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
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
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.