Saint Mary in the Liturgy

By H. Boone Porter

It is one of the many ironies of religious history that the saint who is recognized as unique by all Christians should have become an object of bitter contention. Such is the case with our Lord’s blessed Mother. The ancient Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic liturgies generally have frequent and very honorific references to St. Mary. At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, Protestants were generally eager to remove or minimize such references.

As usual, the Church of England pursued a middling path. In the historic editions of the Book of Common Prayer, she is, of course, referred to constantly in the creeds. At morning prayer her role in the incarnation is alluded to in the Te Deum (in traditional Anglican practice this was said or sung daily except in Lent) and in the evening in the Magnificat.  In the calendar, she is conspicuous in the Christmas-Epiphany period. The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord or the Purification of St. Mary, traditionally known in England as Candlemas (February 2) is associated with her, as is the Annunciation (March 25), formerly widely known among Anglicans as Lady Day. On the other hand, the historic English prayer books did not retain several medieval feasts specifically in honor of Mary. The most notable of such omissions was her feast on August 15, generally regarded in the Middle Ages as the date of her assumption, or passage up to heaven. The modern Roman Catholic belief that she was bodily taken up into heaven has seemed superstitious and offensive to most non-Roman Western Christians, and has not commended this feast.

Yet a problem has remained for Anglicans. On the one hand, we observe red letter feasts for most other major New Testament figures, including such obscure apostles as St. Bartholomew or St. Jude. Yet we deny such a feast to the person most responsible, at the human level, for our Lord’s birth into this world. True, she is commemorated at Christmas, Candlemas, and the Annunciation, but, as has frequently been pointed out, these are really feasts of our Lord, and the Annunciation is often displaced and obscured by Holy Week or Easter. In short, there has been good reason to restore that feast on August 15, which has been St. Mary’s Day since early Christian times. The association with the doctrine of the assumption was a later addition which does not involve Episcopalians. 

Fifteen years ago when the Standing Liturgical Commission was restoring the calendar of lesser feasts in the Episcopal Church, this feast of St. Mary was hesitantly put forward. It was feared that it would be seized on as an object of controversy. In fact this did not happen. Episcopalians, if they were concerned about the question at all, accepted this addition to the calendar in the amicable and non-controversial spirit that was intended. The same was true of the feast of the Visitation then observed on July 2.

A few years later, as plans began to be made for a revision of the Prayer Book, these days were reconsidered. The Visitation is really a feast of our Lord and thus, if observed at all, should be a red letter day. Similarly, if our Lord’s Mother is recognized as a major New Testament figure, then according to our prevailing Anglican system, she like the others should have a red letter day, for which no special explanations are needed. For the same reason, it may be noted, the red letter status of St. Mary Magdalene’s observance (July 22) was restored.

Falling in mid-summer, we cannot suppose that St. Mary’s Day will become a major event in the life of most parishes. On the other hand, we should give it as much emphasis as can appropriately be given to a week-day observance. It certainly should be publicly announced. For too many other Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, our Lord’s Mother is still a topic for quarrelling. We Anglicans have a valuable witness to offer in our ability to honor St. Mary without worshipping her, and to uphold her unique place in the history of salvation without adding unscriptural and unsuitable elaborations. 

Meanwhile the historic Anglican daily use of the Te Deum and Magnificat has had little impact in modern America, where few churchpeople hear these said or sung, even on Sundays. The Proposed Prayer Book compensates for this, in a sense, by including references to the Incarnation in eucharistic prayers, and in two of then specifically naming the Virgin Mary. Similarly, two of the intercessions, Form V (page 391) and the conclusion of Eucharistic Prayer D (page 375), permit the custom of regularly name her among the saints.

Such specificity is desirable within liturgical formulations. A phrase like “the communion of saints” loses its meaning if one does not frequently hear of real and specific individual saints. Similarly, the word “incarnation” is very orthodox, but when this term stands by itself, it is rather technical and intellectual. On the other hand, when a prayer goes to speak of Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary, it suggests the wonder and mystery of the Son of God entering human flesh though the motherhood of a young Jewish woman. Liturgy must speak to the heart as well as to the head; it must gather up body, mind, and spirit, and for this reason must be suggestive, evocative, and artistic as well as reasonable. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was first published in our August 7,1977 issue.

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