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Mary, Mother of Unity for the 21st Century

“A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35) said Simeon to Mary. There are many layers to Simeon’s haunting prophecy. Might one of them be the way her son’s followers allowed his mother to become a source of division in the life of the church across the centuries and continents?

Rather than the following the example of the beloved disciple, some have not taken Mary to their homes and hearts. Rather than magnifying “God [our] savior” (Luke 1:46) with Mary, and exalting in the mercy and strength of God, some have raised Mary to a place that risks obscuring the unbounded grace of God that she found in her son. Rather than acknowledging with Elizabeth that Mary is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42), some have neglected her and even said harsh things about her. Rather than celebrating with Elizabeth that Mary has received God’s gift of his Son through her hard-won willingness to believe that “there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45), some have tried to locate Mary’s merit in places other than the humility of her heart and her readiness to receive the election of God before the “foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

Anglicanism’s restrained but real recognition of the place of Mary in the purposes of God and the life of church provides the seeds for an approach to Mary that brings Christians together and heals our divisions. A credal church affirms Mary’s unique significance in the scheme of salvation. Jesus was “incarnate from Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. He was “born of the Virgin Mary,” as we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed. That is why Mary is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer. A liturgical church remembers the life of Mary — her conception and birth, the Angel’s Annunciation and the Visitation to her cousin — and rejoices with her that God “has done great things” (Luke 1:49) for her. That is why we called this woman “Blessed” (Luke 1:49).

A scriptural church will proportion Mary according to Scripture, with Paul’s insistence that Christ was “born of a [Jewish] woman” (Gal. 4:4), with John’s testimony, that she was faithful at the dying of her son as well in his living (John 19:25-27) and with Luke’s evidence that after Jesus’ resurrection she was named amidst the apostles, “constantly devoting [herself] to prayer” (Acts 1:14), and doing as Jesus had told them, waiting to be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). This is why we are to heed Mary’s words about her son to “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). For what is Anglicanism if not credal, liturgical, and scriptural? That is the basis of our being semper reformanda, always meek to be reformed by Scripture and the creeds, and the gospel they tell that is expressed through the authentic liturgical tradition.

There are several signs that the church of God is ready to gather in surprising ways around a common love of Mary. Contemporary Roman Catholic teaching is probably not too far from that form of devotion to Mary, dear to the heart of Luther, that sees her pointing towards her son rather than to herself. Evangelicals, often women, are finding in Mary a surprising source of inspiration as one who exemplifies the dynamic of grace and demonstrates the call to proclaim the gospel to the family and on the streets that lies at the core of evangelical experience and commitment. Charismatics are drawn to Mary as the one who shows us how to receive the Spirit in abundance, stay close to Christ in all the conditions of life, be filled with the Spirit of Pentecost, and go out onto the streets to manifest the reality of the kingdom of God on earth. Christians with a strong sociopolitical instinct find Mary’s prophetic vision — of a world transformed by the just rule of God that brings down the thrones of abusive power and raises up the poor and outcast — a manifesto of hope. Feminist Christians see in Mary an embodiment of Spirit-inspired agency and an affirmation of the necessity of womanhood in the purposes of God, for without Mary there is no Jesus. Beyond the church other communities of religion, from Muslim to Yazidi, give Mary high praise and challenge the people of her son and his cross to regard her well.

Perhaps there is a place, though, for Anglicanism, with its historic calling to hold within its own life the deep gifts of faith and the wide working of grace, to make a new ecumenical intervention. What if Anglicanism were to find ways to call the churches to recognize that, whatever the tensions there may have been between our particular assessments of her, we are bound together with Mary, for she is, in the oft-repeated words of John, “the mother of the Lord.” What if we were to bid all the churches — all the beloved disciples of the world — to stand together with her at the cross, so that rather than scattering to our own homes, we form together, with Mary, one house and home?

Of course, to have any credibility to make such bold moves among all the churches, we would need as Anglicans to take determined steps among the churches of our Communion (and within them) to heal the hurts and ease the strain of our life. We would need to become a little more like Mary, ready to put all our energies into receiving Jesus Christ and releasing his ministry into the world. Lent is a good time to do that, a good time to give room to God’s Spirit — the Spirit who overshadowed Mary — to shape within and among us the virtues — the blessedness, if I may put it like that — of the kingdom of God. Those virtues begin with believing in the fulfillment of God’s word and saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). They lead to those characteristics, those beatitudes — of the life of the disciple that Jesus taught us. They are ways that I often wonder whether he saw first in the life of his mother — poverty of spirit, meekness of soul, purity of heart, yearning for righteousness, working for peace.

These ways of the kingdom of God will take us to Jesus’ teaching and prayer on the eve of his death, that we should be sanctified in the truth and one in him. They will take us further, all the way to the cross, when Jesus said “It is finished” (John 19:30) knowing that his church had been formed in the home of the beloved disciple with Mary his mother.

They will take us to Pentecost so that we hear the “sound like a rush of a violent wind” that fills “the entire house” (Acts 2:2) of God’s church and propels us into the city and to the ends of the earth to speak in many tongues the same good news that God has made Jesus, “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). They will take us close to the heart of Mary, and to the wounds of sword of division in the body of her son that pierce her soul and move her prayer.


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