St Mary the Virgin: Singularly Graced by God
“When Christians from East and West through the generations have pondered God’s work in Mary, they have discerned in faith that it is fitting that the Lord gathered her wholly to himself: in Christ, she is already a new creation in whom ‘the old has passed away and the new has come’. Viewed from such an eschatological perspective, Mary may be seen both as a type of the Church, and as a disciple with a special place in the economy of grace.” From Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, a recent “agreed statement” of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.
On Monday, August 15th, the St. Vincent’s community will gather at 7 PM to celebrate one of the major festivals of the Church year. We will give thanks and praise to God for the life and ministry of the Blessed Virgin Mary, joining our voices to those of more than a billion fellow Christians in honoring the mother of our Lord. Two millennia ago an inspired young woman from Nazareth once proclaimed that “all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). Each year the fifteenth day of August sees Mary’s prophecy gloriously fulfilled. Eastern Orthodox Christians have celebrated the Dormition (the “falling asleep”) of the Virgin in the middle of August since at least the seventh century. During the Middle Ages Christians in Western Europe began observing that same day as the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, which commemorates the miraculous taking of the Virgin Mary--body and soul—into Heaven at the conclusion of her earthly life. Although this feast was removed from the original Book of Common Prayer during the English Reformation, an increased appreciation for the mother of our Lord in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries lead to the restoration of the feast of St. Mary the Virgin in many Anglican provinces, including our own. There are other feast days honoring Our Lady on the liturgical calendars of East and West, of course, but August 15th clearly remains the principle Marian feast of the universal Church.
What is it about the figure of Mary that has inspired such devotion? Why is she, among all the people who have walked the face of the earth, honored by Christians second only to Christ himself? And what exactly will we commemorate when we gather in mid-August?
For me the answer to these questions lies in a single Greek word: Theotokos. This word literally means “God-bearer,” though it is often rendered in English as “Mother of God” (from its Latin equivalent, Mater Dei). Theotokos was the definitive title conferred upon the Blessed Virgin at the third great ecumenical council held in Ephesus in 431 A.D. But please note: although this title honors Mary it is ultimately a statement about Jesus Christ. Whenever we honor the Virgin as “God-bearer” we confess our faith that the Child she bore was and is truly God incarnate. By humbly and freely choosing to bear in her own flesh the Lord of creation, Mary entered into a more intimate relationship with God than anyone had ever known. As a result of her extraordinary communion with God and by a special grace given by Him, Mary was able to gift her Son with the genuine, perfected humanity that would bear our sins on the cross and conquer death at the empty tomb. How can we possibly glorify the salvific work of the Son without honoring His mother’s obedient offer of herself for God’s saving purposes? This is the font from which all authentic Marian devotion springs.
Every Marian feast, properly understood, is an affirmation of the nature of Christ and a celebration of His saving work. If the child Mary carried in her womb was not Emmanuel, “God with us,” then the Annunciation was simply the delusional fantasy of a young Jewish girl. If St. Elizabeth was mistaken in calling her kinswoman “the mother of my Lord” then the Visitation was a mere social call. If it is inappropriate to greet Our Lady as Theotokos then Christmas should be a time of mourning rather than joy, since the baby Mary bore would have had no power to save. By God’s gracious will, Mary occupies a pre-eminent place in salvation history. Whenever we properly honor the Theotokos, we honor the one who prepared her, chose her, and called her to that unique role. Every Hail Mary is a benediction upon the Incarnate Word, “the fruit of her womb.”
The great Marian feast of August commemorates the Blessed Virgin Mary’s entry into eternal glory after a life of faithful service to God. The ancient Tradition of the Church tells us that Mary received one final grace from God when her time on earth was complete: God gathered her to Himself in the fullness of her person, body and soul, so that she might abide in glory with the One who is both her Son and her Savior. By this final mystery Mary becomes a sign of hope for all humanity, participating now as she does in the kind of intimate fellowship with God that all the redeemed await with eager longing. Sacred Tradition does not tell us exactly how or where the “assumption” or “dormition” of Our Lady took place, nor do we know what the metaphysics underlying it are. The ancient and medieval Church considered this final blessing upon Mary to be a mystery beyond human comprehension and made no effort to explain exactly how a person’s body could be taken into Heaven. I will make no effort to do so either. It is noteworthy, however, that no church anywhere in the world has ever claimed to possess her mortal remains. You and I are clearly not meant to understand the “mechanics” of Mary’s passing into the arms of her Creator and Redeemer. This much we do know: as a disciple Mary was singularly graced by God and she remains so forever, enjoying an unparalleled communion with our Lord. And she prayerfully waits for us to join her in that divine fellowship. That is what the universal Church celebrates every year on the fifteenth of August. Please be sure to join us this year.