By Lawrence N. Crumb
Earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday, 64 years after her accession to the throne. The sudden and unexpected change in her status was something that she learned only after climbing down from a treehouse in Kenya where she had been vacationing with her husband, Prince Philip. I think it is appropriate that, before ascending the throne, the new queen had first to descend from something, if only a treehouse. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, commenting on Christ’s descent among the dead: “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph. 4:10 KJV). In a television program at the time of the queen’s diamond jubilee, several of the people interviewed stressed her humility. Humility is a good attribute for a monarch, or for a priest — indeed, for all Christians, since all Christians share in the royal priesthood of Christ, the greatest example of humility who ever lived.
Surely, the second-greatest example of humility was that of St. Mary, whose feast we celebrated on August 15. This was apparent at the Annunciation when, after her brief question (“How can this be?”), she accepted her very dangerous vocation, saying simply: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” We cannot know, or even imagine, the feelings that must have overwhelmed her, and it is not surprising that she spoke but a few words.
The true nature of her humility became more apparent at the time of her visitation to Elisabeth, when she proclaimed the ecstatic utterance we know as the Magnificat. Mary has been called the first truly liberated woman, and we see here that her humility was not the false humility of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, but included an assertiveness based on a self-confident knowledge of who she was: “Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” She could say this in humility because she knew who it was who gave her the mission and the authority to carry it out: “He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.” Names were very important and powerful in her culture, and the name of God especially so. When her son taught his disciples to pray “Hallowed be thy Name,” he was reflecting this same consciousness. (Notice that Name is capitalized in the prayer book, in both the Magnificat and the Lord’s Prayer.)
We see another combination of humility and assertiveness in the story of Jesus’ first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, where we are told at the very beginning of the account: “The mother of Jesus was there.” This episode is recorded only in the Fourth Gospel, and thus may be primarily of symbolic significance. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, published in 2011, suggests that “the wedding may allude to the messianic banquet,” especially since it is said to be “on the third day,” a phrase interpreted in the same commentary as possibly foreshadowing the resurrection. We don’t know what Mary’s role in the wedding celebration was, but her instruction to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” remains the most basic and succinct instruction to all Christians. It has become clear that Mary’s humility is linked inseparably with trust and faith.
We see the ultimate expression of Mary’s trust and faith at the foot of the cross, where she stands with John, the youngest disciple, and the other women, when strong men have fled.
There are several accounts of Jesus’ reunions with the disciples after his resurrection, but not a word about his reunion with his mother. What a moment that must have been! Perhaps it was too intimate and private to have been recorded. We do know that Mary remained in Jerusalem, for we read in the account of Pentecost that she was with those disciples who remained in the city, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). They did not know exactly what they were waiting for, during the period following the Ascension — what I like to think of as the Church’s first interim. But I cannot help wondering if Mary had a pretty good idea. Perhaps she suspected that, just as the Holy Spirit had come upon her to enable her for her mission, so the same Holy Spirit would come upon the whole apostolic community, enabling them for their mission: the Divine Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20).
We do not know when Mary died, the event associated with this day — what the Orthodox call the Dormition, or Falling Asleep, and Anglicans used to call the Repose. However longer she lived, we may assume that she remained an icon of faith, trust, and humility to all who knew her.
One of the drafts leading up to the American Prayer Book of 1928 included a prayer of thanksgiving for the saints, including Mary, as an optional prayer following the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church; it followed the example of the 1549 book, which included the words in the longer prayer. It did not make it into the final version, but we now have it, slightly revised, as one of the optional prayers at the end of the Burial Office. It is appropriate for other occasions as well, and I would like to conclude with it as a reminder that when we affirm our belief in the communion of saints, there is Mary, pre-eminent among them.
“O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP, p. 489).
The Rev. Lawrence N. Crumb is vicar of St. Andrew’s Church in Cottage Grove, Oregon.