(Now appearing on my parish website, and soon to be in the March newsletter.)
In the stream of Christianity where I first learned to “swim” spiritually, Mary the mother of Jesus showed up for Christmas pageants—the “yon virgin” of “mother and child” fame—but otherwise kept a low profile. We were a little skittish about her, not on her own account, actually, but out of a desire to distance ourselves from Catholics, who appeared (literally) to idolize her.
After I embraced the Anglican stream of Christianity in early adulthood, Mary began to appear more prominently on my spiritual “desktop.“ Several times a week, at Evening Prayer, I said or sang the canticle Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), in which she gives voice to her conviction that “all generations will call me blessed.“ If you repeat something enough, it eventually sinks in! I listened to sermons and read articles about how Mary is an example for us all in her unreserved “Yes” to God (“let it be to me according to your word”).
In time, I learned to pray the Rosary, which, while focused ultimately on Christ, approaches him, as it were, through his mother. During my seminary formation years (1986-1989), we paused three times a day to pray the Angelus, a devotion that is rooted in the appearance of the angel Gabriel to inform Mary of God’s plan for her life (and for the life of the world).
Somewhere along this path, what began as mental attention to Mary evolved into heartfelt love for Mary. I can’t say exactly when this took place, but I can recall when I became intently aware of it. In Mel Gibson’s compelling and controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, our Lord’s mother is shown watching him cautiously from the shadows as he is whipped almost to death, and then prominently, in full view, as he hangs on the cross. In what is apparently an effort not to scream in anguish as she watches her son’s suffering, she squeezes pebbles in her hands, and it seems as if the sheer energy of her pathos will surely turn them to a fine powder.
It is certainly possible for devotion to Mary to be carried too far. There’s a joke that has Jesus walking into a church and trying to get the attention of the proverbial “little old lady” praying in the front pew. She gives him an annoyed look and says, “Don’t interrupt me! Can’t you see I’m talking to your mother?“ Yet, I would say that Episcopalians are, by and large, a pretty safe distance from letting devotion to Mary eclipse devotion to Jesus. Our problem is quite the opposite. Our spiritual lives, individually and corporately, are more likely to be impoverished because we have not made room in them for the Mother of God.
Mother of God? Is that expression not a little over-the-top? It can certainly be confusing, at least. It can sound as if we’re saying that God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, was brought into being through birth to a human woman, which is, of course, a ludicrous notion. But the expression “mother of God” is not an attempt to say something about God the Father, and still less about Mary. It’s an attempt to say something very important about Jesus. The Greek word that lies behind it is theotokos—literally, God-bearer. It came into use during the early theological debates in Christianity (we’re talking second, third, and fourth centuries here) over the affirmation that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. To say that Mary is the God-bearer is to say that the one whom she bore is indeed God. That may not be controversial among Christians today, but it was in the early years, and they felt that the expression was an important element in orthodox christology. Theotokos got rendered into Latin as mater dei—hence, “mother of God” in English.
Do we pray to Mary? Certainly not in the same sense in which we pray to God. Yet, we are within the Christian mainstream when we invite Mary (or any of the saints, for that matter, both those who are presently 98.6 and those who have moved into eternity) to offer her intercessions on our behalf. This expresses our belief, which we affirm every time we say the creeds, in “the communion of saints.“ Surely the prayers of the God-bearer are heard favorably by the one who is himself God!
In our Prayer Book calendar, there are three major holy days that are focused on Our Lady. On March 25 we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the angelic announcement of her impending pregnancy. On May 31, we keep the feast of the Visitation—Marys’s visit to her relative Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. On August 15, there is a generalized feast of St Mary the Virgin. This is the dedicatory feast of our lovely chapel here at St Anne’s. This year, however, it falls on a Sunday, and in keeping with Prayer Book rubrics (rules, stage directions), we will break with our usual summer Sunday routine and observe it in grand style. Though not officially a part of our Episcopal Church calendar, many Anglicans also observe the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, which honors the pious customary notion that Mary was “pre-sanctified,“ made sinlessly holy by the grace of her Son, retrospectively applied, in order to make her an appropriate vehicle through which the Incarnate God to arrive in this world.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.