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Mary: most highly favoured lady

20 March 2015

The mother of both God and man should unite rather than divide us, argues Lincoln Harvey


"Grief is the price we pay for love": Michelangelo's Pietá, in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

"Grief is the price we pay for love": Michelangelo's Pietá, in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

ON WEDNESDAY the Church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation. It remembers Mary's response to the foretelling of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is only a pregnancy away. Yet Mary divides. For some Christians, she is the focus of celebration; for others, she is a focus of suspicion. This division becomes clear during acts of worship, especially if Catholics and Evangelicals are gathered together.

Here at St Mellitus College - where Evangelicals and Catholics pray and study alongside each other - any celebration of Mary during worship will likely cause a stir. At a recent eucharist, for example, we were invited to sing J. R. Peacey's joyful Marian hymn, which includes such celebratory verses as, "Hail, Mary, you are full of grace, above all women blest; Blest in your Son, whom your embrace in birth and death confessed."

Delightful to many, this hymn proved offensive to others. It certainly generated some lively debate. On close reading, however, there's little wrong with Peacey's lyrics. In point of fact, I'm much happier to sing about Mary's response to our Lord than singing about my own. Too many songs, both Evangelical and Catholic, focus on our own response - and that is where real dangers lie, not in celebrating God's grace in Mary.

None the less, suspicion abounds. So how might we appropriately celebrate the place of Mary in the life of the Church? One way to do so is to encourage reflection on three key points: (1) Jesus's summary of the Law; (2) how the Church defines the identity of Jesus Christ; and (3) our own experience of the reality of motherhood. In so doing, we should be able to agree that Mary's life is well worth celebrating.

WHEN asked for a summary of the Law, Jesus answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself" (Luke 10.27). This twofold summary of the Law needs to be kept in mind throughout the following. It constitutes our first step.

The next step is to recall the Church's orthodox teaching about Jesus, which was classically defined at Chalcedon in 451. At this Council, the assembled Bishops defined the reality of Jesus Christ with striking clarity. This one man, they agreed, was both fully divine and fully human, with the divine and human natures united in his identity "without confusion, change, separation, or division". In other words, the Church teaches that Jesus is God (or, put otherwise, that there is nothing un-Christlike in God); but also teaches that Jesus is man (he is also our brother, our neighbour, living here alongside us, fully incarnate). Taking both statements together, the Church proclaims that this is the God-man; and the mysterious, twofold identity of Jesus Christ constitutes our second step.

The final step draws together our first two: to love Jesus - the God-man - with all our heart, soul, strength and mind is to love both God and neighbour. The twofold summary of the Law here coincides in the singular object of our love, Jesus Christ. And, by recognising this, we discover a way to understand the place of Mary within the life of the Church.

The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Leaving aside the metaphysical complexities that the claim implies, the Church's teaching rightly identifies Mary as Jesus's mum. Anyone who has experienced the realities of motherhood is well-schooled in the ways of love. The sacrificial work of a mother - welcoming a baby into this world, with night feeds, nappies, winding, bathing, cuddles, and comforts; the tender setting aside of one's own life for the good of another - is a work of the heart, soul, strength, and mind. A mother truly loves her child. Exceptions only prove the rule.

So, if we retrace the simple steps we've taken, we can see that Mary must have loved Jesus in a unique way because she alone loved him as his mother. And, just so, we can be confident that Mary gets much closer than the rest of us to upholding the twofold law to love both God and neighbour, no matter how noble our own attempts. Therefore, Mary's response to God's gracious gift of her child - and the love between Jesus and his mother - is a faithful image of the Christian life; one that rightly draws our gaze away from its fixation on ourselves, and teaches us the love of God and neighbour as part of our own transformation in the Church.

As a result, whether we're Catholic or Evangelical, we should be able to join in Peacey's wonderful hymn, singing as one, "For Mary, Mother of the Lord, God's holy name be praised, Who first the Son of God adored as on her child she gazed." 

The Revd Dr Lincoln Harvey is Assistant Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College.

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