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The Blessed Virgin Mary

05 August 2021

Isaiah 61.10-end or Revelation 11.19-12.6,10; Psalm 45.10-17; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 1.46-55


IF IN doubt whether something is proper Church of England, turn to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its calendar does not mark this as a feast of St Mary; but two minutes’ walk from where I sit writing is my Anglican parish church of “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

To commemorate, or not to commemorate? The readings are meant to help us. But they are so different in kind. One is narrative; two are sung (and one of those is a marriage hymn); and the fourth reads like the work of a fevered CGI creator. We need some background.

During the fourth century, Christianity became the principal religion of the Roman Empire. As persecutions ebbed, Christians were free to get on with their favourite pastime: finding ways to disagree. It was then that the meaning of Mary came to the fore. Making sense of Mary was like solving the Trinitarian question from the other end — beginning with humanity, in other words, rather than divinity. It was the sense of wonder at her being so graced as to touch the life of God which led many to revere her; for she showed what a life pleasing to God might look like.

There is no mention of Mary’s death in the Bible. In the Eastern tradition, she falls asleep (“dormition”; “falling asleep” is Bible-speak for death). In the West, she is taken up, body and soul, into heaven (“assumption”). The latter leaves it unclear whether she died first, but, if every other human being (including Jesus) dies, it would be surprising if Mary did not.

We need not use the Revelation reading. An alternative (Isaiah 61.10-11) is provided. Revelation 12, though, shows how Mary came to be a focus of devotion. John of Patmos describes his experience in visionary — rather than logical, or theological — terms, evoking Ephesians 6.12: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Mary was part of God’s armour against “the flaming arrows of the evil one”, protecting her son who, to be truly human, had also to be truly vulnerable.

John of Patmos’s “woman clothed with the sun” could refer primarily to the Church. The mystical marriage between Christ and the Church is a key motif in Revelation, but it is also found elsewhere: for example, Ephesians (5.25, 29, 32) and 2 Corinthians (11.2). The choice of the royal wedding psalm 45 encourages a focus on Christ as the bridegroom (an idea also apparent in the Gospels). But the identification of the woman as Mary happens early. We cannot rule out her being the primary referent; for the Church did not bring Christ into being, but, rather, the reverse.

When we turn to Galatians, we are back in the safer territory of theological discourse. Yet even here we find Mary — not named, true, but indispensable for Paul’s point about Christ’s true humanity. Paul makes his reference in the context of what he calls “the fullness of time”. He means that God has a plan and purpose, that his hand is detectable in the unfolding of human history, that he is concerned with us as individuals (rather than with humanity as a lump), and that his choice of both moment and mother is anything but random.

Eventually, we reach the Gospel, where the ground — Mary’s Magnificat — could not be more Anglican. As with many familiar readings, hearing a different version is enlightening. How fast Mary moves from reflecting on herself (and even this she does from God’s perspective: “The Mighty One has done great things for me”) to proclaiming God. A series of verbs opens each line in turn: “He has shown. . . He has brought down. . . He has filled. . . He has helped”. The very phrasing shows the truth of Mary: that she is all about pointing to God. Indeed, this is one of the Eastern names for her, “the one who points the way” (hodigitria).

If she serves this valuable purpose for some Christians, that is surely something for all Christians to celebrate. How she lived is interwoven with how she died; and with what happened afterwards. And, if the same could be said of all of us, that, surely, is at least part of Mary’s point.

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25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

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