Cæli enarrant

I come to the end of my Marian sojourn attuned again to the calendar, for August 15 presents even Anglicans an opportunity to celebrate “Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (1979 BCP, p. 26), just as the final mysteries of the rosary return to the figure of Mary herself, whom we have accompanied from the start, or vice versa. We have walked together on the road of discipleship, and here at last our devotion would form in us reflection on the end of the Church as given in God. As “all things hold together” in Jesus Christ — in whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:17, 20) — so in his mother’s arriving home we see the hope of all who will persevere, namely, perfect union: sharing in “the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

As ever, we rely on analogies of faith, given by God in Scripture and the saints. The great Cappadocian theologian Gregory Nazianzen (329-90) famously explained the Incarnation as God’s taking up all that it means to be human, including the human spirit or rational mind, against the heresy of Apollinaris. “What has not been assumed has not been healed,” wrote Gregory. And human healing in Christ implies precisely a concomitant elevation or assumption of human beings to God by God, as a return that sees salvation as likeness, true godliness. In Gregory’s words: “Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man” (see Epistle 101).

The Assumption of Mary, dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950 and celebrated by Roman Catholics and others on August 15, finds its spiritual and theological rationale here at the heart of incarnational Christology and consequent human sanctification in him. We lack a clear scriptural text to prove the pope’s claim that Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” But the doctrine is not “contrary to God’s word written” or otherwise “repugnant,” per the proper concern of our Anglican forbears (Article XX). As the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) argued in its 2004 study of this matter, we find “hints or partial analogies” of something similar elsewhere in Scripture “that may throw light on the mystery of Mary’s entry into glory.” For instance, in the event of his martyrdom, Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” sees “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56). The penitent thief is told “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Elijah ascends “in a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kgs. 2:11). And, not least: “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him,’” since “he had pleased God” (Heb. 11:5, quoting Gen. 5:24; cf. Sir. 44:16).

We may identify this scriptural pattern as “anticipated eschatology,” in the words of the ARCIC authors — as, that is, a foreshadowing of

the new creation in Christ when all the redeemed will participate in the full glory of the Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). … The individual believer and the Church find their consummation in the new Jerusalem, the holy bride of Christ (cf. Rev. 21:2, Eph. 5:27). When Christians from East and West through the generations have pondered God’s work in Mary, they have discerned in faith … that it is fitting that the Lord gathered her wholly to himself: in Christ, she is already a new creation in whom “the old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). (All from ARCIC, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, §§56-57)

The image of St. Mary’s “crowning” provides similar edification of a scripturalist sort. Our Roman Catholic friends point to Revelation 12 as an entré, which describes a “great portent … in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. … And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:1, 5). A queen of heaven, therefore, and her royal heir — taking the order of events in reverse, if Mary may be found crowned in heaven at the last. As a rule, Scripture appropriates royal figures to Christ, as the definitive end of all prophecies, irrespective of earthly chronology. In King David’s vision, amazingly deployed by Jesus himself: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Ps. 110:1). “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” (Matt. 22:45).

The challenge of the mystery of Mary’s crowning is not its evangelical plausibility but its seeming distance from our everyday Christian lives; we may be tempted to dismiss it as pietism that could distract from the real business of finding and following our Lord. Surely this is mistaken, however, if the end is ever upon us, so that the gospel of God would shake us from the slumber of mere immanence, which imagines that we see the extent of things, that all of reality is contained conveniently by human labor and intelligence. The Son of God himself, born of royal stock, confronts these and all such similar pretensions, starting with a call to repent. “Listen!” he says, standing at the door and knocking: “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:19-21). The promised end envisions a great multitude of kings and queens.

Of course, in his Passion the incarnate Word is crowned with thorns, for “this man said, I am King of the Jews” (John 19:21), and Christ’s crowning occupies a mystery of its own, since his disciples must seek to imitate his exemplary humility. For this same reason, the five glorious mysteries show forth the full extent and end of the Lord’s victory over earthly corruption and contempt, “the scorn of the indolent rich” and “derision of the proud” (Ps. 123:4-5). In place of every putative prince who would unseat God’s own Son we lift up our eyes to the resurrected and ascended King of Kings and Lord of Lords “enthroned in the heavens” (123:1). More than that, with our “mistress” Mary, and with Elijah, Enoch, and doubtlessly other gracious “masters,” we dare to hope to rise and gather round the throne of God, having been shown his mercy (Ps. 123:2-3); and to find there reserved “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge,” will give “to all who have longed for his appearing” (1 Tim. 4:8).

“Arise, O Lord, into your resting-place, you and the ark of your strength” (Ps. 132:8).

O God, you have graciously befriended us in your Son, our Lord Jesus, and taught us to trust in him as Savior and King: Plant him in our hearts and in our minds before and above all things; deliver us from presumption and pretense, affected emotion and false religion; and grant us a comprehending faith and love that may lead us to rise one day to behold your presence, with Saint Mary, Saint Stephen, and all the prophets, apostles, and martyrs who have gone before; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christopher Wells

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