By Leander S. Harding

I have a set of mission imperatives for the mission to modernity. They include “bringing back the Greeks,” by which I mean asking the great philosophical questions discovered by the Greeks — questions like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “What is happiness?” One of the problems that the church encounters in her mission to modernity or the hyper-modernity that is often called “post-modernity” (though I prefer terms like “late modernity”), is that the Christian faith proposes answers to questions that have ceased to be asked. So, bring back the Greeks.

I also propose a radical Christo-centrism: focusing on Jesus Christ as encountered in the Scriptures and in the sacramental liturgy of the Church. The instrumental recommendation of the faith by political theologies of the left and right is a confession that we have ceased to believe that Jesus Christ is the summum bonum and that we recommend him only as a means to some other more important end.

I also advocate saving beautiful church buildings, because architecture is a converting Christian art and one that is uniquely powerful in the banal landscape of the secular city.

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As I was putting together my list, I was surprised to find that I included “cultivate Marian spirituality.” This was a reach for me. I revere Mary as the paradigm of the Christian soul and the Church, but Marian devotion, Marian spirituality, has not been a focus in my own devotional life.

Mary appears to me to be especially important for the mission to modernity because modernity is characterized by a deep desire to be independent of God. Moderns, to the extent that they are modern, have what is by now either a naïve or a delusional confidence in unaided human nature. Mary’s fiat, her surrender to God, her suppleness in the hands of the Holy Spirit, her desire to conform herself to the divine will, is the opposite of, and it appears to me the antidote to, the disease of the modern spirit.

The churches of the old Western Christian homelands are, I think, deeply comprised by conformity to the modern spirit and so constantly attaching themselves to worldly schemes of what the Italian philosopher, Augusto del Noce, calls “perfectism,” delusional dreams of human perfection without transformation by grace. We moderns profoundly confuse our will and our temporal schemes with the eternal will of God. This is bound to lead, as Michael Polanyi has pointed out, to moral fanaticism where the violent means are justified by the noble ends.

Our only hope is to find Mary’s fiat, her surrender to God and trust in God’s providential plan. In this surrender and trust we will find the womb from which new missionary faithfulness can be born. Here we will find the capacity of Mother Church to nurse our faltering efforts to conform ourselves to Christ and his mission. Certain kinds of Roman Catholics and Orthodox will find more resources for cultivating this Marian spirit than will many other churches. There are resources in Luther of which many contemporary Lutherans may be unaware. No contemporary Christian community will find it altogether easy, precisely to the extent that they are contemporary.

I have made a small beginning by becoming a priest associate of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. In 1061, Mary appeared to Richeldis de Faverches, a Saxon noblewoman and mistress of the Manor of Walsingham Parva. The Virgin asked Richeldis to build a replica of the holy house in Nazareth. The holy house was built and Walsingham became a site of pilgrimage second only to Canterbury. It was destroyed during the Reformation. In modern times both Roman Catholics and Anglicans have rebuilt shrines at Walsingham. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to the shrines each year, and the Anglican shrine is known for its remarkable gathering of young people each summer. Walsingham is a place of physical, spiritual, and ecumenical healing. As a priest associate of the Shrine I must promise to celebrate regularly, at a stated time, a Eucharist in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham. At the cathedral where I serve, we have a Saturday morning Mass, and I promised that when no other feast is designated, I would offer the Eucharist in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham.

I believe that the Eucharist should always have a homily, however brief. Making this promise to repeatedly offer a Mass in honor of Our Lady has brought me again and again to the same readings. My meager supply of Marian theology was soon exhausted. I had said, I thought, everything that could be said about the readings. Slowly I am learning what cultivate means — what it means to ruminate, to ponder and to contemplate, to be willing to be poor in front of the mystery.

This last Saturday, silenced, with nothing to say, keenly aware of my own poverty and weakness, I was led to think of how poor and weak Mary appears in the eyes of the world and even, perhaps, in her own eyes. Yet, she says, “behold the handmaid of the Lord.” My thoughts turned from my own weak and impoverished state to the weak and impoverished state of the particular ecclesial community in which God has placed me. My thoughts turned to the cathedral where I serve and of its immense challenges and needs, of the institutional fragility which it shares with so many churches, of its aging congregation, of our weakness in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes, especially as we face the challenge of mission in an always indifferent and sometimes hostile, secular city. Mary in a similar circumstance puts herself unreservedly in the hands of God. Somewhere one of the Church Fathers notes that Zechariah, when told of the miraculous birth to come, hesitates, doubts, and is silenced. Mary trusts and is filled with the Holy Spirit and breaks into song. Here is a prayer for the mission to modernity: Lord, give us grace to place ourselves unreservedly in your hands and to sing with Mary, My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.

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