Nearly five years ago I wrote this blogpost about my personal devotion to the Virgin Mary. Of more than one hundred blogposts in almost five years, it is one of those I am most pleased with; it still stirs my emotions. One person who read it at the time said it was the most beautiful account of a man’s love for a woman that she had ever read. That gratified me deeply.
Today I post another item about Mary. The one in the link above is very personal and devotional. This one is didactic. Of all the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15 is the most important. On it the Catholic faithful commemorate her death and assumption into heaven.
In the middle ages in England, a devotional acclamation arose: “Christ’s meek Mother, Saint Marye, My Life’s light, my beloved Ladye.” It is now the motto of the Guild of the Living Rosary, of which I am the American chaplain. I love the motto. It reminds me that Anglican devotion to Mary was once strong and widely accepted. The ravages of the Reformation removed many wonderful things from the palette of Christian devotion, but thankfully devotion to Our Lady has been returning for decades, gradually but surely.
The rise of devotion to Mary is not limited to Anglicans. J. Neville Ward, a Methodist clergyman, wrote a remarkable book on the value of the Rosary called Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy. It was first published in 1971. In its preface, Ward wrote, “It does seem clear that the first-century people who put together the four gospels found that they could not do justice to the mixture of the divine and human in Jesus without saying some very remarkable things about his mother. Their minds were continually drawn to her. Because they felt that to Jesus was given the name that is above every name, these early Christians sensed an extraordinary mystery about her. They knew as well as we do that the influence of a mother over a child is absolutely incalculable for good or ill. If Jesus was who they thought he was, then who was she?”
Mary was the virgin mother of the Messiah. Legends of her early life tell us that she was an only child, miraculously born to aging parents, that she was presented in the Temple at the age of seven, and was raised there. Of her birth and early life, Holy Scripture and history are silent, but it is consistent with Scriptural accounts of others and therefore logical to assume that, with a view to her future destiny as the Mother of the Messiah and Lord, she was specially sanctified from the womb of her mother as were Jeremiah and John the Baptist, and that she lived a life of spotless innocence. How else could she have been fitted for her high and mysterious office as the Mother of the incarnate God?
In the Biblical narrative, she lived in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee in the north of the Holy Land. At the time of the Annunciation, when she was called to be the mother of the Messiah, she was probably about fourteen or fifteen and betrothed to Joseph, who tradition tells us was an older man, a widower, perhaps with children from a previous marriage. The assertion that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth was a very early one in the Church and became widely accepted.
Mary has been called “the greatest boast of the human race”. Quite likely, next to Jesus, she is the most beloved human being of all time. In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus weighed into the iconoclastic controversy in which the Byzantine Emperor had declared that the use of images, icons, and other externals was not permitted in Christian worship because it was idolatry. John said that the use of such things is permitted, since there is a difference between “worship”—which is given to God alone, and “veneration”—which may be given to images and to the Saints. For Mary he declared that “hyper-veneration” is permitted, as the chiefmost of the Saints. John’s declaration became the official teaching of the Church.
Mary is the only person in Scripture who is not exhorted to believe that Jesus is God. Others are told that he is the Messiah, such as the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem and Simeon in the Temple, but only Mary is told from the beginning who Jesus is: the Son of God. There are only two categories in the New Testament of those who never doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. One is Mary alone; the other is the demons, who cry out, “We know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
She accepted the call of virginal motherhood, using the same words God the Father used to create the universe: “Let it be”—in Latin, “fiat”. Like most godly vocations, this one was not an easy one, and the Gospel of Luke says that “she was greatly troubled at the saying” when the angel greeted her. Like Moses and Jonah, she knew the voice of the Lord at the time of her vocation; unlike them, she accepted and maintained the vocation without hesitation.
It must have been because she not only knew God, but also loved him. Not that the others did not love God, but Mary was the one who loved him best. She was able in her own existence to love God and to love neighbor, to fulfill the summary of the Law her Son would later pronounce. Hence, after the Annunciation, she visited Elizabeth in joy, and risked the loss of Joseph’s trust because she had faith in the God whom she trusted to bring it all out right—which He did.
In the visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, she proclaimed the Magnificat. The canticle shows her contemplative nature, but also that this nature is rooted in daily life and reality—as all contemplative nature must be if it is truly to be contemplative. The Magnificat shows that Mary was aware of God’s sovereignty, intentions in exalting her, and regard for the poor.
The Magnificat satisfies those most deeply devoted to Mary, with the words “all generations shall call me blessed” and “he who is mighty has done great things for me.” The Magnificat also appeals to those who are passionately devoted to peace and justice concerns, with its ringing words about scattering the proud, putting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away empty, and exalting the lowly while filling the hungry with good things.
Clearly, even as a young teenager, the contemplative Mary was not removed from the things of the earth. She could handle traveling while heavily pregnant, giving birth in a stable or cave, and being on the run with a small child while under threat of death from a powerful man with hundreds of soldiers at his command. Yet these things are the matrix for the most obvious and most important picture of all: mother with child. It is a tender, heart-rending, and heart-filling picture. She is poor but not destitute, and always rich with the presence of God.
She appears first as a young teenager called:
to a new country more alien than that to which Abraham was called;
to know the meaning of the divine presence more intimately than Moses at the burning bush;
to be devoted to the will of God more intensely than Elijah;
to a vision of holiness greater than that given by revelation to Isaiah;
to carry sorrows with more resolution than Jeremiah; and
to an obedience more resolute than Daniel’s.
In the stable, feeding the divine infant from her own body, she is presented as undeniably Virgin and Queen. Virginity here is not a statement about lack of sexual experience, but a statement about purity, about being completely “God-oriented” and having room for nothing else, so that all of her relationships, including that with Joseph, were made rich and whole solely because of her single-heartedness toward God.
It is a concept with which our generation has become unfamiliar, and because unfamiliar, uncomfortable. A number of translations of old hymns have replace the word “virgin” with “maiden”, and in the categories of saints in the Episcopal calendar, the ancient class of “virgin” has been dropped. It is a major loss and our culture and contemporary Church are the worse for it.
This is not to imply that virginity is inherently a higher or better vocation than marriage or that sex is inherently impure. Virginity is a special kind of offering. It is a kind of fasting. True fasting is not merely the absence of food, but the presence of joy through the offering of a gift.
Virginity is a means of loving God, and a calling for a few. It was the calling of Mary, and an integral part of her glory. In the early Church, virgins were considered in a category close to martyrs: those who offered themselves single-heartedly and wholeheartedly to God. Virginity is never about absence, but rather a unique richness. The things of God are never negative, never about lack; on the contrary, they are always about richness and inundating love.
The first clear prediction of suffering for Mary came when she and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple at the age of forty days, according to the Law of Israel. Simeon was there, “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Simeon gave the pre-eminence to Mary rather than to Joseph by addressing her, saying, “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
Pre-eminent as she was, there was a price to be paid for her vocation. We are nowhere told what her response to Simeon was, but we can guess that she lived not only with joy but perhaps with a measure of apprehension, or at least the knowledge that there would be heartbreak and great pain in store. In fallen world, it is always so wherever there is love.
When Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus when he was twelve years old and found him in the Temple, and Jesus spoke to them about having to be in his Father’s house, the Bible says, “They did not understand the saying which he spoke to them”…and “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:50, 51b). Understanding is a matter of the mind; Mary kept those things in her heart, a deeper place than the mind, the repository of love and intimacy, the home of faith and worship. Here also she had treasured the words of the shepherds who visited on the night that Jesus was born. (Luke 2:19)
There are only a few other places where Mary is mentioned in the Gospel narratives. She is mentioned at the wedding in Cana of Galilee; when she and Jesus’ brothers are trying to get a word with him; by a woman who cried out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked.”
And finally the poignant words at the crucifixion, “Woman, behold your son.” Her presence at the cross is indicative that perhaps she had been among the company much of the time—certainly at the least in its last days.
And when Jesus died, she was a widow without a son, like the widow of Nain upon whom Jesus had had compassion and for whom he had raised her son from the bier. Like that widow, Mary’s son also returned from death. Unlike that widow, she did not get to keep him—at least not in the earthly fashion. Much has been said and written about Mary as virgin and mother; far too little about Mary as widow and bereaved.
The last Biblical reference in her chronology is the day of Pentecost, where she was numbered among those in the Upper Room when the Spirit descended upon the faithful. (Acts 1:14)
We do not know how long she lived after that, for she is not mentioned again in the New Testament. No matter how long she lived in the first generation Church, as J. Neville Ward wrote above she would have had a place of deepening affection and awe in the hearts and minds of believers. It is evident that the first Christians found it increasingly difficult to exclude her from their praise of Christ because the more they saw of the glory of Jesus, the more they saw his Mother aglow with it.
Every right belief about Mary points to Jesus, continuing the lesson in the miracle of Cana in which she said to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it” (John 2:5). Mary is the model of humanity redeemed by Christ.
She is the only mortal who knew the entire earthly life of Jesus. “Her virgin eyes saw God incarnate born,” says one hymn (Written by Moir A. J. Waters [1906-1980]); and the Stabat Mater speaks of how she saw him suffer and die: “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping.” She knew him throughout the “hidden years” of his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. She knew him as carpenter.
Sometimes it seems that Mary is reverenced by being mentioned little in the New Testament. It does not seem to be a silence of unimportance, but rather of reverence. She is never even called by name in John’s Gospel, the Gospel that was written by the one with whom she spent the last years of her life. In John’s Gospel she is only referred to as “the mother of Jesus”. It is almost a literary bowing of the head, and, in the mind and heart of the Church, tying her to Jesus forever.
I believe that it is no coincidence that the Gospel written by one whom Jesus named a “son of thunder” for his violent and vengeful nature is perhaps the most mystical and profound thing ever written. The “son of thunder” was transformed by having “the mother of Jesus” in his home for the rest of her life. It is not hard for me to consider that the Gospel of John in many ways was inspired by Mary.
What of Christian devotion to Mary? In some ways, it is so obvious that it is foolish to bring it up. Maybe understanding it can come through a brief reflection on the words used in the Bible of her alone: “full of grace.” Grace is the means by which God does everything to redeem and hallow people and places. Mary was full of grace. In order to be full of grace, one must be empty of everything else, so that one can be utterly receptive—that is, to be truly female. This is a mystical truth, written deep not only in human nature, but in the very framework of the cosmos.
God, from the beginning of time, is the Giver of Life. All life-initiating, life-producing, and life-nurturing activities are derivative of God’s acts of Creation and Redemption. Because the world is indwelt by the Spirit, all things are sacramental, not only all of nature but in particular human physiology. Just as snow, for example, reminds us of purity, beauty, silence, and renewal, and as a storm reminds us of might and power and transcendence, so do human bodies reflect spiritual truths about human nature.
The body of a man is designed to give, to initiate life; the body of a woman is designed to receive, to nurture life. These are spiritual realities, far richer than merely physical or even symbolic. George MacDonald (in his novel Malcolm) says, “The love between man and woman, arising from a difference deep in the heart of God, and essential to the very being of each... is one of [God’s] most powerful forces for blasting the wall of separation, and first step towards the universal harmony of twain making one. By no words can I express my scorn of the evil fancy that the distinction between [male and female] is solely or even primarily physical.”
Thus, the relationship between male and female, by logical extension of sacramental theology (not to mention physiology) is an icon of the romance between God and the cosmos, in which God woos and wins his wayward bride. The Bible consistently reveals God in masculine terms, not to say that God is male (which is absurd) or to disparage females (equally absurd), but to reveal the nature of the relationship between God and the cosmos: that everything that is created and redeemed is his beloved Bride. At the foundation of all things, and the interaction of things, there is divine love. God created by love, sustains and redeems all things in love, and consummates all things for love.
If God is revealed in masculine terms, and if all that exists is truly about love, then the cosmos, everything that exists, is feminine to God. Salvation is a romance, a love story, and a matter of passion. One may consider that it is the only love story that there is, for all other love stories are only variations on this theme.
If this is so, then Christianity is the most earthy, sensuous, “rooted in real life” religion that there is, and therefore the only fully true religion—for it recognizes that in the Incarnation human flesh has been hallowed and all matter transformed, and maleness and femaleness themselves are the localized expressions of cosmic verities. Christian orthodoxy proclaims that only a male can be an icon of God as he has revealed himself in Christ, and only a female can be the icon of the universe. The archetypal contemplative is female, and Mary, the receiver of God, is the one in whose human flesh and life the cosmic myth of divine love became fact. What is written large across the cosmos became localized in such and such a real time, such and such a real place, such and such a real person.
As an archetype this reality perhaps even implies virginity. It may even imply perpetual virginity—one who is filled with nothing but God, and has never been filled with anything else; one who is full of grace. It implies purity (the radiance of God) and innocence (untainted by evil), but not naiveté.
Mary is such a one who is full of grace, which is to be full of God, which is to be full of joy... and (until heaven) full also of sorrow. For joy and sorrow are inseparable until the great consummation, the great End that is the great Beginning. Mary is often depicted as a woman of sorrows or of solitude. This image probably implies a reference to the sword that pierced her soul (heart) as prophesied by Simeon in the Temple.
This is the glory of Mary. It has been more than six centuries since the age of chivalry, when virginity was understood and valued as the enormous power that it is, when there were festivals in honor of Our Lady, and when England was called “Mary’s Dowry”. Now we live in a culture of speed, greed, and death, and the heartfelt exclamation “By Our Lady,” has devolved to the English epithet “bloody”.
But for the Catholic faithful, the truth does not and cannot change, though all the world be deaf and blind. Our Lady is still, next to Jesus, the greatest human being who has ever lived, who shows us the way of Jesus. Her hidden glory of unique intimacy with God shows that we bear the cross to walk the way of life. We share in the sufferings of Christ only because they lead to “the joys of his resurrection”. Mary, then, is the first among the redeemed, and the greatest boast of the human race.
Her glorious Assumption is a sign of the full hallowing of matter, the fullness of redemption, the firstfruits of Jesus’ promises, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5); and “I shall come again and receive you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:3). Mary’s Assumption shows us our destiny, what the Prayer Book describes as “perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in [God’s] eternal and everlasting glory” (Book of Common Prayer, page, 488).
As the first Christians knew, and as Catholic Christians everywhere have known through the ages, and today know still, any genuine devotion to Jesus and commitment to him must inevitably draw Mary into one’s heart as well. As the medieval Anglicans knew it, “Christ’s meek Mother, Saint Marye, My Life’s light, my beloved Ladye.”