St Mary is, by a long stretch, the most well-known, recognizable, and beloved of Christian saints. This has been true since the early days of Christianity. So beloved is she that some particulars about how the Church understands her life and witness needed to be sorted out in detail at an ecumenical in Ephesus in 431. It will probably come as no surprise that a person so dear to the hearts of so many has also been a person around which much conflict has raged over the years.
The people we hold closest are also the people who make us vulnerable, saints are no exception, and this can manifest in many ways. Anglicans seem to have an especially complicated relationship with Mary. The roots of Anglicanism in England’s deep and devout Roman Catholic history mean that Mary is a figure who cannot be missed in our tradition. Aside from her place in scripture and the festivals of the church, Mary’s name adorns countless churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, holy sites, cultural institutions, and so many of our neighbours. When the role of the saints became a literally fiery issue in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the relationship between the faithful and Mary was put under some strain.
Tapestries were burnt, statues beheaded, stained glass windows broken, and so on. Some reformers believed that the inclusion of saints in Christian worship had grown overzealous and needed to be pared back. That they were distractions from God, the proper focus of worship and praise. All of the saints were included in this criticism, but Mary, being the most beloved, was a frequent flashpoint for disagreements. The fact that the appropriateness of her role in our lives and tradition today is a testament to her popularity and the relationships that many Christians maintain with her.
Some people want to insist that Anglicans should give Mary a wide berth simply because she remains so prominent in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. This seems, to me, a rather petty form of religious bigotry; rather on the level of saying that because someone I disagree with enjoys ice cream, I will never be caught eating the stuff. God calls us daily to greater unity between all Christians and these arbitrary divisions are deeply unhelpful.
There are some who would claim that the appropriate place for discussion and understanding of Mary is entirely through her relationship to Jesus, her son. Mary’s role as the Mother of God is certainly the key piece that has given her an enduring place in Christian life, but it is not the entirety of who she is. This idea that Mary is not a whole person with her own story, value, and dignity but is instead a mere vessel in which God’s miraculous Incarnation happened is a disservice to both Mary and to God. Mary submitted herself and her body to God’s will, becoming the mother of Jesus, and did so voluntarily. Her cooperation was asked and she gave it willingly, understanding this as part of her devotion to and relationship with God. The God of grace, mercy, and love chose to become fully human in the Incarnation, not to simply wear humanity as a costume. Jesus’s relationship with Mary is every bit that of son and mother and God clearly desired no less than that. The misogyny of denying Mary her personhood because of a discomfort with God’s miraculous workings is of aid to no one.
Who, then, is Mary to us? There can be no doubt that Mary is an exemplar of faith. She embodies the holiness that comes from submission of the self to God’s will; the humility of a willing servant of God; a careful listener with a discerning heart who sees the working of God in the world; a prophet who echoes the calls of Hannah and Hagar and Isaiah and so many others for a world ruled not by human greed and capriciousness but by God’s perfect justice; a woman who sacrificed the small agency granted to her by society in being a wife and mother to instead endure the scandal of a virgin birth; a woman of faith who took the Body and Blood of Christ entirely into herself; a mother often confused by and fearful for her son; a disciple and mother who wept among the women as she watched her son and Messiah die; a disciple and mother who rejoiced on seeing her son and Lord returned to her in resurrected glory.
Mary’s entire life is given over to the praise and glory of God and of self-sacrifice in the name of witness to the truth of God’s good news. In the great tradition of artwork depicting Mary, while she may be arrayed in finery as a beloved saint or even a queen, she is forever directing the viewer’s attention toward her son, so often a child on his mother’s lap. Mary’s greatest desire and the source of her great love for all of us, our adopted mother in Christ, is for each of us to know her son as she does. To know the perfect glory of God in the Incarnation, the redemption of Jesus’s Resurrection, and the energy of the Spirit as intimately as though they dwelt in the very fibres of our flesh.
For her willingness to say “yes” to God’s request, for her great witness, and for her enduring love and encouragement of each of us as we run the race that is set before us, we offer this day as thanksgiving for St Mary, Blessed Virgin and Mother of God.
Photo credit to Ruth Gledhill on unsplash.com