battle with the Crusaders and rallied the followers of labor organizer Cesar Chavez. She is Notre Dame, lady of all the cathedrals of France, and La Morenita, the dark little Virgin of Guadalupe, midwife of peasant mothers throughout Latin America.
She is the patroness of legions of unchurched spiritual searchers and she also receives the daily devotions of Pope John Paul II. The pope says that in 1981, Mary saved him from an assassin’s bullet, noting the attempt on his life came on the anniversary of her 1917 appearance to three children in Fatima, Portugal….
What is striking is not so much the increasing number of “appearances” of the Virgin Mary as this millennium comes to its close, but the increasing number of people who believe such things. Many see the “image” of Mary on windows of buildings; they “smell the roses” when Mary shows herself; individuals claim that Mary speaks to them and reveals secrets of future events.
This surely is another of the signs of the end, when people are ready to believe that which is so very contrary to Scripture. The Post itself remarks upon the fact that “the Bible contains sparse references to the mother of Jesus….” Those who know Scripture ought to recall the emphasis of the apostle Paul, who insisted that he “determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). No mention of “roses” or “golden rosaries” or secret messages from the blessed Virgin. Scripture emphasizes not Mary but Christ. It has been the design of the devil to turn people from the cross to some alternative. But even the Virgin Mary is no alternative to the cross. There is but one way to God and that is through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Darrell Todd Maurina of the United Reformed News Service reports that the Rev. Richard Rhem, pastor of Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, made the statement, “The Bible is a wax nose,” at a conference hosted by the RCA’s Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics. Here Rhem publicly expressed his position:
“The question is not whether non-believers can be saved, the question is whether salvation is through Jesus Christ alone,” said Rev. Richard Rhem . . . . “When you tell me I must say it is through Jesus Christ alone I don’t know what to do with the Jewish believers I have become so fond of….”
“I have been hesitant to engage in biblical discussion because the biblical answer is divided,” said Rhem. “The Bible speaks with more than one voice.”
Rhem noted that the November 9 event was the first time he had spoken publicly on the controversy surrounding his views, said he did so with trepidation, emphasized that he was not trying to be a “crusader,” and said he was surprised that his views had created such a controversy. “I cannot believe that this issue is of such interest that it would get on the front page of the New York Times; I think perhaps it is reflective of the church being reflexive and afraid,” said Rhem. “I don’t think I have said anything new; I don’t think I have said anything well.”
“I found that in the early church there was a strong strain of universalism, of the ultimate triumph of the grace of God,” said Rhem, also noting that some “high Calvinists” historically taught .election to universal salvation.
Rhem acknowledged that the Bible included some apparently clear teaching on salvation through Christ and that such teaching would have been expected given its context as a book of proclamation. “I don’t think we should try to whitewash this book and say there is no possibility of constructing ,an exclusivist view of the church; the only thing I would argue is this is not the only voice,” said Rhem.
According to Rhem, it is inconsistent to say the Bible is clear on salvation apart from Christ when Scripture also appears to be clear on such matters as the immediacy of the return of Christ and the ordination of women. “How, can we honestly say that when we realize those documents were written by those who honestly believed they were at the end, and they were not at the end?” asked Rhem. “We are not seeing the death of the great religious traditions, we are seeing their resurgence and their renaissance.”
“…Has human experience taken precedence over Scriptures?” asked Rhem. “Yes, I hope so, and that’s why I am in trouble. I don’t think you can understand the Bible apart from human experience, and I don’t think you can understand human experience apart from the categories of Scripture.”
In responding to Rhem’s speech, Dr. Paul Fries, professor at the RCA’s New Brunswick Theological Seminary, commented:
“The Bible says more, is more complex on these issues than our theology has often allowed,” said Fries. “I’ve had secular people who know about the situation in Spring Lake who can’t believe the church is still doing heresy things in this day. This is not helping our witness.”
One must truly be appalled that the case of Rhem should be termed a “heresy trial” which both unbeliever and “believer” consider out-of-place in our present age. More appalling still is that this is regarded as “not helping our witness.” What witness? Does this not confirm the witness that Christ is the Way, the only Way, of salvation? Or, is now the witness of the church to be that there is universal salvation – and that too, through any form of religion? One recalls the challenge of Elijah to the people of Israel, “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” But today some would condemn Elijah for such heresy hunting. Rather, many would have Elijah declare, “Follow Jehovah or follow Baal. Either way will bring you to glory.”
The situation of Rhem seems murky at present. Is he, or is he not, still a minister in the Reformed Church of America? He severed his relationship with that denomination. An agreement was made by the RCA classis to have such a separation. But now other charges evidently have been raised against Rhem – which the Classis believes must first be dealt with before he can be released from the RCA.