Sunday, August 15, 2010

St Mary the Virgin (8/15/10)

Since the feast falls on a Sunday this year, we chose to avail ourselves of the Prayer Book rubrics that allow use of its collect and readings, without technically supplanting the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The principal liturgy was observed according to the customary of this parish for major feasts.

When the Virgin Mary made a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth while both women were pregnant—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary, of course, with Our Lord—Mary is reported by St Luke’s gospel as having broken out into an extended canticle of praise, during which she exclaims,  “All generations will call me blessed.”

All generations will call me blessed.

Those who pray the Daily Office, Evening Prayer in particular, repeat these words from Mary’s Song daily.

All generations will call me blessed.

These words have at times been controversial. For about the last four and a half centuries, Protestant Christians have tended to think that Catholic Christians take them a little too seriously, and pay too much attention to the mother of Jesus. Catholics have tended to think that Protestants don’t take these words from scripture seriously at all, and pretty much ignore Mary altogether.  Among others, the notion of every generation calling Mary blessed has been given lip service, but without any concrete follow-up behavior. I have to say, this is kind of an Anglican thing. We say or sing the Magnificat—the Song of Mary—every time we offer Evening Prayer. But in most Anglican communities, that’s pretty much it.  

All generations will call me blessed.

What does it look like for any given generation to call Mary blessed? Devotion to the mother of Jesus arose fairly early in the history of Christianity. There’s a legend—not reported in scripture and not particularly supported by any outside historical sources, but an enduring tradition nonetheless—that Mary never experienced physical death, but was assumed bodily into heaven, after living for some time in the city of Ephesus, surrounded by all the apostles. In western Catholicism, this event is known as the Assumption of Our Lady. In the Eastern tradition, it is referred to as the Dormition—literally, the “falling asleep”—of the “God-bearer.”  The Greek word for “God bearer”—theotokos—is extremely important in Christian history. It’s an affirmation of the Nicene Creed, which teaches that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, of one being with the Father.” As incredible as it may sound, the child to whom Mary gave birth is … God; hence, it is appropriate to speak of Mary as the Theotokos, the God-bearer. It may be somewhat unfortunate that theotokos got translated into Latin as mater dei, which means, literally, “mother of God.” This expression has caused confusion and conflict because it seems to say that Mary pre-existed God, which is obviously ridiculous. In actuality, however, it’s an affirmation about Jesus more than it is about Mary.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, life was harsh and difficult for most people.  In that atmosphere of constant danger and despair, people began to develop a style of  Christian devotion that saw Mary as “Mom,” and as we all remember from our experience of being children, and perhaps raising children, Mom is more likely to respond to our concerns with understanding and gentleness than “Dad” typically is. So they started to frequently voice their petitions to Mary. To most of the Protestant reformers, this sounded like idolatry, like it was putting Mary on the same level as God, a sort of “fourth person of the Trinity.” So they overreacted, and expunged Mary from any place in either public worship or private devotion. Of course, all along, we see the Blessed Mother appear in great works of art—paintings, statues, poems, songs—both before and after the Reformation.

But is any of this “cal[ling Mary] blessed?”

All generations will call me blessed.

Devotion to Mary can certainly be overblown. There’s story about Jesus walking into St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In one of the side chapels there was the proverbial “little old lady” on her knees in the front pew praying the rosary. Jesus tried several times to get her attention, but without any success. Nonetheless, he persisted.  Finally, the lady turns around and looks at him in irritation and says, “Can’t you see I’m talking to your mother?”  Yet, I would say, the tradition of Marian devotion and piety is overwhelmingly good. And Anglicans, by and large, are certainly not in any danger of overdoing it.

All generations will call me blessed.

If we look at the context of where the phrase comes from—that is, from the Magnificat—we are left with a much different notion of what calling Mary “blessed” might look like. The Song of Mary is an intensely political text, and it’s all about reversal—reversal of fortunes, reversal of expectations.

If you’re familiar with the major stories of the Old Testament—and we might presume that Mary was herself—you can’t help but notice a striking resemblance between the Magnificat and another song offered by a woman who became a mother under strange circumstances—Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Both her song and Mary’s talk about the expected winners turning out to be losers, and the expected losers turning out to be winners. The proud are scattered and the mighty are cast down, but the lowly are lifted up. The rich are sent away empty, but the hungry are filled.

You and I tend to interpret reversals like these through a particular cultural lens. About a hundred years ago, when silent movies were packing people into theaters, there was a sort of melodramatic formula that told the same story a hundred different ways: A poor widow is being hounded by evil villains wearing black hats. They tie her to a railroad track in the hope of causing her certain death. The train approaches and poor widow struggles to get free. Finally, the good guys, wearing white hats, ride their white horses into the scene. They free her from the tracks at the very last moment before the train comes barreling through, and then chase down the bad guys and give them what they so richly deserve while the movie audience cheers. Come to think of it, a number of contemporary movies and TV shows follow that same formula, don’t they?  

But, by interpreting the reversals of the Magnificat through the lens of a silent film melodrama, we deprive ourselves of its true impact.  In the time of Mary, wealth and power were seen as presumptive signs of God’s blessing on righteous living. If somebody was rich, it was because God had rewarded them for living right. Poverty and weakness were seen as presumptive signs of moral inferiority. If someone was poor, it was because they deserved to be poor. They were nasty people. So, for God to favor the poor and weak at the expense of the rich and powerful is an astonishing reversal of expectations. It was like saying Democrats favor giant corporations over labor unions, or Republicans favor government programs over private enterprise.

But the point is not a merely moralistic—“God loves the poor and we should too”—as true as that may be. It’s more radical than that. The point is this: God’s modus operandi, God’s default way of doing business, in any given situation, probably runs counter to our expectations.  We may as well assume that whatever God does, it’s going to surprise us in a way that we can’t anticipate, and that will seem illogical or foolish, something we would never have advised Him to do!

In the second part of C.S. Lewis’s adult science fiction trilogy, a novel called Perelandra, most of the action takes place on floating islands. There was dry land on the planet, and the island dwellers could visit dry land during the day, but they could never spend the night there. Life on the islands was challenging, because they were floating, The action of waves in the water was transferred to the surface of the island. The ground was always sifting under their feed. So the island dwellers of Perelandra had to learn to let go of any need to control their environment. They had to learn to literally “go with the flow.”  This is a wonderful image for our relationship with the Son of Mary, the one who was born of her as God. It describes, in fact, the way in which we continue to call her blessed in our own generation. It is by learning to go with the “flow” of God’s wild and untamed grace—grace that turns up in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We call Mary “blessed” when we understand that the gospel of her Son is likely to upend some of our conventional expectations.

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 in the hour of our death. Amen.

No comments: