"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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Reflection for the Feast of the BVM

We gather tonight to celebrate the life and ministry of St. Mary the Virgin, the Mother of our Lord. Our Lady’s entry into heavenly bliss at the end of her earthly life has long been commemorated on the fifteenth day of August. But while there is a great deal one might say regarding the Virgin’s present life in blessedness, this evening I choose to focus on the example she has left us in her earthly life. For from her first appearance in the Biblical narrative to her last—that is, from the Annunciation of Christ’s birth to the days just after the Lord’s Ascension—the Virgin Mary sets the standard of faithful obedience to God’s will. This is the context in which the familiar words of the great Magnificat find their fullest expression. So let’s turn our attention to the very beginning of Mary’s story in Holy Scripture.

The Annuciation is one of the most depicted historical events in western art. Many of you are no doubt familiar with Fra Angelico’s famous fifteenth-century altarpieces, for example, which are typical of many medieval and Renaissance representations. In these masterpieces we find the blessed Virgin, clad in sumptuous blue and white robes trimmed in gold, wearing a golden diadem in her hair and sitting under a classical arcade in the middle of a luxurious, though well-tended garden. There is often a naked, crying couple in the background, fruit scattered at their feet. The archangel Gabriel genuflects at the Virgin’s feet, paying courtly courtesy to the one who will soon become the Mother of the Lord of all Creation.

It is a beautiful and moving image, no doubt. It need not trouble us that the Bible makes no mention of the announcement happening in a garden, or that young women in a back-water village like Nazareth probably had never even seen fancy robes, gold jewelry or Greco-Roman architecture such as those painted by Fra Angelico. These details were added to underscore theological points for medieval Christian viewers. The fact that Mary sits in the midst of a garden, for instance, reminds us that she is the “second Eve.” The first Eve’s disobedience—explicitly portrayed in the background—took place in a garden. That is what set us all on the road to decay and death. It is therefore only proper that the faithful obedience of the second Eve be shown taking place in a Nazarene garden. The well-appointed classical portico reminds us that our God is a God of order, not chaos. And the beautiful robes and gold the maiden wears do not mean that she was from a family rich in earthly terms, but that she is of royal blood—the line of King David—and that she will one day become the “Queen Mother” of all Creation when her Son assumes His messianic throne at the cross. As a small town, Jewish peasant girl she is not worthy of much notice. But as the favored Mother of God-made-flesh archangels fall down at her feet.

But I must confess, as beautiful as these medieval images are, my favorite painting of the Annunciation is a nineteenth century depiction by Henry Ossawa Turner. In Turner’s image St. Mary is shown sitting on her bed, little more than a cot in a mud brick house. The scene is homey and intimate. The teenager is wrapped in a homespun cloth nightgown and looks as if she is has been interrupted in the midst of her bedtime prayers. Instead of looking serenely on a regal angelic being in human form here Mary is gazing in wonder at an intense white light. The expression on her face is one of puzzlement, mixed with more than a little fear. “How can this be?” we can practically hear her ask the unseen messenger of God.

What Turner’s image lacks in Fra Angelico’s symbolic grandeur it makes up for in emphasis on receiving the Word of God. Here the blessed Virgin is thinking about what she has just heard—God’s personal Word to her. And this engagement with God’s word in her heart and mind is precisely what St. Luke the Evangelist emphasizes in his description of the Annuciation when he says, “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be,” or when he quotes our Lady, “… How will this be, since I am still a virgin?” Clearly Mary engages God’s Word with her heart and mind before His divine Word takes up residence in her womb. Her faith and obedience spring from contemplation and engagement with the Word. So the Virgin of Turner‘s painting prays and she thinks. It is a fitting portrayal of the woman about whom St. Luke writes as she sits by her Son in the manger, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

As the blessed Virgin enters the Biblical picture she therefore sets the pattern of faithful obedience for us. Her submission to God’s will is grounded in deep reflection upon God’s Word and upon prayer. And Mary departs from the Biblical narrative the same way she enters it. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we learn that St. Mary remained with the eleven apostles in the Upper Room in the days immediately following our Lord’s Ascension. There it is said, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” The blessed Virgin’s final Biblical witness to us is thus also one of prayer, but in this case it is specifically prayer within the Body of Christ, prayer in the midst of the apostolic company. Of course, St. Mary has more reason to boast of spiritual discernment than any person who ever lived. After all, the Word of God had literally lived inside her for nine months. Yet Mary is not a spiritual “lone ranger.” She prays with the Church in the midst of the Church, in one accord with those whom our Lord chose to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

And the result of Mary’s prayerful meditation on God’s Word and her unconditional submission to God’s will is that all generations will call this humble maidservant of the Lord “blessed.” And the Father wishes for all those who have become His children through faith in His Son to share in the bliss that our Lady now enjoys beside the throne of Glory. It is therefore incumbent upon us all to heed her example. Our own souls cannot magnify God our Savior in the way He deserves until we, too, open our hearts to be filled with God’s grace, until we ponder His holy Word in our hearts in accord with Christ's Church on earth just as she did. Amen.


Blogger father will said...

Great sermon, Deacon Randall!

I've been reading Romano Guardini's book "The Lord" and he says much the same about the blessed Mother, echoing Elizabeth's cry about her: "Blessed is she who BELIEVED..."

Our Lady is a giant of FAITH, in the mold of Abraham, but out-believing even him, trusting in the promise of God even in the face of the ineffable mystery -- that constantly withdrew from her understanding -- of the eternal Word made flesh that was the fruit of HER womb, HER own son. Guardini says:

"Mary's vital depths supported the Lord throughout his life and death. Again and again he left her behind to feel the blade of the "sword" [prophesied by Simeon] -- but each time, in a surge of faith, she caught up with him and enfolded him anew, until at last he severed the very bond of son-ship, appointing another , the man beside her under the cross, to take his place! On the highest, thinnest pinnacle of creation Jesus stood alone, face to face with the justice of God. From the depths of her co-agony on Golgotha, Mary, with a final bound of faith, accepted this double separation -- and once again stood beside him! Indeed, 'Blessed is she ho has believed!'"

5:19 PM  

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