Within the Octave of the Feast of St Mary the Virgin (August 15), it seemed fitting to offer some theological reflection on Mary. Here is the second of two posts doing so. The first was posted on Wednesday.
I was pleased that my first post for Covenant fell on the Octave of the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, or, as I prefer, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For there are two dimensions of Anglicanism that I have come to prize very highly. First is the oft-touted lex orandi, lex credendi, the principle that the contours of the faith we confess can best be discerned by an examination of the prayers we pray. Second is the wide latitude Anglicanism affords for interpreting those prayers.
I note that the collect for this feast in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer reads, in part: “O God, you have taken to yourself the Blessed Virgin Mary…” No one with authority to do so has ever told me that, as an Anglican, I cannot understand those words to mean what the Catholic Church calls Mary’s “Assumption” ‑ and so that is how I take them.
Mary is a pledge of the victory that Christ has won for us on the cross. Having already fully reaped the benefits of Christ’s Passion, having had her redemption sealed in the resurrection of her body, she shows us the grace, the beauty, and the power of an intimate union with Jesus. She shows us our own destiny as children of God and as heirs with Christ of the promises of the Father. The Blessed Virgin shows us what it looks like to be a finite creature wrapped, by grace and faith and love, in God’s own eternity.
Under the title “Regina Caeli,” Mary reveals our own future as heirs of the Kingdom. But as the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, she reveals what it is to live a life of faith in God here on earth, amid the shadows of the flesh ‑ she reveals the kind of life that leads to the fulfillment of the promises of God for a Christian in his or her particularity. She shows us how to live now such that, when we die, we too may be raised to glory and victory and immortality.
The Gospels are insistent that Mary believed, that she entrusted herself, body and soul, to the power of the Holy Spirit in her great fiat: “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). And so Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, said of the Blessed Virgin: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Blessed is she who believed.
Mary’s life was a burgeoning awareness of the truth of the Word of God, an awareness that was at once the fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon about Mary: “And a sword shall pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). It was this poor girl from Galilee who stood in wonder by the manger as shepherds and astrologers from Persia came to worship her baby boy. It was Mary who ‑ twelve years later, having lost her boy in Jerusalem and having searched for him for three agonizing days ‑ had to endure the painful words of Jesus: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Mary watched her only son grow in wisdom and grace and favor with God and with men. And uniquely for her, this watching, year by year, meant the realization of Jesus’ supernatural otherness. For the closer she got to the Lord in love, the more acutely did she become aware of the radical distance separating her from her son, who was the Word made flesh.
Mary is there again at the beginning of the Lord’s public life during the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). They run out of wine and Mary comes to the Lord and pleadingly says to him, “They have no wine.” But Jesus only replies, “What would you have me do, woman? My hour has not yet come.” For Jesus has come to do the will of his Father and no other. And then suddenly his hour has come.
And another time, Mary comes looking for Jesus, and they call to him: “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you,” and he responds: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50).
And finally, at the end, Mary is there on Calvary, under the cross, her own heart of love crucified with Jesus. Desperate and helpless, Mary is there. And here again comes the realization of the solitude in which her son exists, having come to do the will of the Father and no other. Here Mary must endure the final separation, the full morning of her son’s total otherness, the all-demanding solitude in which he (and he alone) must suffer and die, shouldering the world’s weight of sin by himself before the justice of God. And Mary is there without a word of consolation.
Jesus, with a glance at John, says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” He says to John “Behold your mother” (John 19:26-27).
Romano Guardini said: “Perseverance in faith even on Calvary ‑ this was Mary’s inimitable greatness… It is this heroic faith which places her irrevocably at Christ’s side in the work of redemption… What is demanded of us, as of her, is a constant wrestling [in faith] with the mystery of God and with the evil resistance of the world…” (Guardini, The Lord, p. 14).
Mary’s walk with the Lord meant being constantly outpaced by the mystery of her son, by the labor and offering which was his to bear alone for the sins of the world. But again, to quote Guardini, “each time, in a surge of faith, she caught up with him and enfolded him anew…” And at the end, “from the depths of her co-agony on Golgotha, Mary, with a final bound of faith, accepted this double separation ‑ and once again stood beside him.”
Mary shows us what it is to live a life of faith in the promises of God, no matter the cost. She shows what it is for us, as Christians, to grow into an awareness of the radical otherness of God, to follow him with love, and yet to discern his voice as from the ever deepening ambit of eternity.
Mary is the plenitude of life in Christ ‑ a life of total faith in God’s promise, overflowing with the love of Jesus. And so too when the life of the Blessed Virgin came to a close, she showed forth the fulfillment of God’s promises for all those who trust him, who love his Son, who listen when he says “Follow me” ‑ even though it means following him to Calvary.
And seeing Mary in exaltation, as the Queen of Heaven, we see the reward of such a life of faith and love. We see therefore what is possible for us through Christ, when we assent with Mary to God’s call to us, when we open our hearts to the plenitude and sufficiency of his grace in our lives. When we venerate Mary for her assent to the call of God in her life, we are in some measure assenting to the call of God in our own lives, and we are affirming the gracious possibilities of our own vocations as children of God, as his servants and handmaidens. When we venerate Mary for her openness to the Holy Spirit of God, we are affirming the possibility of the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, enabling us to minister Christ in this broken world through our assent to God’s call. When we say to God, with Mary, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” then we become, with Mary, “full of grace” ‑ then the light of Christ that is the life of the world and the glory of God, begins to shine inside of us ‑ then we begin ourselves to become bearers of God (theotokoi). His grace and his power begin to flow through us, his light begins to shine in us; he suffers himself to be brought by us to others in need of him, to be born of us to a world groaning for salvation. Mary’s exaltation ‑ and her ministry as intercessor and advocate ‑ come from her intense love of her crucified son. If we will be heirs of his glory and effective ministers of his gospel, we must be united with Mary in the love of Jesus Christ ‑ though it means a sword will pierce our own soul too. For if we do not join ourselves to him in faith and love, we remain like moons cut off from the light of the sun: cold, dark, and lifeless.
How wonderful it is therefore to be able to join Mary in prayer, to appropriate her prayer, to say to God with her confidence, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” How blessed are we to be united to her faith in the promises of God, to be united to her love of Jesus. What a privilege to contemplate the great mystery of the Incarnation of God through the eyes of Mary’s openness and trust. Most of all, how sublime it is to join with Mary at the foot of the cross, to enter with her into the agony of her son, to allow the wounds of his love to afflict our souls as they afflicted hers, and to know that when at last we love him as our own, then we will become his own, then we also will become heirs, with Mary, of the promises of Christ, heirs of his victory, of his immortality, and of his ageless and unsurpassable glory.
The image is Bartholomäus Strobel’s Assumption of St. Mary with St. John the Evangelist, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Apostles at the Tomb (1647) in the Church of the Assumption in Koronowo.