Published in the Episcopal New Yorker (Winter 2015) with illustration, page 4
The Blessed Virgin Mary, Anglicanism, and Us
By the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The prayer above is the “Hail Mary”—very familiar to Roman Catholics, but one most Anglicans don’t pray much, if at all. But whether or not we pray it, we can realize that it has an important message for us—proclaiming Mary’s role as the human bridge between Jesus’ mortality and divinity.
In stark contrast to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which have highly developed Mariology—as demonstrated by daily prayers to Mary, rosaries, many masses and feast days and multiple carved and painted images in churches (most with kneelers in front of them so that the faithful can pray to her)—many Protestant churches have no images of Mary at all; and while Anglican churches may have a few, they are not venerated in the same way.
When the continental and English reformations took place, much of the worship of Mary was thrown out along with many other practices viewed by the reformers as accretions, or even superstitions, that hindered our access to Jesus. At that time, all Protestants, even we Anglicans (who retained much of the form of the Roman Catholic liturgy) erased many signs of Mary not only from our worship, but from our consciousness.
This had lasting consequences: One is the loss of the awareness of Jesus’ Jewish heritage as practiced and embodied by his mother; another is the probably unintended suppression of deep evidence that Jesus was indeed God with us: a human being, despite his paternity. And although the 19th century Oxford Movement sought to restore some traditions and practices related to the Virgin Mary, confusion and discomfort persist amongst many Anglicans at to what her role should be in our worship and our faith. Fortunately, however, Anglican lack of doctrinal direction on the subject gives Episcopalians quite a bit of freedom to choose how we honor her. To help us find the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the worship spectrum—between near invisibility on the one hand and adoration as mediatrix between humanity and Christ on the other—I offer this short and incomplete study of who she is and how she might deepen and enrich our Anglican faith.
We begin by asking: What is Mary’s place in salvation history? Of course, she is Theotokos, the God-bearer. But she also stands as the first and arguably the primary example of discipleship in the Kingdom of Heaven that her son brought to earth. In the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus speaks of John the Baptizer saying, “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John, yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he”—and Jesus’ own mother is the very first to get the chance to be a citizen in that kingdom. In fact, she obtains her passport even before her son is born, during the Annunciation. Not only does she agree to partner with the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation, but she also says, “yes” to what Jesus’ ministry will accomplish—and all before she has any sign of her pregnancy. As preachers for the last two millennia have told us, we who have come after her have been trying to live up to her faithfulness to God’s vision for humanity ever since.
From our knowledge of the culture at the time, we can deduce that Mary was likely a young girl, probably around 13 or 14 years old, when she was betrothed to Joseph, who was almost certainly an older man. Was she a virgin? In the Hebrew scriptures, the word almah, present in the verse that Matthew quotes from Isaiah (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive. . .”) means “young unmarried woman”—not necessarily “virgin.” On the other hand, almah in that verse was indeed rendered as “virgin” by the rabbis who translated it into the Greek Septuagint.
In any event, there is no question that Mary was fully human, and it is crucially important that Mary carried Jesus through a full-term pregnancy, and that he was born of a human mother. Some of the earliest heresies of the Christian church said that Jesus wasn’t really human—how could he be, they asked, if he was the Son of God? These heresies were ultimately dismissed, permanently and irrefutably, partly through pointing at Mary.
We know that Mary finds out that she has been chosen to bear this special child when the Angel Gabriel visits her. This is far from the only time in Holy Scripture that an angel announces the impending arrival of a special baby: The first mother-to-be to receive angelic news is Sarai, the elderly and barren wife of the aged and impotent Abram.
But Mary does not exactly fit the usual pattern of angelic birth announcements. She’s not elderly and there is no reason to believe that she is barren. Seemingly aware of this discrepancy, she wants confirmation: “How can this be,” she asks, “since I have no husband?”
Gabriel’s response is exactly what would convince Mary that the message is from God: He tells her that her elderly, barren relative Elisabeth is also now with child—a fact so important to Mary that she undertakes what under any circumstances would be a long and arduous journey, and is surely made harder by her pregnancy. But Mary needed to be with Elisabeth, both for the confirming evidence of the older woman’s pregnancy and for her example of “the way of women,” since Elisabeth delivers her baby first. While with her, Mary receives one last affirmation of Gabriel’s word when John—the child in Elisabeth’s womb—leaps for joy when Mary arrives carrying Jesus, the Lord whom John will later proclaim.
In response to this leap, Mary sings the Magnificat, which not only extols her joy at her miraculous pregnancy, but also foretells the history-changing ministry of her son as though it had already been accomplished:
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.
Many Christians don’t realize that the Magnificat is sure evidence of Mary’s Jewish roots: those familiar with the Hebrew scriptures instantly recognize the echo between it and the Song of Hannah, which, with nearly identical language, was sung by the formerly barren Hannah when she became pregnant with the prophet Samuel roughly a millennium earlier.
Many would also be surprised to learn that Mary’s name is really the English version of Miriam—then a common name for Jewish women, being the name of Moses’ sister and so considered blessed. Indeed, the baby Jesus’ life will have many parallels with that of Moses; but most poignant among those parallels for Mary is the slaughter by Herod of the first-born sons of other women because of a prophecy that a leader of the Jews was about to be born, just as Pharaoh had slaughtered the first-born sons in Moses’ day. In both cases, God preserved his chosen newborn; but there is no denying that the cost of each of their births was unbearably terrible for other mothers of innocent babies.
Mary herself would later know the pain of losing a child to murder when her adult son dies on the cross. As any devoted mother would, she stays by her son’s side as he is crucified and dies an excruciating, terrible death. Because she is Jesus’ human mother, Mary’s share in his Passion is our share of the Passion too. We truly meet Mary at the foot of the cross.
Mary’s own suffering is where I find that she is most accessible to me. When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, one of my close friends, a former Roman Catholic, surprised me by asking if I ever prayed to Mary. As an Episcopalian, that thought had never occurred to me. But then he explained that since Mary was the mother of God, we could all claim her as our mother. He advised me to try to get to know her, to pray the rosary, to pray the Magnificat. He told me that Mary, though a vessel for God, was not without a mind or a personality of her own; in fact that she was quite a revolutionary, and had quite a backbone. After all, she had the nerve to question Gabriel when he appeared to her; I’m not sure how many of us would have the guts to do that. I did what my friend said: I began praying rosaries, and I pay special attention to praying the Magnificat at the morning office. I can tell you that getting to know Mary is indeed life changing, at least for this Episcopalian.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The author is priest-in-charge at the Church of the Intercession, Manhattan.