"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

St Mary the Virgin: Singularly Graced by God

The following essay by Randall Foster will appear in the next issue of The Deacon, the quarterly newsletter of St. Vincent's Cathedral, Bedford, Texas.

“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.


Blogger Julian said...

Aha! Now I know why you absolutely would not discuss this with me before you wrote it! If I didn't know you, I would have thought you were a RC trying to sell Anglicans on the Assumption.

"Every Marian feast, properly understood, is an affirmation of the nature of Christ and a celebration of His saving work."

That rests on a definition of "properly understood" that assumes that the nature of Christ and His work is to be celebrated by honoring Mary - certainly not merely "her offer of herself" as you claim - and by doing so in ways that insist on extra-biblical teachings as being actually very important to the Faith. Are you implying that Christians who do not choose to give Mary this sort of honor fail to honor God? Yet it would be at least as reasonable to celebrate Mary's contribution within the context of showing honor to Christ, as to show honor to Christ in the context of celebrating Mary.

In any case, I would ask whether this article was possibly more effective in honoring Mary than "Christ and His saving work." Or perhaps it's more about apologetics than honor. Since you don't seem to offer an alternative to the kind of Marian devotion you are advocating (take, for example the "properly understood" statement quoted above - are you not saying that those of us who don't feel comfortable with the Feast of the Assumption "just don't get it?"), I take it that you want to convince people like me that this is the right way to do it. Which is fair enough ... but is that really what this publication is supposed to do?

4:00 PM  
Blogger texanglican said...

Thanks for the comments, my friend! I will freely admit that part of the reason I wrote this article was to explain why we celebrate Mary’s life and ministry in August and partly to quell the fears of some folks in our congregation who come from more Protestant backgrounds that this entails some kind of “worship” of Mary. I know you have no such misconceptions, ma’am, so this article really didn’t strike home with you. And of course I don’t mean that Christians who don’t pay special honor to Mary on August 15th are grossly deficient. Marian doctrine doesn’t occupy that kind of central place in the faith. But I did want to convey that the mainstream of Catholic, orthodox Christianity throughout the ages has honored Mary for her role in salvation history and that I believe it is good, true and noble so to do. I appreciate that other folks may not feel the same way, but at least after reading this article I hope they can appreciate why I do so. Thanks again for your comments!

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Charles of Fort Worth said...

Well, this Anglo-Catholic has always celebrated the Assumption of the BVM. To let the RCs hoard all the goods is shameful.

Just a little bible and Mary for us to reflect on.

How is God going to fix and renew creation? The answer: Through Abraham's family. Various haggadah are clear that God positively knew that if Adam failed then he would send Abraham to fix things.

"By you [Abram] all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." (Gen 12:3)

"And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son." (Gen 21:2)

The LORD stirs the womb of Sarah that the covenant with Abraham, the renewal of creation, may manifest. Here is a foreshadowing of God tabernacling in the womb of the Virgin. God's creative activity in the renewal of Sarah's womb and in his cooperation with all women in causing life should never be taken for granted as a kind of cute sub-theme of salvation history. We also see this image in YHWH's tabernacling presence, the shekinah, in the Holy of Holies. In the incarnation, the universe of the temple: blood, sacrifice, worship, priesthood, torah, propitiation & atonement are perfected and concentrated in the womb of Mary through her perfect response, Fiat Mihi, rather than the dubious laugh of Sarah, who doubts that God can truly make things new.

"And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed."..."Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" --
[14] that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Gal 8,13,14)

A prime component of old testament escatology is the renewal of creation (e.g., Ez 47). How does this renewal happen? By the covenant with Abraham being fulfilled by Christ and thereby the blessing of Abraham coming upon the gentiles.

"He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever." (Lk 1:51-55)

Mary here is self-consciously doing three things:
1.In the Jewish escatalogical dialect she is saying the cosmos has been put to rights and justice and peace manifested (fruitfulness of the earth, exaltation of the meek, execution of justice).
2.Toward the end of the passage she proclaims that the blessing of Abraham, the promise of YHWH is the source of this.
3.In the preceding passages (Lk 1:46ff) she proclaims that she is the prime and chief recipient of Abraham's blessing, she is the site and center of the renewal of creation, so much more so than all others. She goes so far as to first proclaim that she has received this blessing and that she has received it in a way that is in excess of anyone else's reception for all time: "All generations shall call me blessed." She then says that by this, by my magnification, the cosmos has been renewed, and that promise and blessing of Abraham have been fulfilled.

Now we know that many times in the NT there is definitely a theory of time in operation that is always hard for us to understand, so when we hear Mary proclaiming the imminence of renewal of creation, we should not understand that she thinks that the historical activity of God is over or that her son's job is done before he is ever born.

It is important to mention St. Symeon's prophecy of Mary: "and a sword shall pierce your heart also." (Lk 2:34-35) This prophecy is not given to Joseph it is given to Mary exclusively, that she will in a unique way be united to the suffering and Crucifixion of her son, Jesus. It is only through this profound sympathy with the Cross (e.g., sacraments, etc.) that man can appropriate salvation. Mary leads the way by her divinely ordained ministry, which shall forever remain unsurpassed for: [her seed] shall bruise your head. (Gen 3:15)

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Francesco said...

Dear Randall,

This is very well-written! Well done! I never thought there would be the day when you called Mary "Our Lady." That certainly makes me happy! God bless!

7:32 AM  

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