Sermon: Venerating the Mother of God.
AND Mary said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” [Luke 1:46-47]
Today, we are celebrating a feast day dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Mary has more feast days dedicated to her in the Anglican liturgical calendar than any other saint. But this particular day is steeped in controversy. Our Episcopal brothers call this day the Feast of Saint Mary; our Roman Catholic brothers call it the feast of the Assumption; and our Eastern Orthodox brothers call it the feast of the Dormition of Mary. As you can tell by the title for the collect for today, I have chosen the Eastern Orthodox title, and I hope that at the end of this sermon, you will understand why.
Now, any Anglican cleric with the slightest understanding of Anglican theology will enter any discussion of the Blessed Virgin with great trepidation. The emotional baggage is staggering. I know one priest who was summarily fired from a newsletter because his stand on Saint Mary was too Roman Catholic. For that reason, I am asking all of you to put aside all your feelings about the mother of Christ, and be open to what I am going to discuss.
St. Mary is also known as the Blessed Virgin, our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, and the Theotokos. This last term is Greek; it means literally the birth-giver of God. All these terms are accurate and important, but I prefer the Blessed Virgin for two reasons. First, it sets her apart from the other saints, which I think should be done, and second, in the title is contained one of the great mysteries of the Incarnation. For this reason, I will often refer to Saint Mary as the Blessed Virgin. So, let us look at why the Blessed Virgin is so important.
The first and most inspiring reason is that, when God asked, Saint Mary said, “Yes.” Now we modern people may not fully understand what this affirmation really meant. Saint Mary was a young teenage girl. She was betrothed to Saint Joseph. Under Jewish law at the time, to be engaged was the same as being married. So, when the Archangel Gabriel asked Saint Mary to be the mother of God, her response was amazing. Being pregnant and not by Joseph would mean that Saint Mary could be stoned for adultery. So, when the Blessed Virgin said yes to God, she also was saying that she trusted God and wanted to be His true servant:
And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.”
When Saint Joseph found out, he decided to quietly break the engagement. This speaks volumes as to Saint Joseph’s character. Instead of revenge, he decided to show mercy. Instead of broadcasting that his fiancé was pregnant, and not by him, he was going to set her aside quietly. This again was a great act of kindness because it would prevent Saint Mary from being stoned.
The second point that makes Saint Mary remarkable is that she was the Mother of God. Just think of it. Her Son is the Son of God. Although we know that Christ put His Godhead aside, meaning that He grew like a normal child and grew in His knowledge of His Godhood over time as well, He still is God! Having a child who never sinned, who had an innate holiness and knowing that He is the Son of God is challenging enough, but you must also be His mother. You have to teach and guide Him. And, just because He is without sin does not mean that there weren’t “issues” as He grew.
Remember when Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin left Jerusalem while Jesus stayed behind at the Temple? Now, since men and women did not travel together in those days and since this event took place before Christ’s bar mitzvah, Jesus was permitted to travel either with his mother or his father. It is, therefore, NOT surprising that neither Saint Joseph nor Saint Mary knew Jesus was left behind. Saint Joseph thought Jesus was with His mother; Saint Mary thought Jesus was with His step-father.
This sounds like MY family. With four kids, one of us always seemed to be “misplaced.” When they found Jesus speaking with the elders of the Temple, His parents were VERY upset – and rightly so. Yet Christ’s response was telling:
And he said unto them, “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”
Raising the Son of God, in other ways, was probably equally challenging and rewarding at the same time.
However, it is at the end that we really see Saint Mary’s greatest challenge. Knowing that her Son is the Emmanuel, is the Holy of Holies, is the Redeemer of the world, she had to witness His torture, His ridicule, and His most ignominious death on the Cross. Remember that we know that the Blessed Virgin was at the crucifixion because, in Saint John’s account, we are told Christ gave Saint John and Saint Mary to each other as son and mother.
Finally, we know from the Acts of the Apostles that Saint Mary was in that room when the Holy Ghost descended on Christ’s disciples on that First Whitsunday centuries ago. From this point on, however, we are dependent on an oral tradition to know what happened to the Blessed Virgin. And it is with those things that happened BEFORE the birth of Christ and AFTER His Ascension that create the greatest controversies. And this is because, in part, there is no written record.
The four beliefs that give Anglicans the most trouble are the Immaculate Conception, the title “Ever-Virgin,” the Assumption, and the relatively new title of “Co-redemptrix.” The last of these titles currently is the most controversial, and rightly so.
So, what do these beliefs all mean? Growing up Roman Catholic, I can tell you that the Immaculate Conception meant being born without original sin. No other dynamic was taught way back in the 1950s and 60s.
However, I have heard that the theological belief of the Immaculate Conception now is that Saint Ann, who was Saint Mary’s mother, conceived Saint Mary while still a virgin and conceived her through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. I do not know if this belief is new, or I never was made aware of them when I was young. But, honestly, I have issues with these beliefs. It is one thing to say she was conceived without original sin, but it is quite another to parody the Conception of Christ.
I also like the idea that Saint Mary was very human, like the rest of us, and still was able to choose to be the handmaid of God. It gives me hope and strength to withstand the temptations of life. The belief that she was conceived in such a miraculous manner makes her, to me, less human and less of a model.
But before you dismiss this belief, remember, the basis for its adoption as Dogma by the Roman Catholic Church was the testimony of Saint Bernadette. She testified that this is what the “beautiful lady” called herself. And what made this truly amazing is that Saint Bernadette really did not know what this term meant.
The Assumption is the belief that Saint Mary was raised bodily into heaven. The oral tradition says that all twelve Apostles were with the Blessed Virgin when she died. It also said that she did “die” but that, afterwards, when they went to her tomb, the tomb was empty. The Apostles believed that she had been assumed, body and all, into heaven. This is why the Roman Church calls it the Assumption and why the Eastern Orthodox calls it the Dormition, meaning the Falling Asleep. They both believe in this oral tradition, but the East said she did not die, but rather “fell asleep.” However, the East does not profess this belief as Dogma.
For me, this is the least troubling belief. Remember both Elijah and Enoch were assumed into heaven. So, if God were willing to assume two prophets, why wouldn’t he assume His own mother?
Whether Saint Mary was Ever Virgin or not we may never know until we are in Heaven. But again, it is not a belief about which we have to be divisive. Both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox believe she was ever-virgin. The Roman Catholic takes the references to Christ’s “brothers and sisters” and interprets it as “cousins,” which is reasonable given the Aramaic language and the traditions of the time. The East says that they were stepbrothers and stepsisters. They hold that Saint Joseph was a widow that had children with a previous wife. The Anglicans accept the plain meaning of the text. They hold that Saint Mary was NOT ever virgin.
Personally, I agreed with the official Anglican position until I read Anne Rice’s Out of Egypt. In this fictional account, it was explained that because Saint Joseph was an orthodox, devout Jew, he would not touch that which was consecrated by God. It is the only time that the argument that Saint Mary was Ever Virgin made sense to me.
Finally, the last belief that Saint Mary is Co-Redemptrix is a relatively new belief that is not condoned by any faith. Though the redemption of the world was made possible by Saint Mary’s “yes,” she did not redeem the world. Only Christ’s atoning death did that. So, since no one supports this position, we shall ignore it for now and hope no Catholic faith adopts it.
The other three beliefs are considered Dogma in the Roman Catholic Church, meaning that to have a “right faith” you must believe it. The Eastern Orthodox differ from the Roman Catholic in that they do not believe in the Immaculate Conception, but they do believe in the Dormition of Mary and that she was Ever Virgin, holy, and an example for us all. However, they do not hold the Assumption of Mary as Dogma, and the reason why is that it was not decided by the whole Church, meaning the East and the West. Until it is, then it cannot be held as dogma.
So, this is A LOT of theology. And many people fault Anglicanism for what they term a wimpy position. Our faith has no real problem with anyone believing that Saint Mary was Ever Virgin, was Immaculately Conceived, or was Assumed into Heaven. It does not conflict with our faith, per se. But they DO object that it is considered Dogma by some. The Anglican position is this, for something to be dogma it must further our salvation. Does our salvation depend on the assumption, the immaculate conception, or that Saint Mary was always a virgin? The answer is no. So, it can never be a point of dogma for the Anglican faith.
However, there are some within our faith that treat the Blessed Virgin like the ugly step-child. They give her no credit and refuse to venerate her as the Mother of God. Even though we are NOT to worship the Blessed Virgin, we should venerate her. We MUST honor her as being unique among the saints. And, like any other saint, we may ask for her prayers, what we call intersession.
Let us understand our Catholic brothers and sisters of other faiths. Let us let go of relegating Saint Mary to a relatively minor role, but let us resist the urge to make her more important than what she really is. And let us venerate her as the Mother of God.