Next Sunday's readings: The Blessed Virgin Mary

05 August 2010

by Martin Warner

Revelation 11.19-12.6,10
Galatians 4.4-7
Luke 1.46-55

TAKING ON the responsibility for a vegetable garden is a new experience for me. How produce emerges from neatly ordered rows of plants is still a source of surprise. Courgettes come from something quite unexpected. Nor was I prepared for the painful discovery that gooseberry bushes have slender, vicious thorns.

The relentless task of garnering a profusion of fruit and veg has brought home to me the significance of August as the month of harvest. This domestic realisation is compounded by the impact on local traffic of farm vehicles busy about the industrial harvesting of grain.

August is also the month in which the Church celebrates a festival of Mary. Evidence suggests that the Eastern origins of this go back to the sixth century, when a festival was established by the Emperor Maurice, and that it was well established in Rome by the end of the seventh century.

The festival focuses on the end of Mary’s earthly life, and a belief that this is unintelligible without reference to the work of redemption accomplished by Jesus — our bodies conformed to the likeness of his resurrection life (Romans 8.9-11).

For many people, this festival presents the more difficult aspects of devotion to Mary. It seems to suggest a heavenly identity that removes her from the mundane and the human, the very things that guarantee our redemption. And if Mary’s ordinariness is not real, what God takes from her flesh is unrepresentative and less than human.

Perhaps some of the anxiety that hovers around today’s festival finds its roots in the alternative first reading from the book of Revelation that refers to “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars” (Revelation 12.1). Even among the Church’s early theologians, there was uncertainty about the identity of this figure. For some, she is an image of the Church; for others, she is to be identified with Mary.

In time, the latter interpretation prevailed, leading to an iconography of Mary that places a crown on her head and surrounds her with stars. But this is not the only reference to scripture that we might use to assert the realisation of Christian hope in Mary at the end of her earthly life.

Heinrich Bullenger, one of the more influential Continental reformers in the 16th-century English Reformation, had a strong sense of Mary’s perpetual virginity. It is a statement that is emblematic of her special identity as a human being graced by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.

Bullenger also makes a connection between the end of Mary’s life and the passing from this world of another Spirit-filled character from the Bible, Elijah, who is taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2.11).

Bullenger sees this as a statement about the distinctive character of the bodies of the saints, and states, in relation to Mary: “because of this, we believe that the pure immaculate chamber of the God-bearer, the Virgin Mary, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, that is her holy body, borne by angels into heaven.”

How are we to make sense of this in a way that honours Mary as our sister, but also takes into account the persistent tradition of Christian devotion to her as one who already shares the resurrection? Perhaps this is where the month of August as the season of harvest is of some help.

In the Gospel parables, Jesus often speaks of the harvest as a symbol of the end time, when the Kingdom of heaven is brought to its fulfilment. The harvest is an allegory for the proclamation of the Kingdom that brings healing (Matthew 9.35-38).

It also functions as a reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus, when he is revealed as the stone rejected by the builders, but ultimately exalted as the chosen cornerstone (Matthew 21.33-44). Earlier in Matthew, Jesus had spoken of the harvest as an allusion to judgement and the revealing of the righteous “who will shine like the stars in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13.30, 43).

In a similar way, St Paul describes the signs of the life of the Holy Spirit as fruits — a harvest. This distinguishes them from the “works” of the flesh, things that are done by human agency. It is like the distinction that we would now make between “organic” and life-enhancing produce, contrasted with destructive mass-production (Galatians 5.19-25).

By placing the celebration of Mary’s life in August, the harvest season, we seem to be connecting her with a destiny that realises the transformative effects of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.35). Not only does Mary witness this in the birth of Jesus, the word made flesh, but she is herself the fruit, the harvest, of the work of salvation that he accomplishes.

So for Mary, as for us, the heavenly harvest is when we are enabled, in the words of Evelyn Underhill:

To pluck the rosemary
 we cannot reach
With the mind’s span,
And so at last
Breathe the rich fragrance
 of our horded past
And learn the slow unfolding
 of the plan.

Revelation 11:19-12:6,10

19Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings,peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

1And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. 10And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

Galatians 4.4-7

4When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Luke 1.46-55

46‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

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