Mary is honoured most obviously because she was the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God
. She is sometimes called Theotokos, which means “Bearer of God” – surely a responsibility worth noting and celebrating.
We acknowledge her key role in the early care and development of Jesus, and we have her to thank in good part for the kind of person he became.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” In Luke’s account of the Annunciation, Mary was perplexed by the meaning of God’s communication to her and yet chose to accept the mysterious and wonderful vocation being held out to her. No doubt, many would have said, “No thanks – it’s too much,” or “I’m comfortable where I am.” (The degree to which she was asked about this, as opposed to discovering the divine purpose in an unexpected pregnancy, remains a matter for theological speculation.)
After the birth of Jesus, Mary was confronted by many things which confused and stretched her perceptions of things, but the scriptures suggest she was always patient in her mystification. In Luke’s words, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” We might thus consider her the first contemplative of the Christian Church, and no doubt this aspect of Mary also rubbed off favourably upon her son, who was known for his solitary sojourns in the wilderness, etc.
Consider that she was most likely 12 or 13 years old at the time when she was betrothed. Kids in our society are still playing Barbies and video games at that stage (and in some homes, apparently, much later than that), and are often not ready to leave home until they’re in their late 20’s (and in some homes, apparently, much later than that).
Mary’s faith journey propelled her, unmarried and expecting, out of her childhood home in Nazareth to Joseph’s home town, through many times of testing and threat, and eventually to a place beneath the cross where her son was executed.
But it also led her to witness the luminous life that unfolded as Jesus grew into the fullness of his vocation and being (imagine actually being there!). It led her to an exalted place in the early Christian community that came to know the Spirit of the risen Christ. The Church eventually came to believe some amazing things about Mary herself. The idea of a virgin birth came later (based on a mis-translation of Isaiah), but many believed she was immediately translated to heaven at her death.
With the exception of the Anglo-Catholics in our midst, Anglicans on the whole don’t appear to give a lot of attention to Mary, and yet her name apparently appears on more churches in the Anglican Communion than any other name. Interesting!
But this young woman – again, 12 or 13 when betrothed and probably no more than 14 when she gave birth to Jesus – is worth noting and venerating. This was a woman with profound gifts of the Spirit: faithfulness, simplicity, insight, courage, and, above all, love. The Lord of love had to have a loving mother. We know now how critical early childhood development is, and as we see the kind of person Jesus became, it speaks volumes about Mary herself.
The Nicene Creed makes it clear that Jesus was rooted in both the masculine and the feminine – in the divine life of God “the Father,” and in the embodied, earthly life of Mary his mother. That suggests as awareness of a balance that was eventually lost as the Church moved into the medieval era.
As the Church moved out of its early developmental period and began to consolidate as a major dimension of society as a whole, the role of women, so prominent in the beginning, was diminished and almost extinguished. Ironically, the Church in its Roman phase (4th Century through to the 16th century) began to exalt Mary almost as a compensation for a recognized (though unacknowledged) deficit and imbalance in its life.
But in creating the cult of the Virgin (Mary Immaculate, the Perpetual Virgin, etc.), it was making less of real women, and of Mary herself, in many ways, almost negating the validity of the incarnational, embodied aspects of life, which we have to assume are also God-given gifts. In a few centuries, the Church had managed to convey the rather odd notion that the ideal way to be in this life is celibate – virginal – untouched by sensual or sexual desires or pleasures. Our sole focus, ideally, was to be upon attaining heaven, to the neglect and dismissal of all else. While there is truth and merit in urging people to attain to the kingdom of heaven and spiritual fulfillment, the Church’s approach in the Medieval era was extreme, and, again, tended to negate the incarnational dimension which is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Convents and monasteries became the ideal – the focal point of Christian life – with both men and women looking to Mary, as well as to Jesus, as pristine examples of sinless (meaning sexless) lives – dissociating both Mary and Jesus from all that “messy” business! Ironically, women were left a legacy of doubt and suspicion regarding their sexuality — even as to whether bearing a child was an inherently sinful act! The “perpetual virginity” of Mary made it rather difficult to know what to do with Joseph, and also those whom scripture describes as brothers of Jesus (some versions of the Bible coyly refer to them as “kin” or “cousins”). Oy vey!
The colour blue – adopted as Mary’s colour in the Middle Ages – has always been perceived as the “spiritual colour,” and thus suggestive of Mary’s role as Queen of Heaven. That’s a big promotion for a simple teenager from Nazareth in Gallilee!
I was ordained priest on the festival of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8), so Mary has always had a special place in my heart and I have tried to embody certain aspects of what I understand as her spiritual qualities: faith, gentleness, kindness, contemplation, patience, inner strength, even obedience (a hard one for me). She teaches me to be aware of the little ones in our midst, and to be wary that my ego doesn’t over-shadow my soul. I thank God for the example and witness of Mary the Mother of our Lord.
We continue to reflect upon her life (what we know of it) and to tell her story, as there is much in it that encourages not only women but men to open themselves more fully to the life of Christ, to be vessels of God’s loving grace, and reassures people that even the “lowly ones” are capable of great and important acts of faith.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers (with acknowledgement to the resource For All the Saints)
Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you! The Holy Spirit will come upon you. Luke 1.28, 35
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son. May we who have been redeemed by his blood, share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Galatians 4: 4—7
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Luke 1: 46—55
And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’