To this day, the Roman Catholic Church is in deep error regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary. But how did the cult of Mary arise and develop? The great Lutheran theologian, Hermann Sasse, had a way of explaining things in a very clear and understandable way. He put his finger on it when he wrote:
“The Marian cult was the Christian replacement for the cults of the great female deities, which played such a great role in the life of pre-Christian pagan humanity. These were the cults of the holy virgins and divine mothers, the Babylonian Ishtar, whose cult had already forced its way into Israel, the Syrian Queen of Heaven, the great mother of Asia Minor, the Egyptian Isis, whose favor in the west is testified to by the long use of the name “Isidor” among Jews and Christians. But unfortunately it was not only a Christian replacement for a pagan religion, it was likewise a pagan religion in Christian guise. The Marian cult is the last of the great cults of a female divinity, which made its way from the Orient into the Roman world, since in the second Punic War Rome had adopted the cult of the Magna Materof Asia Minor. The triumph of the veneration of Mary in the Christendom of the east and the west is based upon the fact that in it lives genuine, deeply religious paganism—for all paganism, which is really genuine, is deeply religious—the religion of the natural man. The natural man is religious. For religion is of the essence of man. This does not mean that man has the correct relation to God. It is precisely as a religious being that man is an enemy of God, the real God. For his religion is indeed the attempt to lay hold of what is God’s, to make a God in a way that pleases him. In the natural religion man forms God according to his desires, his needs, according to his image. But such an idol is, however, the image of the female deity. The woman as virgin, as wife [Gattin], as mother becomes the image of God, as the natural man constructs it. The mother is the original image [Urbild] of mercy. Thus in Hebrew the word “rechem,” [mhr] which originally designated the womb, signifies “mercy,” even the mercy of God (e.g. Isaiah 63:15). Thus it happens that in the pagan religions the deities of mercy are conceived of as mothers. The only deity of the ancient Greek-speaking world of whom the word “agape” was used, which word in the New Testament designates the love of God, is Isis. In the Holy Scriptures the mercy of a mother is expressly ascribed to God the Lord: “I will comfort you as a mother comforts her son” (Isaiah 66:13; compare 49:15). And in the Bible where the relationship between God and his faithful is described as the archetype of bridal or marital love, there God is the husband and his people, his church, the wife (Hosea 2:20; Ephesians 5:23ff.; Revelation 21:2; 22:17).
“The natural man of all ages, however, perverts God’s order. Because he does not acknowledge God as the Lord, and would rather make God subject to him, thus the need for a feminine deity is of the essence of the natural, fallen man. If we may venture to say so, the veneration of Mary rests on this fact. From a purely human perspective, or to judge on purely aesthetic grounds, the veneration of Mary is one of the most beautiful things in the Christian religion. Are there any more “beautiful” hymns than the Marian hymns like those of the German middle ages? Is there anything more poetic than the Marian prayers of the Roman Catholic Church? What profound poetry is found in the Marian legends, especially in the legends which form the basis for the dogma of the assumption of Mary? How beautiful is this death in contrast to the crucifixion of Jesus, or the martyrdom of the apostles! Distraught with longing for her divine Son, she died in the presence of the apostles. Her body was buried, but transfigured to glory and borne upward to heaven. Here all the terror of death is overcome, here there is nothing more of the physical torment and God-forsaken-ness of the death by crucifixion. It is death in complete blessedness. No, it is no longer death at all, just as this life was no longer the life of a sinful man. The departure of Mary is the fulfillment of a perfect life. It is the apotheosis [deification]of the man who rises above the angels into a divine life. What Christ is in Arianism, the first of all created things which rises to divinity, that is Mary in Catholicism. Is it an accident that the classic text of Arian Christology, the passage regarding the pre-existent sophia(Proverbs 8:22ff.) has become one of the most important Marian lections (8 December and 8 September), and has lead to the treatment of Mary as the heavenly wisdom? If Arianism is the Christology of Greek paganism, is it then an accident that the deeply rooted desire for the divine man—in distinction from the God-man—in Greek paganism, created the apotheosized man in Mariology after the defeat of Arian Christology? Here lies the most profound essence of the Marian cult. Here lies the secret of the power which the veneration of Mary has over men. Christians who have come out of the Catholic Church to Protestantism, without having overcome the paganism which is still rooted in Catholicism, through a fundamental conversion, will never lose their homesickness for Mary. And the modern man, who is no longer a Christian, may well appreciate the Marian cult. Indeed, he has an open or secret longing for it, though he radically rejects the Christian faith. The conclusion of Goethe’s Faust is characteristic of this.”
Hermann Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors XVII, trans. M.Harrison